Emma Of Normandy: The Unsung Queen of the Medieval World

As the descendent of Vikings, the daughter of a Norman duke, and the wife and mother to multiple English kings, Emma of Normandy embodied power and influence in medieval England.

Jan 7, 2024By Melissa Sartore, PhD Medieval History, MA European History, BA History
emma of normandy medieval queen

 

Emma of Normandy (b. c. 985) was one of the most influential women in the 11th century. Born to Duke Richard I of Normandy and his wife, Gunnor, Emma married two kings, gave birth to two more, and functioned as a stepmother to yet another. Emma’s life and legacy are often overshadowed by the events that took place all around her, but her role in those very events was one of great power and influence. In fact, Emma was the tie that bound it all together.

 

Emma’s Lineage and Early Life 

life edward confessor manuscript
Life of St. Edward the Confessor, c. 1250, via The University of Cambridge

 

Likely born around 985, Emma of Normandy was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. The Duchy of Normandy was established by the Viking raider Rollo in 911 and by the Frankish king, Charles the Simple, as part of the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte. Rollo was the father of William Longsword, who was, in turn, the father of Duke Richard I of Normandy (942-996). This made Rollo Emma’s great-grandfather.

 

Emma’s lineage secured her future as part of a strategic marriage. Around the year 1000, her brother, Duke Richard II, negotiated her nuptials with King Ethelred II of England. Continued attacks on England and Normandy by Scandinavian marauders made an alliance between leaders on both sides of the English Channel mutually beneficial. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the year 1002 saw the arrival of “Lady Elfgive Emma, Richard’s daughter, to this land.”

 

Queen Emma of England & the Early 11th Century

emma normandy stora hammer
Stora Hammar, via Wikimedia Commons

 

At the time of the marriage between Emma (who continued to be called Elfgive or Elfgifu in English sources) and Ethelred II, England was at the height of its struggle against Scandinavians who had settled in the North. To keep them at bay, Ethelred paid increasingly large amounts of “Danegeld,” but the menace never abated. Emma’s arrival roughly corresponded to the so-called St. Brice’s Day massacre in November 1002. Based on accounts, large numbers of Danes in England were slaughtered at Ethelred’s order. This provoked the King of Denmark, Swein Forkbeard, whose sister was allegedly killed during the massacre.

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swein forkbeard palnatoke drawing
Sweyn Forkbeard and Painatoke by Louis Moe, 1898, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

As Swein and his forces brought attack after attack during the subsequent years, some of the lands Emma had been given as wedding gifts, namely Exeter, were sacked. By 1013, Swein’s efforts to bring England to its knees proved successful. English nobles submitted to him, and Ethelred was driven from the land. Emma and her young children fled to Normandy, with Ethelred joining them soon after. By the time she fled England, Emma had given birth to three children: Edward (b. c. 1003), Godgifu (b. c. 1004), and Alfred (b. c. 1012).

 

Swein’s dominance in England was short, and after he died in 1014, Ethelred, Emma, and the children returned to England in 1014. Ethelred waged war against Swein’s son, Cnut, but when he died two years later, a contest to control England ensued. Cnut claimed victory, and in 1017, Emma married him, once again becoming queen.

 

Emma, Mother and Maker of Kings

emma normandy liber vitae
Liber vitae, c. 1031-1771, via The British Library

 

Once Cnut was king, Alfred and Edward went back to Normandy, perhaps only allowed to live at the insistence of their mother. Emma gave birth to at least two more children with Cnut, notably a son named Harthacnut. As stated in Encomium Emma Reginae, Emma had negotiated before ever marrying Cnut that she would only become his bride if “he would affirm to her by oath, that he would never set up the son of any wife other than herself to rule after him.” The document continued to acknowledge Cnut’s children by “some other woman,” a veiled reference to Elfgifu of Northumbria, who had also borne him a son, Harold Harefoot.

 

meeting edmund ironside canute drawing
Illustration The Meeting of Edward Ironside and Canute in Cassell’s Illustrated History of England by John Cassell, 1865, via Internet Archive

 

During Cnut’s reign, Emma served as an advisor to her husband. On at least one occasion, she and her brother, Richard, helped bring about peace between King Malcolm of the Scots and Cnut. Emma likely always kept an eye firmly directed to the issue of succession, however. Emma understood Cnut’s son with Elfgifu of Northumbria, Harold Harefoot, would not simply let Harthacnut succeed Cnut in England.

 

After Cnut died in 1035, succession in his domains was immediately contentious. Harthacnut, now King of Denmark, went to Scandinavia to combat a rebellion in Norway where his half-brother, Svein, had recently been ousted. In England, Harthacnut’s other half-brother, Harold Harefoot, served as regent until 1037, when Harthacnut was “forsook… because he was too long in Denmark,” and Harold Harefoot became the King of England.

 

encomium emmae reginae
Encomium Emmae Reginae, 11th century, via The British Library

 

At that point, Emma was again forced from England, this time taking refuge in Flanders. After Harold Harefoot died in 1040, Harthacnut became King of England.  Emma returned from Flanders, and one year later, her oldest son by Ethelred, Edward, was made co-ruler in 1041. Harthacnut’s demise in 1042 left Edward as the sole ruler of England.

 

Before that, Harthacnut’s other half-brothers, Edward and Alfred, had also arrived in England. When met by hostile forces, Edward retreated, but Alfred was seized by Earl Godwin of Wessex, blinded, and died in captivity in 1036.

 

Emma, the Later Years

death harthacnut drawing
Illustration The Death of Harthacnut in Cassell’s Illustrated History of England by John Cassell, 1865, via Internet Archive

 

Once Edward the Confessor, as he would later be known, was King of England, Emma fell out of favor and nearly into obscurity. Edward was likely unhappy about his mother’s apparent favoritism for Harthacnut, but there were also numerous rumors about her loyalties. Claims that she had a hand in Alfred’s death and that she worked against English interests to favor Harthacnut’s power were specious, at best, but were at play. She also remained close with Cnut’s close advisor, Bishop Stigand of the East Angles. Both Emma and Stigand were stripped of their wealth in 1043, the former accused of withholding it from her son, Edward.

 

While Emma later had some of her property restored, she spent the rest of her life in isolation at Winchester. Later sources describe Emma as essentially in “prison,” although she was “not very strictly confined.”

 

While at Winchester, however, another scandal of sorts developed involving the twice-Queen. Accused of “too close an intimacy with Aelfwine, Bishop of Winchester,” Emma underwent the ordeal by fire and emerged unscathed, proving her innocence. While this story has come down through the centuries, its legitimacy is unknown.

 

Per the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 1052,

 

“On the second day before the nones of March, died the aged Lady Elfgiva Emma, the mother of King Edward and of King Hardacnute, the relict of King Ethelred and of King Knute; and her body lies in the old minster with King Knute.”

 

Emma’s Complicated Legacy

winchester cathedral mortuary chest
Mortuary Chest from Winchester Cathedral, photo taken in 2010, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Emma of Normandy was the focus of Encomium Emmae Reginae, which was written during her lifetime and because of her patronage. The name reflects the praise directed at Emma, who was described as “a lady of the greatest nobility and wealth, but yet the most distinguished of the women of her time for delightful beauty and wisdom.” The work is equally favorable toward Cnut, reflective of the context within which it was composed.

 

Because Emma commissioned the work, there’s an argument to be made that she was aware of how her contemporaries perceived her. Emma’s marriage to Cnut was beneficial to all involved – including Emma. That said, Emma’s union with Cnut may have been one she entered without any other option. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle indicates Emma, who had allegedly fled to Normandy, was “fetched” by Cnut for the marriage. Eleventh-century chronicler Rodulf Glaber wrote that the marriage was part of a peace agreement between Cnut and Richard of Normandy undertaken with the full approval of the latter. Still another contemporary writer, Theitmar of Merseberg, stated that Emma never left England and gave up her sons’ claims to the throne in order to save herself.

 

cnut family tree
Cnut, king of England, Denmark, and Norway, and his sons Harald Harefoot (left) and Harthacnut (right), via Wikimedia Commons

 

Regardless, Emma was placed in a position that allowed her to protect her children, garner influence, and work on behalf of her husband and brother alike in diplomatic matters. The marriage united Scandinavian authority with the existing Anglo-Saxon cultural tradition while simultaneously linking Cnut to Normandy.

 

Emma did play a more active role in Cnut’s reign than in Ethelred II’s, but her activities during Ethelred II’s reign are difficult to assess. She was more present than Ethelred II’s previous wife and, unlike her predecessor, was anointed queen. She witnessed charters, but little else is known about her influence outside of the fact that neither of her sons became king after Ethelred II’s death. With her marriage to Cnut, Emma may have simply realized she had more opportunities and reasons to work on her own behalf as well as to the benefit of her children.

 

ordeal queen emma william blake
The Ordeal of Queen Emma by William Blake, 1779, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Emma’s marriages and progeny solidified the links between England, Normandy, and Scandinavia during the 11th century. Her life and legacy attest to the complicated social, cultural, and political interactions of the medieval world while simultaneously laying the foundation for centuries of contact and conflict alike.

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By Melissa SartorePhD Medieval History, MA European History, BA HistoryMelissa holds a PhD in History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MA in European History, and a BA in History from Western Illinois University. Melissa is a Medievalist by trade but loves all things history. She currently teaches and writes for various institutions, and enjoys sharing information with others as there’s always something new to learn.