Judith Arnopp
Historical Fiction Author

                  EMMA: Twice Crowned Queen                 

Judith Arnopp

 Little known to the modern world, Queen Emma of Normandy was a key player in the fashioning of England.  Descended from Rollo, the Viking founder of Normandy, she was born c.985 to Richard I Duke of Normandy and his Danish wife Gunnor of Crepon.   King Ethelred[1], aware of the family ties between Denmark and Normany and the geographical position of Normandy as a convenient rendezvous for Viking fleets on their way to invade England, sought out Duke Richard, now the second Duke of Normandy, to arrange a diplomatic marriage.  At this time foreign marriage alliances were uncommon and in 1002 Emma, becoming the quintessential ‘Peaceweaver,’ sailed to a foreign land, although unable to speak to language and married the English King.  She was the ‘first foreign bride to marry an English king for more than seventy years[2].’  In addition to learning the Anglo Saxon tongue, Emma had to accept a new foreign name, that of Elfgyfu, something she seems to have resented for she continued to use her old name in conjunction with that of Elfgyfu.  Emma was not Ethelred’s first wife and the king already had perhaps ten offspring from a previous marriage or marriages. It has been reported that Ethelred was inconstant towards his wife and was scarcely intimate with her; he also degraded her by his relations with harlots.  William of Malmesbury writing in the twelfth century wrote that Ethelred ‘brought the royal majesty into disrepute by tumbling with concubines’.[3]  Nevertheless she fulfilled her main role promptly and produced Ethelred with two heirs, Alfred and Edward and a daughter, Godgifu. There are suggestions that Emma cared little for Ethelred or her sons by him but given her Danish descent and Ethelred’s extraordinary harsh treatment of resident Danes that may be understandable. 

Despite the drawbacks of language, in an age when queen consorts were expected to take a back seat in government, Emma seems to have taken on an active, if secondary, role to the king.  In 1002 she witnessed deeds and attended councils, ranked below bishops but above her stepsons, although still unfamiliar with the Anglo Saxon tongue.  Her reaction and opinions to the events of 1002 are unrecorded but she would have been aware of the stories of the treatment the Scandinavian people suffered under the Ethelred’s rule.  Ethelred, worried that his life was in danger from the Danes that had settled in England, ruthlessly ordered the death of all his Danish subjects.  Emma’s feelings and that of her Norman family are not recorded but writing in the 1050’s William of Jumièges wrote about the incident. ‘For in a single day he murdered, in a sudden fury and without charging them with any crime, the Danes who lived peaceably and quite harmoniously throughout the kingdom and who did not at all fear for their lives. He ordered women to be buried up to the waists and the nipples to be torn from their breasts by ferocious mastiffs set upon them.  He also gave orders to crunch little children against doorposts.[4]’  Although this is embellished Norman propaganda against Anglo Saxon rule the ferocity of the attack is undisputed.  St Brice’s Day massacre, in which Sweyn Forkbeard’s sister Gunnhilde and her family were among the slaughtered, triggered the Danish attack in 1003 in which Exeter and its surrounding territory were sacked.  There is some credence to the belief that Emma’s Danish loyalties led to the capitulation of the city but whether she was in fact complicit in this is unknown.  A retainer that travelled to England with Emma at the time of her marriage, a man we know as Hugh, is said to have opened the gates giving the Danes access to the city.  Doubt is cast upon Emma’s complicity in the attack by the attacks that were made upon her own properties by the raiders.  Ethelred’s action against the Danes on St Bride’s day resulted in chaos in the realm with his Ealdormen revolting and his people suffering murder at the hands of the encroaching Danes. ‘Some townsmen were slain by the sword, others were consumed by fire, many were cast headlong from the walls, no small number perished from being hung up by their testicles[5].’  Sweyne continued to plunder the country and met with little resistance as he attacked Wiltshire and Hampshire.  Ethelred’s ineffectual defence of the county led to Emma and her family seeking safety in Normandy.  Sweyn became the effective ruler of England until his death in 1014 when Ethelred returned to England and regained his throne. Although he maintained control until his death, Emma and her children are recorded by some as having remained in Normandy under the protection of her brother Richard, Duke of Normandy.


A struggle for the English throne followed between the son of the Danish king, Cnut and Ethelred’s eldest son by his first wife, Edmund Ironside.  It was a two-year struggle that ended with the throne falling to the control of Cnut. Enigma surrounds the death of Edmund, the chroniclers recorded that Edmund died and was buried beside his father King Edgar at Glastonbury and Queen Emma’s book commissioned later, records that Edmund’s death was at God’s intervention to prevent further conflict in the realm.  Henry of Huntingdon writes that Edmund met his death at the hands of an assassin who hid himself ‘in the pit’ of the royal privy and the Norman historian Geoffrey Gaimar embellishes this saying that he was shot ‘in the fundament’ by an arrow that ‘went up as far as the lungs.’[6]  


There is some uncertainty as to whether at this point Emma was in Normandy or under siege in London. One version of events is that although she had been safe in Normandy, Emma left her children behind and made her way back to England where she very boldly offered herself in marriage to King Cnut.  Other versions have her as Cnut’s prisoner and are vague about the circumstances surrounding their betrothal.  The fact that remains is that Emma agreed to become Cnut’s queen.  Whether or not she was seeking, as a Dane, to cement the alliance between England and Denmark or merely concerned for self-preservation is a matter for debate. Either way she became the first woman to reign twice as England’s queen.  By staying in England she maintained the possession of her rich estates and maintained her position of power.  The alliance with Cnut, some ten years her junior, was a far more attractive arrangement than her previous marriage to the aging philanderer Ethelred who had been twenty years her senior.  The alliance seems to have not met with the approval of her family in Normandy however and there are several unflattering verses alluding to her unseemly conduct.  Her value to Cnut as a pathway to peace, bringing with her both Norman and English connections, gave her enough authority to demand certain conditions regarding the contract.  Part of the marriage agreement was that Cnut promised to disown his existing wife (another Elfgyfu, a union which was not recognised by the church) and bar the children of that union from succession.  Emma, in turn, had to agree that any children she had with Cnut would preclude those born to her by Ethelred.  Effectively cutting her children from the succession, Emma agreed to the match; it was an agreement that she would come to bitterly regret. 

The union with Cnut was as good a match for Emma meant that she not only retained her title as Queen consort of England but also gained that same title in Denmark and Normandy. Quickly producing Cnut with an heir, Harthacnut was born around 1018 which resulting favoured position enabled her power and influence to increase.  Cnut, although ruthless in a ruthless age, was generally regarded as a wise and successful king responsible for codifying English law and giving greater religious freedom to his subjects. Emma became a patron of churches and monasteries in England and on the continent, enjoyed a affluent position until Cnut’s death in 1035.


The king’s death thrust England back into unrest.  Emma’s two families by two different kings complicated an already explosive situation and the story expands into something resembling a modern day soap opera.  There were four claimants to the throne at this time, Emma’s eldest sons by Ethelred, Edward and Alfred, her son by Cnut, Harthacnut and Cnut’s illegitimate son Harold Harefoot.  Harthacnut was in Normandy at the time of his father’s death and, in his absence, Cnut’s illegitimate son, Harold Harefoot took the throne instead.  In a possible attempt to overthrow Harold, Emma’s sons by Ethelred travelled back to England; seeing their arrival as an act of aggression, Harefoot launched an offensive from which Edward managed to escape back to Normandy.  Alfred, landing in Kent, was met and welcomed by Earl Godwine, a powerful magnate who had been a favourite of Cnut and was married to one of the late king’s cousins Gytha.  The chronicles tell us that Godwine met Alfred and accompanied him to Guildford where they spent the night while Alfred and his retinue were royally entertained at Godwine’s expense.  During the night Alfred’s followers were set upon and butchered and Alfred captured; his captors took him to the isolated Ely marshes where he was blinded and killed.  Monks from the nearby monastery found the body there and he was buried anonymously.  Several days later the Queen’s men arrived asking if the monks had seen Alfred and the monks, realising the royal status of the blinded man, reburied him with appropriate honours at the west end of the monastic church. 

Insecure in Harold’s England, Emma fled to Flanders where she performed the unprecedented act of commissioning a manuscript Encomium Emmae in which she sets down the story of her life with Cnut; this document, justifying her actions and validating her son, Harthacnut’s, claim to the throne, is now in the British Library.  The book provides an account of the events that took place from a very particular angle.  She uses it to vindicate her own actions and those of Cnut; of Ethelred she makes no mention, erasing him from her own personal record, and she herself is not mentioned until her union with Cnut.  Emma’s message is outrageously politically biased and as Harriet O’Brien points out ‘It is all the more extraordinary for being so. Among the surviving documents of the period there is nothing like it – orchestrated by either male or female[7].’

Harold reigned until his death in 1040 when Harthacnut ascended the throne, his lack of heirs prompting him to send for his half-brother Edward and naming him as his heir.  Emma’s book tells us that during Harthacnut’s reign, in an extraordinary change of heart, he invites Edward, Emma’s son by Ethelred to share the rule of England with him and the last chapter shows Emma with Harthacnut and Edward, as O’brien points out, like ‘a type of earthly trinity’[8], sharing the kingdom. 


In 1042, on the death of her youngest son, Harthacnut, her elder son, Edward, later to be known as the Confessor, took the throne and one of his first acts as king was to strip his mother of all her estates and wealth because, according to the Anglo Saxon chroniclers, ‘earlier she was very hard on the king her son, in that she did less for him than he wanted before he became king, and also afterwards.’[9]   In other words he felt she had neglected him. Among the treasures taken from her possession were the riches of both Cnut and Harthacnut; goblets of gold, vast stores of gold and silver coin, silks from around the world, beautiful illuminated books and priceless relics including the head of St Ouen and the arm of St Augustine. Stripped of her estates Emma was allowed to retire to her home in Winchester, the manor of Godbegot which had been given to her by Ethelred, provided she stayed in retirement and ceased from meddling in state affairs.  Her ambition, the marriage to Cnut and subsequent abandonment of the children from her first marriage had not been without repercussions and now, with no family around her, she faced a lonely old age.   Chroniclers and later historians could not resist embellishing Emma’s lack of maternal duty with the greater sins of treason and debauchery and one must sift carefully through the scurf of half-truths to find the real Emma.  Unable to accept her new position it seems she lobbied the king relentlessly, engaging the intercession of old friends and there does seem to have been some form of reconciliation. Her name does appear on a further charter dated the first day of August 1045 and she is listed, characteristically, just below the name of the king and above that of Edward’s queen, Edith.

Emma died in 1052 (or 1054) and was buried in Winchester Cathedral Church; her adult life had been at the fulcrum of Anglo Saxon politics.  She actively promoted the merger of the Danish and English thrones, becoming the queen of two kings, one Anglo Saxon the other Dane, the mother to two kings, one Dane, one Anglo Saxon.  She was also the great aunt to William of Normandy, who used his close relationship to Queen Emma to strengthen his own claim to the English throne.  This great nephew, William, was to become more widely known as William the Conqueror.


Carpenter, David The Struggle for Mastery Britain 1066 –1284 (St. Ives: the Penguin Press, 2003)

Carmi Parsons, John ed. Medieval Queenship (U.S.A: Sutton Publishing, 1993)

Fletcher, Richard Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Loyn, H. R The Vikings in Britain (Essex: Batsford Press, 1977)

O’Brien, Harriet Queen Emma and the Vikings (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2006)

Strachan, Isabella Emma The Twice Crowned Queen (London: Peter Owen, 2004)

Stenton, Sir Frank Anglo Saxon England (Oxford: the Clarendon Press, 1997)


 Images disussed

Fig 1 Detail: Image of Ælfgifu (Emma of Normandy), The New Minster Liber Vitae
1031 Backhouse, Janet, D. H. Turner, and Leslie Webster, eds.  The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966-1066. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c. 1984)

Fig 2 Ethelred the Unraed

Fig 3 Detail: Image of King Cnut, The New Minster Liber Vitae
1031 Backhouse, Janet, D. H. Turner, and Leslie Webster, eds.  The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966-1066. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, c. 1984).

Fig 4  The New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031
(Backhouse, pl. 62)

Presentation of a gold cross to the New Minster by Cnut (reigned 1016-35) and his Queen, Ælfgifu (Emma of Normandy). "The Book of Life...of a church or monastery was meant as a draft entry for the eternal Book of Life of the Saved. The New Minster book states that it contains the names of the brethren and monks as also of the associates and benefactors, living and dead, of the Abbey. It was to be brought daily to the alter at one of the community's two solemn Masses by the subdeacon, who was then to read out some of the names in it." (Backhouse, p. 78)


Fig 5 The Encomium Emmae Reginae, 1041-2
(Anglo-Saxon Index)Queen Emma receives the Encomium Emmae from its author, while her sons Harthacnut and Edward look on.