This article was written by Carol.
Emma was twice Queen of England during the 11th century as the wife of both Aethelred the Unready and the Danish King Cnut, who was King of England from 1013-1036. As a member of the House of Normandy, it was her connection that led to William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne.
Emma was born in 985 the daughter of Richard I, Count of Normandy. At the age of 13, she was married to the King Aethelred, some 20 years her senior. At the time of her marriage, England was under constant attack from Viking raids. The Viking ships were using Norman ports to reprovision, and Aethelred was hoping that this alliance would provide some protection.
The marriage produced three children, Alfred, Edward, who ruled England as Edward the Confessor, and Goda, Countess of Boulogne. It did not, however, limit the Viking raids. These continued particularly after Aethelred made an ill-advised decision to massacre all the Danes in his country. In revenge, the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut invaded England. In 1013 Aethelred and Emma were forced to flee to Normandy. However, when Sven died the next year, the English nobles invited Aethelred back to England “as long as he ruled more justly than he had before.” Two years later, in 1016, Aethelred was dead and his eldest son by his first wife, Edmund Ironside, battled with Cnut over the throne. In the end, they decided to split the country. Within weeks Edmund Ironside died under mysterious circumstances, and without further ado, the English nobles agreed to surrender to Cnut, as their King.
Emma was in England during these latest battles, but with Edmund Ironside’s death, she must have been uneasy about her future. This was resolved when it was announced that she and Cnut would marry. Although it is unclear under what circumstances this transpired, it is likely that she did not want to return to Normandy where she would no longer have the prestige that she enjoyed in England. From Cnuts’ perspective, marrying the former queen gave his own Kingship some legitimacy. The only impediment was that Cnut was already married to Aelfgifu, the daughter of a Northumbrian noble. It appears that Emma negotiated that Aelfgifu would be set aside and any sons Emma produced would have precedence. Emma’s two sons by Aethelred, Alfred and Edward, were exiled to Normandy.
It also appears that eventually affection developed in the marriage and soon Emma was witnessing charters with Cnut. Emma and Cnut had two children, Harthacnut (b.1017 ) and Gunhilda(b.1020 who became Holy Roman Empress). Emma became the most powerful and also the richest woman in the land, generously giving to churches both in England and Normandy. In the meantime, Edward and Alfred, the sons of her first marriage, grew up at the Norman court with their young cousin William. William later claimed that it was during this time that he and Edward first agreed that each would name the other as their heir if they had no sons.
In 1035 a succession crisis occurred when Cnut died unexpectedly. The next few years were challenging ones for Emma as she navigated a constantly changing and unstable environment and played at being “Kingmaker”. Cnut’s sons by both Aelfgifu and Emma, as well as Emma’s sons by Aethelred, all felt they had a claim to the throne. Cnut’s chosen heir, his son Harthacnut by Emma, was in Denmark and unable to return quickly. Emma tried to protect his interests in England and acted as co-regent in the southern part of the country. In the north, Cnut’s son by Aelgifu, Harald Harefoot was gaining more power, some say through Aelgifu’s bribery of nobles. Everyone was taking sides. In the absence of Harthacnut, Emma turned to her children in Normandy and wrote to Alfred and Edward, inviting them to return to England for the first time in 20 years.
This was a disaster. Alfred arrived first, was immediately waylaid by Harald Harefoot supporters, was blinded and died of his injuries. Edward fled back to Normandy. Emma fled to the court of her relative Baldwin V of Flanders and Harald Harefoot was crowned King of England.
Emma’ exile was not to last long. Emma worked behind the scenes to promote her son Harthacnut as the legitimate heir. She commissioned a history, the Encomium Emmae Reginae (In praise of Queen Emma), which denigrated Harald as the son of a servant who had been foisted on Cnut by Aelfgifu and vowed for vengeance for her son Alfred. She claimed that the letter inviting Alfred to England had not been sent by her but was forged by Harald. (Most scholars believe the letter was genuine.) All was resolved when Harald Harefoot conveniently died, and Emma and Harthacnut sailed for England where he was crowned King. Emma returned to being the most powerful lady of the land.
This too was short-lived. Harthacnut died under mysterious circumstances in 1042. Edward the Confessor was once again sent for from Normandy, and with all the rival claimants dead he was crowned King. Emma continued to live in state in the palace in Winchester and remained in possession of the royal treasury. A few months later, however, Edward stormed into Winchester and seized the treasury from her. He confiscated her lands and sent her to live elsewhere. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that he “took all his mother’s lands and more because earlier, she had kept it from him too firmly.” This was a public scandal, and Emma was considered much disgraced.
Although Emma seems to have eventually reconciled with her son, this marks the end of her active involvement in English affairs. There is much we do not know about her various motivations, but for 40 years she managed to survive and mostly prosper during extremely turbulent times.
She died in 1052. She did not live to see her great-nephew William conquer England in 1066 and begin the Norman rule of England.