The Duchy of Normandy was born following the Treaty of St. Clair-sur-Epte in the year 911, when the Viking Hrolf (or Rollo) was bequeathed power in northern France by King Charles III “the Simple”. The new rulers of Normandy adopted parts of French culture, such as Christianity and the vernacular of France, yet they never completely assimilated. Instead, they became something that was not fully French and not fully Scandinavian—they were Norman.
Duke Hrolf’s grandson was Duke Richard I “the Fearless” (r. 942-996). In his day, the link between the Normans and Scandinavia was very much still alive. Richard I married a woman named Gunnor, who was reportedly a Dane. They had several children, the most important being the eventual heir, Richard II, as well as a daughter named Emma.
When Richard II became duke in 996, friendly relations between the Normans and their Scandinavian cousins continued. To the annoyance of Æthelred the Unready (the king of England since 978), Viking raiders who needed a break from pillaging in Britain, or wanted to offload some looted cargo, could quickly find friendly ports by sailing to Normandy. The Anglo-Saxons of England were aware of this and noted it in their records—as in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 1000, where the chronicler explained a lull in otherwise annual Viking raids with the statement, “the hostile fleet was this summer gone to Richard’s dominions” (ASC 1000).
Naturally, the Anglo-Saxons did not appreciate Normandy’s enabling of Viking attacks on Britain, and the king and the duke likely exchanged heated letters to each other through ambassadors. Yet, in 1002, an interesting agreement was reached between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons—Emma, the young sister of Richard II, would wed King Æthelred the Unready of England.
Born between 985 and 990, Emma would have been in her early teens, possibly as young as twelve, when she was shipped off to England by her brother. Emma, however, did not go alone. She brought with her a sizable retinue of Normans, which at times could look like a private army. Most memorably, her Norman followers caused a stir in 1003, when “Exeter was taken by storm, through the French count Hugo, whom the lady [Emma] had appointed her reeve” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1003). In addition to her Norman retinue, Emma was given large swaths of land (and tax exemptions) by Æthelred the Unready, which would eventually turn the savvy Emma into England’s richest woman. Despite being sent to a war-torn land and forced to marry a man around twenty years older than herself, she was living in luxury.
The marriage between Emma of Normandy and Æthelred the Unready was presumably a match meant to reduce the Scandinavian threat to England—with Emma serving as a queen of England, her brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, would be less eager to help Britain-bound Vikings. Around the same time that the marriage occurred, Æthelred also made a large tribute payment to a group of Scandinavian raiders in order to buy peace. Yet, despite extending these two olive branches, Æthelred himself devastated any chance of ending his Viking problem before the year was even over. In 1002, right after sending tribute money to the raiders and marrying Emma, Æthelred launched the so-called St. Brice’s Day Massacre, in which “the king commanded all the Danish men who were in England to be slain” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1002). For Emma, with a Norman father and a Danish mother, it must have been an awkward time.
In response to the massacre, Danish fleets sent by King Sweyn (or Svein) Forkbeard began relentlessly attacking England, invading almost on an annual basis. Despite this, Queen Emma made the best of her situation. For the sake of the Anglo-Saxons, she adopted the name, Ælfgifu—which curiously was also the name of Æthelred’s previous wife (Ælfgifu of York). Between hearing reports of Viking raids and Sweyn Forkbeard sightings, Æthelred the Unready and Emma managed to have three children together, two sons (Alfred and Edward), as well as a daughter (Goda). Neither of Emma’s sons, however, were Æthelred’s heir apparent. Instead, a man named Edmund Ironside, born from Æthelred’s previous wife, was the nominated successor to the kingdom.
After years of warfare, Sweyn Forkbeard’s wrath proved too much for Æthelred the Unready. By 1013, rampaging Danish warriors forced Æthelred and Emma to flee across the English Channel. While the refugee royals escaped to Emma’s homeland of Normandy, Sweyn Forkbeard and the Danes claimed the throne of England. Sweyn Forkbeard, however, died the very next year and was succeeded by his untested son, Canute. With England and Denmark both showing questionable loyalty to Canute, Æthelred the Unready and Emma were able to return to Britain and claim the English throne in 1014. Yet, Canute—who would later be given the epithet “the Great”—was not one to be underestimated. With an army of loyalists, Canute quickly began marauding through England and encouraging local lords to defect. The warfare lasted until King Æthelred’s death in 1016 and continued into the reign of his successor, Edmund Ironside. The new king was not called “Ironside” for nothing, and, with him at the head off England’s forces, the Danish assault was ground down to a stalemate. Yet, Edmund, too, died in 1016 and Canute subsequently became the king of England.
For Queen Emma, the death of her husband and the rise of Canute was not the end of her political career, but a new beginning. The victorious king fancied Emma (as well as her ties to the Normans) and quickly began courting her. Like the late Æthelred, Canute had a previous wife (who bore him a son named Harold Harefoot), but Canute set the woman aside so that he could marry Emma. Canute and Emma reportedly got along quite well and were married as early as 1017. Children arrived quickly after their marriage—a son named Hardecanute was born around 1018 or 1019, and they also had a daughter named Gunnhild. Unlike in her previous marriage, this time Emma supposedly was given reassurances from Canute that it would be her children (not those of his previous wife) that would succeed to the throne. The agreement, however, extended only to Emma’s children fathered by Canute. Those fathered by the late Æthelred were sent into exile and lived in Normandy with their uncle, Duke Richard II.
Queen Emma’s life with Canute the Great was a wild ride. After seeing to things in England, Canute sailed back to Denmark and asserted his claim over the kingdom between 1018 and 1019. Later, as if England and Denmark were not enough, he usurped power in Norway by deposing King Olaf II Haraldsson (Saint Olaf) in 1028. During this time, Queen Emma was reportedly a trusted advisor to King Canute and also was greatly influential in the life of her son, Hardecanute, even after the boy was sent to be tutored in Denmark and later named the governor or minor king of the region around 1028.
Unfortunately, King Canute the Great died unexpectedly in 1035 and, despite the late king’s supposed assurances to the contrary, Emma’s son, Hardecanute, was not guaranteed succession in England. The aforementioned Harold Harefoot had for years been recruiting a powerful coalition of English thanes and earls while his half-brother, Hardecanute, was away in Denmark. When Canute died, Harold contested the succession and had on his side the majority of England’s lords, of which Earl Leofric of Mercia was his most vocal supporter. In protest, Queen Emma delved into a battle of politics and intrigue to fight for Hardecanute’s claim on England. She recruited the powerful Earl Godwine of Wessex to her side and they managed to keep Harold Harefoot contained to the rank of co-king or regent for a time. While engaged in her political battles with Harold, Queen Emma had some autonomy and was described as being well-guarded “at Winchester with her son’s [Hardecanute’s] ‘hûscarls’” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1036). Yet her position was precarious, and her foe was a worthy adversary in court intrigue.
Earl Godwine was eventually swayed over to the faction of Harold Harefoot and England became an increasingly dangerous place for Emma and her family. Although her son, Hardecanute, had easily claimed the throne of Denmark, Harold was simultaneously tightening his control over English politics. A breaking point was reached in 1036, when Alfred (Emma’s son by Æthelred) returned to England. At that time, Harold Harefoot had such power in the realm that Alfred was quickly arrested, mutilated, and left to die—the gruesome act was reportedly carried out by Emma’s former ally, Earl Godwine. There was no longer any need for Harold Harefoot to pretend to be a co-ruler or regent. In 1037, he proclaimed himself the sole king of England and forced Emma into exile.
Interestingly, Emma chose not to join her son Hardecanute in Denmark, or to visit her other son, Edward, in Normandy. Instead, she reportedly sailed to Flanders, where a certain Count Baldwin gave her shelter. In late 1039, the filial Hardecanute went to meet his mother in Flanders, bringing with him a fleet of around sixty ships. Yet, before Hardecanute and Emma could reroute their fleet back to England, Harold Harefoot died in March 1040. With the throne vacant, Hardecanute was able to become king of England without bloodshed. Nevertheless, he had unfinished business with his late half-brother, so Hardecanute reportedly exhumed Harold’s body and had the remains unceremoniously tossed into a wetland.
With Hardecanute in power, the long-exiled Edward (son of Æthelred and Emma) was allowed to return to England in 1041. He arrived just in time, for Hardecanute reportedly drank himself to death in 1042. With his half-brother dead, Edward “the Confessor” became the new king. Emma, now living once again in Winchester, likely hoped that she could rekindle that mother-son spark with her long-neglected child. Yet, Emma’s marriage to the Danish king, the more than twenty years absence from Edward’s life, as well as her clear favoritism toward Hardecanute, undoubtedly caused some strain in the relationship between King Edward and his mother. It has also been claimed that Emma withheld support from Edward during his succession to the throne, or possibly backed another candidate. Whatever the case, King Edward was clearly unhappy with his mother’s behavior. In 1043, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Edward “and earl Leofric, and earl Godwine, and earl Siward, with their attendants, rode from Gloucester to Winchester unawares upon the lady [Emma], and they bereaved her of all the treasures which she owned, which were not to be told; because she had before been very hard to the king her son, inasmuch as she had done less for him than he would, before he was king, and also since then” (ASC 1043).
In Edward’s systematic undermining of his mother in 1043, he stripped away much of her land, her wealth and her influence, even momentarily excluding her from his court. The two were eventually somewhat reconciled, but Emma never regained the power she once had. With her political heyday unmistakably over, Emma of Normandy learned to live a quiet life and died in 1052. Edward the Confessor continued to rule in England until he died without an heir in 1066. In the political chaos after Edward’s death, with Norwegians, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans battling for the throne of England, it would be Emma’s great-nephew, William the Conqueror, who would emerge victorious.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Queen Emma from a manuscript in the Cambridge University Library, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.