By Brandon M. Bender
Emma of Normandy has not received nearly as much attention as she deserves. She lived through the reigns of seven kings of England; some chose to work with her and some against her, but she was never permanently removed from the political sphere. Emma’s career could have ended on several occasions, but she managed to return to the picture each time. She even commissioned her own work of history, the Encomium Emmae Reginae. Queen of two kings and mother of two more, Emma is one of the most significant and resilient figures of her era.
Emma was born in Normandy, daughter of Duke Richard I and Gunnora, sometime in the 980s. She was thrust into the political spotlight for the first time in 1002, when she married the English King Æthelred II. The marriage was likely a way to resolve hostilities that went back to at least 991, when a papal legate had been required to mediate between England and Normandy. Æthelred was potentially fifteen years older than Emma and already had an estimated nine children. His previous spouse, Ælfgifu, vanished from the historical record around the year 1000, as did his mother, Queen Ælfthryth. There was a glaring hole at court – one Emma would then fill.
Emma was anointed queen and given the English name Ælfgifu, the name of her predecessor. Even though Emma shared her predecessor’s name, she had more influence: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) indicates that she appointed a French reeve, Hugh, to oversee Exeter by 1003. Emma also appears on royal charter witness lists, often attesting alongside the children she had with Æthelred: Edward (later known as “the Confessor”), Godgifu, and Alfred. She was the most prominent woman associated with Æthelred’s regime at this time.
However, not all was well in England. The kingdom had been plagued by intermittent Viking attacks since the 980s and invasions from Scandinavia overwhelmed England’s defences in the early 1010s. In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark launched a war of conquest that directly threatened Emma’s status as queen. During this dangerous time, according to the ASC, Æthelred sent his youngest children to Normandy, but Emma went to Normandy with her own entourage, a detail that hints at her independence. Æthelred courageously stayed behind to negotiate with Viking fleets in the Thames, joining his family in exile weeks later.
In the dark winter of 1013-14, Emma’s status as queen was tarnished by exile. However, luck was on her side when Sweyn died suddenly in 1014. Æthelred returned to his former kingdom, defeating Sweyn’s son, Cnut, in Lindsey. Æthelred’s victory was short-lived, as he died in 1016. Emma was now a widow, but the situation soon became worse as Cnut conquered England by the end of the year.
Many figures would fade from history at this point, but Emma did not. The Encomium says Cnut sought out Emma in Normandy, wishing to marry her. The ASC, on the other hand, crassly says that Cnut had her “fetched” from London, almost like a prize of war. The marriage had benefits for each party, however. Cnut, like Emma had been in 1002, was an outsider who would have to adapt to the English political structure. She also helped link him to the “old” dynasty. For Emma, a marriage to Cnut allowed her to maintain her status and influence, and any sons she had with Cnut would be acceptable successors – something that could no longer be said for her exiled children with Æthelred. Either way, in 1017, Emma married her first husband’s rival, though it is not known when she returned to England.
If Emma had chafed at receiving the name of Æthelred’s previous wife, the situation with Cnut was even messier: Cnut was a bigamist who was already married to Ælfgifu of Northampton, and despite the claim in the Encomium that Ælfgifu was a mere “concubine,” the contemporary evidence suggests anything but: Ælfgifu was entrusted with the regency of Norway during Cnut’s reign and bore him children who were legitimate enough to ascend to the throne (as the accession of Ælfgifu’s son Harold in 1037 would show). Although Cnut, Emma, and Ælfgifu were all Christian, a polygamous marriage would not have been especially scandalous to Cnut. In Scandinavia, it was not uncommon for rulers to have multiple wives, and Cnut seems to have followed in this tradition, retaining the important alliances forged through both matches. For Emma, the unfortunate side effect was that Cnut’s children with Ælfgifu were rivals to her own.
With Cnut, however, Queen Emma seems to have enjoyed unprecedented status, often witnessing charters after only Cnut himself. They had two children together, Harthacnut and Gunhilda. As Cnut’s right hand, Emma was among the most prestigious people in England, Denmark, and Norway – all part of Cnut’s growing territory. She was even depicted in contemporary texts, such as the New Minster Book of Life and Encomium, which is unusual for an English queen of this era.
Cnut’s death in 1035 threw Emma’s life into uncertainty. Her son with Cnut, Harthacnut, was the obvious choice to inherit the throne, but unrest in Scandinavia kept him from England. Harold Harefoot, Cnut’s son with Ælfgifu, won political favour in England, acting as regent from 1035-37. Emma may have sent a letter to her sons by Æthelred at this time, prodding them to move against her rival Harold. Edward led an inconsequential raid but soon returned to Normandy, while Alfred was caught and killed. The Encomium claimed the letter that lured Alfred to his death was a forgery. Either way, Emma had seemingly run out of options. As the kingdom grew impatient with Harthacnut’s absence, Harold was crowned in 1037. Emboldened, Harold struck a blow against Emma by confiscating her land and riches, exiling her to Flanders.
Harold’s death in 1040 meant Harthacnut and Emma were free to return, but Harthacnut’s reign proved short and unpopular. Prior to his death, the childless Harthacnut had invited his half-brother Edward back to England, extending an olive branch to the exiled side of the royal family, and Edward succeeded him peacefully. The Encomium illustrates them together as one royal family, simultaneously English and Danish, united by their mother Emma.
However, Edward was apparently not pleased with his mother. He had endured a long exile in Normandy and watched as Emma gave precedence to his younger half-brother. The ASC records that he deprived Emma of her land and treasures in 1043.
Emma and Edward soon made amends, demonstrating her political and diplomatic skills. Her life was so notable that the terse ASC mentions her passing in 1052, which it rarely did for royal women. Different versions of the ASC disagree on how best to describe her, with the D manuscript calling her the “widow of King Æthelred and King Cnut,” while E calls her “mother of King Harthacnut and King Edward.” In her long life, only two rulers, Sweyn and Harold I, managed to mute her influence in England. For others, like Cnut, she was a powerful ally. Resourceful, resilient, and inventive, Emma embodied the best of medieval queenship.
 For further reading on the circumstances of the marriage, see Timothy Bolton, Cnut the Great (Yale University Press, 2017), 99-101; Tom Licence, Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood (Yale University Press, 2020), 43-45; and especially Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England (Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 226-31.
Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England (Blackwell Publishers, 1997).
Encomium Emmae Reginae, ed. Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Conquests in Eleventh-Century England: 1016, 1066, ed. Laura Ashe and Emily Joan Ward (Boydell and Brewer, 2020).
Ann Williams, Æthelred the Unready: The Ill-Counselled King (Hambledon and London, 2003).
Levi Roach, Æthelred the Unready (Yale University Press, 2016).
Ryan Lavelle, Aethelred II: King of the English 978-1016 (Tempus, 2004).
Ryan Lavelle, Cnut: The North Sea King (Allen Lane, 2017).
Timothy Bolton, Cnut the Great (Yale University Press, 2017).
Tom Licence, Edward the Confessor: Last of the Royal Blood (Yale University Press, 2020).