Queenship and Power: The Political Life of Emma of Normandy

There are few women in late Anglo-Saxon England for whom we have as much information as Emma of Normandy. The wife of two kings, we find her name in charter witness lists, mentioned in chronicle entries and histories, and she also leaves to history the earliest biography of a secular English female political figure – the Encomium Emmae Reginae. That she commissioned it herself and that it is most often characterised as propagandist praise-narrative is, no doubt, problematic. But it remains a fascinating historical document that reveals glimpses of the events she operated within and sought to control and, perhaps more importantly, gives us a window into her political thought and strategies.

Now, my intent here was to write the marriage of King Cnut and Emma of Normandy in 1017. Historians tend to treat it with a somewhat casual acceptance, yet their marriage is somewhat surprising to the initiate in late Anglo-Saxon history. Emma’s first husband, King Æthelred II (the Unready), had died in London in April 1016, besieged in the city by the invading Cnut who sought to wrest the English crown from him. When Cnut ultimately did obtain the English kingship of his own right, the newly widowed Emma married him.

While it would be tempting to suggest that this was forced on her by the conquering Danish king, to do so would be to underestimate Emma. She was a savvy political player and appears to have formed a close relationship with Cnut that allowed her to increase her own political agency. During their marriage, Emma became the richest woman in England; took an interest in ecclesiastical appointments (perhaps for a price); increased her land holdings; was given equal prominence to the king contemporary portraiture (a unique development); became queen consort of Denmark and Norway; and we even have some slight indications she may have performed as regent during Cnut’s overseas absences. Emma of Normandy is rightly remembered as a towering figure of late Anglo-Saxon political culture.

As interesting as that all sounds, when I got halfway through writing this post, I realised that half the damned thing was spent on her life with Æthelred, plus I’d feel pretty incomplete if we didn’t cover her fall from grace. Emma’s life was, you see, in many ways dictated by the Scandinavian raids and invasions of the early eleventh-century, and the responses to these taken by the ruling men around her. This is not to say that she lacked her own political agency – we’ve seen she could hold her own – yet it remains that her political fortunes rose and fell in line with the affections that the English king of the day held for her. And Emma’s political career in England lasted through five kingships. This becomes particularly problematic after Cnut’s death in 1035. However, I am getting ahead of the story here – but suffice it say, we’re not just sticking with Emma and Cnut, but will sketch out some of the more dramatic events of Emma’s political life.

Marriage to Æthelred II

Emma enters the historical record in 1002 when, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she was sent from the court of her brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, to marry the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred II. We can only speculate as to their ages, but Emma was Æthelred’s second wife, and our best guess was that he was around 10 years old when he took the throne in 978 – so around 34 at this time. Emma, in contrast, is thought to have been born in the 980s, so as much as half the lad’s age. This was not a particularly unusual arrangement. Culturally, at 16 or 17, Emma would have been understood to be of marriageable age and, politically, the marriage was intended to normalise relations between the English and the Normans. Things had been tense throughout the past decade as the Normans provided safe harbourage to the vikings plaguing England’s shores. Although a treaty had been arranged with Duke Richard I in 991 in which he agreed to deny Æthelred’s enemies aid, his son Richard II came to the ducal throne in 996 and seemed to feel he was not bound to the treaty. Yet, it is something of an oversimplification to suggest that the wrangling between Æthelred and Richard II that brought Emma to the English court was just about the Scandinavians. Certainly if the main intent here was to force Normandy to stop allowing viking raiders to over-winter, it did not work. The vikings would be back.

Rather, as a reasonably new duke, Richard was apparently seeking to recast alliances with all his neighbours. While allowing the vikings to access Norman ports again could be evidence of a new ruler who was not yet in full possession of his powers, it could also be the act of a wily politician seeking to renegotiate the terms of the Anglo-Norman treaty. Within this context, we find Emma married to the Anglo-Saxon king as part of the negotiations – the first foreign-born consort in nearly a century. Yet Emma’s is just one of a series of political marriages Richard organised for his sisters with neighbouring powers, and her marriage to Æthelred should be read in this light.

Emma appears to have settled in well. She was given the English name Ælfgifu and, while Emma still appears as her name in some places, Ælfgifu is used in all official documents (with the exception of one slightly dodgy charter). Confusingly, Æthelred’s first wife was also an Ælfgifu, so small wonder that historians normally stick to Emma for our queen consort. Emma jumped right in, the first extant charter she witnessed dating to 1002, the same year as her marriage. Here she appears after the king and the archbishops, but before Æthelred’s sons and the bishops – so a bit of respect being accorded the teenage queen. A similar arrangement in found in another of 1004, in 1005 she appears before the archbishops, but behind the sons, and then from 1006 she is accorded the second witness position after the king. By this stage she had given birth to two sons and a daughter.

Her daughter, Godgifu, married into Norman nobility. Her son Alfred Ætheling would be caught by his political enemies, blinded, and later die in Ely around the year 1036. While her other son Edward, later known as ‘the Confessor’, would gain the crown in 1042 – which isn’t quite as happy an event as you would think for Emma.

Marriage to Cnut the Great

Now we must get on, otherwise this will turn into one of my epics again!

We’ve already noted the political context of Æthelred’s death and Cnut’s rise to power and, surprising as it may seem at first, his marriage to Emma was probably an intelligent political move. Firstly, Cnut was Danish. To rule his new English kingdom, it was in his interest to have someone well acquainted with Anglo-Saxon politics by his side. Secondly, dowager queens seeking to place their sons on the throne is something of a medieval trope. In fact, it will come up here in a moment. By bringing Emma into his confidence, and by having new heirs with her, he separated Alfred and Edward from the person who would have been their most potent support. Thirdly, it gave a sense of continuity to the political regime, which would have been important granted the year of fighting that had characterised the political discourse into 1017. Fourthly, it allowed Cnut to establish ties with Normandy, just as Æthelred had sought to do (Cnut in fact marries his own sister to Richard to cement that relationship). Lastly, for Emma it was a way to retain power. Her position as the wife of the ex-king and mother to rival claimants for the throne made her particularly vulnerable so long as she remained in England. Either she returned to Normandy to fade into obscurity or stayed with Cnut at the centre of English politics.

Cnut had to set aside his first wife in order to take up this political union. Her name was  also Ælfgifu. Yep. Her marriage to Cnut had produced a potential heir, Harold Harefoot, who will be about to cause problems in a moment.

The Encomium describes a loving relationship between Emma and Cnut. Make of that what you will. They did have two children together though, Gunhild who became queen consort in Germany, and Harthacnut who would go on to claim both the crowns of Denmark and England. Emma continued to sign charters and exercise political power as noted above. Indeed, her partnership with Cnut was undoubtedly the pinnacle of her political career, but that is all about the change.

Now we’ve covered the political context of Emma’s two marriages, and that should really be enough for us here today. It will allow me to build some more detailed articles on Emma in the future, and we can keep moving through the chronology of Cnut’s reign in our Cnut-centred series of articles. But for the sake of completeness, let’s see how things end up for Emma.

It’s complicated and more than a little messy, so let’s skim through it.

Dowager Queen and Queen Mother

In 1035 Cnut died. Harthacnut was in Denmark, Alfred and Edward in exile in Normandy, guess who was around though? Ælfgifu and Harold. Harold quickly made a grab at the throne, while Emma, seeing political agency slip away from her, made a grab at the treasury in Winchester. Unfortunately for her, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Harold sent men to relieve her of those treasures shortly thereafter.

Technically Harold and Harthacnut reigned jointly until 1037, with Emma protecting Harthacnut’s interests from her base in Winchester. This was a formal decision made in council, though men like Godwine, the over-mighty earl of Cnut’s own making (and father of the future king Harold II Godwineson), resisted the division. Walking into this seething political stew came Alfred and Edward, Æthelred’s sons. Edward managed to escape back to Normandy, but Alfred was captured by Godwine and suffered the aforementioned fate. There is little reason to believe that Emma was anything but distraught at her son’s death, and she too would soon escape the turmoil and treachery of England. Whether or not she was the one who encouraged them to return in order to try shore up her position remains open for debate – I’m personally unconvinced. Yet, it is unlikely she sat passively in Winchester as the Encomium implies, and no doubt she manoeuvred to try retain power and undermine Harold (including being the likely originator of rumours around his legitimacy). Nonetheless, for the first time in three decades she lacked proximity to the throne and, unless Harthacnut returned to England, her political agency would lack potency.

And so it was that in 1037 Emma was driven into exile. But fast-forward three years, Harold is dead (of natural causes), Harthacnut returns to claim his throne, Emma is back! Edward is summoned to his brother’s side, no doubt in part to ensure the succession with Harthacnut childless at this time. But something is weighing on Emma’s mind. It is at this time the Encomium was composed – she was apparently nervous about the future, and the narrative of the text seeks to justify her behaviour and actions from the time of Cnut up until Harthacnut’s kingship. It takes particular interest in condemning Harold and laying Alfred’s death on him (distracting from the accusations levelled at her sometime ally Godwine). Harthacnut in turn is portrayed as an obedient son and worthy king, generous in sharing his power with his brother Edward. Not only justifying the past it seems, but laying out her hopes for the future. If, however, Emma’s vision in the Encomium was to shape that future, things did not turn out as she planned.

In 1042 Harthacnut died and her son Edward came to the throne. She appears to have witnessed one charter near the start of his reign, but then something happened and history is unkind to us here. In 1043 Edward moved against his mother, depriving her of all her wealth, all her lands, and her freedom of movement. Surely what she had expected, yet avoided, upon the death of her husbands, but likely something of a surprise with her son on the throne. And, unfortunately, we can only speculate why. Later chroniclers give something of an avaricious nature to her throughout her life, seeking the accumulation of wealth, and suggest that Edward was acting as a corrective to this. That rather plays into the ‘wicked mother’ trope so common in Anglo-Saxon saints’ lives, combining rather neatly with Edward’s later saintly reputation, and I don’t place to much stock in it. Other theories state that it was indeed by her encouragement that Edward and Alfred returned in 1036 to make a play for the throne, and that Edward therefore blamed Emma for his brother’s death. But it could be as simple as Edward, who came to the throne in his forties, having no need for a powerful mother creating an alternative political locus in his kingdom. Yes, he took her wealth, but left her enough to live on, repurposing the remainder to the use of the crown. Perhaps unkind, but not necessarily unwise. In the end, who knows?

And that, my friends, is the rise and fall of Emma of Normandy. She lived her remaining life with little of the power she had had in earlier decades, dying in 1052. She was, nonetheless accorded a royal burial in Winchester.

Please let us know if there is any aspect of her life on which you’d like us to go in-depth on for a focused future article.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Feature Image: King Cnut the Great, BL MS Stowe 944, f. 6 r.
  2. Alistair Campbell, ed., Encomium Emmae Reginae,reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 (1949).
  3. Stacey S. Klein, Ruling Women: Queenship and Gender in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Note Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.
  4. Levi Roach, Æthelred the UnreadyNew Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.
  5. Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith, Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.
  6. Dorothy Whitelock (ed.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965.
  7. Dorothy Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

Cnut the Great, the Conquest of England, and the Puzzle of London

Danish Invasion, Viking Violence, and Cnut’s Mutilation of Hostages at Sandwich

King Eadwig, St Dunstan, and the Ménage à Trois – Propaganda in the Anglo-Saxon Court

The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder

See our bibliographies on Biographical Studies and Chronicle Editions

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