Matilda, Lady of the English. Eleanor of Aquitaine. Queen Isabella. These are some of the most important figures of Medieval England, united by their rejection of the expectations of misogynist Medieval society. Often, we know only in detail of those high-status women who – brought into the light of history by their relationships with powerful men – are then scorned by contemporary writers and piled with stereotypes and tropes: the ‘jealous lover’, the ‘scheming stepmother’, the ‘she-wolf’. Sifting the historical record, handling the biased original sources with a degree of skepticism, and bringing out the hidden histories of Medieval women is a vital task of the modern historian. And one such woman desperately in need of this re-examination is Emma of Normandy.

Emma of Normandy, receiving the Encomium Emmae Regis, depicted in the same book. One of the very few contemporary images of a Medieval queen. c. 1041 CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Like Eleanor of Aquitaine, she was married to two kings, and her children would become part of a swirling maelstrom of competing dynastic claims as Late Anglo-Saxon England began to crumble. Yet amid stormy seas, she was not adrift: she was a kingmaker in her time. And, unlike all but a tiny handful of women in the whole Medieval era, she got to write her own history: the Encomium of Queen Emma, a vital written source for this period. It is this work which seeks to pierce the many lies and myths that would later be built around her, as if predicting the condescension to come. Ultimately, though she was not a military commander, Emma of Normandy spelled doom for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of England: it is her dynastic position that provided William the Conqueror with the vital link between Normandy and England upon which he would base his invasion of England in the fateful year of 1066 CE.

A Norman Upbringing

Emma was born in the mid-980s CE, to the Count of Rouen, Richard I of Normandy, known as Richard the Fearless. Normandy was a comparatively new state in the north of what is today France – the fertile riverlands of northern Frankia were a tempting target for Viking raiders from the late 8th century onward, and after a series of increasingly serious raids on Chartres and Paris, eventually King Charles III the Simple of West Frankia resolved to buy peace. Charles made the Viking warlord Rollo his bannerman in about 911 CE, and ceded to him land around the mouth of the Seine – in practise, this was probably land the Vikings already controlled – in return for his loyal service as a feudal vassal. Gradually, the settled Scandinavians adopted a unique cultural fusion of French feudalism and Viking martial culture – the name ‘Norman’ is literally ‘North-man’, ie. ‘the people from the North’, ie. Scandinavia. The process of ‘Frankification’ was in its second generation at the time of Emma’s birth, her father Count Richard being the grandson of Rollo the Viking. The Norman aristocracy probably remained bi-lingual, speaking both Old Norse and Old French, although they were becoming rapidly naturalized to Frankish/French ways.

A map showing the original concession made to Rollo in 911 CE by King Charles III the Simple (cross-hatched), plus its expansion by the time of Emma of Normandy (orange). Areas of significant Norse settlement are shown (blue). (via History Stack)

Richard is identified by modern historians as heavily favouring the model of French feudalism, above the older Norse social relations. His nickname ‘the Fearless’ is well warranted – when he was still a boy, King Louis IV of France imprisoned him and moved to break up the growing power of this Viking County on his borders, but Richard successfully rallied a mob to have him released and re-installed in his father’s position as Count of Rouen. The bad blood between the two rulers remained, and Richard would defeat King Louis in battle, ransoming him in return for his position as Count. Later, Richard defeated a combined invasion of King Louis and Holy Roman Emperor Otto I – Fearless indeed! He is referred to in official documents as Count or Prince of Rouen (Latin: comes or princeps) – although it seems like these titles were rather fluid; neither Rollo nor Richard’s father are given any official title by surviving French royal documents, and it seems that over the following decades the Counts of Rouen would surreptitiously upgrade themselves to ‘Dukes of Normandy’ without ever really being confirmed as such by the Kings of France.

Gunnor: Viking Girlboss

Emma’s mother is named as Gunnor, a noblewoman from a powerful Norman family – but their partnership is quite different to the chivalric ideals which quickly took over in Normandy not long after Emma’s time. The Normans were only just beginning to convert to Christianity by the time of Emma’s birth – Emma’s father Richard the Fearless had taken a wife before, and had married her, as contemporary Christian writers put it, ‘in more danico’, ie ‘in the Danish fashion’. The Normans recognised the legitimacy of non-Christian forms of marriage, in this case likely by simple ceremony and cohabitation. But Richard had a wandering eye, and took Gunnor as his mistress – one writer recounts how Richard seduced a woodcutter’s wife, but that she substituted her sister, Gunnor, at their meeting. Clearly, Richard was not a fussy man, and after his first wife’s death, he legitimized his relationship with Gunnor. However, the pair would only seek Christian affirmation of their marriage much later in life, after their attempt to have one of their sons nominated as Archbishop was refused due to their marriage being only in more danico. Regardless, Gunnor is recorded as being significantly wealthy in her own right, and she ruled the Norman state ably as a regent whenever Richard the Fearless was absent, witnessing charters and dispensing justice. She was also a principle source for Dudo of St. Quentin, a Picard historian who spent some time at the Norman court, and who gives her a glowing depiction in his history of this period as a learned and intelligent statesperson, with a prodigious talent for languages and memory.

A 12th century depiction of Countess Gunnor making a donation to the monks of Mont St. Michel, from a charter in the abbey archive. (via Wikimedia Commons)

In this environment of a Scandinavian-Frankish culture, in which the chivalric ghettoization of women from public life had not yet taken hold, Emma had a strong and powerful mother-figure as a role model. We do not know if Emma was formally educated, but it isn’t hard to see her future power-broking in her childhood. Because even the Norman aristocracy were largely illiterate, we don’t really know the order in which Richard the Fearless’s children were born – Emma’s older brother Richard (who would take over the County after his father’s death in 996 CE) was probably eldest, and Emma may well have been the eldest daughter. Richard the Fearless fathered many children, at least six of whom were legitimate – although bastardy was not yet a serious obstacle to political ambition, and several of Richard the Fearless’s illegitimate children became Counts in Normandy and elsewhere. His daughters were viewed largely as dynastic pawns, to be used to shore up alliances and unite claims with a view to Norman expansion. Emma was no different in this regard.

A Diplomatic Marriage

The first time we can view Emma directly in the historical record is with her marriage in 1002 CE to the King of England, Ethelred ‘the Unready’. We have examined the life of King Ethelred, and his disastrous policy toward Viking raids which led to the feeding frenzy of invasions at the end of his life – but the marriage between Emma and Ethelred was one of the King’s few diplomatic successes. Although we cannot be certain, it seems that the background to the marriage is intensely linked to the problem of escalating Viking raiding on England’s shores from the 980s CE onward. In an era before the widespread and systematic usage of coin, most economic activity involved ‘payment in kind’, or barter – thus, Vikings would often come away from their raids with valuable objects (textiles, animals, arms and armor, etc) rather than actual precious metals. Having stolen (or ‘taxed’) whatever they could lay their hands on, they would need to trade for silver or gold. And Normandy, where the elite were closely related to the Vikings and many of whom remained bilingual, was an obvious place to sell their booty. Richard the Fearless, it seems, was more than happy to harbour his Viking cousins and profit from this trade – which angered King Ethelred. This dispute became so heated that the Pope was apparently forced to intervene between the two Kings, and in 991 CE Richard and Ethelred signed a peace accord known as the Treaty of Rouen – one of the first internationally mediated treaties in recorded history. Richard the Fearless apparently abided by the Pope’s admonition to refuse pagan raiders succour at his harbours, and tensions de-escalated between England and Normandy.

A portrait of King Ethelred ‘the Unready’, from the Abingdon Chronicle, c. 1220 CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

But Richard II, Emma’s brother, seems not to have felt bound by his father’s promises, and seems to have re-opened his ports to his Viking kinsmen. Things apparently got so bad between England and Normandy that King Ethelred even sent a punitive raid across the Channel to the Cotentin, with orders to capture Count Richard II and bring him in chains back to England. But this punitive raid was rapidly repulsed by the mounted Norman warriors – one gets the impression from the sources that this was a fairly minor raid designed to make a point as a means of setting the tone for negotiations between the two states. Richard II offered to renew his father’s pledge to deny safe harbour to the Vikings, if King Ethelred was to marry his sister Emma. The King accepted, and the pair were wed in 1002 CE.

Queen of England

Emma now became Ethelred’s queen – a significant step up in terms of her social status. She was given many estates and properties across the South and West of England, and became a significant patron of monastic and religious works. But her position – and that of the Norman claims that she represented – was far from secure. King Ethelred was a widower, having been married to the daughter of the Ealdorman of York, and they had had many children together, including at least six sons. Æthelstan Ætheling, King Ethelred’s oldest son, was groomed for succession, and their younger sons, including young Edmund, were slated to become his loyal supporters. Any of Emma’s children would come last in the order of succession, so she would have to fight tooth and claw for her sons to have any chance to become Kings of England, amid the coming storm.

A charter dating from 993 CE, witnessed by the child Æthelstan Ætheling – the 6th name on the right-hand column. This shows from a young age he was groomed to be King Ethelred’s successor. (via Wikimedia Commons)

We can say frustratingly little about Emma’s life in this time period: as a noble woman in Late Anglo-Saxon society, she was largely ghettoized from public life, managing the King’s household and confined largely to religious and artistic patronage. Emma and King Ethelred had three children in the early 1000s CE: Edward, Godgifu and Alfred. As the seventh son of King Ethelred, it seemed very unlikely that Edward would ever rule England, but he appears as witness to a handful of charters in the early 10th century, indicating that he was marked out for a noble title in the future. We have no contemporary sources which shed light on the personal relationship between King Ethelred and Emma of Normandy, but one cannot wonder how she would have reacted to the St. Brice’s Day massacre, when Ethelred ordered that all of the ‘Danes’ in his lands be put to the sword. Emma’s mother Gunnor was of Danish ancestry, and her upbringing was in a heavily multicultural Frankish-Scandinavian court. That said, Emma and Ethelred continued to have children in this period. Our sources become more fragmentary and confused as the Viking invasions ramped up in intensity, and so Emma falls largely from view.

Crisis and Opportunity

As the crisis of Late Anglo-Saxon England deepened, Emma’s children were all less than ten years of age, and so she was largely relegated to a domestic role. When King Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England in 1013 CE, he stopped off at the court of Emma’s brother, Richard II of Normandy – and by all accounts, he was warmly received, with Richard making a declaration of alliance with the Viking king (although one might wonder if Richard had had little choice in the matter). When King Sweyn launched his invasion, King Ethelred sent Emma of Normandy and her children back to her brother’s court in Normandy – likely to keep them safe, but one cannot imagine that this was a comfortable exile for Emma.

Emma of Normandy flees King Sweyn’s invasion with her two infant sons, Edward and Alfred, in 1014 CE. Depicted in a 13th century manuscript, likely by Matthew Paris. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Raised by an independently powerful Norman mother, she may well have chafed under the more restrictive West Saxon tradition of largely invisible queenship. King Ethelred was finally dislodged by Sweyn in 1014 CE, and he crossed the Channel to join them in Normandy – one can only guess at the frosty air between Count Richard and his brother-in-law the King. But soon, news of Sweyn’s untimely and sudden death reached the Norman court, and before Sweyn’s son Canute could secure the English throne, King Ethelred re-invaded England, bringing Emma and her children with him. King Ethelred quickly regained London, and, after swearing to renounce the disastrous policies which had marred his reign, was declared King again by the Witan.

A Victorian-era statue of Richard II of Normandy, in Falaise, Normandy. (via Britannica)

Although it is unlikely that Emma would have celebrated the deaths of the King’s other children, her hopes of a dynastic future for her children began to be kindled in this period: King Ethelred’s eldest son Æthelstan Ætheling had died during Sweyn’s invasion, adding to the four of the King’s other sons who had already predeceased him. Only Edmund ‘Ironside’ and Eadwig, the second and third of King Ethelred’s sons by his first marriage, still lived. Where years previously, it had appeared that Emma of Normandy’s line was destined forever to be a cadet (junior) branch of the House of Wessex, now things looked very, very different. Emma was in London, and had her young sons with her, whilst Edmund was away fighting the Vikings. With the King possibly already ill in this period and already examining matters of succession, there would be few better opportunities to secure the future of her sons on the throne of England – and so she began canvassing support amongst the leading nobles for a change in succession. One of her main supporters was Eadric Streona, the Ealdorman of Mercia, who had become notorious as one of King Ethelred’s brutal political hitmen.

But Emma of Normandy’s sons were still children, and the Kingdom was in the depths of a military and political crisis: most nobles likely felt it would be suicide to interfere with the succession. A strong military leader in the form of Edmund ‘Ironside’, the King’s eldest surviving son by his first marriage, was poised to inherit. However, it may have been that the King was persuaded by Emma’s arguments in favour of her children, because in this period Edmund ‘Ironside’ rebelled against the King, and moved North to set up an independent base in Northumberland. It soon became clear that the overwhelming majority of the nobility supported Edmund to succeed rather than Emma of Normandy and young Edward. The King was now ailing, and Edmund returned to reconcile with him before his death. He died in April of 1016 CE, widowing Emma of Normandy, and leaving behind two sons by his first marriage (Edmund and Eadwig), and two by Emma (Edward and Alfred).

Canute’s Bride

Thus, Emma of Normandy was unable to secure her children on the English throne in 1016 CE – yet. Edmund was quickly called away to continue the battle with Canute, leaving Emma in control of London. The war between Edmund and Canute resulted in the Battle of Assandun, at which Edmund was probably mortally wounded, and Edmund agreed to partition the Kingdom for his lifetime, with the crown of all England passing to Canute upon his death. Only six weeks later, Edmund died, and Canute became King of all England. Although the Witan formally agreed to honour Edmund’s agreement, Emma of Normandy had become an important symbol of the Anglo-Saxon resistance to Canute. And so, displaying the canny diplomatic mind for which he was renowned, King Canute married Emma of Normandy in 1017 CE.

King Canute and Edmund Ironside meet to settle the war for the Kingdom. Victorian-era anachronistic engraving. (via Discovery UK)

This act was a clever one. By marrying King Ethelred’s widow, he gave assurance to the Anglo-Saxon nobility that Canute was to be a continuity ruler. And for Emma of Normandy’s part, it was a move that ultimately saved the lives of her children. As we detailed in our examination of the life of King Canute, in the aftermath of Canute’s conquest he moved brutally to snuff out resistance to his rule – eliminating both those he felt had demonstrated insufficient loyalty (including Emma of Normandy’s old ally Eadric Streona), but also those who posed a dynastic threat to his house. Initially, Canute showed some lenience toward Eadwig, the only remaining son of King Ethelred by his first marriage – he was at first exiled, but later reconciled with the Danish King – but after a failed rebellion against Canute’s rule, he was executed in 1017 CE. This left Emma’s children as the only remaining scions of the House of Wessex – and though Canute wished to take no chances, he was not in the habit of murdering children. Instead, he had them sent away to foster at the court of Richard II of Normandy, where they would remain until their adulthood. It seems that Emma was separated from them for many years, and as we shall see, this may have become a lingering source of resentment for young Edward in future years.


Ironically, Emma of Normandy found herself again in a position of dynastic competition with another woman. Canute was already married – during his father’s invasion of England, he had been married to Ælfgifu of Northampton to secure the loyalty of the Mercian nobility. And again, in a strange echo of her life with King Ethelred, Canute and Ælfgifu had already had children: two sons, named Svein Knutsson and Harold (later known as ‘Harefoot’). However, it seems likely that this earlier marriage was a political ‘handfasting’ not committed before a priest, like Emma’s parents’ marriage in more danico. There is a tradition that such marriages could be set aside in favour of subsequent marriages before God – although Ælfgifu remained an active part of Canute’s growing North Sea Empire and shows no sign of being illegimitized in this manner. One might think that the politically complicated nature of their marriage might have led to Canute and Emma of Normandy being cold and distant, but contemporary sources depict their political marriage turning quickly to one of love, and the two remained very close throughout their lives. The pair quickly had two children: Harthacnut, and Gunhilda. Already, we can see Emma at the heart of a dynastic maelstrom – Canute’s sons by his first marriage, Emma’s sons by her first marriage, and their son together would all have competing claims to the Kingdom of England.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting ‘Ælfgifu ‘, theorized to be King Canute’s first wife Ælfgifu of Northmapton, mother of Svein Knutsson and Harold Harefood. (via Medievalists)

Trophy No More

However, in the time of Canute, Emma of Normandy gained significantly more power and prestige than she had during her marriage to King Ethelred. She became an extremely large landholder, possibly the wealthiest woman in England, based at a large estate in the royal city of Winchester. As well as significant jurisdictional power as a landlord, she also had a lot of influence over ecclesiastical appointments as well. Where with Ethelred she had been little more than a trophy, a symbol of the treaty of friendship between Normandy and England, with Canute she wielded significant if subtle power at court. Over time, her prestige only grew, in tandem with King Canute’s, as she also became queen of Denmark, and then of Norway as the consort of the ruler of the North Sea Empire. Unlike his first wife Ælfgifu, Emma of Normandy was not entrusted any of the Empire to rule directly – but the numerous surviving charters bearing her name show that she governed at a lower level in a practical fashion. A doubtless proud moment for Emma of Normandy came during King Canute’s glorious procession at the side of Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II during his coronation, where their daughter Gunhilda was betrothed to Conrad’s son, the future Holy Roman Emperor Henry III.

The coronation procession of Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, depicted in a 19th century engraving. (via Look and Learn)

England enjoyed relatively stability for the duration of Canute’s rule, free from Viking raids and significantly restored in wealth, due in no small part to Canute’s policy of recompensing communities for the raiding of the previous decades. However, inevitably, the death of Canute would re-open the dynastic questions that the complex web of marriages and second marriages had created – and the North Sea Empire would founder on the rocks of these questions, with the Kingdoms of England, Norway and Denmark heading their separate ways. It is this period that is covered by the Encomium Emmae Regis, known in English as the ‘Encomium of Queen Emma’. It is a fascinating document: an unashamedly propagandistic telling of the dynastic disputes of King Canute’s reign and its immediate aftermath, given in the form of an encomium to Queen Emma – a Classical form of literature that aims to praise the life of an individual. The document was completed in about 1041 CE, and is a strong attempt to justify Emma’s actions during this period, and to lay the groundwork for the accession of her children by King Ethelred to the throne of England. So, where possible, I will point out the partisan nature of the sources in our understanding of this period, and the duel between Ælfgifu and Emma that it represents.

The House of Cards Falls

Thus, we shall witness the dynastic disintegration of Canute’s Empire. By the time of Canute’s death in 1035 CE, both Edward and Alfred (Emma of Normandy’s sons by King Ethelred) had grown up as healthy young men in Normandy. Svein (Ælfgifu and Canute’s eldest son) had just been evicted from his regency in Norway, due to the mismanagement of the Kingdom, and so had sought refuge with Harthacnut (Emma of Normandy and Canute’s eldest son) who was ruling as regent in Denmark. Harold Harefoot, Ælfgifu and Canute’s second son, was in England. Judging by the available sources, it seems that Harthacnut was widely seen as the legitimate successor to all three of King Canute’s crowns – but he was unable to travel to England. The mismanagement of Svein and Ælfgifu in Norway and their eviction threatened to spill over into Denmark, and Harthacnut had both hands full dealing with affairs. Svein died shortly after his arrival in Denmark, and though there is no suggestion of foul play made by contemporaries, there was clearly debate as to whether Svein had formally named his half-brother Harthacnut as his successor. Now, as the only one of the five half-brothers resident in England and the eldest still living, Harold Harefoot pressed to have himself crowned King.

Harold Harefoot, eldest surviving son of King Canute and Ælfgifu of Northampton, as depicted in the 13th century Life of Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris. (via Wikimedia Commons)

But it was apparently not that simple for Harold Harefoot. The Encomium Emmae Regis, which is heavily biased against Ælfgifu’s children, states that he was rebuffed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, despite threats and offers of bribery. But the Anglo-Saxon nobility were anxious about a potential slide into anarchy and civil war, and it seems that any regent was better than no King at all. It appears that Harold was accepted by the Anglo-Saxon Witan – although a contemporary letter written by a German priest seems to indicate that Ælfgifu had a heavy hand in securing this agreement through bribery and oaths of loyalty. We are not even quite sure whether Harold Harefoot was even considered a full King, since some sources name him only as regent for his absent brother. Clearly, this confusion was all the opening that Emma of Normandy needed: with the support of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, she refused to accept Harold Harefoot as King – and in practise, a de facto partition of the Kingdom along the old Danelaw lines seems to have taken place: Harold and Ælfgifu ruling the North, and Emma and Godwin ruling the South and West in the name of the absent Harthacnut.

A Desperate Gambit

Into this unstable situation, Emma of Normandy’s two sons by King Ethelred decided to make their return to England, accompanied by a small military force. Again, this event is confused and unclear. The Encomium Emmae Regis states that Edward and Alfred were lured to England by King-regent Harold Harefoot with a forged letter purporting to be from Emma herself, bewailing them for help against Harold. Other sources give the arguably more convincing explanation that they were invited there by Emma to use as a counterweight against Harold directly. However, this gambit would fail. Whilst travelling to visit his mother, likely for the first time in more than a decade, Alfred was seized by men under the command of Earl Godwin, and was delivered in chains to Harold Harefoot. It seems that Earl Godwin had been looking for a way of ingratiating himself with Harold’s camp, showing that the mood of the Anglo-Danish nobility has swung decisively behind Harold – and so he turned on Emma with absolute cynicism.

A later Medieval illustration of King Edward the Confessor accusing Earl Godwin of his brother’s murder. Edward apparently never forgave Godwin for his role in Alfred’s death, and in 1053 CE, he publically accused Godwin of the murder at a feast. According to tradition, Godwin bridled at the accusation and said that if he was guilty, then may his next mouthful of bread choke him to death. He subsequently ate the bread, and it stuck in his throat and he died. (via National Archives)

Bearing no scruples or love for his dynastic rival, Harold had Alfred blinded with a hot poker in order to render him illegitimate for succession. The young man would die from his wounds soon after. Upon the murder of his brother, and without enough support to mount a serious rebellion for the throne, Edward fled England into exile again. By 1037 CE, it was clear that Harold had secured the support of the overwhelming majority of nobles in the Kingdom, and with no prospect of affairs in Denmark stabilizing enough to permit Harthacnut to come to England. Outplayed at the game of thrones, and stricken with grief at the murder of Alfred, Emma was forced to flee her long-time home at Winchester, for the County of Flanders.

The Fruits of Patience

However, Emma’s patient vying for the throne, which had begun two decades ago, was not over. Whilst resident in Bruges, Emma summoned Edward in an attempt to create an alliance between her two children – albeit by different Kings. Her other surviving son Harthacnut had by now largely secured peace in Scandinavia – but at significant cost. He had signed a tontine pact with King Magnus the Good of Norway: that whichever of them survived the other would inherit the other’s Kingdom. This did mean, however, that he was now free to pursue his claim to the throne of England, and so he was preparing an invasion. But Emma of Normandy could not persuade Alfred refused to participate. Sources actually say that Edward disavowed any interest in the throne of England, even for the sake of revenge for his brother. (It is in this period that Emma of Normandy commissioned the Encomium Emmae Regis). Despite only being a young man, Harold Harefoot suddenly died in 1040 CE – and the Anglo-Saxon Witan invited Harthacnut to take the throne unopposed. Setting sail with his mother Emma of Normandy, but without the support of his half-brother Edward, Harthacnut would be crowned King of England in June of that year.

The meeting of Harthacnut (left) and King Magnus the Good of Norway at the Göta älv, at which they agreed whichever survived the other would inherit the thrones of Denmark and Norway. Within a handful of years, Magnus would inherit. 19th century engraving by Halfan Egedius (via Wikimedia Commons)

With the accession of Harthacnut, one of Emma of Normandy’s children finally sat upon the throne of England. Historians assess Harthacnut as a highly successful ruler, having much the same character as his father King Canute: a fierce warrior, but also a sharp intellect capable of melding diplomacy and violence. Emma demanded vengeance for the death of Alfred, and Hathacnut had the former King’s body exhumed and publically beheaded, dumping it in the River Thames – but we can imagine that this was only but little satisfaction for Emma. But tragically, Harthacnut’s rule would be brief. The Encomium Emmae Regis states unequivocally that Harthacnut, knowing his death might be soon, summoned his surviving half-brother Edward in 1041 CE, and crowned him as his co-King. There is some hint of this in other sources – but perhaps this is Emma’s propaganda machine emphasizing what makes her children’s claims as cast-iron as possible. Regardless, Edward appears to have been acclaimed unanimously by the Witan as Harthacnut’s successor whilst he still lived – and the rocky relationship between the two brothers ended with Harthacnut’s death in 1042 CE. With the young sudden King’s death, the thrones of Denmark and Norway passed on to King Magnus the Good, as per their tontine peace agreement – thus, King Canute’s North Sea Empire broke up for good.

Whilst the sources describe Harthacnut’s death as sudden – one source has him dying of a terrible seizure after overindulging at a feast – one cannot wonder if the European aristocracy in this period was becoming dangerously inbred, with such a closely tangled web of genetic relationships. Although we have seen a tumultuous and violent period, both King Ethelred and King Canute died before they were 50 with little explanation given in surviving texts, as did several of their children: indeed, Svein, Harold and Harthacnut were apparently young and otherwise healthy men when they died. Perhaps we can chalk this up to the vagaries of Medieval illnesses and poor medical knowledge – but regardless, kingship in the early 11th century was highly hazardous to your health.

A Well-Earned Rest

Thus, with Edward’s coronation in 1042 CE, it seems that Emma’s days of politicking were over. By her mid-60s, she had witnessed the deaths of two of her sons – Alfred and Harthacnut – and the death of her daughter Gunhilda in 1038 CE. Though it is easy to see these events as mere historical footnotes, these must have been devastating for Emma, as is shown by her cold fury taken out upon the body of Harold Harefoot. A strange postscript for Emma exists after the coronation of her son Edward as King – in 1043 CE, the King rode to Emma’s restored estates at Winchester with the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria, as well as her old frenemy Godwin of Wessex. There, the King stripped her of her lands and titles, declaring according to one source that she had failed to press his claims effectively enough. This is hard to square with the life of a woman who appears to have been uncompromisingly dedicated to securing the throne for her children – but perhaps Edward is referring to the many years in which Emma was absent from her elder children’s lives, after their fostering at the Norman court, enforced by King Canute. Or maybe, Emma had indeed failed to prosecute Edward’s claim as strongly as she might – perhaps she perceived the character flaws that Edward seems to have. As late as 1040 CE, Edward appears to have been actively disavowing any interest in the throne of England – which we can hardly blame him for, after the grisly deaths of his elder brothers. Where many of Emma of Normandy’s sons were clearly immensely capable rulers, particularly Harthacnut, Edward displayed significant weakness as King: he would fail to contain the rising power of the Godwins, and would permit England to slide into chaos at the end of his rule. We can only guess as to whether Emma foresaw these flaws, and favoured her other sons before him. Nevertheless, after some time the King cooled off, and restored her to favour. She lived out her final years in a period of relative peace at last. She would have some satisfaction at least, that Earl Godwin, who she and Edward held responsible for the murder of Alfred, would eventually be exiled from Edward’s court – and though he would outlive Emma, it was only so by a year.

The mortuary chest in the New Minster, Winchester, which claims to contain the bones of Emma of Normandy and King Canute. Her remains were transferred from the Old Minster to the New Minster after its construction by William the Conqueror. Many of the caskets were broken open and the remains scattered across the floor during the English Civil War, but they were subsequently re-interred. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Emma of Normandy died in 1052 CE, during the reign of her son Edward the Confessor, and she was buried alongside her husband and lifelong love King Canute, and their son Harthacnut, in the Old Minster at Winchester. She was in her late 60s, and she had fought almost ceaselessly for her sons’ position in the succession of England for almost four decades. And she had won. Through her, William ‘the Bastard’ of Normandy would claim a tenuous dynastic link to his first-cousin-once-removed King Edward the Confessor in the tumult of 1066 CE – but Emma is so much more than a passive dynastic figure. From a Norman trophy wife, to a landholder, rebel and kingmaker, Emma of Normandy is a fascinating Medieval queen, who should be far more well-recognised than she is. Historians have noted that she is one of the first Medieval queens to be depicted in contemporary art, due in no small part to her Encomium – a vital source, and a cynical piece of propaganda, all in one.


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.