March 4, 2013, by Christina Lee

The Jewel in the Crown

The recent public outcry about Hilary Mantel’s observations regarding the Duchess of Cambridge remind me that it is often Queens, not Kings that fire our imagination.[1] One of these women whose story needs telling again is that of Emma/ Ælfgifu, a woman with quirks, oddities and a lot of character. Unfortunately Mantel has not yet discovered Emma, but there is a very good version of her story in Helen Hollick’s  A Hollow Crown. Emma, daughter of a Norman duke and Danish mother, lived at key moment of history. Her story weaves together the final unification of England, and that of a united England’s emergence as a European power. Emma was not only a woman with ‘messy deviations’, but one who knew a thing or two about controversy. She knew about the importance of public opinion and made sure that her story was heard: apparently unusually for a medieval woman, Emma commissioned  the Encomium Emmae Regina about herself.

Born in the last decades of the first millennium, she came to England in 1002 to marry the English king Æthelræd, a man who would be remembered by history as clueless (Old English unræd ‘ no counsel’ which is a pun on his name which literally means ‘noble counsel’).  Fourteen years, two sons and several Viking wars later, she emerges as a widow into the political turmoil of a divided kingdom. The north, traditionally Scandinavian-friendly had decided for Knut (Canute), a young Danish king, whereas the south was reigned by Emma’s stepson Edmund Ironside. Edmund died shortly afterwards, leaving Knut the sole king and with it begun Emma’s long ascent to power. She had sent her sons by Æthelræd into exile in 1016 and became Knut’s wife in 1017.  We can only guess what motivated her decision to marry her first husband’s enemy, but such shifting alliances are not so unusual in medieval contexts. For example, Olaf Cuarán, sometime Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin was married to Gormflaith, who would later be married to Brian Ború, a man renowned for leading a battle against the Viking rulers of Dublin. Knut, however, was already committed to a noblewoman from Northampton, Ælfgifu with whom he had two sons.  There is still a dispute if Ælfgifu was ever ‘properly’ married to Knut, but by 1029 she ruled Norway for him with her eldest son Svein. What is clear is that she still had some hold over the King, since Ælfgifu and her rival Emma – also confusingly being given the same name – would be locked in a long battle for power over the following 33 years.

So, did Emma marry her King willingly?  In a time where political alliances were often made through the marriage bed, this may be a pointless question. Anglo-Saxon sources narrate that she was ‘fetched’ by the Knut, but  her Encomium  describes that the King, looking for the best of brides to share his rule, found no better woman than Emma, whom he wooed successfully. The lady, we are told, only agreed to get married after Knut promised to favour her offspring in the succession. Emma was certainly ruthless in fostering her own interests. Her influence in Knut’s court grew quickly, for she soon appears as a witness in Knut’s donations second only to the King and later is joint donor.  And it appears that she was valued by the King. England under Knut was part of a union with Norway and Denmark, and by the time of his death he had not just been acknowledged by other European rulers, but also by the Pope. Not a bad career for a son of an invading prince. When Knut died in 1035, the twice-widowed and politically skilful queen was not ready to retire. Instead she became locked in a bitter fight with her rival Ælfgifu of Northampton over the supremacy of their sons. The relationship with her sons by her first marriage cannot have been easy after the years they spent in exile; however she appears to have tried a reconciliation after Knut’s death to foster her position as dowager queen and she also tried to regain power through her son Harthacnut.  The question of whether Emma was a good or bad mother does not arise for the medieval chroniclers – that she was a mother was important for her, though. Dowager queens could wield immense influence over their sons and in many ways being widowed could bring advantages with it. Emma died in 1052 and was buried next to Knut in Winchester.  Through her, her great-nephew William (the Conqueror) laid claim to the English throne.[2]

Much of Emma’s life will always be conjecture, unlike her modern counterparts. If Emma had wielded  a hockey stick, I doubt it would have been to  run down a field in high heels for the waiting paparazzi. I like to think she would have used it rather well and differently to make her position clear.


[1] ‘Royal Bodies from Kate Middleton to Anne Boleyn’, London Review of Books 34:4 (2013), 3-7.

[2] An unrivaled source for anybody who wants to know more about Emma is Pauline Stafford, Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England (Blackwell: 1997).

Posted in Viking