Emma of Normandy (c. 985–1052)

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Emma of Normandy (c. 985–1052)

Norman queen who married two English kings, gave birth to two English kings, and remained firmly in the center of the diplomatic and martial activities that rocked the Anglo-Saxon state. Name variations: Imme or Imma; Aelfgifu, Ælfgifu, or Elfgifu; Ælfgifu-Emma; Lady of Winchester. Born around 985 in Normandy; died on March 6, 1052, in Winchester, Hampshire, England; buried at Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire; daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy and Gunnor of Denmark (d. 1031); married Aethelred or Ethelred II the Unready, king of England (r. 979–1016), in 1002 (died 1016); married Cnut or Canute I the Great, king of England (r. 1016–1035), Denmark (r. 1019–1035), Norway (r. 1028–1035), in1017 (died 1035); children: (first marriage) Edward III the Confessor (c. 1005–1066), king of the English (r. 1042–1066); Alfred (d. 1037); Godgifu (c. 1010–c. 1049); (second marriage) Harthacanute also spelled Hardacnut or Hardicanute (c. 1020–1042), king of Denmark (r. 1039–1042); Gunhild (c. 1020–1038).

Lived in Normandy (1013–17); was in exile in Bruges (1037–40); returned with son Hardicanute to England, where Hardicanute was crowned king (1040); following death of Hardicanute and accession of Edward (1042), deprived of properties and wealth by her son Edward (1043).

Gaul, I say, rejoiced to have brought forth so great a lady, and one worthy of so great a King, the country of the English indeed rejoiced to have received such a one into its towns.

Encomium Emmae Reginae, c. 1041

The events of 1066 in England attract the attention of professional and amateur historians to such an extent that the preceding decades are often deemed as inevitable stepping stones to William the Conqueror's great invasion. This view minimizes the significance of the life-or-death decisions that England's rulers faced at every juncture in the first half of the tumultuous 11th century. One woman's career as wife and mother of England's kings illustrates not only the competing powers that made the Anglo-Saxon kingdom fall, but displays the human consequences of policies that did not always attain their intended goals. Emma of Normandy—great-aunt of William the Conqueror—married King Ethelred the Unready of England in 1002, and until her death 50 years later, she remained firmly in the center of the diplomatic and martial activities that rocked the Anglo-Saxon state. Ethelred's choice of Emma as wife was intended to stabilize his kingdom against the terrible violence the Vikings were inflicting on England, but in the long run, the marriage provided an opportunity for the rising Norman power to acquire new territory in the north.

The Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and Scandinavian peoples shared similar interests and outlooks by the late 10th century. Indeed, the Normans themselves were the products of early 10th-century Viking raids in northern France: Rolf (Rollo) was a Viking leader who was granted the territory later known as Normandy by the weak French king Charles III the Simple in 911. During this time, there were also extensive contacts between other Viking bands with Anglo-Saxon England; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports attacks beginning in 793, and the intensity of the raids accelerated dramatically throughout the 9th and 10th centuries. By Ethelred's time (979–1016), Vikings wintered in Norman ports to facilitate their harrying campaigns in England, demonstrating both the amiable relations that arose from their common ancestry, and the good business sense of the Normans. Many Danish Vikings established permanent settlements in England, particularly in the north. Thus, these three northern peoples traded, raided, and occupied each others' territories with great regularity prior to the 11th century.

Religion divided the Scandinavians from their Norman cousins and the Anglo-Saxons, for Christianity had been introduced to England centuries earlier, and the Normans themselves accepted the religion of the area they won from Charles in the early 10th century. But the Vikings retained their pagan outlook until the late 10th century, when with the assistance of kings like Ethelred, they discerned that the new religion was both inevitable and practical if they wished to consolidate their states and enter into relations with the rest of Europe. Although German bishops played a large role in the conversion of the Scandinavians, it is clear that English kings such as Ethelstan and Ethelred also acted as catalysts for Christianity's acceptance, especially since it afforded the English monarchs opportunities to establish spiritual kinship ties with aggressive and dangerous Viking leaders. Ethelred, for example, served as the Norwegian Olaf Tryggvason's confirmation sponsor.

Emma, daughter of Richard I of Normandy and great granddaughter of Rolf, the original duke, lived in all three worlds—Norman, English, and Scandinavian—by virtue of her marital and maternal exploits. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives the significant events of Emma's career in its characteristically brief fashion, although its main attraction as a source is the political backdrop it provides for Emma's period. Many 11th-century chroniclers, such as William of Poitiers, William of Jumièges, and William of Malmesbury, and the 12th-century Florence of Worcester, add further details concerning Emma, although all of these chroniclers demonstrate clear biases in their points of view. Emma is also represented in Old Norse historical writing, because her position as the wife of King Canute I of Norway, Denmark and England (r. 1016–1035), as well as her role as mother of Hardicanute (r. 1040–1042), had intrinsic interest for Scandinavian authors.

Perhaps the most interesting source for Emma's role as English queen is one that she solicited from a northern French cleric: the Encomium Emmae Reginae. This work, written when Emma was queen mother to her son Hardicanute, portrays Emma in an extremely favorable light and so must be treated cautiously. As one recent biographer of Emma warns:

[T]he encomiast used omission and ambiguous wording when he wanted to conceal the truth: for example, when he had to portray a favorable evaluation of Emma in instances which did not lend themselves to such an impression of her.

Still, the Encomium sheds valuable light on a particularly successful period in Emma's life when she was twice-widowed but exerted enormous influence on her sons Hardicanute and Ed-ward.

Of the many sources that record Emma's activities, none are concerned with her childhood years prior to her marriage to Ethelred in 1002. We cannot be certain even of her birth year, although most scholars believe that she was relatively young when she arrived in England to marry Ethelred. Her parents, Duke Richard I of Normandy (ruled 943–996) and Gunnor of Denmark , had many children both before and after their marriage. Emma and her brother, Richard II, who succeeded Richard I in 996, were most likely born after their parents' wedding.

Prior to Ethelred's marriage to Emma, English kings typically married English women. This suggests that the betrothal had some diplomatic significance, and it is likely that the union was an attempt to reinforce friendly Norman-English relations initiated in a treaty between Richard I and Ethelred in 991. Further, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records many serious Viking attacks on England in the 990s, and Ethelred's wedding in 1002, with the sister of the powerful duke of Normandy, may have been an attempt to further induce the Normans to close their ports to raiders.

Emma was Ethelred's second wife. He had been married earlier to Elfgifu (c. 963–1002), daughter of earl Ethelbert, and they had at least ten children together. Since all of their sons were viewed by contemporaries as legitimate potential successors to Ethelred, Elfgifu must have died some time prior to 1002; the legitimacy of the children indicates that there was likely a formal marriage (as opposed to concubinage) between Elfgifu and Ethelred.

Soon after her wedding in the spring of 1002, Emma adopted the name "Elfgifu" as her official name; this was used when she witnessed royal documents, although she retained "Emma" or "Imme" in her private life. The main reason for her name change was that Emma's foreign Norman name did not lend itself to the mnemonic device employed by the kings of Ethelred's line to assist the memorization of royal names. Some chronicles use both "Elfgifu" and "Emma" in referring to Ethelred's wife.

Very early in her marriage to Ethelred, Emma was given the title of queen. The title's significance was that it was one indicator of status—and therefore influence—that a queen-mother could use to position her own offspring more advantageously in the line of succession. The custom in which the eldest son inherits the throne (primogeniture) was not yet in practice, so all legitimate sons had a claim to the throne in the early 11th century. Her title of queen would help Emma secure favorable positions for any offspring she might have. Indeed, by 1005 her childbearing career began with the birth of Edward the Confessor. Two other children followed, Alfred and a daughter, Godgifu .

Elfgifu (c. 963–1002)

Queen of the English. Name variations: Aelfgifu or Ælfgifu; Elfled, Elfreda, Elgifu. Born around 963; died in February 1002, in Winchester, England; daughter of Thored, sometimes referred to as Ethelbert, and Hilda; became first wife of Aethelred or Ethelred II the Unready (c. 968–1016), king of the English (r. 979–1013, deposed, 1014–1016), in 985; children: Athelstan or Ethelstan the Atheling (d. 1015); Egbert (d. around 1005); Edmund II Ironside (c. 989–1016), king of the English (r. 1016); Edred (d. around 1012); Eadwig (or Edwy, d. in 1017); Edgar (d. around 1012); Edith (who m. Edric Streona and Thurkil the Tall); Elfgifu (c. 997–?, who m. Uchtred, earl of Northumberland); Wulfhild (who m. Ulfcytel), and two others. Ethelred II's second wife was Emma of Normandy (c. 985–1052).

Both medieval and modern writers have suggested that Emma did not love Ethelred and her children by him. For example, the Worcester version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle notes for the year of Edward's accession:

[T]he king was advised to ride from Gloucester, and [with] earl Leofric and earl Godwine and earl Siward and their band came to Winchester and took the Lady unawares, and deprived her of all the treasures which she possessed which were innumerable, because she had been too strict with the King, her son, in that she had done less for him than he wished, both before his accession and afterwards.

However, there is no clear evidence of Emma's private feelings—or lack of them—for her first family; indeed, Ethelred's bestowal of towns, goods, and estates on her throughout their marriage indicate that the union contained some affection. For example, Emma was given Winchester and Exeter, as well as other properties, up to the end of Ethelred's reign.

The Viking threat to Anglo-Saxon England intensified in the time after 1002. By 1013, the situation was so dangerous that Emma fled to her brother's court in Normandy, and Ethelred sent their children soon after to join her. Although none of the sources detail her activities during the period 1013–1017, she perhaps strove to use her position as Duke Richard II's sister to enlist assistance for her husband and sons. However, the powerful forces of the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and, after the latter's death in 1013, his son Canute, resulted in a dangerously chaotic atmosphere in England. From 1014 to 1016, Ethelred and Edmund II Ironside, a son by his first marriage, disagreed as to what actions should be taken against Canute's Danes. When Ethelred died on April 23, 1016, his oldest surviving son Edmund Ironside came to the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that Edmund reached an agreement with Canute that divided England between them. However, by late 1016, Edmund died, and shortly after, in 1017, Canute was proclaimed king of England.

Emma faced a predicament: her son Edward was far too young to mount an effective campaign against the Danish king of England, and she herself was still in Normandy. Canute's proposal of marriage in the summer of 1017, then, must have seemed not at all preposterous to the widowed queen mother: rather than viewing Canute as her late husband's mortal enemy, she saw him as a vehicle to re-establish her own position as the leading lady of England. Presumably, she could either create a new dynasty with her new husband, or remain in a position to press the claims of her sons by Ethelred. Several contemporary views of her marriage to Canute are provided by the various chroniclers. The Encomium puts a favorable face on the marriage:

In view of her distinguished qualities … she was much desired by the king, and especially because she derived her origin from a victorious people, who had appropriated for themselves part of Gaul, in despite of the French and their prince.

Although the encomiast does not dwell on the more practical aspects of such a proposal, it is important to consider that Canute must have been well aware that Emma's sons by Ethelred, Edward and Albert, were potential recipients of assistance from their powerful Norman uncle, Richard II; by marrying the boys' mother, Canute might expect Richard II to withhold such support from his nephews.

Before Emma agreed to marry Canute, however, she insisted on a mutual agreement that their children by previous unions would be set aside in the line of succession in favor of any offspring they might have together. The Encomium relates that:

[S]he refused ever to become the bride of Knútr, unless he would affirm to her by oath, that he would never set up the son of any wife other than herself to rule after him, if it happened that God should give her a son by him. For she had information that the king had had sons by some other woman; so she, wisely providing for her offspring, knew in her wisdom how to make arrangements in advance, which were to be to their advantage.

The "other woman" who had borne sons to Canute was Elfgifu of Northampton (c. 1000–c. 1040), an English woman who apparently was Canute's concubine rather than wife. Despite the questionable legitimacy of Elfgifu's sons Sweyn and Harald Harefoot, Canute seems to have considered them credible candidates for the throne, even though he agreed to Emma's stipulation that their own children should have precedence.

Emma and Canute were married in July or August of 1017, and within a few years their son Hardicanute was born. The Encomium records that they sent away their other children (from their previous unions), "while keeping this one with themselves, inasmuch as he was to be the heir to the kingdom." They had another child, a daughter named Gunhild , who married the German emperor Henry III in 1036.

By examining the position of Emma's name on official documents, it is possible to speculate on the degree of her influence. For example, the most recent editor of the Encomium suggests that the low placement of her name on royal documents early in her marriage to Canute signifies her initial uninfluential status at the court, but the more prominent position of her signature after 1020 reflects her enhanced standing as the mother of Hardicanute, the new heir. Emma's position as queen and queen-mother also allowed her to make many charitable donations to churches throughout England during her second husband's reign.

When Canute unexpectedly died in 1035, Emma faced an extremely challenging situation. Her sons with Ethelred, Edward and Albert, had remained in Normandy since 1017; all of her ambitions for the throne of England were centered on her son with Canute, Hardicanute. Despite his young age, Hardicanute was ruling in Denmark at the time of his father's death. His half-brother, Harald Harefoot, was the only one of Canute's three sons who was present in England at the time of his father's death, since Elfgifu of Northampton had accompanied her elder son Sweyn to Norway, where he was trying to maintain order. Emma immediately claimed England for Hardicanute, but her claim was ineffectual without the actual presence of her son. Hardicanute faced political difficulties in Denmark: he needed to remain there to prevent a Norwegian attack, for the Norwegians under their king Magnus had expelled Elfgifu and Sweyn, and these two took refuge with Hardicanute late in 1035. When Sweyn died at Hardicanute's court shortly thereafter, the field of competition for Canute's kingdoms narrowed: Elfgifu of Northampton's son Harald Harefoot considered himself his father's heir in England; and Hardicanute, unable to join his mother, was forced to rely on Emma's on-the-spot efforts on his behalf.

The Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the English nobles acted quickly to secure stable government in England after Canute's death, and notes that factions soon developed around the two royal candidates. The northern English supported Harald Harefoot as regent for himself and his half-brother, but:

Godwine and all the most prominent men in Wessex remained in opposition as long as ever they could, but they could put no obstacle in the way. Then it was decided that [Emma], Harthacnut's mother, should reside in Winchester with the housecarles of the king her son, and hold all Wessex in trust for him, and earl Godwine was her most trusted supporter.

The powerful earl Godwine (father of Harald Godwineson, the English king who was defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066) proved to be a treacherous ally to Emma, for the following year, as Harald Harefoot's power steadily grew, Godwine switched his allegiance. Emma in 1036 appealed to her sons in Normandy to come to her assistance. Alfred arrived in England to join his mother in Winchester, but Godwine captured and blinded the young prince, and Alfred died of his injuries soon afterward. Godwine's betrayal reflects the increasing strength of Harald Harefoot; the latter was the beneficiary of his half-brother Hardicanute's preoccupation with Danish affairs.

When in 1037 the English recognized Harald Harefoot as their king, Emma was driven out of the country and sought refuge in Flanders with her relative, Count Baldwin V. Her exile in Bruges lasted from the late autumn of 1037 until 1040. During this time, according to the Encomium, Emma contacted her son Edward in Normandy and invited him to join her at Baldwin V's court. When she suggested that he take action in England, "the son declared that he pitied his mother's misfortunes, but that he was in no way able to help, since the English nobles had sworn no oath to him." The implication was that only Hardicanute had the potential support to unseat Harald Harefoot. By 1039, Hardicanute was able to join Emma in Flanders, and the two planned an invasion of England. But Harald Harefoot's death in March of 1040 eliminated the need for an invasion, and in June of 1040 Hardicanute and Emma landed at Sandwich. Emma and Canute's son was at last recognized as king of England.

The Encomium, written during Hardicanute's brief reign of 1040–1042, holds that after his accession to the throne, he sent for his half-brother Edward to join him in ruling England; the encomiast ends his work with the optimistic observation that:

the mother and both sons, having no disagreement between them, enjoy the ready amenities of the kingdom. Here there is loyalty among sharers of rule, here the bond of motherly and brotherly love is of strength indestructible.

The briefness of Hardicanute's reign did not allow for fraternal rivalry; in June of 1042, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Hardicanute died "as he stood at his drink."

Thus, Emma's son with Ethelred, Edward the Confessor, was chosen king in 1042. Emma's status as queen-mother took a dramatic turn for the worse: months after his coronation in 1043, Edward deprived his mother of her properties and wealth. Although the sources do not clearly specify the reason for Edward's action against his mother, two versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle hold that the despoliation occurred "because she had been too tight-fisted with him." In addition, Edward may have resented Emma's previous actions favoring Hardicanute over his and Alfred's interests resulting from Emma's 1017 marital agreement with Canute.

However, Emma and Edward were reconciled shortly afterward, for in 1044 and 1045 she witnessed royal documents. But in 1045, when Edward married Edith (c. 1025–1075), Godwine's daughter—the same Godwine who had been responsible for the blinding and death of Emma's son Alfred—Emma's influence over Edward ended. Her name does not appear on any other royal documents, and she lived quietly at Winchester until her death on March 6, 1052.

It is rather ironic that Emma, who worked so hard throughout her life to exert her royal influence through her husbands and sons, produced sons who were dynastic dead-ends: Alfred and Hardicanute were unmarried and fairly young when they died, and Edward, who ruled until his death in January of 1066, remained childless despite his marriage to Edith. Emma's 50-year career as queen and queen-mother produced, in the long run, a Norman conqueror on the throne.


Campbell, Alistair, ed. Encomium Emmae Reginae. London: Offices of the Royal Historical Society, 1949.

Garmonsway, G.N., trans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. NY: Dutton, 1965.

suggested reading:

Andersson, Theodore M. "The Viking Policy of Ethelred the Unready," in Anglo-Scandinavian England: Norse-English Relations in the Period Before the Conquest. Edited by John D. Niles and Mark Amodio. NY: University Press of America, 1989, pp. 1–11.

Barlow, Frank. Edward the Confessor. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1970.

Blair, Peter Hunter. An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Brown, R. Allen. The Normans and the Norman Conquest. 2nd ed. NY: The Boydell Press, 1969.

Campbell, Miles W. "Queen Emma and Ælfgifu of Northampton: Canute the Great's Women," in Medieval Scandinavia. Vol. 4, 1971, pp. 66–79.

Jones, Gwyn. A History of the Vikings. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Larson, Laurence M. Canute the Great and the Rise of Danish Imperialism during the Viking Age. NY: Putnam, 1912 (rep. ed. NY: AMS Press, 1970).

Stribling, Susan Teresa. An Evaluation of Emma, Lady of England (1002–1052). MA thesis, American University, 1983.

Cathy Jorgensen Itnyre , Professor of History, Copper Mountain College (College of the Desert), Joshua Tree, California