|Title||Who Was Emma of Normandy? - Intriguing History|
|Emma de Normandie|
|Emma of Normandy, twice Queen of England.
Emma of Normandy was yet another of those intriguing Medieval women of whom there is only a small account in the modern chronicles of history but whose presence and actions spawned a new period of English history.
Queen Emma was born in about 990 AD and reigned at the end of a period now known as the Early Medieval or the Dark Ages but Emma’s life was anything but dark. She was born into a whirlpool of different cultures and aspirations. Her life is a tale of intrigue, politics, power, sex, love, female authority and male dominance.
So who was Emma of Normandy?
Emma was the daughter of Richard I of Normandy, her mother was a Dane called Gunnor. Normandy had been founded by her great grandfather, a Viking called Rollo. Emma was therefore a Norman but also a Viking and her early years were spent living apart fromher closest family, such was the lot of aristocratic children of that time. In 1002, when she was about twelve years old she sailed from France to England. She was going to marry King Aethelred II (Ethelred) of England. This young woman sailed to a foreign land to marry a king who was at least twenty years older than her. King Aethelred was physically and mentally stretched to breaking point, by the Viking raids upon his lands. He was much older than her and had already fathered ten children. How would this foreign child/ woman cope in such circumstances? This was a powerful alliance for the house of Normandy and it had fallen tothe young Emma to bear an English Norman child and gain whatever she could for the house of Normandy.
Why would King Aethelred marry Emma?
Although Emma was Norman and thus Viking, King Aethelred wanted to prevent the Normans from joining forces with the Vikings, to totally squash the Anglo Saxon kingdoms. It would have been a possible last desperate move on the part of the Anglo Saxon king.The Normans were busy trading and offering safe harbour to their kin, the Vikings. Emma was meant, in part, to be the peacemaker. Her legacy is however not one of mild peaceable virtues, far from it, if anything, her presence sets in motion more aggresive Viking raids than before.
King Aethelred met his young bride to be and escorted her to Canterbury, where they were married and she was consecrated Queen. The kingdom over which she was set to rule, was, once again, under heavy Viking attack. Following the victory of King Alfred the Great and the dominance of Wessex, the Viking raids had abated but a resurgence of these raids was disrupting the life of the population. Instead of growing food they were growing armies and defences, their settled existence was under threat.
Emma and the court
Aethelred had a large court of maybe a hundred or so people. This court travelled throughout the kingdom, escorting the king as he moved from royal estate to royal estate. It was a tightly knit band and Emma and her small Norman entourage, speaking littleof the old English tongue, would have had to be very determined and resolute to be accepted into the royal fold. Aethelred and Emma had a Christian marriage, fully legitimate. Aethelred desperately needed to prove to his people that he could overcome theViking threat. He had the reputation of being a weak ruler, earning himself the nickname of Aethelred the Unraed (meaning of bad counsel) and this became, ‘Aethelred the Unready’. Emma herself was given a new English name, she was to be known as ‘Aelfgifu’ after the kings late grandmother. (There are several Aelfgifu’s in this tale, so we will continue to use her Norman name of Emma throughout).
The role of women in this early Medieval period is perplexing. They seem to have, if not absolute power, then the respect of those around them and would seem to a certain degree, to be included in court business, in an affirmative or supporting role. Emma’s name appears as a witness to several documents, her presence was deemed important, although she may well have had little understanding of what was written in the documents in those early years.
The massacre of the Danes
Hundreds of years of Viking raids meant that a substantial number of the English population were Danes. They married Anglo Saxons and were part of the fabric of society. Not long after his marriage to Emma and possibly buoyed up her presence, Aethelred announced a massacre of the Danes living on English soil. Thus on St Brices day, the 13th November 1002, Danes living as English men and women, were murdered. The Viking response, when it came, was brutal and Emma herself was caught in the middle of it all. Swein Forkbeard, well known to Emma, inflicted a harrowing destruction of Exeter. The Normans were suspected of giving harbour to the raiders and hence Emma, was held some way responsible. However Exeter was the Queens property and so by extension one could assume the raid was meant to point at her collaboration with the English. Emma and her reputation among the English, was to be pulled this way and that by the event.
Emma and her step children
Emma had six step sons and four step daughters, she was no older than Aethelred’s eldest sons. How would they have reacted to Emma and what they quite possibly considered an interloper, a threat to their dynasty? It cannot have been an easy role for Emma to play. She bore her first child, a son named Edward, at Islip near Oxford. This child though, still came lower in the order of succession than his step siblings. She produced two more children with Aethelred, a daughter Godgifu and another son Alfred.
The king continued to mismanage those around him. He alienated and had killed, Aelfhelm, an ealdorman of Northumbria and then on his order had his sons blinded also. The family of these men retaliated in a clever way, they married Aelfhelm’s daughter Aelfgifu to Swein Forkbeard’s (the Dane) son. This marriage would become a problem for Emma going forward. The Vikings then set about preparing for the most concerted and massive attack on England and by the end of 1009, all men were called upon to defend theland. Despite their efforts, by 1011 the Vikings had overrun much of southern Britain.
Still, Aethelred and Emma continued to hold court and the King granted Emma a small plot of land in Winchester. She built a house upon it, ‘Godbegot’, a house free of taxation and therefore a good source of income for Emma. The troubles of the King and Queen seemed never ending as Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut arrived in the north of the country and the northern ealdormen submitted to him. Emma persuaded the king to move the court from Kent and place her children in safety. As Swein swept south they moved the court to loyal London. Emma sensed the end (or knew) was near and demanded to be put under the protection of her brother Richard, in Normandy. She escaped and then sent for her children to follow. Aethelred fled to the Isle of Wight. Emma was deeply humiliated by her situation. Her mother still carried great authority in Normandy, her sister likewise in Belgium and her brother has been forming alliances with the very men who had placed her in this situation. She was the wife of a failed king. Swein and his sons Harold and Cnut, pushed aside the Aglo Saxon dynasty and became the first Viking rulers of England.
In 1014 Swein died and Aethelred returned to salvage what he could in a country ravaged and whose society was in complete disarray. In 1016 King Aethelred died.
Emma the widow
However much Emma disliked her husband, his death placed Emma in a very precarious position. Who would she turn to? Her remaining step children? However much she might have desired it, her own children were not going to claim the crown. Aethelred’s son Edmund Ironside was sure of the succession. Her only hope was to keep close to his side and try to keep control of her estates. Cnut the Dane seemed poised to defeat Edmund but they came to a settlement carving the country in two. Edmund did not live to complete this deal. His death brought to an end nearly four decades of Viking raids and Cnut became overlord of England. And what of Emma? She had been kept under siege, in the fiercely pro, Anglo Saxon London. Cnut then demanded Emma as his queen. She wouldbe his trophy and his link between the old regime and the new. For Emma, it at least gave her the prospect of a future for her and any children she might bear. Her children by Aethelred were safely in Normandy at this point. Her decision to remain in England during the period before Cnut’s victory, may seem odd but in England she had estates, in Normandy she did not. Her children were born here and she knew and understood the Anglo Saxon people and they her. Certain chronicles have asserted that she was willing to hand her sons over to the Danes, if her own life would be spared and she was able to maintain her estates. By this time, Emma was certainly beginning to acquire something of a reputation for making tough decisions.
Cnut already had a wife.
The thorn in the side of Emma’s new prosperity was the wife Cnut had taken in 1006. She was Aelfgifu, daughter of the slaughtered Aelfhelm, whom Aethelred had seen fit to murder. Cnut did not abandon her or their sons when he married Emma but it is alleged, Emma negotiated a deal in which Cnut swore he would support only their sons, in a claim to his throne. Would he have agreed to such a deal? It seems unlikely. Cnut himself was busy putting to death any that he considered might get in the way of his rule. Edmund Ironside, Cnut’s adversary to the throne, left behind two sons. They appear to have been whisked out of the country, to eventually appear in Hungary. Emma was married and consecrated Queen of England once again.Having eradicated his opponents, Cnut began stitching his divided people together.
Emma seems to have been at his side, as Cnut worked hard to bring the Anglo Saxons and Danes together. She represented something of the past but also hope for the future .....much more.....