Emma of Normandy, Queen of England

Detail of Emma of Normandy before an altar

In the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of 1066 one woman, in particular, stands out as the matriarch of the period: Emma of Normandy.

As wife of both Æthelred II and King Cnut, Emma of Normandy was the lynchpin of the story of the 11th century. As a Norman, and the mother of both a Danish king of England and a Saxon King of England, it was Emma who bound all three sides together in the conflict of 1066. Her story is suitably dramatic; with exile, tragedy and scandal all playing their part, starkly contrasting with the wealth and privilege of her role as the only twice-crowned Queen of England.

Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Gunnora. Born in around 985/987, she was married to Æthelred at Winchester on 5 April 1002, at which time she was given the English name Ælfgifu, although in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle she is often referred to, simply, as ‘The Lady’. Her marriage with Æthelred was an attempt to seal a peace between England and Normandy, and to persuade the Normans not to allow the Viking raiders, who tormented England’s shores, to winter in their lands between raids into England. Despite the fact the Vikings continued to shelter in Normandy every winter, and raiding into England continued throughout the early years of the 11th century, the marriage was a success in that it produced two more sons and a daughter for Æthelred; a second family considering he was the father of as many as thirteen children by his first wife, Ælfgifu of York, including at least six sons.

Edward the Confessor

Of Emma and Æthelred’s two sons the eldest, Edward, would eventually succeed his half-brother, Harthacnut, to the English throne in 1042, ruling until his death on 5 January 1066. Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, was cruelly murdered during the reign of his step-brother, Harold I Harefoot. Harold was the son of Cnut by his first, handfast wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Alfred had arrived in England in 1036, ostensibly to visit his mother, though there are also theories that he intended to mount a challenge for the throne, and was welcomed by Earl Godwin of Wessex. However, his party were ambushed whilst being entertained by Godwin and Alfred was seized and taken to the abbey at Ely in Cambridgeshire, where he was later blinded and either murdered, or succumbed to his wounds. Either way, he died on 5 February 1037 and was buried in Ely Cathedral. Edward and Alfred’s sister, Goda (or Godgifu), was married firstly to Drogo, Count of Mantes and, secondly to Eustace II, Count of Boulogne. One of her sons by Drogo, Ralph, was made Earl of Hereford by his uncle, Edward, but earned himself the insulting nickname Ralph the Timid after fleeing the Welsh in battle.

As the Viking raids increased from 1010 onwards, Æthelred’s position on the throne proved precarious and he sent his wife and her young sons to Normandy for safety, before being forced into exile there himself in 1013, when Sweyn Forkbeard seized the throne. Sweyn’s death early in 1014 offered Æthelred a way back and he sent Edward to England to negotiate his return with the English Witan, who invited Æthelred to resume the throne ‘if he would govern them better than he did before’.1 Despite his promises, Æthelred proved just as inept as previously, failing to defeat the Danish invaders, led by Cnut. Æthelred died just two years later, on 23 April 1016 (ironically, St George’s Day), and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund II Ironside. Although Edmund put up a valiant fight against the Danish invaders, led by Cnut, a summer of fighting took its toll and he died on 30 November 1016.

Coin from the reign of Harthacnut

Cnut took control of the whole of England and one of his first actions was to send for Emma, who he married on 2 July 1017. Although Emma appears to have had little influence during the reign of her first husband, her marriage with Cnut appears to have been a partnership. She was a more visible figure in public, enjoying considerable influence at court and offering substantial patronage to the church. She gave Cnut three children including a son, Harthacnut, and two daughters, one who’s name is lost, died aged 8 and is buried in Bosham, Sussex. A second daughter, Gunhilda, married Henry III, Emperor of Germany.

When Cnut died in 1035 Emma was in England and retired to her manor in Winchester, taking the royal treasury with her in the hope she could pass it to her son, Harthacnut. However, Harthacnut was in Denmark and it was Harold Harefoot, one of Cnut’s sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton, who seized the initiative. An agreement was reached whereby the half-brothers ruled as co-kings with Emma acting for Harthacnut and ruling in Wessex. However, two years later Harthacnut had still not returned to England and Harold took the crown for himself, driving Emma into exile with Count Baldwin in Flanders.

Genealogical table of Cnut, Harold I and Harthacnut

Harthacnut appears to have been, by far, Emma’s favourite child. It was for his accession to the English throne that she schemed, rather than for her eldest son, Edward. In the early months of 1040 she and Harthacnut were preparing to invade England when they heard of Harold’s death. Harthacnut succeeded to the English throne without a fight and a year later invited his half-brother Edward, who had spent almost 25 years in Norman exile, to join him in England as his successor.

Harthacnut reigned for just ten days short of two years, he died after collapsing during a wedding celebration at Lambeth. He was buried alongside his father in the old minster at Winchester and Emma gave the head of St Valentine to the new minster for her son’s soul. Emma’s relationship with Edward, however, was more strained than that she experienced with Harthacnut. Years of separation and a strong sense of abandonment on Edward’s part cannot have helped the situation. Following his coronation in 1043, one of Edward’s first actions was to ride to Winchester and take charge of the Treasury, which had been left in his mother’s hands by Harthacnut. Accompanied by the three greatest earls of his realm – Siward, Godwin and Leofric – ‘they deprived her of all the treasure that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king…’2

Emma’s friend and close adviser, Bishop Stigand, was deprived of his bishopric, although he was later reinstated and created Bishop of Winchester. He eventually rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury but was removed from office by William the Conqueror. However, at the time of her disgrace, Emma and Stigand’s close relationship gave rise to a later legend that they were more than friends and that Emma was accused of adultery with Stigand (although the 13th century story claimed the bishop’s name was Ælfwine). There is no contemporary evidence of the story, however, and it first appears more than 100 years after the Conquest. As the story went, Emma was accused of adultery and required to walk across red-hot ploughshares in order to prove her innocence. Being neither cut nor burned by the instruments she was declared innocent. As a consequence, Emma was welcomed back into the royal circle by a contrite Edward.

Winchester Cathedral

Although the story is almost certainly a fabrication, Emma was eventually reconciled with Edward, although she enjoyed a much less exalted position as the king’s mother than she had when Harthacnut reigned. She eventually retired to her own estates, living away from the limelight until her death on 6 March 1052. She was buried in the old minster at Winchester, alongside her second husband, Cnut and her favourite son, Harthacnut. Emma’s story forms the basis for the book Encomium Emmae Reginae, possibly commissioned by Emma herself, which provides a significant insight into English politics for the first half of the 11th century.

Emma had played a pivotal role in English politics in the first half of the 11th century, the effects of which would lead to the fateful events of 1066. She helped to shape the events from which the unique situation of the Norman Conquest would arise.  A prominent figure, particularly in the reigns of Cnut and Harthacnut, she was the most distinguished woman of her time. More than any other single person, Emma’s story provides the background to the Norman Conquest through the political and personal relationships formed in the first half of the 11th century.


Footnotes: 1The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; 2ibid.

Picture credits: Detail of Emma of Normandy before an altar courtesy of the British Library; Edward the confessor courtesy of Wikipedia; coin from the reign of Harthacnut, courtesy of Hedning, taken from Wikipedia; Genealogical table of Cnut, Harold I and Harthacnut from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, British Library; Winchester Cathedral courtesy of Anne Marie Bouchard.

Sources: The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.


My books

Coming 31st May

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. 

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.


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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

King Eadwig ‘All-Fair’ and the Coronation Scandal

King Eadwig

While researching Edward the Martyr and his stepmother, Ælfthryth, I came across a very interesting character. Eadwig (or Edwy) was young Edward’s uncle; the elder brother of Edward’s father, Edgar the Peaceable. Eadwig has one of the worst reputations of the Anglo-Saxon kings, even though he only reigned for 4 years; he was, supposedly, found in a compromising situation when he was meant to be presiding over his coronation feast.

I just had to know more about this king!

Eadwig was born around 940. He had an impressive royal pedigree, being the eldest surviving son of Edmund I (the Elder) and his 1st wife, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, who was later known as St Elgiva. Edmund was the son of Edward the Elder and, therefore, the grandson of King Alfred the Great, thus making Eadwig King Alfred’s great-grandson.

Eadwig’s mother Ælfgifu died in 944, and was buried at Shaftesbury Abbey; she left little Eadwig and his baby brother, Edgar, to be raised by their father. Although Edmund married again, he only survived his 1st wife by 2 years; he was stabbed by Leofa, an exiled thief, on 29 May 946, possibly as part of an assassination plot, although later sources suggest Edmund had recognised Leofa in the crowd and was killed while trying to arrest him.

With his eldest son no more than 6 years old, Edmund was succeeded as king by his brother, Eadred (known as Eadred Debilis Pedibus (“Weak-in-the-Feet”). Eadred’s chief supporters included his mother, Queen Eadgifu the 3rd wife of Edward the Elder, Archbishop Oda (or Odo) of Canterbury, Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury and Æthelstan Half-King ealdorman of East Anglia.

Edmund I, Eadwig’s father

As Eadred’s health failed, more responsibilities were entrusted to his chief supporters. Dunstan, for instance,  as well as being entrusted with the production of charter in the king’s name he was also given the guardianship of the royal treasures. Æthelstan is said to have been foster-father to Edgar, Eadwig’s younger brother, so it is possible that both boys were raised in his household.

Although we know nothing of Eadwig’s childhood it is assumed he was raised away from court, as his name does not appear on any charters during the reigns of his father or uncle. Eadwig and his brother only start appearing in authentic texts in 955, Eadred’s final year.

Eadred died on 23rd November 955 and was succeeded by 15-year-old Eadwig. A typical teenager, Eadwig immediately set about trying to assert his independence. He made appointments that were calculated to reduce the power and influence of Æthelstan Half-King, and then turned his attention to his grandmother, Queen Eadgifu, depriving her of all her possessions.

The most powerful and influential people in the country were probably pulling their hair out in frustration in no time. However, life carried on and Eadwig’s coronation took place at Kingston-Upon-Thames, probably at the end of January 956. And it was at the feast, to celebrate the coronation, that Eadwig’s reputation took a spectacular nosedive.

Eadwig defending Aelfgifu to Archbishop Oda

Eadwig seems to have grown bored – or tired – of the celebrations and retired to his own apartments, even though the coronation feast was in full swing. When Archbishop Oda noticed Eadwig’s absence, he sent Abbot Dunstan (the future saint and archbishop of Canterbury) in search of the errant king. Dunstan supposedly found Eadwig in a compromising situation with a young woman, ‘a girl of ripe age’¹ … and her mother. It is said that Dunstan was so furious he physically attacked the 2 women before dragging Eadwig back to the banquet.

The younger lady involved was most likely Ælfgifu, soon to be Eadwig’s wife. The story, however, is related in the life of St Dunstan and could well be an invention or, at the least, an exaggeration designed to highlight the conflict between Eadwig and the church, over his choice of bride. And during the battle of wits between king and church Ælfgifu’s mother, Æthelgifu, pressed Eadwig to have Dunstan deprived of all his possessions and sent into exile.

However, it seems the church held the upper hand; Eadwig and Ælfgifu were separated in 957 or 958 on the orders of Archbishop Oda ‘because they were too closely related’². Research suggests that Ælfgifu was from a junior or dispossessed branch of the royal family, possibly descended from Æthelred I (r. 865-71), brother of Alfred the Great, thus making the young lovers 3rd cousins. Ælfgifu lived on into the reign of King Edgar the Peaceable, but disappears from the historical record after 96.

Eadwig did not remarry.

Other aspects of Eadwig’s life appear to have been just as chaotic; his reign taken up with political disputes and trying to pacify his rebellious nobles. Eadwig’s surviving charters show a favouritism towards laymen, rather than the church, although he is remembered as a benefactor of Abingdon Abbey. Eadwig appointed 3 new ealdordoms during 956 alone, including Æthelwold, son of Æthelstan Half-King and 1st husband of Ælfthryth, the wicked stepmother of Edward the Martyr.

Coin of King Eadwig

By the summer of 957 the kingdom was divided in 2; the king ‘was wholly deserted by the norther people, being despised because he acted foolishly in the government committed to him, ruining with vain hatred the shrewd and the wise, and admitting with loving zeal the ignorant and those like himself’³. A political settlement was reached, probably aimed at preventing civil war, based on a geographical division of the country, rather than personal loyalties. Eadwig was to rule all the lands south of the River Thames, while his younger brother, Edgar, would rule in the north. Although the fact that it was Eadwig’s coins that were the country’s only currency until 959 suggests that Eadwig maintained overall authority.

This became the status quo until Eadwig’s death on 1st October 959 at Gloucester, when the kingdom was once again united under one ruler, King Edgar. Aged only around 19 when he died, the manner of Eadwig’s death is a mystery; it’s possible he died from some inherited family ailment, or a convenient accident, I suppose we’ll never know…. Eadwig was buried in the New Minster at Winchester, founded by his grandfather, King Edward the Elder.

Diploma of King Eadwig for Aelfwine

Poor Eadwig’s reputation has suffered at the hands of the biographers of the early church leaders, particularly in the Life of St Dunstan, which depicts Eadwig as a debaucher, a despoiler of the church and an incompetent king. While William of Malmesbury called him a ‘wanton youth’ who ‘misused his personal beauty in lascivious behaviour’ [4], his nickname of ‘All-Fair’ suggests he wasn’t all bad. The chronicler, Æthelweard saying that Eadwig ‘for his great beauty he got the nickname Pancali [‘All-Fair’] from the common people’. [5] According to the chronicler, Eadwig ‘held the kingdom for four years and deserved to be loved.’ [6]


Footnotes: ¹ quoted by Simon Keynes in oxforddnb.com; ² Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 958, text 1; ³ Vita S. Dunstan, ch. 24; [4] quoted by Simon Keynes in oxforddnb.com; [5] Chronicle of Æthelweard, 4.8; [6] ibid.


Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.


My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly.