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Emma [Ælfgifu]free

(d. 1052)
  • Simon Keynes

Emma (d. 1052)

drawing [[Left to right] Emma (d. 1052), Edward [Edward the Confessor] (1003x5–1066), and Harthacnut (c.1018–1042)]

Emma [Ælfgifu] (d. 1052), queen of England, second consort of Æthelred II, and second consort of King Cnut, was the daughter of Richard (I), count of Rouen (d. 996), and of Richard's second wife, Gunnor (d. 1031), herself of Norman stock and Danish origin; she was thus the sister of Richard (II), duke of Normandy (d. 1026), and of Robert, archbishop of Rouen from 989 to 1037. Emma was born probably in the early 980s, but nothing is known of her upbringing. It would appear that marauding vikings were able to use Normandy as a base at this time, precipitating a dispute between King Æthelred and Count Richard, and prompting the pope to broker a peace treaty between them in 990–91. The viking army which went to England in 991 seems initially to have confined its activities to the British Isles; but in the summer of 1000 it went across to 'Richard's kingdom', returning to England in 1001. This turn of events seems to have prompted a new arrangement between England and Normandy, symbolized by the marriage between Æthelred and Emma. She went to England in the spring of 1002, and was known as Ælfgifu in her new country. Little is recorded of her activities as Æthelred's wife, and one can but register William of Malmesbury's remarks in his Gesta regum Anglorum to the effect that they were never on good terms with each other. She was certainly more visible at court than the king's first wife, Ælfgifu, had been, in the sense that she was immediately accorded a prominent place in the witness-lists of the king's charters; but it is apparent that she did not gain preferential treatment for her sons Edward (later known as the Confessor), and Alfred over the king's sons from his first marriage. In 1012 King Æthelred gave Emma a plot of land on the north side of the High Street in Winchester, which seems to have served as her main base in England for the next forty years. In 1013 Emma and her children were sent to Normandy, and were presently joined there by King Æthelred himself; but following the death of Swein Forkbeard, in February 1014, the family was able to return to England, for the two years that remained of Æthelred's unfortunate life.

It has long been assumed that following Æthelred's death, on 23 April 1016, Emma accompanied her sons Edward and Alfred back to her brother's court in Normandy, and that Cnut sought to marry her, as his second wife, soon after his own accession, so that she might serve his interests as a symbol of continuity from the previous regime and in order to discourage Duke Richard from interfering in England on behalf of her sons. It is conceivable, however, that Emma had in fact been unable or disinclined to escape from England in 1016, and that Cnut made her his wife in order to draw her away from the cause of her exiled sons in Normandy, with the prospect of a return to power and a promise that the succession would belong to the child of them both. This alternative view makes some sense of the remark that Cnut 'ordered the widow of King Æthelred … to be fetched as his wife' (ASC, s.a. 1017), which might seem high-handed if Emma had been 'fetched' from Normandy and if the marriage were actually a reaffirmation of the Anglo-Norman alliance; and since the author of the Encomium Emmae Reginae (written in 1041–2) states explicitly that Cnut sought out Emma in Normandy, the alternative view would also add to the evidence that the said author took considerable liberties with the truth. Emma evidently enjoyed high status at the Anglo-Danish court; indeed, she was of far greater importance to Cnut than she had ever been to Æthelred, and it is striking how often in surviving records she and Cnut are mentioned or addressed as a pair, as if contemporaries fully realized that each gave the other support. The double act is symbolized in the famous image which serves as a frontispiece to the Liber vitae of the New Minster, Winchester: Cnut and Ælfgifu (Emma) are shown together, placing a great cross on the altar. Emma is also known to have extended her patronage towards numerous religious houses, including Bury St Edmunds, Ely, and Christ Church and St Augustine's at Canterbury, and the Old Minster and the New Minster at Winchester.

After Cnut's death, in 1035, Emma assumed a major political role in her own right, as one committed (with the support of Earl Godwine) to uphold the interests of the Anglo-Danish political establishment, in the person of her son Harthacnut, against the competing ambitions of Ælfgifu of Northampton (Cnut's first wife), Harold Harefoot [see Harold I], and entrenched interests north of the River Thames. The cause of Emma and Harthacnut was, however, undermined by Harthacnut's prolonged absence from England; and when Earl Godwine defected to Harold's side, in 1036, the need to preserve her position gave Emma little option but to make overtures to her sons Edward and Alfred in Normandy, leading the former to the ignominy of an aborted invasion and the latter to capture, blinding, and death. The notional joint rule of Harthacnut and Harold (1035–7) now gave way to the sole rule of Harold (1037–40). In 1037 Emma was 'driven out without any mercy to face the raging winter' (ASC, s.a. 1037, Texts C, D); and it is significant that this time she should have taken refuge not with her family in Normandy, but with Baudouin (V), count of Flanders. From Flanders she turned to Edward for help, without result, and soon afterwards she was joined by Harthacnut. Following the death of Harold Harefoot in 1040, Emma returned to England, and was able to preside over the kingdom with Harthacnut; but the new regime was not popular, and it was presumably she who engineered Edward's return from Normandy to England in 1041, in an attempt to strengthen her own position. It was at this stage during the reign of Harthacnut (1040–42) that Emma commissioned a monk of St Bertin (in St Omer, Flanders) to produce the Encomium Emmae Reginae, which must rate as one of the most remarkable political biographies of the middle ages. Although presented to the reader quite simply as a tract in praise of Queen Emma, it is the product of an attempt to exonerate herself from criticism for alleged complicity in the death of her son Alfred, and to generate support for the new regime, as much for the intended benefit of those in positions of power and influence at the Anglo-Danish court, as for the intended benefit of posterity. The Encomium survives in one mid-eleventh-century manuscript (BL, Add. MS 33241), notable for its inclusion of a prefatory image depicting the enthroned queen receiving the book from the encomiast, with her sons Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor confined to a subsidiary position.

When Harthacnut died, in June 1042, he was succeeded by his half-brother Edward the Confessor, who was consecrated king at Winchester in April 1043. The king's feelings would appear to have been turning against his mother, for in November 1043 he came unexpectedly to Winchester and deprived Emma of her treasures, 'because she had formerly been very hard to the king, her son, in that she did less for him than he wished both before he became king and afterwards as well' (ASC, s.a. 1043, Text D). In effect, the event marked the eclipse of Winchester as a centre of political power, at least for the duration of Edward's reign; and although Emma herself was allowed to remain there for the rest of her life, and although she even recovered her position at court, the event also reflected the removal of the political establishment away from the heartland of Wessex and back to the environs of London on the River Thames. A later Winchester chronicler, evidently intrigued by the story of Emma's discomfiture, told how she had had an improper affair with Ælfwine, bishop of Winchester from 1032 to 1047, and how (with some help from St Swithun) she cleared herself and the bishop by undergoing the ordeal of the hot ploughshares (Annales monasterii de Wintonia, s.a. 1043). Emma died on 7 March 1052, and was buried, appropriately enough, beside her second husband and her son Harthacnut in the Old Minster at Winchester.

The marriage of Emma to King Æthelred the Unready has long been regarded as the event which led inexorably to the Norman conquest of England. William of Malmesbury took the view that after the death of Edward the Exile in 1057, Edward the Confessor gave the succession to Duke William, because he was the nearest blood relative, tracing a line back from his father Robert I to his grandfather Richard II, across to Richard's sister, Emma, and so down to Edward. Henry of Huntingdon began the sixth book of his Historia Anglorum, 'On the Coming of the Normans', with an account of the marriage, stating that 'from this union … the Normans were justified according to the law of peoples, in both claiming and gaining possession of England' (Historia Anglorum, 6.1). It was more to the point, however, that Emma's marriage to Æthelred created the circumstances in which the athelings Edward and Alfred took refuge in Normandy in 1016; that her marriage to Cnut helped to create the highly charged political situation which prevailed in the period from Cnut's death in 1035 to Edward's accession in 1042, and which led thereafter to the extraordinary events of 1051–2; and that it was in this brief period of political freedom that Edward made an approach to Duke William which was construed as a promise of the succession to the throne. There was far more to it, in other words, than the distant ties of blood, just as there is more to Emma than the tale of her political career. It may be that she stands above all other queens of the English, before the conquest, because she can be seen to have played a significant role for a period of fifty years; but she also stands for other queens as one who played out her role in ways which illustrate how much may always have depended on tensions and competing interests within the royal family.



  • drawing (with her sons Edward and Harthacnut), BL, ‘Encomium Emmae reginae’, Add. MS 33241, fol. 1v, frontispiece [see illus.]
  • drawing (with King Cnut), BL, MS Stowe 944, fol. 6r
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)
H. R. Luard, ed., , 5 vols., RS, 36 (1864–9)
Oxford Medieval Texts
P. H. Sawyer, , Royal Historical Society Guides and Handbooks (1968)
Camden Society