Emma of Normandy: Twice Queen Consort of England

Viking Queen of England

Emma with Canute (Cnut)
Emma with Canute (Cnut). Culture Club/Getty Images

Emma of Normandy (~985 – March 6, 1052) was a Viking queen of England, married to successive English kings: the Anglo-Saxon Aethelred the Unready, then Cnut the Great. She was also the mother of King Harthacnut and King Edward the Confessor. William the Conqueror claimed the throne in part through his connection to Emma.  She was also known as Aelfgifu.

Much of what we know of Emma of Normandy is from the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a writing probably commissioned by Emma and written to praise her and her accomplishments.

  Other evidence comes from a few official documents of the time, and from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and other medieval chronicles.

Family Heritage

Emma was one of the children of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, by his mistress Gunnora. After they married, their children were legitimized.  Gunnora had Norman and Danish heritage and Richard was the grandson of the Viking Rollo who conquered and then ruled Normandy.

Marriage to Aethelred Unraed

When Aethelred (known as The Unready or, in a better translation, The Ill-Advised), Anglo-Saxon king of England, was widowed and wanted a second wife, he may have considered marrying Emma, to ensure peace with Normandy. She was a daughter of the Norman Viking rulers, from where many of the Viking raids on England were originating.  Emma arrived in England and married Aethelred in 1002.  She was given the name Aelfgifu by the Anglo-Saxons. She had three children by Aethelred, two sons and a daughter.

In 1013, the Danes invaded England, led by Sweyn Forkbeard, and Emma and her three children fled to Normandy. Sweyn succeeded in toppling Aethelred, who also fled to Normandy. Sweyn died suddenly the next year, and while the Danes supported the succession of Sweyn’s son, Cnut (or Canute), the English nobility negotiated with Aethelred to return.

Their agreement, setting conditions for their relationship going forward, is considered the first such between a king and his subjects.

Cnut, who was also ruling Denmark and Norway, withdrew from England in 1014.  One of Emma’s stepsons, Aethelred’s heir and eldest, died in June of 1014. His brother, Edmund Ironside, rebelled against his father’s rule.  Emma allied herself with Eadric Streona, an advisor and husband of one of Emma’s stepdaughters.

Edmund Ironside joined forces with Aethelred when Cnut returned in 1015.  Cnut agreed to divide the realm with Edmund after Aethelred died in April of 1016, but when Edmund died in November of that year, Cnut became sole ruler of England.  Emma continued to defend against Cnut’s forces.

Second Marriage

Whether Cnut forced Emma to marry him, or Emma negotiated the marriage with him, is not certain.  Cnut, on their marriage, allowed her two sons to return to Normandy. Cnut sent his first wife, a Mercian also named Aelfgifu, to Norway with their son Sweyn when he married Emma.  Cnut and Emma’s relationship seems to have developed into a respectful and even fond relationship, more than just a political convenience.  After 1020, her name begins to appear more often in official documents, implying an acceptance of her role as queen consort.

They had two children together: a son, Harthacnut, and a daughter, known as Gunhilda of Denmark.

In 1025, Cnut sent his daughter by Emma, Gunhilda, daughter of Emma and Cnut, to Germany to be raised, so that she could marry the king of Germany, Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor, as part of a peace treaty with the Germans over a border with Denmark.

Battles of the Brothers

Cnut died in 1035, and his sons contended for succession in England.  A son by his first wife, Harold Harefoot, became regent in England, as he was the only one of Cnut’s sons in England at the time of Cnut’s death.  Cnut’s son by Emma, Harthacnut, became King of Denmark; Cnut’s son Sweyn or Svein by his first wife, had ruled there from 1030 until his death around the same time as Cnut’s death.

Harthacnut returned to England to challenge Harold’s rule in 1036, bringing Emma’s sons by Aethelred back to England to help consolidate his claim.

(The Encomium claims Harold lured Edward and Alfred to England.)  Harthacnut was frequently absent from England, returning to Denmark, and those absences led many in England to support Harold over Harthacnut. Harold became officially the king in 1037. Harold’s forces captured and blinded Alfred Aetheling, Emma and Aethelred’s younger son, who died of his injuries.  Edward fled to Normandy, and Emma fled to Flanders. In 1036, the marriage of Gunhilda and Henry III, arranged before Cnut’s death, took place in Germany.

King Harthacnut

In 1040, having consolidated his power in Denmark, Harthacnut prepared for another invasion of England.  Harold died, and Harthacnut took the crown, Emma returning to England.  Edward the Confessor, Emma’s older son by Aethelred, was given control of Essex, and Emma served as regent for Edward until his return to England in 1041.

Harthacnut died in June of 1042.  Magnus the Noble, an illegitimate son of Olaf II of Norway, had succeeded Cnut’s son Sweyn in Norway in 1035, and Emma backed him on Harthacnut’s over her son Edward. Magnus ruled Denmark from 1042 until his death in 1047.

King Edward the Confessor 

In England, Emma’s son Edward the Confessor won the crown.  He married the well-educated Edith of Wessex, a daughter of Godwin who had been created Earl of Wessex by Cnut.  (Godwin had been among those who killed Edward’s brother Alfred Aetheling.)  Edward and Edith had no children.

Probably because Emma had backed Magnus over Edward, she played little part in Edward’s reign.

Edward the Confessor was king of England until 1066, when Harold Godwinson, brother of Edith of Wessex, succeeded him. Shortly after, the Normans under William the Conqueror invaded, defeating and killing Harold.

Death of Emma

Emma of Normandy died at Winchester on March 6, 1052.  She had lived mostly at Winchester when she was in England– that is, when she was not in exile on the continent – from the time of her marriage to Aethelred in 1002.

Emma’s great-nephew, William the Conqueror, asserted his right to the crown of England in part through being related to Emma.

Related: Women of the 10th CenturyAethelflaedMatilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland, the Empress MatildaAdela of Normandy, Countess of Blois

Family Heritage:

  • Mother: Gunnora, from a powerful Norman family
  • Father: Richard I of Normandy, son of William I of Normandy by Sprota, a captured concubine from Brittany.
  • Siblings included: Richard II of Normandy (grandfather of William the Conqueror), Robert II (Archbishop of Rouen), Maud (married Odo II, Count of Blois), Hawise (married Geoffrey I of Brittany)

Marriage, Children:

  1. Husband: Aethelred Unraed (probably best translated “ill-advised” rather than “unready”) (married 1002; king of England )
    • He was the son of Aelfthryth and King Edgar the Peaceable
    • Children of Aethelred and Emma
      • Edward the Confessor (about 1003 to January 1066)
      • Goda of England (Godgifu, about 1004 – about 1047), married Drogo of Mantes about 1024 and had children, then Eustace II of Boulogne, without offspring
      • Alfred Aetheling (? – 1036)
    • Aethelred had six other sons and several daughters from his first marriage to Aelfgifu, including
      • Aethelstan Aetheling
      • Edmund Ironside
      • Eadgyth (Edith), married Eadric Streona
  1. Husband: Cnut the Great, King of England, Denmark and Norway
    • He was the son of Svein (Sweyn or Sven) Forkbeard and Świętosława (Sigrid or Gunhild).
    • Children of Cnut and Emma:
      • Harthacnut (about 1018 – June 8, 1042)
      • Gunhilda of Denmark (about 1020 – July 18, 1038), married Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor, without offspring
    • Cnut had other children by his first wife, Aelfgifu, including
      • Svein of Norway
      • Harold Harefoot
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Emma of Normandy: Twice Queen Consort of England." ThoughtCo, Sep. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/emma-of-normandy-3529607. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2017, September 16). Emma of Normandy: Twice Queen Consort of England. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emma-of-normandy-3529607 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Emma of Normandy: Twice Queen Consort of England." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emma-of-normandy-3529607 (accessed November 19, 2017).