#youreallyshouldteach…Emma of Normandy

Last year, one of my favourite year 11s approached me at the end of the lesson and asked me if I’d ever heard of Emma of Normandy. Her gran has asked for a reading recommendation, she explained. I had not, but set about doing a bit of research and was aided by the helpful and knowledgeable Helen Snelson, who sent me a few links. Now that we are in the midst of an Anglo-Saxons and Normans revival, Emma is somebody worth getting to know, if only because she provides the blood link between Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror.

Emma was an 11th century noblewoman, the sister of Richard II of Normandy, and she ended up marrying two kings of England and giving birth to two more. She became the second wife of Aethelred in 1002, adopting the name Aelfgifu upon her arrival in England, and had two sons, Edward (ie, the Confessor) and Alfred. After he died, she took her sons to Normandy, but was soon back as the second wife of Cnut. Whether she consented to this or not is a bit obscure, but certainly she seems to have been held in much higher esteem by Cnut than by Aethelred. Apparently lots of the records of the time mention them together. Aww.

Unfortunately, after Cnut’s death, things got quite messy. Emma supported the claim of her son, Harthacnut, over the claim of Cnut’s son by his first marriage, Harold Harefoot. Although she was initially supported by the powerful Earl Godwine, after he defected she was forced to ask for help from her older sons, Alfred and Edward. Things went badly for both of them, though considerably worse for Alfred.

She eventually returned to England with Harthacnut when Harold died, at that point commissioning a lavish biography of herself, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, from a Flanders monk to try to raise her profile and win favour for the Harthacnut regime. This possibly was not very successful, though, because when Harthacnut died in 1042 and Edward the Confessor ascended the throne, Emma was deftly chastised for perceived poor behaviour towards Edward in the past and was never as powerful again. I suppose this could have been Edward separating himself from an unpopular noblewoman, but apparently she might also have been overly close to the Bishop of Winchester around this time, so perhaps this was the problem. She did deny the latter, and successfully undertook the ordeal of the ploughshare to prove the rumour false. I had to look up ordeal by ploughshare. It’s akin to walking over red hot coals.

So, you really should teach about Emma of Normandy. She was politically important for around 50 years, at a time when women don’t seem to have been, and as well as having two kings as husbands (and a priest as a lover, allegedly) she was the mother of two more and the great auntie of William the Conqueror. I like to think Eleanor of Aquitaine read about her and drew some inspiration.

This blog is brought to you, with some discomfort on my part, using only one source, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I’m not a medievalist. But I think she’s a great character.


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