Emma of Normandy was a woman of contrasts. Despite being born in France, she went on to become the queen of England, Denmark, and Norway. 

For much of her life, she depended on men for power but was also a truly formidable woman and a great landowner in her own right. 

In this article, The Viking Herald explores her remarkable journey and the impact she had on the events of a tumultuous era in English, French, and Scandinavian history. 

A noble upbringing 

Emma was born around 984 in Normandy to illustrious parents. 

Her father was Richard I, Duke of Normandy, France, also known as Richard the Fearless. He was also the grandson of Rollo, the famous Viking warrior turned Norman leader. 

Her mother, Gunnor, is also thought to have been of Scandinavian ancestry and is rumored to have been a Danish noblewoman. 

Initially, Gunnor, Richard's mistress, married him after he lost his first wife, Emma of Paris. 

A highly intelligent woman who spoke several languages, Gunnor was an advisor to both Richard and later their son, Richard II; she frequently took the role of regent while her husband was away. 

Though we have precious few details of Emma's early life in Normandy, we can imagine she had a comfortable upbringing and would almost certainly have spoken Old Norse alongside Old French, and quite possibly Old English too. 

It is not difficult to imagine that she would have learned much from her father, the leader of a powerful and influential territory, and her mother, a woman of iron character who excelled in offering wise counsel. 

Teenage Emma's life took a significant turn in 1002 when she departed from Normandy to take on the role of Queen consort of England, marrying King Æthelred despite their notable 20-year age difference. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The call to England 

For better or worse, the daughters of kings, dukes, and noblemen were often used to cement alliances by building family ties through marriage. 

So it was that the teenage Emma was wed to King Æthelred of England, 20 years her senior, in 1002. Her brother, Richard II, had become the ruler of Normandy after their father's death and had agreed to the union. 

Æthelred, who would later be dubbed Æthelred the Unready for his poor decision-making, sought to appease the Normans and forge an alliance against the Vikings, who had launched an ongoing series of raids and attacks on English shores. 

Similarly, Richard hoped to improve relations with England after recent conflicts and a suspected assassination attempt.

A growing threat 

Upon her arrival in England, Emma was named Queen of England and was promptly awarded property and land in Winchester, Rutland, Devonshire, Suffolk, and Oxfordshire. 

According to historical records, Emma and Æthelred had a reasonably stable first few years. The queen bore her husband two sons, Edmund and Alfred, and a daughter, Goda, to add to Æthelred's surviving children from his first marriage.

Unfortunately, the Viking threat was ever-present. 

Enraged and possibly exhausted from repelling Norse attacks using a combination of warfare and Danegeld, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish-born men in the St. Brice's Day Massacre

It was a vicious and highly risky move, and also a strange one, given that Æthelred was married to a woman with Viking blood.

Viking reprisals were swift, and just three years later, in 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard, king of Denmark, successfully invaded England, conquered many of its lands, and crowned himself king of the country. 

Terrified for their lives, Emma and her two sons fled to Normandy, closely followed by Æthelred. 

However, after Sweyn's death the following year, the royal family was able to return to London and regain some degree of control. 

Despite his marriage to Emma, who had Viking heritage, King Æthelred's reign was marked by the St. Brice's Day Massacre, a violent attempt to suppress the Viking threat through mass killings of Danish residents in England. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The hand of fate 

In 1015, Emma's fate would see another dramatic turn. Sensing an opportunity to restore Viking power, Sweyn's son, Cnut the Great, invaded England. 

At first, the Anglo-Saxons were able to hold off the Viking threat and keep control of most of Wessex, including London. 

In April 1016, however, Æthelred fell ill and passed away. With his two older half-brothers also deceased, Edmund, the son of Æthelred and Emma, was appointed as the new king. 

Edmund would fight for most of the summer against the Norse invaders, even earning himself the nickname Edmund Ironside for his reported bravery. 

However, he eventually suffered a significant defeat against Cnut at the Battle of Assandun in October of the same year. 

Though Cnut initially agreed to divide the kingdom of England with Edmund, the young Englishman was dead by the end of the year, and Cnut was declared king of all England. 

A Norman-Danish alliance in England 

Perhaps to protect the rest of her family or forge a new alliance to safeguard England itself, Emma married Cnut the following year to become queen of England again. 

On the other hand, the remaining children from her marriage to Æthelred were sent to Normandy. 

The marriage between Emma and Cnut would last for some 19 years, with Emma giving birth to a son, Harthacnut, and a daughter, Gunhilda. 

The union was reportedly a happy one and also politically astute. 

Indeed, Emma, who was awarded far more power and influence than in her previous marriage, would do much to heal the difficult relationship between the religious elite and Cnut, who had wreaked havoc on English churches during the preceding years of conflict. 

As they grew increasingly in stature, the couple would come to rule both Denmark from 1018 and Norway from 1028, with the three kingdoms forming what has come to be known as the North Sea Empire

Often, when Cnut traveled to visit his other territories, Emma would govern England in his absence, mirroring her mother's role in Normandy. 

Matthew Paris's illustration in the Chronica Majora manuscript depicts the Battle of Assandun, featuring Edmund Ironside (left) and Cnut the Great, resulting in Cnut's eventual kingship over England. Source: Matthew Paris (1200–1259), Public domain

The last stage 

After 17 years of marriage, Cnut died in 1035. Emma's life was no less eventful, however, because of his passing. 

In England, Harold Harefoot, son of Cnut and Ælfgifu, Cnuts's previous wife in England, was declared regent and then king. Harthacnut, son of Cnut and Emma, was named king of Denmark.

Harold would reign for just five years. After his death in 1040, he was replaced by his half-brother, Harthacnut. 

However, Harthacnut was mistrusted by many, having been previously implicated in the vicious assassination of his half-brother, Alfred, in 1036. 

The incident occurred as Alfred was returning to England from Normandy with his brother Edward; Alfred was attacked, but Edward managed to escape. 

Despite rumors suggesting he desired the demise of his two half-brothers, potential rivals to the throne, in 1041, Harthacnut, possibly sensing his grave illness, extended an invitation to Edward to come to England. 

Edward was subsequently sworn in as the heir to the throne. 

Many believed that Harthacnut had been swayed by his mother's counsel. Yet it was when Edward became king in the following year that Emma's own influence came to an end. 

Just a year after Edward's coronation, Emma was stripped of her lands and titles after a group of earls accused her of treason. 

Though her lands were later restored, she was reportedly largely shunned by her son – who would come to be known as Edward the Confessor for his piety – and spent the rest of her days in relative obscurity. 

The end of an era 

Emma passed away in March 1052 at the (approximate) age of 68. She would be buried alongside Cnut and Harthacnut in the Old Minster, Winchester. 

In her lifetime, Emma's two husbands were kings of England and then the kings of England, Denmark, and Norway

Her two sons and her stepson each became kings of England, while her daughter Gunhilda was named Queen of the Germans after her marriage to King Henry III. 

In 1066, just 14 years after her passing, Edward the Confessor died, sparking yet another struggle for the throne of England. 

In the same year, Harold Godwinson became king and, in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, successfully defeated the king of Norway, Harald Hardrada. 

Ultimately, however, Emma of Normandy's great-nephew, William the Conqueror, defeated Godwinson and took the crown of England. 

Housed within Winchester Cathedral in England, this mortuary chest, one of six positioned near the altar, is believed to safeguard the remains of King Cnut and Emma of Normandy, among others. Photo: Ealdgyth (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A lasting legacy 

Emma's legacy lives on partly through the book Encomium Emmae Reginae, written during her lifetime, which offered stories and praise of her feats. William Blake also depicted her in The Ordeal of Queen Emma

The painting portrayed a legend, originating from the 13th century, where Emma had been accused of unchastity with Bishop Ælfwineof Winchester and was forced to walk over nine red-hot ploughshares to prove her innocence. 

Ultimately, though, Emma will be remembered for the influential role she played in one of the most eventful periods of English, French, and Scandinavian history. 

This period concluded just a few years after her death, with the end of the Viking Age and the fall of the Wessex dynasty in England. 

In their stead came Emma's countrymen, the Normans, who would rule the country for centuries to come.

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