Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Emma

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EMMA (d. 1052), called Ælfgifu, queen, the daughter of Richard the Fearless, duke of the Normans, by Gunnor, and legitimated by the duke's subsequent marriage with her mother (Will. of Jumièges, viii. c. 36), is said to have been accomplished and beautiful, and is called the ‘gem of the Normans’ (Henry of Huntingdon, p. 752). She was married to King Ethelred or Æthelred the Unready [q. v.] in 1002. This marriage prepared the way for the future conquest of England by the Normans, and was held to give the conqueror some right to the crown (ib. p. 751; Norman Conquest, i. 332 sq.). She arrived in England in Lent, and adopted the English name Ælfgifu, by which she is generally designated in the attestations of charters, though she is also called Emma, and sometimes by both names (Flor. Wig. i. 156; A.-S. Chron., Canterbury, sub an. 1013; Codex. Dipl. 719, 728 sq.) Winchester and other cities and jurisdictions, or rather the profits of them, were assigned her as her ‘morning gift.’ Among these was Exeter, where she appointed as her reeve a Frenchman, or Norman, named Hugh, who betrayed the city to the Danes. Her marriage with Æthelred was certainly not a happy one, and the king is said to have been unfaithful to her. She bore him two sons, Eadward, called the Confessor, and Ælfred [q. v.] When Sweyn conquered England in 1013 she took refuge with her brother, Duke Richard the Good. She was attended in her flight by Ælfsige, abbot of Peterborough, and appears to have left her sons in England, and to have been joined by them in Normandy (A.-S. Chron. sub an. 1013). After the death of Sweyn she probably returned to England with her husband, who died 23 April 1016. She is said to have defended London when it was besieged by Cnut in the May of that year [see under Canute]. In July 1017 she was married to Cnut, after having obtained his assent to her stipulation that the kingdom should descend to her son by him should she bear him one (Enc. Emmæ, ii. 16). She is said to have extended the dislike she felt towards her English husband to the sons she had by him (Gesta Regum, ii. 196); she was much attached to Cnut, and evidently wished that her English marriage should as far as possible be forgotten. Indeed her encomiast, when speaking of her marriage with Cnut, goes so far as to call her ‘virgo.’ Like her Danish husband she gave many gifts to monasteries, and especially enriched the Old Minster at Winchester. She and her little son Harthacnut, whom she bore to Cnut, were present at the translation of Archbishop Ælfheah in 1023, and she is said, on exceedingly doubtful authority, to have joined her brother Richard in mediating between her husband and Malcolm of Scotland (Rudolf Glaber, ii. 2). When Cnut died in 1035 she and Earl Godwine strove to procure the kingship for her son Harthacnut, who was then in Denmark. Harold, one of Cnut's sons by an earlier connection, opposed them, and caused all Emma's treasures at Winchester to be seized. The kingdom was divided; Harold became king north of the Thames, while Harthacnut was acknowledged in Wessex, and as he remained absent Emma and Earl Godwine ruled for him. Cnut's housecarls were faithful to his widow (A.-S. Chron., Peterborough, sub. ann. 1036). When one or both of her sons by Æthelred attempted to gain the kingdom in 1036, Emma appears to have favoured their enterprise. Ælfred was on his way to Winchester to see her when he was set upon by his enemies, and when she heard of his fate she sent Eadward, who is said to have been with her, back to Normandy (A.-S. Chron., Abingdon and Worcester; Flor. Wig. i. 196). The foolish legend that accuses her of complicity in the murder of Ælfred and of an attempt to poison Eadward is not worth discussion (Ann. Winton. ii. 17, 22; Brompton, col. 934 sq.; Norman Conquest, i. 544). The author of the ‘Encomium Emmæ,’ who wrote for the queen's gratification, and who accordingly ignores her earlier marriage altogether, and speaks of the æthelings as if they were her sons by Cnut, says that Harold, in order to get them into his power, wrote a letter to them in their mother's name, complaining that she was deprived of power, and requesting that one of them would come over secretly and give her advice (Enc. Emmæ, iii. 3). That her favourite son Harthacnut was nominally king in Wessex, that Godwine had been in favour of his candidature, and that she was acting as regent for him, are not facts that make it unlikely that Emma should have been anxious for the success of the æthelings. Her power was rapidly passing away, for people became impatient of Harthacnut's prolonged absence; she saw the cause of her enemy Harold daily gaining ground; Earl Godwine was probably already inclined to go over to his side, and, whether the story of the forged letter is true or not, the letter as we have it probably states no more than the truth as regards the decay of her authority (for a different view see Norman Conquest, i. 553). In the course of the next year Wessex accepted Harold as king, and forsook Harthacnut, and before the winter Emma was banished ‘without any mercy,’ words which may perhaps imply that no time was allowed her to collect her goods (A.-S. Chron., Worcester). She sought shelter at the court of Baldwin V, count of Flanders, the son of one of her nieces, a daughter of Richard the Good, and the husband of Adela, who had been betrothed to her nephew Richard III. He received her hospitably, and maintained her at Bruges (ib.; Enc. Emmæ, iii. 7). She is said to have sent messengers to her son Eadward asking him to help her, but according to the story Eadward, though he visited her, declared that he could do nothing for her. After he had returned to Normandy she is said to have applied to Harthacnut, who certainly in 1039 prepared to assert his claim to the English throne, sailed with a few ships to Flanders, and remained with her during the winter (Enc. Emmæ, iii. 8 sq.). In June 1040, after the death of Harold, she returned to England with Harthacnut, and appears to have held a position of considerable influence during his short reign (Hist. Rames. p. 151). One of the earliest acts of Eadward after he became king was to despoil her of her wealth. In November 1043 he rode from Gloucester, where he seems to have been holding some council, in company with Earls Godwine, Leofric, and Siward, appeared suddenly at Winchester, and seized all her treasure, ‘because she had done less for him than he would both before he became king and also since’ (A.-S. Chron., Worcester). Whatever the exact cause may have been for this act, it seems to prove that the relations between her and Eadward were not such as would make it probable that she had applied to him for help before she sent to Harthacnut. As the seizure of her goods was approved by the three great earls, it is not unlikely that, faithful to her old feelings in favour of the Danish line, she had countenanced the partisans of Sweyn of Denmark (Norman Conquest, ii. 58–62). Enough was left her for her maintenance, and she was ordered to live quietly at Winchester, where the old palace was in the Conqueror's reign still called her house (ib. iv. 59 n.) After her disgrace she took no active part in public affairs, though, as in 1044 she witnessed two of her son's charters with reference to the church of Winchester (Codex. Dipl. 774, 775), some reconciliation probably took place between them. The legend that she was accused of unchastity, and cleared herself by the ordeal of hot iron, has no foundation of fact (it appears in Ann. Winton. ii. 21, and Brompton, col. 941, and is fully examined in Norman Conquest, ii. 368 sq.). She died on 6 March 1052, and was buried by her husband Cnut in the Old Minster at Winchester (1051, A.-S. Chron., Abingdon, 1052, Worcester).

[Anglo-Saxon Chron.; Florence of Worcester (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Encomium Emmæ, Pertz; William of Jumièges, Duchesne; Henry of Huntingdon, Mon. Hist. Brit.; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Hist. Ramesiensis (Rolls Ser.); Ann. Winton., Ann. Monastici (Rolls Ser.); Brompton, Twysden; Freeman's Norman Conquest, vols. i. ii.]

W. H.