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Like most people, my knowledge of English history pre the Norman Conquest is decidedly sketchy but it was events that took place long before William set sail that shaped the destiny of England and none of it would have happened were it not for Emma of Normandy. By anyone's standards, Emma was a remarkable woman whose life was pivotal in the direction our history would take.
The Dark Ages, now more accurately known as the Early Medieval period, is that space of a little over six centuries between the departure of the Romans and the Battle of Hastings. It was during this period that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes settled the land, a volatile time filled with battles between various factions striving for supremacy and not just between English kingdoms but also with foreign invaders such as the Vikings who were aided and abetted by our island's less than friendly neighbours, the Normans. However, by 1002 when Emma of Normandy arrived in England to marry King Aethelred, the squabbling was just about over and England was more or less unified under one ruler although there were still sporadic attacks mainly in the north from marauding Vikings.
Queen Emma and the Vikings written by Harriet O'Brien is an account of the life of Emma of Normandy, a period during which she married two kings, was mother to another two kings and participated in political manoeuvring to bring about significant changes to her adopted land. Surprisingly, her arrival in England wasn't recorded in great details. The records merely state 'Richard's daughter came here to the land'. Well, she may have arrived here as a bewildered girl of 13 but she rapidly proved herself to be an intelligent and formidable woman more than capable of holding her own against others in the court . As the back cover blurb says 'Her story is one of power, politics, love, greed and scandal in an England caught between the Dark Ages and the Norman Invasion of 1066.'
Harriet O'Brien has written an immensely interesting and readable account of Emma's life which draws the reader into what is the totally alien world of our forebears. Her descriptions of daily life are so vivid you can almost smell the foetid stench of dung and humanity juxtaposed with descriptions of the rich panoply of life at Court where the courtiers were dressed in silks and linens and adorned with jewels. Her descriptive writing style builds a picture of life in the early Medieval period based on writings from the time. This may have been a period of extreme religiosity with the Church still in its infancy but it didn't preclude extreme lewdness and above all, abominable cruelty.
Emma was to all intents and purposes a pawn in the dynastic game. Her marriage to the much older Aethelred was brokered by her brother, Richard II of Normandy and was an attempt at bridge building between the two nations. Any hopes the English held that this marriage would create a lasting alliance were short lived and Emma's marriage to Aethelred certainly didn't prevent Richard II from also negotiating with his Scandinavian relatives. The Scandinavian nations were close kin to the people of Normandy which had been founded by Viking settlement on land gifted by the French king.
It must have been something of a shock to such a young girl to arrive in a foreign land with little understanding of their ways or their language and immediately be given an English name, Aelfgifu, which was not only an alien name but also the name of her predecessor, Aethelred's first queen! However, it soon becomes evident that Emma is one of life's survivors and though she may not have had much control initially over her destiny, she made darn sure that she wasn't a victim and she soon began to manipulate events to her benefit. Throughout her turbulent life which had several reversals of fortune, she emerged if not completely victorious, at least relatively unscathed.
Although reading this book made me realise the huge gulf between the England of today and that of Queen Emma, there are also some striking similarities. For instance, Emma could legitimately be called a queen of spin. After one particular blip in her royal career, she took the unusual step of commissioning a monk to produce a book which was essentially a treatise on her sons' rights to the throne. A copy of the book still exists today in the British Library, a tangible link with events of a thousand years ago.
Emma, or The Lady as she was frequently referred to, made the best of a bad job where her marriage to Aethelred was concerned, bearing three children the eldest of whom was destined to become Edward the Confessor. Throughout his 38 year reign, Aethelred had had to cope with frequent Viking attacks on his kingdom and his nickname of the Unready is apparently a misinterpretation of his true nickname 'Unraed' meaning 'bad counsel'. Apparently, Aethelred had a reputation for making disastrous decisions! When he died in 1016 his kingdom was once again under Viking attack, this time from Cnut who upon his taking the throne also demanded Emma as his queen. It was at this time that Emma's three children escaped to their uncle's court in Normandy where they stayed for many years.
Once again, Emma was left to make the best of the situation in which she found herself and her life with Cnut resulted in two more children, Harthacnut and Gunnhild. She also wielded her powers of persuasion upon her new husband, who became a Christian and so began a relatively peaceful twenty year reign during which Cnut acquired the kingship of Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden and by all accounts his marriage to Emma though begun out of expediency, was an affectionate one. But with Cnut's death, more trouble began to brew for Emma with Cnut's sons squabbling over the succession. Harold Harefoot, Cnut's son by Aelfgifu of Northampton (there were far too many Aelfgifus in eleventh century England for my liking) acceded but when Emma's children by Aethelred returned under the protection of their half-brother, Harthacnut, Harold saw this as a threat. And soon after Emma's son Alfred was captured by Harold, blinded and subsequently died of his wounds. Edward once more escaped to Normandy and Emma sought refuge in Bruges. It was here that Emma's book was written which paved the way for her surviving sons' accessions to the throne and ultimately the claiming of the English throne by William, her great-nephew. As the author says, 'At the end of the era, Queen Emma was the formidable catalyst for the country's immutable change into a Norman state.'
Although this is purportedly a book about Emma, there is such a dearth of solid information about her that much of the book is, I feel, based on supposition and referenced by contemporary writings of the time. Harriet O'Brien certainly paints a brilliantly vivid picture of England at the end of the Dark Ages bringing to life a totally different world to ours and detailing the many vicissitudes of Emma's life. It also explains many of the elements which made up William of Normandy's claim to the English throne, which I've always thought were a bit woolly but it seems he really did have, if not a a more legitimate claim than Harold, an equal one. It seems that everybody in power in Europe was inter-related in some way which must have made it very difficult to decide who should be king.
This was a fairly easy read, barring all those Aelfgifus and other very un-English sounding names and it certainly kept my interest though I was filled with horror at some of the cruelties practised by the people of the day. It certainly rid me of any romantic notions I may have had about Vikings. Rape and pillage seems a very mild way of describing some of their actions. And the English weren't any better. If nothing else it made me very glad I live in twenty first century England rather than that of the eleventh century.
As for Emma of Normandy, I'm not absolutely certain I would have liked her and although I can understand how circumstances may have made her the way she was, she emerges from the pages of this book as a highly manipulative and somewhat self-interested woman. Although certain factions, especially in the Church, regarded her as a benefactor and a good Christian woman, I personally feel that any dedication to the Church was more likely for her own benefit rather being out of deep religious conviction. Of course, I may be entirely wrong about her as she did live in very different times when attitudes and moral standards were very unlike those of today. Emma was thrust into situations not of her making and instead of buckling under, she made every endeavour to make the best of her circumstances and who can blame her for that.
Queen Emma and the Vikings
Published: Bloomsbury 2006
I borrowed my copy from the library but it is currently selling on Amazon for £8.09 (paperback) or used from £2.71.