Emma of Normandy

Queen of England, Denmark and Norway

Emma of Normandy was born circa 985, the daughter of Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy, by his second wife Gunnora. Her mother had originally been Richard the Fearless' mistress. When they later married, their children were legitimized. Both of her parents were of Danish (Viking) descent.

Emma's father, Richard the Fearless provided shelter to a Viking army threatening England in 1000-1, terms were reached with the English king Ethelred II, known as 'the Redeless' in 1002, whereby Ethelred was to marry Emma as his second wife.

Emma of Normandy and her childrenEmma of Normandy and her children

The King's marriage to Emma of Normandy was to have disastrous long term effects for the House of Wessex. Emma arrived in England with an attendant train of Normans. Disliked by the English as foreigners, they succeeded in adding to the King's already waning popularity. The marriage produced two sons, Edward (the future Edward the Confessor) and Alfred the Atheling and a daughter, Goda.

Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Denmark, extracted payment by blackmail from Ethelred as opposed to ravaging English shores. Ethelred, who was weak and ineffectual, ordered a general massacre of Danes in England on St. Brices Day, 1002, which included men, women and children, none were spared from the savage slaughter. Sweyn swore on the bragging cup to be avenged on Ethelred and landed in England in 1003, ravaging much of the south of the country.

Ethelred II the RedelessEmma of Normandy

Ethelred sent Emma and her children to her brother Richard II, in Normandy to escape a pending invasion by Sweyn in 1013, he soon fled before Sweyn and joined his family, but the death of Sweyn in February 1014 enabled their return to England. Ethelred's heir, his eldest son, Athelstan, born to his first wife, Elfgifu of York, died in June 1014, and Emma attempted to get her son, Edward, then 10 years old, recognised as his father's heir. She obtained the aid of Ethelred's chief adviser, Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia, but was opposed by Ehelred's oldest surviving son from his first marriage, Edmund Ironside. Edmund led a rebellion against his father, and in 1015 Sweyn's son, Canute invaded England. In April 1016 Ethelred died, the Londoners chose Edmund Ironside as king, but the Witan opted for Canute. Following a series of engagements with Edmund, Canute defeated him at Ashington, Essex. A treaty was drawn up, partitioning the country which would remain in force until the death of one of the participants to the treaty, at which time all lands would revert to the survivor. Edmund II died a month later in November of 1016 and Canute was proclaimed King of England.

He repudiated his wife, Elgiva and married Emma, her sons Edward and Alfred were sent into exile in Normandy. The marriage produced two children, a son, Harthacnut and a daughter, Gunhilda of Denmark. King Canute died in 1035 at Shaftsbury in Dorset, aged around 40 and was buried at Winchester Cathedral.

On Canute's death, Harold, the son of Canute and Elfgifu of Northampton, promptly took possession of his father's treasure and received the support of Earl Leofric of Mercia and the majority of the Danes. The great council, or Witangemot, meeting at Oxford, confirmed Harold as King, but Ethelnoth, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused to crown him. Emma, who had the support of the nobles of Wessex and particularly Earl Godwine, an extremely powerful nobleman who was married to Canute's sister, managed to retain control of Wessex, where Emma acted as regent in the absence of Harthacnut, who himself remained in Denmark. Emma made vigorous attempts to unseat Harold in favour of her son.

On hearing the news of Canute's death, the sons of Emma and Ethelred, Edward and Alfred, in exile in Normandy, gathered a fleet and sailed for England. On approaching Southampton, the elder of these, Edward, found the town up in arms against him, unwilling to accept any son of the weak and hated Ethelred. Edward had little choice but to return to Normandy.

Harold's reign was short and brutish. Earl Godwine, accepting the situation, switched sides and deserted Emma. Her son Alfred was conducted to Guildford by Earl Godwine and his followers dispersed. There he was seized and brutally blinded on the orders of Harold. The trauma of his injuries led to an agonizing death.

Emma was forced into exile, taking refuge in Flanders. She then summoned Edward and demanded his help for Harthacnut, but he refused as he had no resources to launch an invasion. She was joined in Flanders by Harthacnut. Together they began to make plans for an invasion of England, having gathered a fleet of sixty warships. The early death of Harold on 17th March 1040 at Oxford, made it possible for his half-brother Harthacnut to enter England peacefully.

Reconstruction of one of the teenage boys whose bones were found in the Winchester Mortuary ChestsMortuary cheasts

Emma then held Wessex as regent for her son Harthacnut, until he was officially welcomed in England the following year. Harthacnut was said to have hated his paternal half-brother, Harold, for the murder of his other, maternal half-brother, Alfred, at which he had felt great sorrow. The King invited his other half-brother, Edward, back to England, whom he treated with much kindness and named as his heir.

Edward was subsequently King of England on the death of Harthacnut, who, like Harold I, met his end in the throes of a fit. Emma is said to have supported Magnus the Noble, not Edward, her son. Emma found her son's attitude to her cold and reserved. Edward resented her second marriage to his father's rival, King Canute, and Emma's preference for her children by Canute over himself and his brother, Alfred. Edward complained that his mother had "done less for him than he wanted before he became king, and also afterwards". In 1043 the king confiscated Emma's property, with which by one report she had promised to assist Magnus. Emma died at Winchester, during the reign of Edward, at the age of around 54 and was buried at Winchester Cathedral.

Following the Norman conquest, of Emma's great-nephew, William the Conqueror, Winchester Cathedral was erected on the Saxon site of the Old Minster. The Royal remains, including King Canute's bones, along with those of Emma of Normandy, were exhumed and placed in mortuary chests around St. Swithin's Shrine in the new building. However in the seventeenth century, during the English Civil War, the bones, after being used by Cromwell's soldiers as missiles to shatter stained glass windows, were scattered and mixed in various chests along with those of some of the Saxon kings, including Egbert of Wessex, Saxon bishops and the Norman King William Rufus. The chests remain today, seated upon a decorative screen surrounding the presbytery of the Cathedral.

Scientists from Bristol University now plan to examine the skeletal remains of Canute, Queen Emma and their son Harthacanute, along with other kings, including the Saxon kings Egbert and Ethelwulf at Winchester. In 2012 the mortuary chests were placed in the Lady Chapel of the cathedral to allow examinations to be carried out without removing them from consecrated ground. A Heritage Lottery Fund grant was applied to finance the project. Experts from Bristol University will use DNA techniques, team leader Professor Mark Horton stated that 'The preliminary findings are very exciting.'

The dispersed remains were analysed and radiocarbon-dated in 2019, to match the remains with the names of eight kings, two bishops and one queen whose names are on six mortuary chests... University of Bristol biological anthropologists discovered the chests contained the remains of at least 23 people, several more than originally assumed. The mixed bones were reassembled and analysing the sex, age and physical characteristics led researchers to conclude that the remains of a mature female could be those belonging to Emma of Normandy. DNA testing is being carried out to confirm the identity of all individuals.

Emma of Normandy RemainsEmma of Normandy Remains

A surprise find was the skeletons of two youths aged between 10 and 15, who died sometime between 1050 and 1150.

Prof Kate Robson Brown stated that they were "almost certainly of royal blood". She added "We cannot be certain of the identity of each individual yet, but we are certain that this is a very special assemblage of bones,". A cathedral spokesman added: “These discoveries could place Winchester Cathedral at the birth of our nation and establish it as the first formal royal mausoleum.”

The continuing research is deepening our understanding of the early Anglo-Saxon kings and queens of England, and visitors can find out more about the project from 21 May when Winchester Cathedral launches its landmark National Lottery Funded exhibition Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation. The bones of the female skeleton have been 3D printed and laid out as a key exhibit in the exhibition.