Queen Emma and the Vikings: A History of Power, Love, and Greed in 11th Century England

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Overview

A lively portrait of a tumultuous period replete with conflict and strife, political intrigue and shifting alliances, assassinations and coronations.

Emma, one of England's most remarkable queens, made her mark on a nation beset by Viking raiders at the end of the Dark Ages, a period often neglected by conventional history. At the center of a triangle of Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans all jostling for control of England, Emma was a political pawn who became a power broker and an unscrupulous manipulator. By birth a Norman, Emma spent the majority of her life on English soil. She was married to two kings of England and outlived both; she was twice driven into exile; while mourning the untimely loss of one son, she was devastated by the murder of another; she saw two of her sons crowned; she was stripped of her powers when her eldest son became king; and she eventually retired from public life as a dowager queen whose land and wealth had been restored. Regarded by her contemporaries as a generous Christian patron, a regent admired by her subjects, and a Machiavellian mother, Emma was, above all, a survivor: hers was a life marked by dramatic reversals of fortune.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A Book Sense Pick in hardcover

"Harriet O'Brien recreates this intriguing and complex world with skill and imagination."—Telegraph

"Harriet O'Brien's story is a dramatic one, and her Queen Emma a commanding, shrewd and manipulative figure."—Guardian

Publishers Weekly
While much remains unknown about Queen Emma as an individual, her story offers a fascinating entrance into the tumultuous world of late Anglo-Saxon England. Daughter of the duke of Normandy, descended just a few generations from Viking invaders, Emma (985-1062) was the wife of two kings (the English Aethelred and, later, his Danish Viking successor, Cnut), the mother of two kings and great-aunt of the Norman William the Conqueror. Despite her secondary status as a woman, Emma can be seen as a key factor in this momentous transitional period, serving as a source of stability and continuity in uncertain times. London-based journalist O'Brien provides a lively account of the harsh realities of war and politics in this era, the vagaries of political marriage and the thin line between invaders and settlers. She examines without condescension the competing values of Christian and pagan custom. Unnecessary excursions into the present tense-mostly at the beginning of chapters-mar the tone of the narrative, which is otherwise nicely ironic about its self-serving and conflicting sources. These sources cannot definitively reveal whether Emma made her choices as a wife, mother and political actor out of calculation or necessity, but she was a woman who clearly took what fortune offered and built the best life she could from it. (Aug.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Queen Emma was the wife and consort of two successive kings of England, Aethelred (978-1016) and Cnut (1016-1035), and the mother of both Harthacnut, King of Denmark (1035-1042) and England (1040- 1042), and of England's Edward the Confessor (1042-1066). She was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy (where she was born) and great aunt of William the Conqueror. Clearly such a woman, who moved in powerful circles during the trying late Anglo-Saxon, early medieval era, deserves to have a few books written about her, and there have been some before O'Brien's, most recently Isabella Strachan's Emma, the Twice-Crowned Queen (2004). London-based journalist O'Brien (Forgotten Land: A Rediscovery of Burma) here relies on primary sources that include Queen Emma's own Encomium Emmae Reginae and The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as well as charters, court records, and secondary sources, all documented. The chapters move along very accessibly and keep the reader wondering what will happen next, and the good bibliography encompasses Internet sites as well as books and articles. Although an optional purchase for libraries already holding Strachan's work, this is recommended for medieval and women's studies collections in both academic and public libraries.-Br. Benet Exton, O.S.B., St. Gregory's Univ., Shawnee, OK Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A politically savvy woman marries two English kings and gives birth to two others in the early Middle Ages. Thousand-year-old documents are few and uniformly biased, images of the principals are rare or non-existent and the relevant buildings are long gone or much altered, but journalist O'Brien neither quakes nor vacillates as she peers back into the darkness and relates for us the compelling story of a remarkable woman who became "the wife, mother and aunt of England." (William the Conqueror was her great-nephew.) The author begins in the spring of 1002 as the teenaged Emma is departing from her home in Normandy to marry England's King Aethelred II. O'Brien simultaneously introduces us to her narrative technique: she launches each chapter with a fairly detailed present-tense narrative, necessarily speculative, about the events she will deal with in a more subdued and scholarly fashion in subsequent pages. The device works well, for these opening segments are invariably more engaging than the subsequent discussions of documents and other historical evidence. The 11th century was a bloody and a religious epoch, a time when Vikings raided the English coast and interior, when important men had names like Ironside and Blue Tooth and Harefoot, when people cherished the arm bones and heads of saints, when wolf's milk was recommended to reanimate a dead baby in utero, when most people lived in squalor and ignorance and fear, when a Viking could split with his axe the head of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To her credit, O'Brien keeps the focus as much as possible on Emma as she moves from queen to widow to queen to widow to queen mother. She lived to be about 70, quite elderly for the time, andwas able to look back on a varied life of riches, humiliation, suffering, subterfuge and, finally, peace. Casts some light on a dark and sanguinary age. (8 pp. color illustrations, b&w illustrations throughout, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596911192
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 8/8/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.03 (w) x 7.83 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Harriet O'Brien is a journalist based in London. She has written for the Independent and Condé Nast Traveler, among other publications. This is her second book.

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Read an Excerpt

QUEEN EMMA AND THE VIKINGS

A History of Power, Love and Greed in Eleventh-Century England
By HARRIET O'BRIEN

BLOOMSBURY

Copyright © 2005 Harriet O'Brien
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-58234-596-1


Chapter One


Normandy

Imagine a flotilla of longships, brilliantly painted and splendidly gilded. The largest features a giant sea monster, a great figurehead that towers up from the prow as if raring not just to ride the waves but to take on the might of the fiercest ocean. For this journey, only the best, most ornate of vessels will do. Loaded with generous provisions of bread, salted meat and wine, as well as chests containing fine linens, silks, brooches, coins and cups of gold and silver, the ships are launched into shallow water. Then a retinue of courtiers wades out to the vessels through the chilly sea, their tunics tucked up into their belts. One of them carefully carries a girl who clutches her cloak tightly around her and stares back at the shore. She is lifted gently into the master ship where she joins several attendant ladies who have already embarked, some under rather wetter circumstances. The crew is anxious to catch the right combination of wind and tide: commands are shouted, a few expletives yelled, and as 150 or so oarsmen swing into action, sails of ochre hues are released, catching a light breeze that sends the ships dancing over the waves. And so Emma sets off from Normandy to marry the King of England.

She has been told that even with the most advantageous southwesterly wind it will take at least three days to reach the coast of Kent. She is prepared for that. But she is apprehensive at seeing the shores of home receding. Losing sight of land emphasises the aching distance between her own country and the alien territory where she must make her future.

Emma is the sister of Richard II of Normandy, a princeling subordinate to the King of West Francia. The man she is to marry is Aethelred II, the uneasy ruler of a country struggling to repel a relentless stream of Scandinavian raiders, or 'Vikings' - not so much an ethnic designation as a contemporary job description for pirates. It is the spring of 1002 and she is barely into her teens. Her future husband is about twenty years her senior, is already the father of at least ten children and has a record of dismally bad relations with her family. That she has only a limited understanding of his language at least serves to shield her from the full extent of his troubles. The outlook seems hardly promising from a personal perspective, but such considerations are irrelevant. Emma has little, if any, choice in the matter: she has been raised to make just such a political match.

She is a 'peaceweaver', the creator of a fragile fabric of friendship between hostile families. Her sisters have been similarly betrothed, but to less immediately aggressive neighbours: Matilde to the Count of Chartres; Hawise to the Count of Rennes. These matches are less glamorous, too. Granted the King of England does not have the kudos of the Germanic emperor Henry II, but Aethelred has significant status in the perceived pecking order of European rulers and, unlike Emma's brother and the other counts in Francia, he bends his knee to no overlord.

Given past relations between the English and Norman courts, it has been explained to the young girl that her situation in England may be uncomfortable, and that life will undoubtedly be tense for the Norman retinue who will, for the time being, remain with her. She has been instructed that it will be expedient for her to produce a child with her ageing husband as a way of clinching the pact with the Anglo-Saxon king. And she has been made aware of the motives for the marriage deal: her brother - and Normandy - will gain greater strength through the alliance with their powerful neighbour; the English monarch, meanwhile, wants to stop the Normans from supporting his Viking enemies. But for Emma, it seems puzzling to be siding with the Anglo-Saxons against the sea-warriors from Scandinavia: she and the Norman people are, after all, of Viking blood.


* * *

The above is fact interspersed with plausible conjecture. The early western European histories of a thousand or so years ago are no less speculative. Written records of events that had passed into collective memory through oral tradition, they are part observation and eyewitness accounts, part hearsay, part folk tale and part embellishment by the monks who penned them. These monks generally knew how to tell a good tale, injecting much spice and intrigue into their Latin texts. Alongside surviving court annals, these provide the basis of what we know about the period, with accepted facts corroborated by legal documents - land charters, law codes and the like - as well as archaeological evidence. Through them glimpses of Emma emerge, increasing as she gains prominence.

She was born into a mainland Europe that had splintered into feuding states controlled by warrior kings. Charlemagne's enormous empire - extending over modern-day France, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, The Netherlands, much of Germany, some of Spain and part of Italy - had dissolved after his death in 814, Viking raids played no small part in the fragmentation, which was also caused by civil war as well as attacks from the Magyars of Hungary and the Saracens of North Africa. In 843 the once-great dominion had been formally divided into three: East Francia, effectively Germany; West Francia, essentially modern-day France; and a thin strip (more or less what is now Alsace and Lorraine) between these two kingdoms that remained the cause of bitter dispute into the twentieth century. The supreme kings of these regions sporadically attempted to broker peace between the warring chieftains who were obliged to pay homage to them. But marriage between the families of regional rulers was a more effective way of reaching a truce, even if it was often short-lived. Such was the manner of Emma's match to Aethelred of England.

Until she became a high-profile pawn in the wrangles between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons, reference to Emma in contemporary documents is almost non-existent. We can only guess at the contributing factors in her childhood that gave her the courage, if not bloody-mindedness, to rise above her circumstances. It was not unusual for aristocratic women of her time to exercise some power, and many owned vast estates, but Emma was to be exceptional, taking centre-stage and becoming the most notoriously determined, manipulative and forceful female in western Europe.

She was one of seven children born to Richard I of Normandy and Gunnor, his mistress of Danish descent. There may have been other progeny who did not survive childhood. The couple later married so that Gunnor's offspring could become Richard's legitimate heirs, with the result that they were probably considered superior to the children of his other concubines. Such a two-tier system could have given Emma more than a touch of wilful arrogance as well as an innate expectation of privilege.

The exact date of her birth is not known, such information being unrecorded for almost any individual of the period. However, since she was to produce her first child by 1005 and her last in about 1021, it would be reasonable to assume that she was born in the late 980s. She may have been the eldest of Gunnor's three daughters, although such speculation is thinly based on the fact that she made a more prestigious match than her two sisters, whose own marriages were either in the same year or just a shade after Emma's. It is possible, on the other hand, that her brother Richard, who had inherited his father's title in 996, chose Emma for the most illustrious and difficult match because she was considered best able to cope with the challenge. She was undoubtedly younger than Richard, and was also probably born after her next brother, Robert. She is known to have had two more full brothers: Mauger, who became the Count of Corbeil; and Robert Danus, who died as a young man. Emma's sister Matilde also died early, possibly in childbirth, a couple of years after her marriage - prompting an ugly fracas as Richard II demanded her dowry back.

During the first few years of her life Emma would have had little contact with her mother, being raised instead by a wet nurse within the courtly household. Thereafter she would have become the responsibility of an attendant designated to her and her sisters and moving with them as the Norman court oscillated around the province, chiefly between Rouen, Fécamp and Bayeux. She almost certainly would not have been sent away to foster parents: such aristocratic practice was more common for boys, who were often farmed out as part of their education - and also as an attempt to keep them safe from hostage-taking or assassination during periods of political turmoil. Her own 'education' must have been extremely limited. She would have learnt the art of fine needle-work - no idle occupation since the embroidered wallhangings created by aristocratic ladies had a very necessary purpose as draught excluders in houses and halls where glass had as yet to become a common feature for windows. However, she would not have demeaned herself with weaving, which was the work of less noble women. She would have been schooled in the refinements of court diplomacy: meeting, greeting and serving wine at feast days were important accomplishments given that she was almost inevitably to be married off as part of an alliance with another noble family. It was also a useful way of gleaning what was being discussed at court. She would have been illiterate - her sisters and most of her brothers, too. Reading and writing were not secular attainments and Emma would hardly have considered it within her sphere of possibilities to acquire skills that were taught only to those entering monasteries and convents.

She would have spoken a form of Old French, a Gallic development from Latin influenced by the Germanic tongues of the Franks and the Scandinavians. She would also have been fluent in Old Scandinavian, which was the language of the Vikings and was not entirely dissimilar to the Old English spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. Whether Emma would have regarded Old French or Old Scandinavian as her mother tongue is a pertinent consideration.

In origin the Normans were not French at all but 'north men', Vikings who had been ceded territory around the Seine in the early 900s. The exact derivation of the word 'viking' is a slight puzzle. It may be a development from Viken, the name of an area around the Oslo Fjord, the term gradually being applied to all men of the fjords. It may have originated in the Old Scandinavian word 'vik', which meant creek or bay: a 'viking' essentially being a trader or raider who kept his ship in a bay or estuary. From the ninth century onwards the word had become synonymous with the northern pirates who were plundering from the coastlines of much of western Europe and indeed as far afield as Russia and north Africa. In many areas they eventually settled, particularly Ireland, Scotland, eastern England and northern France. Emma herself was from the third generation of such colonists, and by the turn of the first millennium the territory of these particular 'north men' had extended to cover roughly the same area as Normandy does today: from just south of Alençon to the Channel coast in the north and from Mont Saint-Michel in the west to several miles east of Dieppe. And it seems that at this stage the Normans were attempting to improve their image and status among other European states.

At the time of Emma's departure to England, a Frankish ecclesiastic from the monastery of St Quentin near Laon was at court compiling a history of the Normans. Dudo had originally been commissioned by Emma's father, who had orchestrated the project as a means of building up the credibility and grandeur of the renegade rulers of the Viking province. After the death of Richard I, Dudo continued the task for Emma's brother for whom he worked until about 1015. A type of vanity publishing, tinged with requisite flourishes of godliness, Dudo's history became the basic material for subsequent Norman chroniclers writing around the time of the Norman Conquest and also in the mid-twelfth century. They revised and abbreviated his work, while also updating it and contributing their own additions drawn from other sources now lost. Together these surviving histories provide a thoroughly biased and consistently colourful story of the makings of Emma's Normandy, emphasising, probably inadvertently, how strongly Viking her family had remained.

The principality of Normandy had been founded by her great-grandfather, the Scandinavian warrior Rollo. The Norse saga-writers of the late-twelfth century claim that he was the son of the west Norwegian chieftain Rognvald of More, whose descendants famously became the earls of Orkney. However, the Norman chroniclers trace Rollo back to Denmark. They record that he and his bellicose followers were driven out of the 'island' of Scania (presumably Skane, on the southern tip of what is now mainland Sweden) by other Viking groups, an expulsion that would have taken place sometime during the 870s. After ten years ravaging the coasts of England and Holland, Rollo and his men moved on to the territory of the King of West Francia - and here questionable myth starts to merge with proven fact.

When Rollo arrived in what is now northern France, there were already a number of Scandinavian settlements around the Cotentin peninsula and the Seine. As a sea-faring plunderer, the Viking newcomer would not have been entirely welcome with those who had made homes in the area. In the 880s he sailed up the Seine, captured Rouen and made it his strategic base. From there he joined other Viking plunderers in besieging Paris, and he petulantly ravaged the countryside when he considered he was not being paid enough to leave the city in peace.

His activities must have been particularly menacing, for eventually Charles the Simple of West Francia struck a deal with Rollo. A ruler more shrewd than his nickname suggests, Charles demanded terms to keep the Viking very much under his control: in return for land, Rollo was obliged to convert to Christianity, marry Charles's daughter Gisla and become a vassal of the King. The unfortunate, peaceweaving, Gisla did not survive long. She died childless whereupon Rollo reinstalled his companion Poppa, to whom he was 'bound according to the Danish custom'.

This presumably refers to pagan Scandinavian marriage practice. Northern marriage traditionally took place by seizure: the prospective bride would be forcibly carried off and the union formally recognised once her abductor had paid a 'bride-price' to her relatives. If the wife subsequently committed adultery she would be severely punished - in some regions she risked being killed. No such limits were imposed on Scandinavian men. They were openly promiscuous and would often keep one or more concubine whose children they might choose to recognise, or not. From a Scandinavian man's perspective, sex was unlicensed and marriage existed principally for making alliances. And for the newly Christian Viking leaders, the recognition of two separate marriage practices, Christian and pagan - and two convenient possibilities of making alliances this way - was an open door to flagrant bigamy. As Emma was later to find out to her cost.

Rollo named Poppa's son, William 'Longsword', as his heir. William expanded the territory of the 'north men', gained credibility through patronage of the Church, flirted with the idea of becoming a monk - and came to a premature and bloody end on 17 December 942 when he was murdered by the Count of Flanders.

Emma's father, Richard I, succeeded while still a minor. He was the offspring of William's Danish-style union to the 'noble maiden' Sprota. However, like Rollo, William too had another wife. His Christian marriage to Leyarda, daughter of the Count of Vermandois, did not produce children and on William's death she was married on to the Count of Blois and Chartres. Richard, if the Norman chroniclers are to be believed, was the uncontested heir from birth and at the express wish of his father was brought up variously at Fécamp, the large Norman settlement on the coast, and at Bayeux. Both were places where he could learn Scandinavian ways and the Scandinavian language, Rouen being considered too French.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from QUEEN EMMA AND THE VIKINGS by HARRIET O'BRIEN Copyright © 2005 by Harriet O'Brien. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 29, 2011

    Poorly Written

    I am only a few chapters into this book and, though it appears to be reasonably well-researched, I find reading it to be immensely annoying. The author constantly switches from past to present tense, without any apparent rhyme or reason. One moment "Emma was" and then "Emma is". If the author was striving for immediacy by using the present tense, she should have done so consistently throughout the book. The vaccillation between usages is jarring, and actually pulls the reader away from the subject while they try to adjust their point of view. I will continue to read the book for the information it holds, but I will not enjoy it as much as I should have done.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 27, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Good, concise history!

    Quick Version A history of Emma, Norman wife of two kings of England (one Anglo-Saxon and one Dane), mother of two kings of England, and great-aunt of William the Conqueror. Long Version Emma is every historian's dream subject. Born into a position destined to make her a pawn in the power plays of the highest nobility, Emma had the intelligence and the cunning to rise to eminence in a world where women were undereducated and disregarded. Despite a length of less than three hundred pages, this book does an excellent job telling not only Emma's story, but the tale of the time in which she lived. This is a period of English history full of shifting politics and cultures. Alfred the Great had ruled shortly before, the apex of Anglo-Saxon England. Emma's first husband, the inept Aethelred led to its ruin. Cnut the Dane conquered England and in a stunning move married the popular and recently widowed Queen Emma. Following his demise, Emma held on long enough to put not just one, but two sons, one by Aethelred and one by Cnut, on to England's throne. In addition to the machinations of politics, Harriet O'Brien paints a vivid picture of life at all levels of society during Emma's lifespan, interspersing her portrait with useful tidbits such as which food items would not have been seen and when they were first cultivated in England. I finally learned the difference between mead and ale! I highly recommend this history to readers of Helen Hollick's historical fiction, The Forever Queen and its recently released sequel I am the Chosen King. It also stands on its own as a wonderfully readable account of the life and times of a woman too often overlooked in the annals of history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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