Women’s History Month Guest, Helen Hollick

I have known Helen Hollick for many years… and we’ve never actually met in real life. It was our love of history that brought us together, so of course she’s one of my guests this month.

She writes internationally and lives in the land whose historical fiction she writes. She’s given us a few handy hints for finding her (in this paragraph and below the blogpost) . She’s wonderfully generous in helping other writers be visible and her Discovering Diamonds blog always contains something of interest.


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Emma – No, Not the Jane Austen One…

Twenty or so years ago I had never heard of Emma of Normandy – Queen of Anglo Saxon England during the first half of the eleventh century. I had heard of her two husbands: Æthelred ‘the Unready’ and Cnut (although I knew him, back then, as ‘Canute’). I had also heard of one of her sons: Edward ‘the Confessor’ – the one who ruled England for quite a few years, built the original Saxon Westminster Abbey and was the indirect cause of the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Who has not heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine and the later Queens of  the Tudor contingent? But, our Saxon Ladies were very much side-lined after William, Duke of Normandy stole England for himself and everything Norman took precedent over the previous 400-plus years of the Anglo-Saxons. Emma herself fell by the wayside as far as the history books were concerned, despite her being Duke William’s great-aunt.

She was a pawn in the great scheme of alliance-making. Her first marriage in 1002 to Æthelred was intended to be a curb on the Danish Vikings who persistently attacked England. They regularly over-wintered along the Normandy coast, so it was thought that maybe a marriage into the Norman Ducal family would have some influence and put a stop to it. It didn’t.

Emma was probably aged between twelve–fifteen (probably thirteen or fourteen, and don’t gasp in horror, marriage at this young age was quite common back then.) The couple were to have two sons and at least one daughter (these were the ones who survived into adulthood, if Emma bore other children there is no record of it).

It is probable (OK, my conjecture) that she loathed Æthelred. He was a weak king and I suspect she had no respect for him. He failed to keep the Danish at bay, letting King Swein Forkbeard of Denmark and his son Cnut walk in by the back door to take England for their own. Fortunate for Æthelred, and Emma, Swein died and Cnut was too young to pick up the reins. But young sons get older and he came back. Æthelred died, leaving his wife and her sons in a difficult situation. (His other son by a previous marriage, Edmund Ironside, tried his best… but died probably from wounds received in battle.) Emma had a choice: flee or make a bargain. She sent her sons into exile in Normandy and made that choice – to offer her hand in marriage in order to bring stability and credibility to Cnut as King.

As it turned out, it seems to have been a happy, successful marriage, although there were a few hiccups – Cnut’s first wife demanding her share of the spotlight for herself and their sons for one thing. Emma was having none of it. First Wife gets nudged out (she was sent to oversee Cnut’s conquest of Norway as Regent – she made a mess of it) and Emma settled in as Queen Consort and Regent of England when Cnut was absent on his many trips abroad.

Alas, Cnut died when he was in his early 30s. Their son, Harthacnut, was too busy seeing to the security of Denmark so First Wife took her opportunity for revenge by ensuring that her son, Harold Harefoot, snapped up the English throne. Emma fled into exile, but used her time away to good advantage by having her biography written. The Encomium Emmae Reginae is possibly the first biography of a queen to be written and published.

Of course it did contain quite a lot of propaganda in order to back Harthacnut’s claim. She does mention her sons Edward and Alfred, but not a word about their father, Æthelred.. To use a modern term – he was well and truly airbrushed out.

Sadly Alfred had been cruelly murdered (probably on First Wife’s orders) while trying to invade England. Edward had taken one look at Harefoot’s armies, turned tail and fled back to the safety of Normandy. Given the circumstances of his brother’s murder, perhaps he had been wise to do so?

Harefoot, however, only lasted a handful of years as king. He died. Unexpectedly? Natural causes or murder? There is absolutely no proof of it, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least had Emma ‘arranged’ something. Unfortunately, Harefoot’s successor, her son Harthacnut, was also to only reign for a few years, for he died as a young man. That left Edward.

How disappointed was Emma? How much did she have to grit her teeth and smile in public even though her weak son, who would have been far better suited to a life as a monk, sat on the throne and treated her with contempt? They hated each other. To the extent that Edward publicly shamed his mother, threatened to exile her and stripped her of all authority. She died on March 6th 1052 in Winchester, an elderly lady. Bitter? Pleased with what she had achieved? Eager to meet Cnut again in Heaven?

In my mind she should have received a far greater acknowledgement by subsequent historians than the occasional fleeting mention. At least in the pages of historical fiction she is being remembered.

In my mind she should have received a far greater acknowledgement by subsequent historians than the occasional fleeting mention. At least in the pages of historical fiction she is being remembered.

I first met her while researching and writing my historical novel Harold the King (titled I Am The Chosen King in the US). As I wrote this story, which is a portrait of the events that led to the Battle of Hastings, I became more and more interested in this fascinating woman – and more admiring of her. In the end I respected her to the extent that I just had to write a novel about her. In the UK it is titled A Hollow Crown but I think the US version The Forever Queen is better edited – and I’m pleased, for Emma’s sake as much as my own, that it hit the USA Today Best Seller list soon after publication.

I’m glad I told her story (or at least, my interpretation of it) because Emma deserves to be remembered. I think she was every inch a great  lady, and Great Ladies should take their place in history.

© Helen Hollick

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Twitter: @HelenHollick

Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog (submissions welcome) : https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.co.uk/

1 comment

  1. Thank you Gillian – apologies for the late reply, I decided to have a day off (and of course have now discovered a lot of important things in my inbox!)

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