Emma, my introduction to the Viking era

September 12, 2012 at 9:36 pm (Education, Reviews, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Title: Emma: The Twice-Crowned Queen, England in the Viking Age

Author: Isabella Strachan

Publisher: Peter Owen Publishers

Length: 192 pgs.

First of all, let me premise this by informing you that like the Catherines/Katherines of Henry VIII’s time, the name Elgiva/Emma runs rampant during the Viking age of England.  For instance, the subject of this biography was born Emma but the English chose to call her by the Latin equivalent: Elgiva.  Emma was the second wife of the widowed Ethelred, whose first wife’s name was Elgiva.  When Ethelred (king of England under the Saxons) dies and his land then conquered by the Danes (while King Swegn ruled), a Dane named Canute (Cnut) came to power.  Emma becomes his wife as well, but guess what? He already has a ‘wife’ named… any takers? anyone? anyone? Yep, Elgiva.  This makes for some interesting reading, but Strachan eases the issue by always referring to Emma as only Emma and providing a handy-dandy cast list in the front of the book.

When I first heard of Emma, I expected a woman who was cunning and manipulative.  Someone with political the intrigue of a Cleopatra or Elizabeth I.  I thought I’d be reading about a woman with a deep political agenda, always out-playing others in a real-life chess match.  Instead I found a woman who seems to me to have been more adaptive, reactive, a survivor constantly caught between a rock and a hard place.  The Twice-Crowned Queen is less of a political master mind and more of a drowning victim always bobbing up to the surface of the water just moments before death.

She was young when she became the bargaining chip in an arranged marriage to King Ethelred.  It was a political ploy of others that ensured the Normans and Vikings were kept at bay during a time of imminent war, as both her father and half-brother were Dukes of Normandy with close, friendly ties to the Vikings.  After Ethelred dies and England taken over by the Danes, Canute is chosen to be the new King.  The problem with this arrangement is that the Church and Cabinet wanted Emma to remain the Queen.  It remained good political sense, but Canute already had a wife.  Canute had a handfast wife, referred to as Elgiva of Northampton.  From what I gather from Strachan, a handfast wife was the Medieval equivalent of a ‘Common-law wife.’  Handfast wives had all the political and societal rights of a true spouse, but were not recognized by the church.  Later William the Conqueror’s own mother would turn out to be a Handfast Wife, which was why he was a Duke of Normandy but still got called William the Bastard.

Either way, there was a lot of drama surrounding Emma’s marriage to Canute.  He seems to have been completely in love with Elgiva of Northampton and despite promising that Emma would be his only Queen and her children heir to the throne, Elgiva was the only one granted regency rights over her own lands and it was her son Harold that took the throne upon Canute’s death.  Emma was again just a political pawn to keep the peace, and in keeping the peace was forced to send her own children (from Ethelred) away to grow up abandoned by their mother while fighting tooth and nail to keep her children by Canute in the running for the throne.  There is a poem called Samiramis that I’d like to get my hands on, written by the Normans of the time, that tells their account of the entire incident.

What I initially saw as an intense woman ensuring each of her children had a chance to rule (as her son Harthacnut from Canute and her oldest son Edward from Ethelred both eventually become King, while her daughter was the Queen of Germany), after the biography I feel that most of this was just chance and circumstance.  Harthacnut was indeed fought for to be King, but his half-brother Edward the Confessor became King despite his mother.  Edward actually stripped Emma of all her political rights as soon as he gained the throne.  One of the clenchers for me having been interested in studying her was that she was William the Conqueror’s great-aunt, but he did not seem to have much of a tie to her, he merely showed a bit of respect for his cousins.

I am glad I read the book.  Although I am disillusioned about her character, I think she’s still mighty impressive and wonder why she was left out of my education.  Reading this biography made me intensely interested in reading additional history on William the Conqueror and his mother Arlette (Herleva).  Lady Godiva also makes a cameo appearance, which piqued my interest as well as a man named Olaf Haraldsson.  As I always say, the more you read, the more you discover you need to read.

This book would make a great addition to a well-read 11-12 year old’s Medieval history curriculum.  It is short, sweet, and informative of not just Emma but a huge piece of history that made the English monarchy what it later became.  And I loved it.

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