[Emma receiving the Encomium, 1050, from The Encomium of Queen Emma]
Emma became the second wife of Æthelred the Unready, as part of an alliance between Normandy and England against the Viking threat. She had three children with him, Edward the Confessor, Goda, and Alfred. Æthelred, however, died in 1016, leaving the way open for Cnut the Great of Denmark, who had invaded the year before, to conquer England. Emma, seeing a political opportunity, married him.
Though there is no evidence that Emma was particularly active as Æthelred’s wife, we do know that Cnut married her in part for her understanding of English politics, though marrying the previous king’s wife also helped legitimate his own claim to the throne. Emma ruled England, acting as regent for him when he returned to Denmark and his other wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton.* Emma had two children with him, Harthacnut and Gunhilda, who went on to become Holy Roman Empress.
After Cnut’s death in 1035, her sons Edward and Alfred returned to England from their exile in Normandy, supposedly in response to a letter from their mother. They were attacked and though Edward escaped, Alfred was blinded and killed.** One can only imagine how much this soured Edward’s relationship with his mother, who had already married the man who took the throne they thought theirs by right and then after his death, threw her support behind Harthacnut rather than the children of her first husband.
Emma’s support of her youngest son, however, was doomed. Things went well for a while, but soon Emma’s key ally, Godwin of Wessex, switched his allegiance to Emma’s stepson, Harold Harefoot, despite Emma’s control of the treasury. Harthacnut did manage to take the throne after Harold’s death, but he only ruled two years before he died. Edward, who became sole ruler of England in 1042, had little use for a mother who had abandoned him.
*Who, incidentally, ruled as regent for Cnut in Denmark and Norway when he returned to England. It is notable that when Emma attacked the right of Ælfgifu’s son Harold Harefoot, she did so not with the claim that Ælfgifu was not married to Cnut, but rather that Harold was not Cnut’s son and perhaps not even Ælfgifu’s son.
**The Encomium places the blame for this incident squarely on the shoulders of Harold Harefoot and claims that the letter asking Emma’s sons to visit her had been his trick to entrap them.