Queens of artfulness

Queen Emma and Queen Edith
February 13, 1998

Pauline Stafford's well-established work on the history of Anglo-Saxon England and in particular on the position of women and families in society has prepared the way for her important double biography of the last two queens before the Norman Conquest. Queen Emma and Queen Edith have in common their queenship, the turmoil of the times through which they lived, their fluctuating fortunes and their survival; but they were different in character, in cultural background, and in the challenges they faced.

Emma, the sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, came to England in 1002 as the wife of King Ethelred; after his death and the conquest of England by the Danish king Cnut she married her first husband's conqueror. Both her husbands had children from previous marriages or alliances; she had children by both marriages. The years between Cnut's death in 1035 and the accession of her son Edward in 1042, when the succession was disputed three times, saw the highest and lowest points of her influence.

Edith, the daughter of Earl Godwine of Wessex and wife of Emma's son King Edward (1042-66), had the different problems of a childless wife. Her fortunes were closely linked with those of the Godwine family: when they fell from power in 1041 she was accused of adultery and threatened with divorce; on their return she was cleared and restored to her husband's side. After his death and the brief reign of her brother, Harold, she made her peace with William the Conqueror and retained a substantial part of her wealth.

Even during their lifetime, both women were at the centre of politically motivated controversies. Fortunately, as Stafford shows, both succeeded in presenting their own interpretation of events in works written by others. The Encomium Emmae Reginae was written in 1041-42 at a high point of triumph in Emma's life. The life of King Edward is in effect Edith's story, told in a form that preserves the memories of the pre-1066 court but is adapted to its post-Conquest readers.

Stafford's book is in two parts. The first is concerned with the structures of Old English society and especially 10th- and 11th-century English queenship. Detailed and searching, it analyses the customs of inheritance and family power, the different elements that made up women's authority and queenship, the place of the queen in both her own and the royal household, the importance of dower and dowry in the consolidation of royal power, the queen's wealth and use of patronage, the contribution of liturgical ceremonies to her coronation and installation.

The second main part is Stafford's account of the lives of the two women. Alien elements - Danish and Norman - come to the fore; then the control by the queen of the housecarls, or her ability to accept her conqueror either by marriage or by acquiescence may seem to be the only thing that counts. Emma's problems arising from the customs of the Scandinavian inheritance were transient. Norman customs were more enduring, but eclectic enough to absorb earlier English customs, including those regarding the queen's status. Any claim by Edith to transmit her husband's throne to King William, would have carried no weight with the Normans; yet her status conveyed something after the dust had settled. As Stafford writes: "The more King William was stressed as Edward's immediate and automatic heir, the more respect for his widow became de rigueur."

Georges Duby once showed how the dominating power of aristocratic women over their household and those in its protection and patronage was accepted, whereas in government women's power was always seen in the context of marriage, as wife, mother or widow, and any woman who attempted to exercise it "in a masculine way" was abused and sternly criticised. Stafford's detailed and subtle examination of all the elements making up queenship extends this general picture into a precise historical examination of the lives of the last two pre-conquest queens. Readable and learned, it is an admirable illustration of the way in which gender studies may be used to enrich understanding of the whole history of a period.

Marjorie Chibnall is emeritus fellow of Clare Hall, Cambridge.

Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women's Power in 11th-Century England

Author - Pauline Stafford
ISBN - 0 631 16679 3
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £40.00
Pages - 371

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