William the Conqueror – Part 6

October 30, 2017
17 mins read

Editor’s Note:  This is the sixth chapter of William the Conqueror, by Jacob Abbot (published 1877).

(Continued from Part 5)

VI. The Lady Emma

It is not to be supposed that, even in the war-like times of which we are writing, such a potentate as a duke of Normandy would invade a country like England, so large and powerful in comparison to his own, without some pretext. William’s pretext was, that he himself was the legitimate successor to the English crown, and that the English king who possessed it at the time of his invasion was a usurper. In order that the reader may understand the nature and origin of this his claim, it is necessary to relate somewhat in full the story of the Lady Emma.

By referring to the genealogy of the Norman line of dukes contained in the second chapter of this volume, it will be seen that Emma was the daughter of the first Richard. She was celebrated in her early years for her great personal beauty. They called her the Pearl of Normandy.

She married, at length, one of the kings of England, whose name was Ethelred. England was at that time distracted by civil wars, waged between the two antagonist races of Saxons and Danes. There were, in fact, two separate dynasties or lines of kings, who were contending, all the time, for the mastery. In these contests, sometimes the Danes would triumph for a time, and sometimes the Saxons; and sometimes both races would have a royal representative in the field, each claiming the throne, and reigning over separate portions of the island. Thus there were, at certain periods, two kingdoms in England, both covering the same territory, and claiming the government of the same population—with two kings, two capitals, two administrations—while the wretched inhabitants were distracted and ruined by the terrible conflicts to which these hostile pretensions gave rise.

Ethelred the Unready

Ethelred was of the Saxon line. He was a widower at the time of his marriage to Emma, nearly forty years old, and he had, among other children by his former wife, a son named Edmund, an active, energetic young man, who afterward became king. One motive which he had in view in marrying Emma was to strengthen his position by securing the alliance of the Normans of Normandy. The Danes, his English enemies, were Normans. The government of Normandy would therefore be naturally inclined to take part with them. By this marriage, however, Ethelred hoped to detach the Normans of France from the cause of his enemies, and to unite them to his own. He would thus gain a double advantage, strengthening himself by an accession which weakened his foes.

His plan succeeded so far as inducing Richard himself, the Duke of Normandy, to espouse his cause, but it did not enable Ethelred to triumph over his enemies. They, on the contrary, conquered him, and, in the end, drove him from the country altogether. He fled to Normandy for refuge, with Emma his wife, and his two young sons. Their names were Edward and Alfred.

Richard II, Emma’s brother, who was then the Duke of Normandy, received the unhappy fugitives with great kindness, although he, at least, scarcely deserved it. It was not surprising that he was driven from his native realm, for he possessed none of those high qualities of mind which fit men to conquer or to govern. Like all other weak-minded tyrants, he substituted cruelty for wisdom and energy in his attempts to subjugate his foes. As soon as he was married to Emma, for instance, feeling elated and strong at the great accession of power which he imagined he had obtained by this alliance, he planned a general massacre of the Danes, and executed it on a given day, by means of private orders, sent secretly throughout the kingdom. Vast numbers of the Danes were destroyed; and so great was the hatred of the two races for each other, that they who had these bloody orders to obey executed them with a savage cruelty that was absolutely horrible. In one instance they buried women to the waist, and then set dogs upon them, to tear their naked flesh until they died in agony. It would be best, in narrating history, to suppress such horrid details as these, were it not that in a land like this, where so much depends upon the influence of every individual in determining whether the questions and discussions which are from time to time arising, and are hereafter to arise, shall be settled peacefully, or by a resort to violence and civil war, it is very important that we should all know what civil war is, and to what horrible atrocities it inevitably leads.

Alfred the Great, when he was contending with the Danes in England, a century before this time, treated them, so far as he gained advantages over them, with generosity and kindness; and this policy wholly conquered them in the end. Ethelred, on the other hand, tried the effect of the most tyrannical cruelty, and the effect was only to arouse his enemies to a more determined and desperate resistance. It was the phrensy of vengeance and hate that these atrocities awakened every where among the Danes, which nerved them with so much vigor and strength that they finally expelled him from the island; so that, when he arrived in Normandy, a fugitive and an exile, he came in the character of a dethroned tyrant, execrated for his senseless and atrocious cruelties, and not in that of an unhappy prince driven from his home by the pressure of unavoidable calamity.

Nevertheless, Richard, the Duke of Normandy, received him, as we have already said, with kindness. He felt the obligation of receiving the exiled monarch in a hospitable manners if not on his own account, at least for the sake of Emma and the children.

The origin and end of Emma’s interest in Ethelred seems to have been merely ambition. The “Pearl of Normandy” had given herself to this monster for the sake, apparently, of the glory of being the English queen. Her subsequent conduct compels the readers of history to make this supposition, which otherwise would be uncharitable. She now mourned her disappointment in finding that, instead of being sustained by her husband in the lofty position to which she aspired, she was obliged to come back to her former home again, to be once more dependent, and with the additional burden of her husband himself, and her children, upon her father’s family. Her situation was rendered even still more humiliating, in some degree, by the circumstances that her father was no longer alive, and that it was to her brother, on whom her natural claim was far less strong, that she had now to look for shelter and protection. Richard, however, received them all in a kind and generous manner.

In the meantime, the wars and commotions which had driven Ethelred away continued to rage in England, the Saxons gradually gaining ground against the Danes. At length the king of the Danes, who had seized the government when Ethelred was expelled, died. The Saxons then regained their former power, and they sent commissioners to Ethelred to propose his return to England. At the same time, they expressed their unwillingness to receive him, unless they could bind him, by a solemn treaty, to take a very different course of conduct, in the future management of his government, from that which he had pursued before. Ethelred and Emma were eager to regain, on any terms, their lost throne. They sent over ambassadors empowered to make, in Ethelred’s name, any promises which the English nobles might demand; and shortly afterward the royal pair crossed the Channel and went to London, and Ethelred was acknowledged there by the Saxon portion of the population of the island once more as king.

The Danes, however, though weakened, were not yet disposed to submit. They declared their allegiance to Canute, who was the successor in the Danish line. Then followed a long war between Canute and Ethelred. Canute was a man of extraordinary sagacity and intelligence, and also of great courage and energy. Ethelred, on the other hand, proved himself, notwithstanding all his promises, incurably inefficient, cowardly, and cruel. In fact, his son Prince Edmund, the son of his first wife, was far more efficient than his father in resisting Canute and the Danes. Edmund was active and fearless, and he soon acquired very extensive power. In fact, he seems to have held the authority of his father in very little respect. One striking instance of this insubordination occurred. Ethelred had taken offense, for some reason or other, at one of the nobles in his realm, and had put him to death, and confiscated his estates; and, in addition to this, with a cruelty characteristic of him, he shut up the unhappy widow of his victim, a young and beautiful woman, in a gloomy convent, as a prisoner. Edmund, his son, went to the convent, liberated the prisoner, and made her his own wife.


With such unfriendly relations between the king and his son, who seems to have been the ablest general in his father’s army, there could be little hope of making head against such an enemy as Canute the Dane. In fact, the course of public affairs went on from bad to worse, Emma leading all the time a life of unceasing anxiety and alarm. At length, in 1016, Ethelred died, and Emma’s cup of disappointment and humiliation was now full. Her own sons, Edward and Alfred, had no claims to the crown; for Edmund, being the son by a former marriage, was older than they. They were too young to take personally an active part in the fierce contests of the day, and thus fight their way to importance and power. And then Edmund, who was now to become king, would, of course, feel no interest in advancing them, or doing honor to her. A son who would thwart and counteract the plans and measures of a father, as Edmund had done, would be little likely to evince much deference or regard for a mother-in-law, or for half brothers, whom he would naturally consider as his rivals. In a word, Emma had reason to be alarmed at the situation of insignificance and danger in which she found herself suddenly placed. She fled a second time, in destitution and distress, to her brother’s in Normandy. She was now, however, a widow, and her children were fatherless. It is difficult to decide whether to consider her situation as better or worse on this account, than it was at her former exile.

Emma with her sons Edward and Alfred

Her sons were lads, but little advanced beyond the period of childhood; and Edward, the eldest, on whom the duty of making exertions to advance the family interests would first devolve, was of a quiet and gentle spirit, giving little promise that he would soon be disposed to enter vigorously upon military campaigns. Edmund, on the other hand, who was now king, was in the prime of life, and was a man of great spirit and energy. There was a reasonable prospect that he would live many years; and even if he were to be suddenly cut off, there seemed to be no hope of the restoration of Emma to importance or power; for Edmund was married and had two sons, one of whom would be entitled to succeed him in case of his decease. It seemed, therefore, to be Emma’s destiny now, to spend the remainder of her days with her children in neglect and obscurity. The case resulted differently, however, as we shall see in the end.

Edmund, notwithstanding his prospect of a long and prosperous career, was cut off suddenly, after a stormy reign of one year. During his reign, Canute the Dane had been fast gaining ground in England, notwithstanding the vigor and energy with which Edmund had opposed him. Finally, the two monarchs assembled their armies, and were about to fight a great final battle. Edmund sent a flag of truce to Canute’s camp, proposing that, to save the effusion of blood, they should agree to decide the ease by single combat, and that he and Canute should be the champions, and fight in presence of the armies. Canute declined this proposal. He was himself small and slender in form, while Edmund was distinguished for his personal development and muscular strength. Canute therefore declined the personal contest, but offered to leave the question to the decision of a council chosen from among the leading nobles on either side. This plan was finally adopted. The council convened, and, after long deliberations, they framed a treaty by which the country was divided between the two potentates, and a sort of peace was restored. A very short period after this treaty was settled, Edmund was murdered.

Canute immediately laid claim to the whole realm. He maintained that it was a part of the treaty that the partition of the kingdom was to continue only during their joint lives, and that, on the death of either, the whole was to pass to the survivor of them. The Saxon leaders did not admit this, but they were in no condition very strenuously to oppose it. Ethelred’s sons by Emma were too young to come forward as leaders yet; and as to Edmund’s, they were mere children. There was, therefore, no one whom they could produce as an efficient representative of the Saxon line, and thus the Saxons were compelled to submit to Canute’s pretensions, at least for a time. They would not wholly give up the claims of Edmund’s children, but they consented to waive them for a season. They gave Canute the guardianship of the boys until they should become of age, and allowed him, in the mean time, to reign, himself, over the whole land.

Canute exercised his power in a very discreet and judicious manner, seeming intent, in all his arrangements, to protect the rights and interests of the Saxons as well as of the Danes. It might be supposed that the lives of the young Saxon princes, Edmund’s sons, would not have been safe in his hands; but the policy which he immediately resolved to pursue was to conciliate the Saxons, and not to intimidate and coerce them. He therefore did the young children no harm, but sent them away out of the country to Denmark, that they might, if possible, be gradually forgotten. Perhaps he thought that, if the necessity should arise for it, they might there, at any time, be put secretly to death.

There was another reason still to prevent Canute’s destroying these children, which was, that if they were removed, the claims of the Saxon line would not thereby be extinguished, but would only be transferred to Emma’s children in Normandy, who, being older, were likely the sooner to be in a condition to give him trouble as rivals. It was therefore a very wise and sagacious policy which prompted him to keep the young children of Edmund alive, but to remove them to a safe distance out of the way.

In respect to Emma’s children, Canute conceived a different plan for guarding against any danger which came from their claims, and that was, to propose to take their mother for his wife. By this plan her family would come into his power, and then her own influence and that of her Norman friends would be forever prevented from taking sides against him. He accordingly made the proposal. Emma was ambitious enough of again returning to her former position of greatness as English queen to accept it eagerly. The world condemned her for being so ready to marry, for her second husband, the deadly enemy and rival of the first; but it was all one to her whether her husband was Saxon or Dane, provided that she could be queen.

The boys, or, rather, the young men, for they were now advancing to maturity, were very strongly opposed to this connection. They did all in their power to prevent its consummation, and they never forgave their mother for thus basely betraying their interests. They were the more incensed at this transaction, because it was stipulated in the marriage articles between Canute and Emma that their future children—the offspring of the marriage then contracted—should succeed to the throne of England, to the exclusion of all previously born on either side. Thus Canute fancied that he had secured his title, and that of his descendants, to the crown forever, and Emma prepared to return to England as once more its queen. The marriage was celebrated with great pomp and splendor, and Emma, bidding Normandy and her now alienated children farewell, was conducted in state to the royal palace in London.

Emma and Canute

We must now pass over, with a very few words, a long interval of twenty years. It was the period of Canute’s reign, which was prosperous and peaceful. During this period Emma’s Norman sons continued in Normandy. She had another son in England a few years after her marriage, who was named Canute, after his father, but he is generally known in history by the name of Hardicanute, the prefix being a Saxon word denoting energetic or strong. Canute had also a very celebrated minister in his government named Godwin. Godwin was a Saxon of a very humble origin, and the history of his life constitutes quite a romantic tale. He was a man of extraordinary talents and character, and at the time of Canute’s death he was altogether the most powerful subject in the realm.

When Canute found that he was about to die, and began to consider what arrangements he should make for the succession, he concluded that it would not be safe for him to fulfill the agreement made in his marriage contract with Emma, that the children of that marriage should inherit the kingdom; for Hardicanute, who was entitled to succeed under that covenant, was only about sixteen or seventeen years old, and consequently too young to attempt to govern. He therefore made a will, in which he left the kingdom to an older son, named Harold—a son whom he had had before his marriage with Emma. This was the signal for a new struggle. The influence of the Saxons and of Emma’s friends was of course in favor of Hardicanute, while the Danes espoused the cause of Harold. Godwin at length taking sides with this last-named party, Harold was established on the throne, and Emma and all her children, whether descended from Ethelred or Canute, were set aside and forgotten.

Harold Harefoot

Emma was not at all disposed to acquiesce in this change of fortune. She remained in England, but was secretly incensed at her second husband’s breach of faith toward her; and as he had abandoned the child of his marriage with her for his  former children, she now determined to abandon him for hers. She gave up Hardicanute’s cause, therefore, and began secretly to plot among the Saxon population for bringing forward her son Edward to the throne. When she thought that things were ripe for the execution of the plot, she wrote a letter to her children in Normandy, saying to them that the Saxon population were weary of the Danish line, and were ready, she believed, to rise in behalf of the ancient Saxon line, if the true representative of it would appear to lead them. She therefore invited them to come to London and consult with her on the subject. She directed them, however, to come, if they came at all, in a quiet and peaceful manner, and without any appearance of hostile intent, inasmuch as any thing which might seem like a foreign invasion would awaken universal jealousy and alarm.

When this letter was received by the brothers in Normandy, the eldest, Edward, declined to go, but gave his consent that Alfred should undertake the expedition if he were disposed. Alfred accepted the proposal. In fact, the temperament and character of the two brothers were very different. Edward was sedate, serious, and timid. Alfred was ardent and aspiring. The younger, therefore, decided to take the risk of crossing the Channel, while the elder preferred to remain at home.

The result was very disastrous. Contrary to his mother’s instructions, Alfred took with him quite a troop of Norman soldiers. He crossed the Channel in safety, and advanced across the country some distance toward London. Harold sent out a force to intercept him. He was surrounded, and he himself and all his followers were taken prisoners. He was sentenced to lose his eyes, and he died in a few days after the execution of this terrible sentence, from the mingled effects of fever and of mental anguish and despair. Emma fled to Flanders.

Finally Harold died, and Hardicanute succeeded him. In a short time Hardicanute died, leaving no heirs, and now, of course, there was no one left to compete with Emma’s oldest son Edward, who had remained all this time quietly in Normandy. He was accordingly proclaimed king. This was in 1041. He reigned for twenty years, having commenced his reign about the time that William the Conqueror was established in the possession of his dominions as Duke of Normandy. Edward had known William intimately during his long residence in Normandy, and William came to visit him in England in the course of his reign. William, in fact, considered himself as Edward’s heir; for as Edward, though married, had no children, the dukes of the Norman line were his nearest relatives. He obtained, he said, a promise from Edward that Edward would sanction and confirm his claim to the English crown, in the event of his decease, by bequeathing it to William in his will.

Emma walking over the hot irons

Emma was now advanced in years. The ambition which had been the ruling principle of her life would seem to have been well satisfied, so far as it is possible to satisfy ambition, for she had had two husbands and two sons, all kings of England. But as she advanced toward the close of her career, she found herself wretched and miserable. Her son Edward could not forgive her for her abandonment of himself and his brother, to marry a man who was their own and their father’s bitterest enemy. She had made a formal treaty in her marriage covenant to exclude them from the throne. She had treated them with neglect during all the time of Canute’s reign, while she was living with him in London in power and splendor. Edward accused her, also, of having connived at his brother Alfred’s death. The story is, that he caused her to be tried on this charge by the ordeal of fire. This method consisted of laying red-hot irons upon the stone floor of a church, at certain distances from each other, and requiring the accused to walk over them with naked feet. If the accused was innocent, Providence, as they supposed, would so guide his footsteps that he should not touch the irons. Thus, if he was innocent, he would go over safely; if guilty, he would be burned. Emma, according to the story of the times, was subjected to this test, in the Cathedral of Winchester, to determine whether she was cognizant of the murder of her son. Whether this is true or not, there is no doubt that Edward confined her a prisoner in the monastery at Winchester, where she ended her days at last in neglect and wretchedness.

When Edward himself drew near to the close of his life, his mind was greatly perplexed in respect to the succession. There was one descendant of his brother Edmund—whose children, it will be remembered, Canute had sent away to Denmark, in order to remove them out of the way—who was still living in Hungary. The name of this descendant was Edward. He was, in fact, the lawful heir to the crown. But he had spent his life in foreign countries, and was now far away; and, in the mean time, the Earl Godwin, who has been already mentioned as the great Saxon nobleman who rose from a very humble rank to the position of the most powerful subject in the realm, obtained such an influence, and wielded so great a power, that he seemed at one time stronger than the king himself. Godwin at length died, but his son Harold, who was as energetic and active as his father, inherited his power, and seemed, as Edward thought, to be aspiring to the future possession of the throne. Edward had hated Godwin and all his family, and was now extremely anxious to prevent the possibility of Harold’s accession. He accordingly sent to Hungary to bring Edward, his nephew, home. Edward came, bringing his family with him. He had a young son named Edgar. It was King Edward’s plan to make arrangements for bringing this Prince Edward to the throne after his death, that Harold might be excluded.

The plan was a very judicious one, but it was unfortunately frustrated by Prince Edward’s death, which event took place soon after he arrived in England. The young Edgar, then a child, was, of course, his heir. The king was convinced that no government which could be organized in the name of Edgar would be able to resist the mighty power of Harold, and he turned his thoughts, therefore, again to the accession of William of Normandy, who was the nearest relative on his mother’s side, as the only means of saving the realm from falling into the hands of the usurper Harold. A long and vexatious contest then ensued, in which the leading powers and influences of the kingdom were divided and distracted by the plans, plots, maneuvers, and counter maneuvers of Harold to obtain the accession for himself, and of Edward to secure it for William of Normandy. In this contest Harold conquered in the first instance, and Edward and William in the end.

(Continue to Part 7)

Raised in a home filled with books on Western civilization, P.G. Mantel became a lover of history at an early age. An amateur writer of verse, he makes himself useful as an editor for Men of the West.

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