the nature and limits of the powers of queens in late Anglo-Saxon England

By Marcus Wells - History Student @ St Peter's College, Oxford


The extent of power of Anglo-Saxon queens varied considerably over time, and has been disputed by historians. A detailed examination of this can be gained from the study of one of the most well-known Anglo-Saxon queens: Emma, wife of both Aethelred and Cnut and mother to the kings Harold, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. Her career shows that queenly power was exercised through landed wealth and patronage of the Church. She was also limited by the nature of her marriages, and the lack of dynastic influence she had in comparison with her husbands. Further, it is argued that she was dominated by kings, both her husbands and successors: her main route to exercising power was doing so through them, which also helps to explain her periods of weakness.

Emma exercised a significant power through landed wealth. She was the richest woman in England until she was dispossessed in 1043, with extensive lands in the East Midlands and Wessex, including property in Exeter and Winchester. She thus had tenants and officials (such as local sheriffs and reeves) who were dependent on her. She also therefore had significant landed wealth, giving her a prominent and influential position in royal assemblies. This can be seen in that she witnessed several significant charters granting land, for example to Burhwold bishop of Cornwall in 1018, and to the New Minster, Winchester, in 1019. In both, she is fourth on the witness list, behind the king and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York: she therefore sits alongside the country’s most powerful men. Indeed, Janet Nelson has argued that the willingness of clerical scribes to include the queen on witness lists indicates their acceptance of queenly power. Emma was thus powerful through her status, and recognised as such by contemporaries, and her career demonstrated that significant queenly power could be exercised through landed wealth.

Patronage was an important means by which the queen exercised power. Emma patronised multiple religious houses including at Bury St Edmunds, Christ Church and St Augustine’s in Canterbury, and at the New Minster, Winchester. The queen’s role at the latter is reflected in its ‘Liber Vitae’, produced in 1031. The work’s frontispiece depicts Emma and Cnut, with Emma called ‘regina’ and as large and prominent as Cnut. These details reflect the recognition of Emma as an important political force by Winchester’s clerics, no doubt in response to her patronage, which must have been significant for her to be placed on the front of the work. Emma also commissioned a monk of St Bertin to produce the ‘Encomium Emmae Reginae’ in the early 1040s. This not only demonstrates her patronage of the Church, but also an attempt to use this patronage to shore up her power. Written under her son Harthacnut (1040-42), it attempts to create support for him, whilst praising the actions of Emma as ‘mater regis’. It is unclear whether this had a significant impact: Harthacnut died abruptly after two years reigning, and Edward deprived Emma of most of her property and political influence shortly after. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that queens commanded important clerical patronage, and could use the resulting power to achieve political ends. Emma evidently held the power to patronise religious foundations to a significant level, and to commission historical works to achieve political ends.

There were, however, significant limits to Emma's power. Most importantly, she was vulnerable despite her status, and was dependent on her husbands for her positions. While prominent under Cnut and her son Harthacnut, Emma fell from favour soon after Edward’s accession, despite still being ‘mater regis’. This was no doubt due to Emma’s wish for Harthacnut to succeed Cnut in 1035, ahead of Edward, her son by Aethelred, as well as perhaps longer-term spite caused by Emma marrying the deposer of Edward’s father. In 1043, Emma was deprived of much of her land and movable wealth. Different texts of the ’Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ differ on whether Emma lost all her money and land, or only her moveable wealth. However, both cases clearly imply a fall from the king’s favour, which would surely result in an end to her political influence. That she is absent from almost all witness lists after 1043 confirms this, as does the recording of her death in 1052: the ‘Chronicle’ texts record her as ‘lady’ or ‘mater regis’. That neither names her as a former queen demonstrates her impotence under Edward. Her loss of power, therefore, demonstrates her vulnerability.

Finally, Emma proved at times unable to influence other political players. Under Aethelred, she exerted little power. She witnessed only one extant charter, a 1002 grant to the monastery of St Frideswide, Oxford. Even then, she is termed ‘consecrated to the royal couch’, rather than ‘queen’ or even ‘consort’, implying her main role was to produce heirs, not to play a political role herself. Her limited political activity, and the way in which she was viewed by contemporaries, demonstrates her impotence under Aethelred . Additionally, following Cnut’s death in 1035, Emma was unable to secure the succession for her preferred candidate, their son Harthacnut, until Cnut’s older son Harold died in 1040, largely because Earl Godwine supported the latter. The queen was less powerful than the ascendant Godwine once Cnut was no longer alive. Emma was clearly not always able to influence her husband, nobles, or even her own family members.

Emma’s career reflects that Anglo-Saxon queenship conveyed influence in national and local politics, and patronage of the Church and literature. But her fortunes under Aethelred and Harold Harefoot shows that this landed wealth and political influence was at the current king’s mercy. Queenly power varied significantly over time, dependent on the queen’s relationship to the current monarch. It was on this relationship that Emma’s ability to exercise power depended.

Further reading:

1. J. L. Nelson, ‘Medieval Queenship’, in Women in Medieval Western European Culture, ed. L. Mitchell (1998)

2. P. Stafford, ‘Emma: The Powers of Queens in the Eleventh Century’, in Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe, ed. A. J. Duggan (Woodbridge, 1997)

3. S. Keynes, ‘Emma (d. 1052)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)

4. S. Baxter and C. P. Lewis, ‘Domesday Book and the Transformation of English Landed Society’, Anglo-Saxon England 46 (2019)

5. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and various charters in English Historical Documents I (c. 500-1042) and II (1042-1189)

6. PASE Domesday digital resource Emma (