Friday, 29 January 2010

'Emma - the twice crowned Queen', by Isabella Strachan

In my partially serendipitous way, I wandered into Piccadilly’s Waterstone’s on Wednesday 12th March to spend a little time, and picked up this biography. I have for a long time been interested in the history of England prior to the Norman conquest, and often browse this period of the history section of bookshops. I read the book rapidly – which is a good sign.

Emma was the wife and queen of King Ethelred (‘The unready’) of the house of Wessex, and later of the Danish King, Knut (also known as Canute). This is an extraordinary straddling of the two sides in the prolonged struggle for the control of England between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings. As Ethelred’s wife (1002 – 1016), she was on the losing side, as the country was progressively invaded. She was even forced into temporary exile with her young children, one of whom was Edward – who later became a king of England (known as ‘The confessor’). As Knut’s wife (1017 – 1035), she gave legitimacy to the Danish conquerors and made great efforts to heal the nation’s wounds by gifts to the church. She also gave birth to a son by Knut, called Hardeknut, who was king of England for a short time.

In both marriages Emma had to compete or co-operate with another wife and her children. This was an age when the church winked at an informal polygamy, so important was securing the blood-line of kings. Ethelred had previously married Elgiva, one of whose many children was Edmund (‘Ironside’) who fought the Danish invaders, and whose bloodline stretches down to the present royal family. Knut had previously had an informal ‘marriage’ with (another!) Elgiva (‘of Northampton), who gave him a son, Harold (‘Harefoot’) who also was king of England for a short time.

Confused? The dynastic struggles of the time were complex, but extremely important in determining the whole direction of subsequent English history. So it is worth studying this period in detail. I am always annoyed by the victors’ version of history which virtually starts at the Norman conquest, ignoring hundred of years of independent and interesting history.

However detail is something in short supply, unfortunately. Historians gave to glean information from a paucity of documents, with very little opportunity to cross-reference to establish the true facts. One could describe the known facts of Emma’s life in a short monograph – as my friend Tony Head once did. Isabella has to pad out the book with other facts and a huge dose of speculation. Note the frequency of phrases and words, such as “one can imagine”, “would”, “if”, “might have”, “would have”, “may”, “possibly” and “probably”, and one realises that very little can be relied on in this book.

I am not blaming the author, since this is an ineluctable problem with the history of the era. In fact she makes a good (though sometimes mawkish) attempt at adding colour and drama to the story. However there are many unqualified sentences, especially those telling us what Emma thought (!) which are novelistic rather than historical.

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