Emma of Normandy

by Sue Humphrey (Local History group 1)

In the Annals of Winchester Abbey, the Manor of South Hayling is stated to have come into the possession of the Church of St. Swythun in 1045, partly by the gift of Queen Emma wife of King Aethelred and King Canute, and partly by the gift of Aelwyn, Bishop of Winchester.

The story behind this statement is one that is well worth telling! Emma was the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy and sister to Duke Richard, the grandfather of William the Conqueror. As a girl of sixteen she came to England to become the wife of the ageing King Ethelred the Unready. As part of her wedding dowry Aethelred bestowed upon her many manors, one of which was the Manor of South Hayling. She and Aethelred had two sons, Edward and Alfred, who were raised across the channel in their mother's country as Norman princes.

When Aethelred died in 1016 the throne passed to Edmund Ironside, a son of Aethelred by his first wife. Canute, who had ravaged and conquered most of England, used every exertion to dethrone Edmund but they finally agreed to share the Kingdom. Edmund met a violent death in 1016 and Canute became the first Danish King of England.

To validate his place on Aethelred's throne, Canute married Emma and they had one son, Harthacanute. Emma was again left a widow when Canute died in 1035. Harold Harefoot, Canute's eldest son by his first marriage became King and set about ridding himself of Emma and her sons. Edward and Alfred were summoned to return to England by a forged letter sent in their mother's name. Alfred returned but Edward stayed in Normandy. Alfred was brutally assassinated by Earl Godwin, at the King's behest. Emma was banished and settled in Bruges with Harthacanute, where they started to build up an army of invasion. However, Harold Harefoot died in March 1040 and Harthacanute became King. He reigned for two turbulent years in which he very nearly provoked Civil War. When he died, all the people of England "immediately chose Edward as their King in London" and in 1042 Edward the Confessor was crowned.

But three of Edward's most powerful advisers, including Harold Godwin, were determined to destroy Emma's power base in England. They persuaded Edward that his mother had consented to the death of his brother Alfred and also accused her of criminal intimacy with Aelwyn, Bishop of Winchester. Edward was infuriated by what they told him and rode with them to Winchester where he confiscated all Emma's wealth and estates, banishing her to live out the rest of her life at Wherwell Priory.

Emma, however, wrote to all the Bishops of England whom she trusted, begging them to persuade her son to allow her to prove her innocence of all charges against herself and the Bishop by submitting to the "ordeal of burning iron". Edward finally agreed to this and, legend tells us, that Emma, aided by St. Swythun, walked blindfolded and unharmed over nine red-hot ploughshares set into the floor of Winchester Abbey - four ploughshares for her own crimes and five for Bishop Aelwyn's. The king, now thoroughly convinced of her innocence, begged forgiveness of his mother and restored all her confiscated property.

Following this miraculous event, the Winchester Annals tell us that "Queen Emma having possession of all the manors of her dowry which had been confirmed on her by former kings, gave the same day, as an offering to St. Swythun, for nine ploughshares - nine manors. One of these manors was the Manor of South Hayling.

Emma died in March 1052 aged 70+. She was buried in the Old Minster at Winchester alongside Canute. Emma was a remarkable woman of her day, the wife of two Kings of England and the mother of two Kings of England. She dominated the English Court for over 50 years as both Queen and Queen Mother, surviving five Kings. It is through her relationship to her great-nephew, William of Normandy, however, that she is best remembered in the History of England. Her own sons produced no heirs, but on Christmas Day, 1066 William of Normandy was crowned King of England and so a dynasty in Emma's bloodline was founded which continues to this day.