The wife of two famous kings and the mother of another famous pair - sounds like Eleanor of Aquitaine? But it isn't! Ymma (or Emma) was in the thick of politics in the 10th century when England was ruled by Saxons and Danes in quick succession. In what was very much a man's world she held her own against all comers. She saw off Ethelred the Unready and Canute and schemed to get her favoured son on the throne. She also had a pious side - or was this just political expediency dictated by the turbulent times in which she lived? It was also through her that William the Conqueror staked his claim to England.
Born about 985, the daughter of Richard, Duke of Normandy, Ymma (or Emma) was arguably the first of the great English Queen Consorts who stood out against the prejudices of her times and embroiled herself in politics. Little is known of her early life in Normandy. Her father died in 996 at a time when relations between England and Normandy were under severe strain. Despite a treaty of 991, Danish raiders continued to use the harbours of Normandy as bases for their raids on England. One of the most serious of these occurred in 1000 and gave fresh impetus to the diplomatic efforts which sought to settle the grievances between the two courts.
As part of this wider settlement, Ymma, was married to Aethelred II (The Unready) in 1002. Little is known of her life in England over the next eleven years. She bore the king three children of whom the eldest, Edward, was born in 1005. Over the next eight years the Danish attacks on England, and London in particular, intensified. In 1013, the Danish king, Sveyn Forkbeard was on the point of consolidating his conquest of England and Aethelred fled with his family. They found refuge at the court of Ymma's brother, Richard II of Normandy. On the death of Sweyn, Aethelred returned to resume his reign in 1014 but it seems most unlikely that Ymma and their children accompanied him.
Aethelred's death in 1016 saw Sweyn's son Knut (Canute) acclaimed as king of England. Knut was conscious of the need to consolidate his hold on the kingdom and this meant that the had neutralise the potential hostility of the Duke of Normandy who continued to offer refuge to the wife and sons of Aethelred. He therefore made an offer of marriage to Ymma, his former wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton being lately dead. Ymma drove a hard bargain.
She insisted that, as part of the marriage settlement, only the sons of Knut by her would have a right to the English throne. This would disinherit Knut's son, Harold Harefoot but would also mean that the sons of Aethelred would be barred from the throne. For this, Ymma has been much criticised by later historians who looked back, not with hindsight but with a lofty view of the subsequent evolution of the English Monarchy. However, by thus ensuring that her sons by Aethelred posed no threat to Knut she established at least some guarantee of their safety.
Ymma and Knut were married in 1017 and had two children, Harthaknut and Gunnhildr. She assumed a very public role as the consort of a pious king. She was a generous patron of churches and monasteries with significant benefactions being given to Winchester, Ely and Ramsey in England and Bremen and Poitiers in Germany and France respectively. There is a contemporary manuscript (now in the British Library) which depicts Knut and Ymma presenting a large golden cross to the New Minster at Winchester. It is heavy with symbolism: the gathered monks raise their hands in gratitude for the gift whilst angels hover about royal couple who are bathed in the approving grace of Jesus, Mary and St. Peter.
Knut died suddenly in November 1035 and Ymma found herself in a political maelstrom. Despite the marriage settlement of 1017, a faction soon gathered around Knut's son by Aelfgifu and a struggle for the succession between Harold and Harthaknut soon engulfed the country. Ymma naturally supported her son by Knut but his detention in Denmark, of which he automatically became king on the death of Knut, made the way clear for Harold to assume the English throne in 1037. Ymma went into exile in Flanders, where she was joined by Harthaknut, and she immediately set about waging a vigorous propaganda campaign against Harold. As part of the campaign she commissioned the political tract Encomium Emmae from a monk at the monastery of St. Bertin. This glorified Ymma herself and was designed to support the claims of Harthaknut to the crown of England.
Harthaknut mounted an expedition to invade England to claim the crown but Harold died in 1040 before the expedition landed. Harthaknut met no opposition and was elected king. He immediately set about to punish the English by imposing a punitive fleet-tax to pay for his expedition. This ensured his universal unpopularity amongst his new subjects. One of his early acts was to invite his half-brother Edward to return to England. This may or may not have been at Ymma's instigation. Certainly, Harthaknut was not yet married and the succession was not therefore secured. Until such time as the king should marry and produce a male successor it was unquestionably in Ymma's interests to have Edward on hand as a creditable successor.
Harthaknut died suddenly - of convulsions at a drinking party - in June 1042 at the age of 23. Edward (later known as "The Confessor") ascended the throne without opposition and began the long reign which ended in 1066. He does appear to have resented his mother's marriage settlement with Knut which effectively saw him disinherited from the crown of England. In late 1043 he and his chief ministers arrived at her residence in Winchester and deprived her of her estates and treasure. She was allowed to continue in residence at Winchester with suitable provision for all of her comforts but she played no further role in the politics of the realm.
The episode has never been satisfactorily explained but it does seem as if politics played a large part in its planning. Edward, after all, was intent on establishing an English dynasty and Ymma may have been seen by many as being still too close to the Danish interest. She died at Winchester in 1052 and was buried beside Knut in Winchester Cathedral. This forceful, ambitious and even unscrupulous woman perhaps had the last laugh. When Edward The Confessor died in 1066 her great-nephew, Duke William of Normandy, began the preparations for the invasion that would see him crowned king of England and irrevocably set the English Monarchy on the path that has brought it into the twenty-first century. He based his claim, of course, on the fact that he was the senior male descendant of Ymma.