Encomium Emmae Reginae

Emma, daughter of Duke Richard the Fearless of Normandy, was married to two kings of England: Æthelred (remembered by posterity as ‘the Unready’), from 1002 until his death in 1016; and Cnut, from 1017 until his death in 1035. She was the mother of two kings of England: Harthacnut (r.1040–1042), son of Cnut, and Edward ‘the Confessor’ (r.1042–1066), son of Æthelred. She died in 1052.

The Encomium Emmae Reginae (In Praise of Queen Emma), as it is now known, was written in 1041–2, probably by a monk from the monastery of Saint-Bertin, at Saint-Omer in Flanders (now France) – though the anonymous author may well have been resident in England at the time. It was Emma herself who commissioned the work. In the Prologue, the Encomiast writes:

I, your servant, am unable to show you, noble lady, anything worthy in my deeds, and I do not know how I can be acceptable to you even in words. That your excellence transcends the skill of any one speaking about you is apparent to all to whom you are known, more clearly than the very radiance of the sun… in accordance with your injunction, I long to transmit to posterity through my literary work a record of deeds, which, I declare, touch upon the honour of you and your connections, but I am in doubt concerning my adequacy for doing this.

The Encomium is a thoroughly biased work, careful of the sensibilities of those amongst whom it would be circulated. In his Introduction to the 1998 reprint of Alistair Campell’s 1949 edition/translation, Simon Keynes writes:

So, while the modern reader who expects the Encomium to provide a portrait of a great and distinguished queen at the height of her power will be disappointed, and might well despair of an author who could suppress, misrepresent, and garble what we know or think to have been the truth, a reader more sympathetic to the author’s purpose will be rewarded with an extraordinary view of English politics in the early 1040s and will properly appreciate all the dissimulation and artful dissembling.

A surviving manuscript of the mid-11th century (British Library MS Additional 33241) has a depiction of Emma receiving the book from its author. The two onlookers are almost certainly her sons, Harthacnut and Edward.

In the Introduction to his 1949 edition, Alistair Campbell asserts that this manuscript:

… is clearly not the author’s autograph, but a copy made by two scribes, either from that autograph or a very early copy of it. In view of its careful execution and the illustration, it is probable that it is either the copy sent to Queen Emma or a close reproduction of that copy.

It can, though, be argued that the rather rough work of the second scribe is suggestive that this was not the actual copy sent to Emma.

Translation by Alistair Campbell