Book Review: A Hollow Crown

Hollow Crown

A Hollow Crown by Helen Hollick

Not much is known about our history before 1066, so I get excited when I see a book about Emma of Normandy, who was Queen of England (twice!) in the 11th century. I also recently read The Price of Blood about Emma and was hooked, but luckily “The Hollow Crown” covers much more of her life.

Emma was sister of Duke Richard II and when she was only a little girl (roughly 13 years old) she is sent to England to become King Æthelred’s second wife – but, importantly, his first Christian wife. This marriage meant, for the first time, there was a link between England and Normandy which paved the way for the famous conquest of William the Conqueror in 1066. However, this was a loveless marriage. She was often the victim of Æthelred’s abusive nature and his cowardly attitude to subduing the countless uprisings of this period. During the marriage, she has two sons and a daughter by Æthelred called Edward, Alfred and Goda but unfortunately, she struggles to love her children due to the horrible way they were conceived!

10 years later, things start to move super quickly… when King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invades England, so Emma and Æthelred have to flee to Normandy with their children. Whilst in exile, Emma (who is now a grown woman and becoming more confident by the day) vows never to leave England again. As a result, when Sweyn dies only a year later, she returns. Only for Sweyn’s son, Cnut, to also invade England. Whilst trying to defend London both Æthelred and then his eldest son and successor, Edmund Ironside, die. So many deaths! Now, Emma is now in charge of her own destiny.

In a bizarre twist, she chooses to marry, Cnut (Sweyn’s son!). For Emma this meant her sons were safe and for Cnut, it prevented the Norman court from intervening in England. However, this marriage proved to be more successful than either party would have hoped. Emma falls madly in love with Cnut and he realises how to work with his clever wife to keep England secure – proved by the fact he would allow her to govern whilst he was in Denmark. A number of happy years of marriage, Emma gives birth to two more children with Cnut, Harthacnut and Gunhilda. Unlike before, peace reigns.

It is not until Cnut dies suddenly, when Emma’s world comes crashing down. Her son, Harthacnut, is in Denmark and the throne is left bare. This is when Harthacnut’s half-brother Harold “Harefoot” makes his move and steals the throne without any need for a fight. Desperate, she asks for her two sons from her first marriage (Edward and Alfred) to return but when Alfred does arrive he is captured and killed horribly. She is forced to flee again.

The end of Emma’s life sees her son Harthacnut become King of England followed by her other son Edward “the Confessor”. She dies peacefully after being Queen of England twice, with her two sons being made King of England (and Denmark) during her lifetime.

What I found so amazing about this book was the fact over roughly 50 years (Emma’s lifetime) there were 6-7 Kings of England! Therefore, as you can imagine, this book was one of the longest and most thorough portrayals of her life. Unlike some historical novels I have read, this was not so focused on some of the ‘romantic’ elements of her life but still showed her as a powerful medieval woman. Hooray!

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Book Review: The Price of Blood

Price of Blood book

The Price of Blood (The Emma of Normandy Series, Book 2) by Patricia Bracewell

I have a confession, I read this book having no idea there was a first book in the Emma of Normandy series. So I shall be reading that shortly! But this book starts in the thick of it and so I would recommend reading this series in the correct order! 

Anyway, this is the second book about Emma of Normandy, set in 1006 AD. The book begins when she has now been made Queen of England, alongside her ageing husband King Æthelred who married her to try and pacify the Norman invasions (by the way, get used to a lot of names like this! It’s so confusing, there’s Æthelred, Athelstan, Ælfhelm etc.). She has also just given birth to her first child, a son, called Edward.

You can tell from the start this marriage was definitely not a love match. Emma is beautiful, kind and wise in contrast to her husband who is portrayed as cruel, cowardly and determined to keep Emma from her beloved son. So, Emma constantly finds herself a pawn in the King’s game. Her only friends, the King’s eldest son Athelstan, a man we suspect she truly loves, and the Archbishop of Canterbury cannot help her win favour in her husband’s eyes.

When the King is struggling to keep control of his realm and the Danes are continuously attacking towns across England, leaving a trail of destruction. Emma is struggling with being BOTH a Queen and mother as she finds herself rejected from her husband’s side and often in danger’s way.

Then, enter another key women in this tale, Elgiva (sometimes known outside this book as Ælfgifu – again with these names!!). She is the daughter of Ælfhelm who was an Earl – or some sort of powerful nobleman – of southern Northumbria. She is portrayed as a fiesty, seductive mistress that wants to control her own destiny in a world ruled by men. Unlike Emma, she is prepared to take great risks in securing herself as a Queen. The contrast between these two women is great.

When the King believes Elgiva’s father is conspiring against him with the Danes, he murders her entire family in the most gruesome way! Desperate, she flees to the safety of an old family ally. However, she is not beaten yet. Once she’s safe, she finds herself being given as a wife to a Viking Lord called Cnut (don’t misspell his name!!). A passionate relationship between the two begins. Elgiva is headstrong like her husband and they both want the same thing… the crown.

This is where the two women’s path starts to entwine. Emma is Queen of England trying to protect her country whilst Elgiva is now paired to their enemy, Cnut and the Danes. In a country torn by war, little do both women know their paths are going to cross in more and more ways in the coming years.*

The Price of Blood is a great read about two very different women. By the end of the book I still feel the best is still to come, as Emma’s journey has only really started. Also, I would have loved to have seen more about Emma and Elgiva as woman. I am a sucker for love scenes and getting involved in all those relationships that create their characters. This I feel was slightly lacking in places. However, this fast pace book will definitely show a time in history that is so undocumented.

 

*SPOILER ALERT…

So I couldn’t help myself and I started to read more about this pair of women. After this book, in 1016, King Æthelred dies and Emma finds herself windowed and defenseless. To make matters worse, Athelstan, her love, has also died and is no longer heir apparent. Therefore, the King’s third eldest son, Edmund Ironside, becomes King, but again… not for long. Only six, short, months later Cnut invades England and conquers the throne. This makes him King of England and Denmark together. Suddenly, Elgiva is ‘put aside’ for Emma! What a twist. Emma becomes Queen again. With four sons between the two wives and then when Cnut acquires Norway too… I just think he was greedy… this really shows how chaotic this period of history was.

 

If you want to read more from Medieval period here are some more books on Medieval Queens: 

  1. Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell: The first book in this series, it follows a young Queen Emma of Normandy as she first meets her new husband, King Æthelred.
  2. Queens of Conquest by Alison Weir [NEW THIS YEAR!]: A series of famous woman of the Norman period. Such as Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror and Empress Matilda, mother to King Henry II.
  3. A Hollow Crown by Helen Hollick: This documents Queen Emma of Normandy’s entire life, from  Æthelred to Cnut.

shadow on the crownqueens of conquest

Hollow Crown

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