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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