From my blog...

The Death Scene of King Æthelred


Death of Edward the Confessor. Bayeux Tapestry

Æthelred II, Anglo-Saxon king of England, died on 23 April, 1016. The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that notes his passing, probably written within a decade of his death, reads like this:

“He ended his days on St. George’s day; having held his kingdom in much tribulation and difficulty as long as his life continued.”

A century later, historian William of Malmesbury commented at greater length and with far less charity on the king’s life and death:

“His life is said to have been cruel at the outset, pitiable in mid-course, and disgraceful in its ending…He was hounded by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood. Who could count how often he summoned his army, how often he ordered ships to be built, how often he called his nobles together from every quarter, and nothing ever came of it?…At the beginning of Lent…he departed this life, a life made for trouble and misery, and lies buried in St. Paul’s London.”

Not exactly a warm eulogy! But what led up to the moment of the king’s death? Who was standing at his bedside? What words, if any, did he speak before he breathed his last?

As a novelist portraying the scene around the king’s deathbed, those were questions that I had to answer. I had created an unsympathetic Æthelred in my novels based on the historical record and on later historians’ speculations, and it was time now to lay the king to rest. Excerpted from my novel The Steel Beneath the Silk, here is that moment, as seen through the eyes of his queen, Emma.

“The royal bedchamber was silent but for the sibilant prayers of Æthelred’s archbishops and the intermittent rasp of the king’s labored breathing. Emma gazed down at the shrunken frame outlined beneath the blankets, and with his every exhalation her own breath caught as she waited for the next rattling gasp.

The stench of illness in the room was not quite masked by the honeyed scent from the branches of candles placed around the bed, but the light they gave off was enough to banish any hint of shadows. She had ordered candles to be burned in this chamber day and night, for she knew better than anyone that Æthelred feared the dark.

Let him have the light, she thought, until the final darkness engulfs him.

He would die in his bed as he had wished, rather than struck down by the hand of a vengeful enemy; but Death itself had been a cruel and merciless foe. Æthelred had been subject to days of torment, his effort to draw air into his failing lungs a wide-eyed, panicked struggle. It had been terrible to watch and no doubt far worse to endure. Now, though, he seemed to have fallen into something that was deeper than sleep. Each gasping breath was shallower than the one before it, and his hollow cheeks and the grey hue of his skin told her that the end was near. She and the others gathered here were witnessing the final, losing battle in Æthelred’s desperate struggle to stay alive.

Emma considered the royal offspring keeping watch with her over the king’s prone body. Edmund, standing at the foot of the bed, was still disheveled from four days of hard riding in response to her urgent summons. His expression was set in a grimace, bearing no sign of sorrow or even compassion as he stared at the waxen face on the pillow. He had not hastened here to reconcile with a dying father, but to claim a dead king’s throne…Once Edmund took the throne all their fates would be in his hands. And as she studied Edmund’s stern expression, the questions that had been spooling through her mind for months surfaced again, and her folded hands tightened with anxiety. Could she persuade him to allow her to remain at court as dowager queen, or would he force her to retire to a convent, the fate of so many widowed queens before her? What would happen to her sons? Might Edmund send them across the Narrow Sea to her brother, and her with them? Richard, she did not doubt, would swiftly arrange a second marriage for her; one that would be to his advantage and without any regard for her wishes.

As she pondered such dismal prospects, the king opened his eyes, and his face convulsed with terror as he gazed at some vision that only he could see. She gently touched his shoulder but, as so often in the past, it did not ease him. How many times had she seen him stare like this in horror at empty space? What did he see that so frightened him, even now, at the end of his days?

His mouth formed voiceless words, and he lifted a clawlike hand as if to push something away—a futile effort. Almost immediately his hand fell to the bed, and his ragged breathing halted. It did not begin again.

Two days later Emma walked, straight-backed and dry-eyed, behind Æthelred’s coffin as it was carried from the palace to the minster of St. Paul’s. Four royal children—Edmund, Edyth, Edward and Alfred—trailed in her footsteps. A vast crowd lined the streets to pay silent homage to the dead king, most of them having known no other ruler. It had been thirty-seven years, Emma reflected, since Æthelred had been crowned following the murder of his half-brother, King Edward. Then, swiftly, she pushed the thought of murdered royal half-brothers from her mind lest the very thought summon a similar disaster.

Inside the great stone church, amid billows of fragrant incense and the mournful chanting of the office of the dead, Æthelred’s soul was committed to God. Emma, relieved that the long death watch was over, could not grieve for the husband and king who had inspired neither her love nor her respect. He had suffered from a darkness of soul that seemed to consume him, and she could only pray that in death he had found release from the shadows that had both tormented and goaded him.” From The Steel Beneath the Silk, Chapter 36

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
The History of the English Kings by William of Malmesbury, edited and translated by R.A.B. Mynors, R.M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom, Volume 1 (1998), Oxford University Press

Posted in The Steel Beneath the Silk | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Talking Shop with David Gilman

On April 17 historical novelist David Gilman and I discussed our recent books, our writing and our research. David’s latest novel in his best selling Master of War series, set during the Hundred Years War, is THE SHADOW OF THE HAWK, a riveting 14th century tale that has warfare, treachery,  and a witchy villainess.  My latest novel, THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK, set during the 11th century Danish conquest of England, has warfare, treachery, and its own scheming villainess. You can watch a reply at the link below:


Posted in Events | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

For New Readers–Research Recap

Over the span of nearly a decade I have written numerous blog posts about the research behind my books, in addition to travel and review posts. Because new readers who might be interested in my research would likely find it tedious to search through so many blog posts, I’ve put together this fairly comprehensive list of my historical research posts with links to each one.


A STORY IN THREE PARTS: Why I chose to make Emma’s story a trilogy. Posted February 2018

11th CENTURY LONDON: London then and now; a virtual visit. Posted February 2021

APRIL 19 FEAST OF ST. ÆLFHEAH: In which I speculate about the capture and murder of Archbishop Ælfheah in 1012. Posted April 2013

SEARCHING FOR SWEIN: My husband and I journey to Gainsborough looking for the remains of the camp where the vikings wintered in 1013. Posted October 2012

ÆTHELRED II, THE HAUNTED KING: This novelist’s view of the king. Posted April 2015

THE DUKE’S WOMEN: Stories about Queen Emma’s parents, including a mildly salacious tale of how they met. Posted June 2013

WHAT HAPPENED AT BOSHAM CHURCH: Did Cnut have a daughter who drowned at age 8? Posted May 2016

OF RUNES AND REPETITION: When you have the same characters and the same settings in three consecutive books that tell a lengthy story, how do you keep from repeating yourself? Posted September 2017

THE GREAT SEA FLOOD: What caused the tidal wave in THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK? Posted September 2017

THE DEATH OF SWEIN FORKBEARD: What is fact and what is myth. Posted February 2019

THE DEATH OF ÆTHELRED: What we know, and what I invented.  Posted April 2018

THE BATTLE OF ASSANDUN: What’s in the historical record? Posted October 2018

CNUT THE GREAT: a brief bio. Posted November 2018

CNUT’S MUM: Who she was and who she wasn’t. Posted November 2020

EMMA OF NORMANDY, A LIFE: A brief bio that goes beyond the timeline of my trilogy. Posted March 2019



WHAT HAPPENED AT CORFE IN 978? The murder of Edward the Martyr. Posted August 2015

ENGLAND’S FIRST CITY, CIRCA A.D. 1000: Winchester, the Royal City. Posted October 2015

THE RIDDLE OF THE STONES: The Rollright Stones…and a witch. Posted August 2015

QUEEN EMMA & ST. VALENTINE: the queen’s generosity included gifts of precious relics, even the heads of saints. Posted February 2019

THE QUEEN AT CHRISTMAS: The queen’s role at a high feast in Anglo-Saxon England. Posted December 2011

THE PICTURE BOOK: Musing on an illustrated version of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Posted February 2012

TELL ME A STORY: A look at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, what it was and what it doesn’t tell us. Posted April 2012

WHITE CLIFFS:  A journey to the coast of Normandy. Posted March 2012

ILLUMINATIONS: You’d be surprised at what there is to know about candles. Posted April 2012

THE GREAT HALL: A bit of history about the Anglo-Saxon great hall. Posted April 2012

THE EARLY ENGLISH PALACE: What did the king’s home look like? Posted July 2012

LATE ANGLO-SAXON LONDON: The first of several posts about London. Posted August 2012

RETURN TO WEST STOW VILLAGE: A visit to a 6th century Anglo-Saxon village. Posted November 2012

A VISIT TO FECAMP: Using my imagination to turn a ruin into a palace. Posted July 2013

FECAMP’S ABBEY CHURCH: An abbey, an angel, and the tombs of dukes. Posted August 2013

SPLENDOR IN THE DARK: About Anglo-Saxon art. Posted December 2013

THE BRIEF REIGN OF KING HAROLD I OF ENGLAND: All about Elgiva’s son. Posted March 2019

SHIPWRECK: a 12th century catastrophe; the sinking of The White Ship. Posted January 2012



Posted in Research | Leave a comment

St. Cuthbert and Me

On a trip to Northumbria in 2019 I visited a number of sites with ties to Cuthbert, the saint whose feast day is March 20 and who was greatly loved by the Anglo-Saxons. Cuthbert was born in Northumbria in 635, became a monk at Melrose Abbey, and eventually became the bishop of Lindisfarne (Holy Island). Today there is a hiking path commemorating the saint and called, of course, St. Cuthbert’s Way. It runs from Melrose Abbey in Scotland to Lindisfarne in Northumbria where the saint died.

St. Cuthbert’s Way is 100km long, and on my visit in 2019 we walked only a tiny part of it—7 miles. We rambled through heather and bracken, passing an iron age hill fort, and skirting cattle, sheep, and wild goats—descendants of a herd dating back a couple of millennia, even before Cuthbert’s time.

We had visited Lindisfarne and its abbey the day before…

…  on the Holy Island that is only accessible by land twice a day via a 3 mile long causeway. We took a bus along that causeway, but we saw people walking it, just as they would have in Cuthbert’s time. It’s a long, muddy walk, and even a car can get into trouble if the crossing is timed wrong.

In 793 the vikings arrived by boat, and in 875 their raids finally forced the monks to abandon the island.

Cuthbert had died there in 687, and the monks, reluctant to leave their saint behind, carried his uncorrupted remains in a coffin around Northumbria for years. In 995 St. Cuthbert was finally laid to rest at Durham and a shrine dedicated to him.  That sojourn is the subject of this beautiful, modern sculpture at Lindisfarne’s priory church—six monks carrying the saint’s coffin on their shoulders.

I was told that the monks were more likely to have used a cart rather than carry it this way. Mind you, having walked part of St. Cuthbert’s Way, I can tell you that even with a cart it would have been rough going.

St. Cuthbert’s shrine is now in the 12th century Norman cathedral. In 1827 the coffin was opened, and early vestments, silks, and a pectoral cross were removed and can be seen in the cathedral. The gospel book found in the coffin is on display at the British Library in London.

Why was Cuthbert laid to rest at Durham in the end? The official story is that an angel appeared, telling the monks that this was where he should be buried and a shrine built. A cathedral docent confided to me that actually a wheel fell off of the monks’ cart at Durham, and they probably took that as a sign to stop their wandering. But who’s to say that an angel didn’t kick the wheel off that cart?

We visited Durham cathedral and the wonderful exhibit displaying the  relics of St. Cuthbert. It was a moving experience for me. In this brief video, historian Janina Ramirez offers a glimpse of the cathedral and the remarkable treasures of St. Cuthbert.



Posted in Anglo-Saxons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

On the Passing of a Queen

Entry from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1052:
Ymma Ælfgifu, King Edward’s and Harthacnut’s mother, passed away.

The very mention of Emma of Normandy’s passing in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is an indication of the significance of her career as queen, queen mother, queen regent and dowager queen, for the Chronicle rarely made mention of women at all. Only the second woman to be crowned queen of all England, Emma was as well the only woman ever to be crowned queen of England twice. For nearly fifty years, through the reigns of seven kings—Æthelred, Swein Forkbeard, Edmund Ironside, Cnut, Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor—she was a significant figure in 11th century English politics.


Queen Emma & King Cnut. New Minster Liber Vitae, 1031. British Library, Stowe 944, fol.6.

Because Emma’s birth date is unknown, her age at the time of her death is a matter of speculation, although she was certainly in her late sixties. Nor is there any indication of the cause of her death. She had retired from court probably in 1047, and since then had been living quietly in her dower city of Winchester. Had she been ailing during that time? It is impossible to say.

Her great nephew William the Conqueror, who would use his blood connection to Emma to justify his claim to the English throne in 1066, may have spoken with her when he visited England in 1051. Emma’s biographer, Pauline Stafford, speculates that William may have wished to discuss the question of English succession.


If Emma met with him for such a discussion, one fraught with enormous political implications and a crown in the balance, she can hardly be considered as ‘ailing’.

The exact date of Queen Emma’s death was March 6, 1052. She breathed her last in Winchester and was buried in the crypt of the Old Minster beside her second husband King Cnut and their son King Harthacnut.

New Minster (left)…Old Minster (right)

Prior to this, queens in England and Wessex had been laid to rest in the abbeys where, frequently, they retired in their widowhood. Emma was the first to be interred in the royal mausoleum at Winchester, and the only woman among the 23 individuals whose bones have recently been removed for examination from the mortuary chests that since Tudor times have rested atop the high stone screens of the chancel.

The mortuary chests in Winchester Cathedral.

It is interesting that Emma’s son, King Edward the Confessor, who would presumably have been responsible for her interment, buried his mother not with his father at St. Paul’s in London, but with her second husband and their son in the royal city of Winchester. Perhaps, in doing so, he was fulfilling Emma’s particular request—to lie for eternity beside the king during whose reign she had the greatest influence and prestige.

Painting of Cnut asking for the hand of Queen Emma. Fredericksborg Palace, Denmark.

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

11th Century London

Because few of us are doing much in the way of traveling these days, I thought you might like to join me on a virtual visit to London. Not today’s London, of course, but Emma’s London as I’ve imagined it in The Steel Beneath the Silk.  

Close your eyes and picture London in your mind, and it probably looks something like this:

Obviously, though, the London of today looks nothing like the London of a thousand years ago. First of all, the 11th century city was a great deal smaller than today’s London, which began life in the 3rd century as a Roman settlement named Londinium. You can see a model of that Roman London today if you visit the church of All Hallows By the Tower and go down into the crypt.

Roman Model at All Hallows by the Tower

The large enclosed area on the upper left of the model is the Roman fort. Because we do not know for certain where Æthelred’s palace was, but because that northwest corner is one of the possibilities, that’s where I’ve imagined the Anglo-Saxon palace enclosure that Emma would have known.

In 11th century London the royal residence would have been made up of a group of buildings with different functions. The great hall, where the king held court, conducted business, and where the court and the royal household gathered for meals, would have been the largest of them. It may have had chambers recessed into its walls and partitioned off for privacy. There may have been a second story with a gallery on the upper floor where the king could observe the activities below.

Separate buildings—royal quarters—would have been used for more than just sleeping. Emma may have had her own building in the complex, and it would have been divided into rooms earmarked for different purposes. The children would have grown up there, cared for by nurses and tutors. It might have been a place of refuge for the women of the court if things got too rowdy in the hall. Other buildings in the magnificent, urban palace complex of London might have included guest houses, kitchens, stables, a chapel, weaving sheds, a forge, an armory, and a barracks. I’ve imagined a garden and even an orchard inside the palace walls.

In 1016 London itself was still surrounded by that defensive wall built by the Romans. It was nearly 10 feet wide at the base and 20 feet tall. Bits of it still exist in London today, conveniently located on a street named London Wall near the Museum of London.

Bastion of London’s Wall

You can get up close and personal with London’s wall, and even follow a London Wall Walk that follows the line of the wall for almost 2 miles from the Tower of London to the Museum of London.

The seven Roman gates that led into the city were still there in the 11th century and well beyond. Below is a drawing of the Roman Aldgate which was on London’s east side. On the city’s northern border there were three gates, and one of them, the Aldersgate, is the setting for a tense scene in The Steel Beneath the Silk. It probably looked quite similar to Aldgate, with its two-story towers on either side of the gates. Those gates would have been closed at sundown and opened again at sunrise.


There was empty moorland north of the city, just outside the walls, and inside the walls there was plenty of empty space as well. Andrew Reynolds (University College London Institute of Archaeology) speaking at a conference to commemorate the Siege of London in 1016, showed a couple of drawings that imagined 11th century London. One of them emphasized the pastoral aspect of some parts of the city.

London 11th c, Andrew Reynolds (University College London Institute of Archaeology)

Note the two-story church; the thatched houses with their vegetable gardens, the dirt streets, the cattle, the hay ricks, and wheat fields. (There were actually vineyards in London in the 11th century. I cannot speak to the quality of the wine.) Although London probably had a population somewhere between 12,000 and 16,000, it was fairly rural in the northern and eastern areas of the city where fewer people lived. The lecturer’s second image, though, was of an area more densely settled, closer to the Thames. What looks like this today at #1 Poultry Lane…

…probably looked something like this in the 11th century.

The houses are packed closely together, but each dwelling has a garden in behind. These drawings were based on archaeological digs at these sites in the city.

There were many churches in London as well as just outside the city walls. The map below, drawn by Matt Brown for The Steel Beneath the Silk, shows several of them. Churches dedicated to St. Botolph, the patron saint of travelers, stood outside Aldgate, Bishopsgate and Aldersgate.

Not shown on the map, but just outside the gate near St. Paul’s was St. Bride’s church, dating back to the 6th century. It’s still there today, and visitors who go down into the crypt can see the remains of the Anglo-Saxon church and a strip of Roman pavement.

St. Paul’s cathedral was made of stone, and there was a wide swath of open area on its eastern end where the Londoners would gather to hear royal proclamations, to learn of the death of a king, and to choose by acclamation his successor. That open ground plays a slightly different role in my new novel, but you’re going to have to read the book to find out what it is.

All Hallows By the Tower, which I mentioned earlier, stood on the eastern end of the city not far from the Thames. It is still there today, although much of it was destroyed in WWII. In the midst of the rebuilding a wall was discovered that dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period.   

The church was not called All Hallows By the Tower originally because there was no Tower until after the Norman Conquest. But according to Peter Ackroyd in London, The Biography, on the hill where the Tower now stands—known as the White Mound—was a giant Saxon cross, probably visible from most of the city.

It takes a lot of imagination to recreate in one’s mind what a place might have looked like a thousand years ago. My house in Oakland, California, for example, was a cow pasture in 1910. What it looked like 900 years before that is anybody’s guess. Maps are an enormous help, though. The earliest map of London that I’ve found dates to 1270, well beyond the Anglo-Saxon period. But along with my visits to London’s museums and the work of academics and archaeologists like Professor Reynolds, it is the template on which I built the London that Emma might have known.


Posted in History | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Queen Emma & Vikings:Valhalla

In writing my trilogy about Emma of Normandy I hoped to spotlight the 11th century, twice-crowned queen of England whose name had long been relegated to footnotes in history books. I think I’ve succeeded to some extent because a good many of my readers have claimed that they’d never heard of Emma of Normandy until they read my books.

Now it appears that the creators of the tv show VIKINGS, too, have discovered Queen Emma. Scheduled for release sometime in 2021 or 2022, is a VIKINGS spinoff titled Vikings:Valhalla. The story line, it seems, begins in the early 11th century, and like VIKINGS the series will include historical figures in the English realm across the North Sea.

One of them, I’ve learned, will be “…the young, ambitious Emma of Normandy…from the Norman court and of Viking blood. Politically astute, and one of the wealthiest women in Europe.” (

Laura Berlin will play Queen Emma in Vikings:Valhalla. Photo:

But Emma will not be alone. Elgiva of Northampton, Cnut’s concubine, will be there, too. “Queen Ælfgifu of Denmark has a hand to play in the political power struggles unfolding in Northern Europe. She uses her charm and guile to great effect as she promotes the interests of her Mercian homeland and tries to assert herself in Canute’s growing power structure.” (

Although that description above certainly captures Elgiva’s personality as I’ve imagined her in my trilogy, I can attest that she was NEVER, at any time, queen of Denmark. (Although, knowing Elgiva, she might think she was!)

Pollyanna McIntosh will play Ælfgifu of Northampton. Photo:

Cnut will be there, of course: “A wise, savvy and ruthless Viking leader. Keeps his friends close and enemies closer. His ambitions will mold the course of history in the 11th century and make him a defining figure of the Viking age.” (

Bradley Freegard will play Cnut in Vikings:Valhalla. Photo: refers vaguely to an English king, but I have no way of knowing if that will be Æthelred or Edmund Ironside. The show is supposedly covering the entire 11th century, and there were nine kings of England from Æthelred through the reign of William the Conqueror, so surely they will include more than one! (All but two of them, by the way, were linked to Emma by blood or marriage.) mentions as well Earl Godwin who I introduced at the very end of THE PRICE OF BLOOD and who plays a large role in my new book THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK. But Cnut didn’t make him an earl until 1018, which raises the question in my mind as to when the story line of Valhalla actually begins—with the reign of Cnut (1016), or earlier?

And how accurate will the timeline and the history be? VIKINGS was fabulously inaccurate on both counts. Granted, like my trilogy this will be historical fiction, but with no Author’s Note to explain where the fiction veers from historical fact, (as VIKINGS often did, and wildly), anyone watching may be led desperately astray. (See above, Queen Ælfgifu of Denmark? No.)

So when Valhalla appears I will certainly be reviewing each episode to offer clarity and an alternate point of view when necessary, especially with regard to Emma of Normandy and the history that is covered in my books.

Meantime, THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK releases on 2 March, well before Valhalla even begins filming. If you read my book, and I hope you do, when Valhalla does arrive you’ll already be familiar with some of the historical figures and events that the show will portray.

And a huge thank you to Morgan Manning for alerting me to this breaking story.


Posted in Uncategorized, Vikings | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Sneak Peek: The Steel Beneath the Silk

Release Date: 2 March 2021 
Paperback, E-book, Audiobook

A dramatic tale of a queen who lived a thousand years ago, beautifully fictionalised and brilliantly researched, brings Emma’s incredible story out from History’s shadows into the light. –Carol McGrath, author of The Handfasted Wife


Excerpt from Chapter One:

Emma heard the faint rasp of footsteps on gravel, and she turned around, expecting to see someone from her household come in search of her. But it was a man who approached, one whose image had been graven on her heart years before. And as she watched him stride purposefully toward her she felt torn between elation and despair.

She had steeled herself for this meeting three days before, when the king’s council had first gathered. But of all the king’s sons, Athelstan alone had not answered the summons nor sent any explanation for his absence. Now he had arrived at last, and she was unprepared. She guessed that he must have been traveling for days, for his boots and cloak were caked with mud, his fair hair disheveled, and his face bronzed from long hours in the sun.

He had looked much the same when last she had seen him, on the day that he had stormed into All Hallows Church to find her standing with Thorkell near the body of the murdered archbishop. For several heartbeats she was inside the little church again, caught between Athelstan’s drawn sword and a handful of Danes who were weaponless except for one grim-faced shipman who stood well beyond her reach holding a knife to her son’s throat.

She shivered at the memory and at the alarm triggered now by the fierce light in Athelstan’s blue eyes as he drew closer.

“What has happened?” she demanded, certain that he brought news of some new calamity.

 “We have unfinished business, you and I,” he snapped, seizing her wrist and turning her hand palm up to reveal the scars that slashed red and raw across her fingers and thumb. She wanted to pull her hand away, but she did not try. She knew that she could not match his swordsman’s strength.

“I took no lasting hurt from your blade, my lord,” she said stiffly, “if that is what concerns you.” She had grasped his sword to prevent a slaughter and the murder of her son, but the only thing that had perished that day had been the trust between them. There had not been a single day in the three months since that she had not grieved its loss.

Posted in The Steel Beneath the Silk | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Cnut’s Mum


In The Steel Beneath the Silk, the novel that concludes my Emma of Normandy Trilogy, several characters appear who are new to the story. One of them is Cnut’s mum. Who was she? Of course, her son Cnut is well known as a Danish warrior king of Denmark, Norway and England.

Cnut as he appears in E.S. Brooks’ Historic Boys

But the DANISH part of that description is not precisely accurate; because although Cnut’s father, Swein Forkbeard, was Danish, Cnut’s mum was a Polish princess. I hope you’re sitting down, because what I’m about to relate is complicated.

Historians agree that Cnut’s mum was the second wife of King Swein, but other than that she is shrouded in mystery. It’s not clear if Swein was her first husband or her second husband. It’s not clear when they were married, or where and when she gave birth to her children, or how many children she had. We’re not even certain of her name.

What we do know is that Cnut’s mother was the sister of Boleslaw the Brave, King of Poland…

Boleslaw Chobry. Wikimedia Commons

and that their parents were Mieszko of Bohemia of the Piast dynasty…

Mieszko. Wikimedia Commons

and a Bohemian princess named Doubravka who, through her marriage, brought Christianity to Poland.

Doubravka of Bohemia. Wikimedia Commons

Which means that Cnut’s mum was a Christian, and therefore her children, if they spent any time with their mother at all, would also have been Christian. Indeed, Cnut’s baptismal name was Lambert.

But what was Cnut’s mother’s name? Of that we can’t be sure. The names that have been suggested are Swietoslawa, Gunhild, and Sigrid. Professor Timothy Bolton in his recent biography of Cnut suggests that she was Swietoslawa, a name common in the Piast dynasty. The name appears Anglicized as Santslave in the Liber Vitae of New Minster, Winchester, in reference to a sister of Cnut who, it’s suggested, might have been named after her mother. Ian Howard, author of Swein Forkbeard’s Invasions, suggests that, whatever her birth name might have been, she was given the Scandinavian name Gunhild when she married Swein. This seems quite plausible, for it was not unusual for a woman to take a new name when she married into a new culture. Emma of Normandy, for example, was given the name Ælfgifu when she married the English King Æthelred, and sometimes both of her names, Ælfgifu Emma, appear in the records. Such may be the case with Swietoslawa Gunhild. But she’s also been identified with Sigrid the Haughty, a lusty queen who appears in the Norse sagas. More about her in a moment.

Ian Howard claims that Swein’s Polish wife with the new, Scandinavian name Gunhild, gave birth to two sons, Harald and Cnut, and possibly a daughter named Estrith, but he doesn’t attempt to suggest when or where her children were born. Presumably it was in Denmark in the late 980s because in 990, according to Howard, Swein and his family were driven out of Denmark by a Swedish army led by King Erik the Victorious. While Swein took to the seas—he was ravaging in England in 991 and 992—Gunhild fled to Pomerania (part of Poland) on the southern Baltic coast. 

Swein eventually returned to Denmark when his Swedish enemy King Erik the Victorious died (in 993, 994, or 995—not sure) and was no longer a threat. According to Ian Howard, Swein ensured his sovereignty over Sweden by marrying Erik’s widow, Sigrid the Haughty,  conveniently ignoring the fact that he had a wife in Pomerania. Sigrid, as described by James Reston, Jr. in The Last Apocalypse, was a lusty older matron with several grown children, who enjoyed the company of bawdy drinking men. She must have been a handful, even for Swein. According to Howard, Swein’s daughter Estrith might have been Gunhild’s daughter or she might have been the daughter of the bold Sigrid.

Sigrid the Haughty. From 1899 translation of Heimskringla, Wikimedia Commons

Professor Bolton, though, doesn’t accept the existence of Swein’s wife #3, Sigrid the Haughty. He suggests that Swein had only two wives. His first wife, name unknown, was the mother of Swein’s daughter Gytha, who all agree was Cnut’s elder half-sister. Swein’s second wife was the Polish sister of Boleslaw, and she, not the saga queen named Sigrid, was married first to the Swedish king Erik the Victorious, and after the death of her husband in 993, 994, or 995, she wed Swein. Her three children by Swein were Harald, Cnut and Estrith. If Bolton is right, all three of these children must have been born in the mid-to-late 990s, after the death of King Erik and Swein’s marriage to his widow, instead of the in the 980s, as Howard suggests.

But according to the Encomium Emmae Reginae, written at the behest of and with information provided by Cnut’s widow, Queen Emma, after Swein Forkbeard died in 1014 his sons Harald and Cnut went to “the land of the Slavs” and brought their mother back with them to Denmark, implying that at some point Cnut’s mother had left Denmark and been separated from her husband and sons. If this is true, Cnut and Harald must have spent enough time with their mother when they were children to have formed some filial attachment to her. In my mind that argues for a marriage to Swein in the 980s, per Howard’s thesis, not the 990s as Bolton suggests. Either way, though, her name probably wasn’t Sigrid.

So, was Swietoslawa/Gunhild, as Howard claims, Swein’s virginal young bride who gave him two sons and possibly a daughter in the 980s, only to be eventually set aside for the lusty Sigrid? Was she, as Bolton believes, the grieving Polish widow of a Swedish king, forced into marriage with Swein as one of the spoils of war, yet somehow confused with a character in the Norse sagas? And if she wasn’t the haughty, strong-minded Sigrid of the sagas, might she have had some of her characteristics? 

The answer depends on whether your primary sources are the German chroniclers, the Icelandic Sagas, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, or some combination of them. Certainly, she was the sister of the Polish king Boleslaw the Brave. That much is clear. I’m inclined to think that her name was Swietoslawa, and that she took the name Gunhild upon her marriage to Swein in about 980, as Howard suggests. She gave Swein at least three children, but Swein eventually set her aside in the mid-990s, sending her back to ‘the land of the Slavs’ in order to make a political marriage to Sigrid, the widow of King Erik the Victorious. It’s the only way I can make all the names, the dates, and the relationships work out.

In my novel The Steel Beneath the Silk Cnut’s mother’s name is Gunhild, and as the dowager queen of Denmark and mother of its king, Harald, she is arrogant and domineering toward the other women at court. (Unconsciously, it seems, I allowed a little bit of Sigrid to leak into her character.) Cnut’s sister Estrith appears in the novel, too, as does their elder half-sister Gytha. Together with queen mother Gunhild, these three women are Cnut’s tall, formidable, flame-haired female kin.


Bartlett, W. B. King Cnut and the Viking Conquest of England 1016. Amberley Publishing, 2016.
Bolton, Timothy. Cnut the Great. Yale University Press, 2017.
Howard, Ian. Swein Forbeard’s Invasions and the Danish Conquest of England, 991-1017. Boydell Press, 2003.
Reston, Jr., James. The Last Apocalypse: Europe at the Year 1000 A.D. Doubleday, 1998.
Sawyer, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Wikipedia: Swietoslawa of Poland.



Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Steel Beneath the Silk

The third novel in my EMMA OF NORMANDY TRILOGY will be published on 2 March 2021.

THE STEEL BENEATH THE SILK continues the story of 11th century queen of England Emma of Normandy during the final, desperate years of her husband’s reign. As the Danish King Swein and his son Cnut attempt to drive the English king from his throne, the royals of England grapple with internal tensions and external strife. Aided in secret by Cnut’s scheming concubine Elgiva, the Danish invaders undermine the English defenders and bring the kingdom to its knees. Faced with English treachery, viking savagery, and even nature’s wrath, Emma must outwit enemies who threaten her children and who seek to destroy the very fabric of England.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment