Bones of Saxon queen who was wife of King Canute found in Winchester

Remains of the wife of King Canute who ‘walked over hot metal to prove she did not cheat on him’ have been discovered in chests at Winchester Cathedral

  • Queen Emma’s remains were found in the treasures of Winchester Cathedral 
  • They were found in various chests at the cathedral and may belong to the queen
  • She was married twice and was the Queen Consort of three nations 
  • Her blood connections gave William the Conqueror a claim to the English throne 
  • She was forced by her son to walk over red hot metal without harm to prove her marital fidelity

The bones of an 11th-century English queen are believed to have been discovered during research into a cathedral’s secret treasures.

Remains found in 1,000-year-old chests in Winchester Cathedral are thought to be those of Queen Emma, wife of two Anglo-Saxon kings.

She was betrothed to King Ethelred The Unready and upon his death, married his successor, King Canute.

Canute is the man behind one of Britain’s most enduring legends, of the king who tried to turn back the tide.  

Emma was a powerful landowner and power broker in the years before the Norman Conquest.

Her importance was such that she was the first queen whose portrait was painted by artists and immortalised in court records.

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Emma, wife of King Canute, was said to be the richest woman in England. She was a major landowner in her own right in Wessex and eastern England, and a major powerbroker, especially over the Church. Here she is depicted in Winchester Cathedral 

Emma was a powerful landowner and powerbroker in the years before the Norman Conquest. Her importance was such that she was the first queen whose portrait was painted by artists and immortalised in court records. Her remains are set to go on display at Winchester Cathedral

She has her own legend, in which she walked over red hot metal without harm to prove her marital fidelity.

If confirmed, the discovery would make Emma the second major royal figure whose body has been rediscovered in recent years. 

The bones of the last Plantagenet king, Richard lll, killed in battle in 1485, were unearthed below a car park in Leicester in 2012.

Researchers are also hoping to find the tomb of the Norman King Henry I, which lies under the site of the destroyed Reading Abbey.

The bones believed to be Emma’s were among relics of a number of bodies consigned to painted mortuary chests and first stored in Winchester’s Old Minster, which was demolished after the Norman Conquest in 1093.

In the building of the new cathedral, chroniclers said, the remains of ‘kings were mixed with bishops, and bishops with kings’. 

Further confusion was caused by puritan Roundhead troops who ransacked the cathedral at the start of the Civil War in 1642.

The sex, age and physical characteristics of the remains have now been identified after a six-year inquiry which involved radiocarbon dating of the bones.

The Church of England said yesterday that among 1,300 separate bones were ‘the remains of a mature female dispersed within several chests.

Emma of Normandy (pictured), who lived from 985 to 1052, was married first to Ethelred, cruelly labelled ‘the Unready’ by history, and then to his successor Canute

A family tree indicating how Emma was the queen of two kings: Canute and Ethelred 

Remains found in 1,000-year-old chests in Winchester Cathedral (pictured) are thought to be those of Queen Emma, wife of two Anglo-Saxon kings

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT KING CANUTE?

King Canute (artist’s impression) lived between 989 and 1035 AD, the son of King Sweyn Forkbeard

King Canute, also known as Cnut the Great, is famed for one particular tale which has permanently etched his name into English folklore. 

Canute is popularly known by the story that he tried to teach his advisors the limits of his power by instructing them to carry him to the beach.

The King then ordered the tide to stay out. 

When the water rose and wet his feet, the story written 100 years after his death, said, he cried to his courtiers: ‘How empty and worthless is the power of kings!’

However, the popular memory of the story is that a deluded Canute was trying to show his own supernatural strength.   

The story became a proverb frequently cited when the rich and famous try to limit unwanted publicity or politicians attempt to prevent inevitable developments.

He was a king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden, sometimes called the North Sea Empire.

Canute won the throne of England in 1016 and maintained his power by unifying Nordic and English traditions, rather than simple brutality.

He ruled England for nineteen years and the protection he gave against Viking raiders – many of whom were under his command in the first place – helped to restore prosperity. 

He won the English throne via invasions of the country with his Viking warriors, ascended to the Danish throne via blood-right in 1018 (he was the grandson of legendary Dane Harold Bluetooth) and claimed the crown of Norway in 1028. 

He was married twice, to Ælfgifu of Northampton and Emma of Normandy, and his offspring were some of the most notable in European history. 

His son Harthacnut would become the last Scandinavian ruler of England while Edward the Confessor   

The resources he commanded in England due to this influx helped him to establish secure control in Scandinavia as well. 

Canute’s reign and deeds were told of in Norse poetry, where he was portrayed as a fierce Viking warrior.  

In the Knýtlinga Saga, Canute is described as ‘exceptionally tall and strong, and the recognised of men, all except for his nose, that was thin, high set and rather hooked.’

He is said to have had a fair complexion and thick head of hair.

The great king died in 1035 and was succeeded by his son Harold Harefoot.

‘It is not yet certain, but these bodily remains could be those of Queen Emma, daughter of Richard 1, Duke of Normandy,’ they said. 

Emma, who lived from 985 to 1052, was married first to Ethelred, cruelly labelled ‘the Unready’ by history, and then to his successor Canute. 

Her blood connections gave William the Conqueror a claim to the English throne. 

Canute is best known for the story that he tried to teach his advisers the limits of his power by instructing them to carry him to the beach, and then demonstrating that he could not order the tide to stay out.

However, the popular version of the story tends to depict Canute as a deluded king who believed he could in fact turn back the tide.  

Emma, mother of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was said to be the richest woman in England. She was a major landowner in her own right in Wessex and eastern England, and a major power broker, especially over the Church. 

She is considered to have wielded power alongside her husband and son in her later years.

She was a central reason for William Duke of Normandy’s claim to the English throne, which led him to invade and overthrow the Anglo-Saxon monarchy in 1066.

The Church of England said yesterday that among 1,300 separate bones were ‘the remains of a mature female dispersed within several chests. It is not yet certain, but these bodily remains could be those of Queen Emma, daughter of Richard 1, Duke of Normandy’

WHO WAS QUEEN EMMA? 

She was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy and lived from 985 to 1052

Emma was a powerful landowner and powerbroker in the years before the Norman Conquest.

She was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy and lived from 985 to 1052.

She was married twice, first to English King Ethelred The Unready and then to his successor Canute, who was King of Denmark and Norway. 

This made Emma the Queen consort to all three nations.  

She was a major landowner in her own right in Wessex and eastern England and is believed to have been one of the richest people in the country.  

Her connection to both the French and the English royal families was central to the claim of William Duke of Normandy’s claim to the English throne. 

When her son Edward the Confessor died in 1066 without an heir, it was Emma’s estranged bastard half-brother William who claimed the throne. 

The legend of Emma’s ordeal by fire is thought to have begun two centuries after her death. 

She was, it is said, accused by her son jealous son Edward the Confessor of adultery with the Bishop of Winchester, and obliged to prove her innocence by walking over red hot ploughshares in the cathedral nave.

Her son is said to have been present, along with the highest figures in the state and the Church, as his mother was walked down the nave by two bishops at her side.

However Emma was said to not to have felt the iron or the fire beneath, nor was she harmed by it. The incident was pictured in an engraving by artist and poet William Blake in 1793.

Her connection to both the French and the English royal families was central to the claim of William Duke of Normandy’s claim to the English throne -who was the bastard son of her father, Richard I, Duke of Normandy

WHO WAS ETHELRED THE UNREADY? 

Ethelred, also spelled Æthelred, was King of England at the turn of the second millennium. 

He came to the throne as a child in 978, ruling a kingdom under constant attack from Denmark. 

In 994 more than 90 Viking ships came up the Thames to London. 

Ethelred tried to buy off the Danes with tribute to the Scandinavian king but Danish raids continued regardless.  

After his first wife Ælfgifu died in 1002 he married Emma, later to become the queen of Canute. 

Their children included Edward the Confessor who would later be King of England.  

Ethelred was briefly toppled by a Danish invasion in 1013, led by Sweyn Forkbeard. 

He managed to recover his throne but died in 1016 in the throes of another Danish onslaught, led by Canute. 

His nickname of ‘the Unready’ has given him a poor reputation in history. 

However, the title is a misunderstanding: the Old English epithet is meant to mean ‘poorly advised’. 

That in itself was a pun on his first name, which meant ‘well-advised’. 

The legend of Emma’s ordeal by fire is thought to have begun two centuries after her death. 

She is said to have been accused by her son of adultery with the Bishop of Winchester, and obliged to prove her innocence by walking over red hot ploughshares in the cathedral nave.

She is said to not to have felt the iron or the fire beneath, nor been harmed by it. The incident was pictured in an engraving by artist and poet William Blake in 1793.

Lead researcher Professor Kate Robson Brown of Bristol University said: ‘We cannot be certain of the identity of each individual yet, but we are certain this is a very special assemblage of bones.’

The dating process included checking the bones for traces of the diet high in fish thought to be eaten by the wealthiest in the first half of the 11th century.

Other bones in the chests are thought to belong to two boys aged between 10 and 15, certainly royal princes, but as yet unidentified.

Names on the chests – which may not be those of the people whose remains are still in them – include those of Cynegils, the first Christian King of Wessex, who died in 641, and King William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, who was killed hunting in the New Forest in 1100.

The bones will go on display as part of an exhibition of the Cathedral’s history, Kings and Scribes, which will open later this month.     

The bones believed to be Emma’s were among relics of a number of bodies consigned to painted mortuary chests and first stored in Winchester’s Old Minster, which was demolished after the Norman Conquest in 1093

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