They wrote brilliant histories
It was said in the 980s that England was a land of “many different races, languages, customs and costumes”. The achievement of the kings from Æthelstan to Edgar (who ruled England from 959–75) was to create an allegiance to the monarch and his law. But with lesser rulers cohesion crumbled, and disaster struck under Æthelred the Unready. His 37-year reign saw the return of the Vikings, the defeat of the English, and the establishment in 1016 of a Danish kingdom of England under Cnut.
This story is told in one of our greatest historical narratives, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In its earlier years, the Chronicle was a laconic, impersonal record of the times, but in the first decade of the 11th century it came into its own, courtesy of a brilliant account written by a nameless London chronicler. Tragic, ironic, scathing, with poignant eyewitness detail, it is the birth of narrative history in English.
Æthelred’s reign also marked the beginning of ties with a future nemesis from across the English Channel. In 1002, the king married Emma of Normandy, one of the most remarkable women in our history. Elizabeth I and Victoria may be more celebrated, but in terms of drama, Emma’s 50-year reign leaves them in her wake: only Matilda can compare. Her story is told in the first biography of a woman in our history, In Praise of Queen Emma, which lifts the veil on 11th-century dynastic politics.
Emma later married Cnut, and her Danish and English sons became kings. This was a time when the Danish kings of England ruled Denmark and parts of Norway and Sweden too: a North Sea empire, and a very different alignment for English history. But when Emma’s childless son, Edward the Confessor, died in 1066, waiting in the wings was a giant of English history, William of Normandy.
Emma of Normandy shown in the Encomium, a biography of the queen and her husband Cnut