The Forever Queen

by Helen Hollick

Reviewed by David Maclaine

The Forever Queen of Helen Hollick’s title is one of the most remarkable women of the eleventh century. Emma of Normandy was the queen first of King Aethelred of England and, after his death, of Cnut of Denmark, who won the thrones of England and Denmark and for a while also ruled over Norway. Hollick tells the story of Emma's life from her arrival in England as a frightened thirteen-year-old bride, from an unhappy marriage to her English husband to her happy one to his Danish successor, and after Cnut’s death,  through the  reigns of her step-son Harold and her son Harthacnut, ending with the succession of her son Edward, whose piety earned him the sobriquet “the Confessor.” The tale of Emma’s trials and joys is enmeshed with the incredible story of how her first husband’s ineptitude brought about England’s conquest by the Danes, and the twists and turns that eventually placed the crown in the capable hands of her second husband Cnut, and after that, of two short-lived sons.

Hollick’s novel is a splendid recreation of this pivotal phase in English history. It brings to life the key personalities of the age which, in addition to the assorted royal figures already mentioned, include Emma’s supporter Godwin Wulfnothsson, her rival Aelfgifu of Northhampton, and the era’s great villain, Eadric Streona, not to mention a judicious sampling of Eadric’s purported victims. The drama of The Forever Queen unfolds in a sequence of very short chapters - 157 in 616 pages - so the whole amazing journey can be completed in easy stages. Hollick’s scholarly background serves her well, and her choices in interpreting the people and events of a poorly recorded age show such keen understanding that I’ve suspended judgment on those passing details that clashed with my own understanding. All in all, this is a masterful retelling of a life and age that deserves to be much better known. (2011, 616 pages; originally published in 2004 as A Hollow Crown)

More about The Forever Queen at Powell's Books, or The Book Depository

The Forever Queen appears on the list of The 45 Best Historical Novels Set in the Viking Age

Other novels about women in the time of the Norman Conquest:

The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower (2007), about the bishop who commissions the Bayeux Tapestry to commemorate his brother's conquest of England, and a Saxon woman who works on the embroidery. See review or more info at Powell's Books

The Bastard King by Jean Plaidy (1974), about William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda; #1 in the Norman trilogy. More info

Madselin by Norah Lofts (1979), about a Saxon widow who marries the Norman lord who has taken over her dead husband's manor house. More info

Nonfiction about Emma of Normandy:

Emma: The Twice-Crowned Queen by Isabella Strachan (2005). More info

Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriet O'Brien (2006). More info

Queen Emma and Queen Edith: Queenship and Women's Power in Eleventh-Century England by Pauline Stafford (1997). More info


Emma of Normandy at the New World Encyclopedia

Back to Novels of the Medieval Anglo-Saxons

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