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A History of Power, Love and Greed in 11th-Century England

by Harriet O’Brien

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2005
ISBN: 1-58234-596-1
Publisher: Bloomsbury

A politically savvy woman marries two English kings and gives birth to two others in the early Middle Ages.

Thousand-year-old documents are few and uniformly biased, images of the principals are rare or non-existent and the relevant buildings are long gone or much altered, but journalist O’Brien neither quakes nor vacillates as she peers back into the darkness and relates for us the compelling story of a remarkable woman who became “the wife, mother and aunt of England.” (William the Conqueror was her great-nephew.) The author begins in the spring of 1002 as the teenaged Emma is departing from her home in Normandy to marry England’s King Aethelred II. O’Brien simultaneously introduces us to her narrative technique: she launches each chapter with a fairly detailed present-tense narrative, necessarily speculative, about the events she will deal with in a more subdued and scholarly fashion in subsequent pages. The device works well, for these opening segments are invariably more engaging than the subsequent discussions of documents and other historical evidence. The 11th century was a bloody and a religious epoch, a time when Vikings raided the English coast and interior, when important men had names like Ironside and Blue Tooth and Harefoot, when people cherished the arm bones and heads of saints, when wolf’s milk was recommended to reanimate a dead baby in utero, when most people lived in squalor and ignorance and fear, when a Viking could split with his axe the head of the Archbishop of Canterbury. To her credit, O’Brien keeps the focus as much as possible on Emma as she moves from queen to widow to queen to widow to queen mother. She lived to be about 70, quite elderly for the time, and was able to look back on a varied life of riches, humiliation, suffering, subterfuge and, finally, peace.

Casts some light on a dark and sanguinary age. (8 pp. color illustrations, b&w illustrations throughout, not seen)