Legends: Queen Emma's Ordeal by Fire
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Legend of Queen Emma's Infidelity
By Herbert J. Reid
Queen Emma's Odreal by Fire at Winchester

"Queen Emma's Palace" at Wargrave (1827)

There is a curious legend concerning the Old Minster at Winchester and the gift to the See of several old manors of the southern counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. With the assistance of extracts from the Domesday Book, Herbert J. Reid endeavours to prove this legend untrue.

The Story demands most careful and critical examination, for, in common with most legends, it undoubtedly originated in some fact, which at a later date became perverted. The great difficulty is to ascertain the facts. Nearly all the historians from the 13th century downwards, relate the story of Queen Emma and her Ordeal of walking over red hot ploughshares in Winchester Cathedral (ie. the Old Minster). Before relating the legend there are two remarks to be made, which should be carefully borne in mind. In the first place, no contemporary authority for the story exists; further, what we are able to gather from contemporary writings, cannot be easily reconciled with it.

Queen Emma, the heroine of this story, is believed, in Berkshire, to have resided at Wargrave, one of the manors in question. Until the year 1827, a very ancient building, called Queen Emma's Palace, was pointed out as having been occupied by her; but although of great antiquity, we believe that this building does not date back beyond the end of the 15th century, probably even later. Our illustration is from a drawing by the late Mrs. Hitchings, taken in the year 1827. The Palace was demolished in that year, but a barn, also of great age, remained until well into the late nineteenth century, which bore the name of Emma's Barn. Examples of the tenacity with which names connected with any legend will cling to a locality, even when they have no foundation whatever in fact. In this case it will be shown that Emma, although she may possibly have resided at Wargrave, certainly never possessed the Manor, and consequently could not have given it to Winchester Cathedral, as a thank-offering for her delivery from the Ordeal.

Emma, or Œlfgifa, fair Maid of Normandy, was, it will be remembered, wife first of King Aethelred the Unready, and afterwards of Canute the Great. She was the mother, therefore, not only of Harthacnut, but also of Edward the Confessor. Edward, after he obtained the crown, appears to have had little confidence in his mother, probably in consequence of her having favoured the pretensions of the children of her second husband, instead of supporting the claim of Edward to the throne. It is impossible to enter into a discussion here as to the merits of the case, but it is certain the mind of Edward was easily influenced. So that the fact of his mother being despoiled of her property by him at the instigation of others need excite little surprise - the more so, as he acted in a precisely similar manner by his wife, Edith. Upon this disgrace, perhaps, the whole story has been founded.

The following account, for which we are largely indebted to Professor Freeman's "Norman Conquest," is a summary of the legend. It will be found at great length in Dugdale's Monasticon, fo. 34, Vol. 1, and also in Bromton, X. Scriptores, fo. 941.

The Legend of Queen Emma.

Robert, Archbishop of Canterbury, persuades the King that Emma, forty-eight years after her first marriage, fifteen years after the death of her second husband, Canute, had been guilty of too close an intimacy with Aelfwine, Bishop of Winchester. The choice of an Episcopal lover was unlucky, as Aelfwine had been dead three years; a more ingenious romancer would have named Stigand. The Bishop is imprisoned, the Lady is spoiled of her goods, and sent to Wherwell Priory.

From her prison, where she was not very strictly confined, Emma writes to those Bishops in whom she trusted, saying, she is far more shocked at the scandal against Aelfwine, than at the scandal against herself. She is even ready to submit to the ordeal of burning iron in order to prove the Bishop's innocence.

The other Bishops advise the King to allow the trial, but the Norman Archbishop uses very strong language indeed. Emma is "a wild thing, not a woman;" her daring went so far that, "she called her slimy lover, Christ the Lord," and so forth; she may make compurgation for the Bishop, but who will make compurgation for herself? Yet, if she will make a double purgation, if she will walk over four burning shares for herself, and five for the Bishop, her innocence shall be allowed. Preparations for the ordeal are made accordingly, Emma passing the night before in prayer at the shrine of St. Swithun, who, in answer to her supplications, appears to her, announcing himself, "I am St. Swithun whom you have invoked; fear not, the fire shall do you no hurt."

On the morrow, the King with his attendant courtiers assemble; the nine ploughshares are made red-hot, and placed upon the pavement in the Church. Emma now enters, and after making a long invocation, which commences, "Oh God, who didst save Susannah from the malice of the wicked elders, save me," treads with her bare feet upon the glowing metal: but she senses nothing. She has touched it, yet enquires of the Bishops who lead her by the hand, "When shall we come to the ploughshares?" They show her she has already passed over them. Upon examination, her feet are found to be uninjured - "See the Miracle". The King is now thoroughly convinced of her innocence, and repenting his cruelty, casts himself at his mother's feet, exclaiming, "Mother, I have sinned before heaven and before you," receives stripes both from the Bishop and his mother, restores all their confiscated property, and banishes the Archbishop.

The Winchester Annalist, says Professor Freeman, is very much fuller, and after his manner puts long speeches into the mouths of his actors; that made by the Norman Archbishop, displaying a remarkable acquaintance with the less decent parts of the satires of Juvenal.

The MS. also tells us that:

"Queen Emma having possession of all the manors of her dowry, which had been confirmed to her by the former Kings, was not of her preserver, and gave the same day as an offering to St. Swithun, for nine ploughshares, nine manors."

Rudborne gives the names of these manors, as well as those supposed to have been given at the same time by (deceased!) Bishop Aelfwine; those given by the King are also named, these latter varying slightly in different accounts. To test the accuracy of these writers, and to show that Emina did not give them as stated, a very careful examination of Domesday has been made, proving that the greater number of these manors were neither hers, Bishop Aelfwine's, nor the King's to give. Emma, it will be remembered, died A.D. 1052; Aelfwine, who was accused with her, had died ten years previously. Winchester Book, or Domesday, was compiled about 1086. Many years had not elapsed, and one might naturally expect corroboration of the story. Some, if not all, of these twenty-one manors if given to Winchester forty years previously, would surely be claimed by the Bishops under these gifts, and, unless the story is absolutely a fabrication, evidence of some sort should be forthcoming. Let us examine first Emma's manors, next Bishop Aelfwine's, and lastly the King's. The identification has in some cases been difficult, but the following is believed to be correct.

Emma's Manors

(1.) Brandesbyri Bramsbury, Hants.
(2.) Berchefelde, or Borgefel Burghfield, Berks.
(3.) Howthtone, or Houston Haughton, Wilts.
(4.) Fyfhyde Fyfield, Wilts.
(5.) Mechelmershe Mitchelmarsh, Hants.
(6.) Yuingeo Ivingho, Bucks.
(7.) Wicombe Wycombe, Bucks.
(8.) Weregravys Wargrave, Berks.
(9.) Haylinge Hayling, Hants.

Of these manors we find notice in Domesday as follows:

(1.) Brandesberre is described as "Land for the victualling of the monks of Winchester." It is added, "Abbot Alsi held it of Bishop Stigand and of the monks in the time of King Edward."

(2.) Berchefelde, or Borgefel. Lands of Ralph de Mortemar. The same Ralph holds Burghfield, and a certain (knight) holds of him. Abbot Elsi held it of the old monastery of the Church at Winchester, by witness of the shire in the time of King Edward, and afterwards until he was outlawed.

(3.) Howthtone, or Houston. The Bishop of Winchester holds Haughton in demesne. It always belonged to the Bishopric.

(4.) Fyfhide, Wiltescire. Land of the Bishop of Winchester. The same Bishop (of Winchester) holds Fyfield and Edward of him, and he paid for five hides (hence the name Fyfhide) in the time of King Edward (the Confessor). This land was appropriated to the Sacristan of the church. Alsi held it of the Bishop.

(5.) Mechelmershe, or Mychelm-meryshe. Mitchelmarsh is not mentioned at all, and would appear not to have been formed into a manor until a later date.

(6.) Yuingeo, or Ivyngeho, or Evingehow. The same Bishop (of Winchester) holds Ivingho. This manor lay and lays in the demesne of the church of St. Peter of Winchester.

(7.) Wicombe. Walchelin, Bishop of Winchester, holds Wycombe. Stigand held it in the time of King Edward.

(8.) Weregrave. The King holds in demesne Wargrave. Edith held it.

(9.) Haylinge. The Land of St. Peter of Jumieges. The Abbey of Jumieges holds Hayling. Ulward held it of Edith the Queen as allodium. This manor which the monks lay claim to, from the Bishopric of Winchester, because Emma the Queen had given this to the Church of St. Peter and St. Swithun and then gave seizin of a moiety to the monks; and she then demised the other moiety to Ulward for his life only, that, after his death ... the manor should return to the monastery. And this Ulward held a part of the manor from the monks until he died in the time of King William. And to this Elsi the Abbot of Ramsey testifies, and the whole hundred.

There is little question but a survey of some description had been made in the Confessor's time, forming the basis of Domesday. The latter gives always the values in the time of King Edward, as also the names of the persons holding the property, this being probably to facilitate its identification. Queen Edith appears to have had considerable possessions, her name occurring frequently. For example:

The King's Holdings in Hampshire.

The King (i.e. William I) holds Haustige. Edith the Queen held it in the time of King Edward.

The King holds Greteham. Edith the Queen held it in the time of King Edward.

The King holds Optune. Of the land of Edith the Queen, in the time of King Edward.

Cheping holds Candever of the King. Sberne held it of' Queen Edith in the time of King Edward.

Agemund holds Sottesdene of the King, and he himself held it of Queen Edith as alodium.

This last word gives a faint possible clue. It will have been remarked that Hayling was claimed by Winchester as an allodial manor of Queen Emma's. It is just possible her gifts may have been in other cases similar to this one: but it is scarcely probable, or it would have been recorded in more instances than in that of Hayling. This is the only one of the nine manors stated to have been given by Emma to Winchester that has even this slight shadow of confirmation from Domesday of having belonged to her. Several others, indeed, are mentioned as being held by the Bishops at the time of King Edward, but it is also said they belonged to the Bishopric always, or were appropriated for victualling or other purposes. Mitchelmarsh is not in Domesday at all, and Wargrave is distinctly given, first as Edith's, and afterwards as the King's. Thus, it was impossible for Emma to give it away, not being hers to dispose of. So far, then, the Bishops of Winchester possess, after a lapse of only forty years, but six of the nine manors which Emma is credited with having given them. Only one has any evidence to adduce as proof of ever having belonged to her, and this the very vaguest and most improbable.

It will be as well to continue the examination into the manors alleged to have been given by Aelfwine, which, according to Rudborne, are Stoneham, Meones (two manors), Neuton, Witeney, Heling, Melbrok or Mellebrog, Polhampton or Polemtune, and Hodingtone.

(1.) Stoneham, Hants. The Bishop of Winchester holds it for the victualling of the monastery. It always belonged to the monastery.

(2.) Menes (two manors). The King himself holds Menes. Stigand, the Archbishop, held it in the time of King Edward for the need [or work] of the monks, and afterwards as long as he lived he held it.

(3.) Menes. The Bishop himself holds Menes in demesne. It was always in the Bishopric.

(4.) Neuton. The Archbishop of Canterbury holds Neuton. It belonged, and does belong to the Church.

(5.) Witeney. The Bishop of Winchester holds Witney. Stigand, the Archbishop, held it.

(6.) Heling. If this is Hayling, it is already accounted for under Emma's alleged gifts, but if not, there is no record and no other place to identify it with.

(7.) Mellebrog, or Milbrok. Belonged always to the Monastery (of Winchester).

(8.) Polemtune. There appear to have been two manors of this name:

(a.) Ralph, son of Seifred, holds Polemtune of the Bishop (of Winchester). In the time of King Edward it was for the victualling of the Monks.

(b.) Wills Bertram holds of the King, Polemtune. Tosti held it in the time of King Edward.

Here again are seven manors out of the nine actually owned by the Church of Winchester. Some have always belonged to the monastery, or are for their provisioning, as before, yet not one is claimed as a gift from Aelfwine. One it will be remarked was held by Stigand "as long as he lived" and, since he did not die until A.D. 1070, he could not have given this Manor. The King gives, according to one chronicle, the two Meons and Porthland, or in another version, Porthland, Wike, Hollewelle, and Waymouth. The two Meons we have already seen are said to have been given by Aelfwine. Hollewelle and Wike we find no trace of, Portland and Weymouth are both in Dorsetshire in which county, at the Survey, the Church of Winchester had no possessions.

The result of the enquiry is not flattering to the veracity of the before-mentioned annalists. Of the twenty-one (or twenty-two) manors they distinctly say were given by these three individuals to the Church of Winchester upon a very special occasion, only thirteen actually are held by the Bishops at the Survey. The remainder are either not identified, were not formed into manors until a much later date, or are held by other possessors. The only conclusion to be formed from all the evidence is that the legend, not being found previous to the Winchester Annals, Rudborne or Bromton, was fabricated by one of them. To give a greater semblance of truth to the story, manors which at their time were actually owned by the Bishopric of Winchester were selected, without much judgement, to fit the story of the ploughshares. When they wrote, Wargrave was in the possession of Winchester, Mitchelmarsh had become a manor, and is so described in various documents.

Stigand, as suggested by Professor Freeman, would have supported their story far better. He is constantly mentioned in Domesday, and as holding some of these manors; he was also very intimate with Queen Emma, who died A.D. 1052, and was interred at Winchester by the side of her second husband, Canute. An interesting account of the demolition of their tombs by the Parliamentarians is given by "Mercurius Rusticus," who, after describing the violation of the royal tombs, concludes his lengthy remarks as follows:

"and, as if they meant (if it had been possible) to make these bones contract posthumous guilt ... those windows which they could not reach with their swords, muskets, or rests, they broke to pieces by throwing at them the bones of Kings, Queens, Bishops, Confessors or Saints, so that the spoil done on the windows will not be repaired for 1,000."

The above article is reproduced from "The History of Wargrave"
by Herbert J. Reid, 1885

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