Interview: Patricia Bracewell, Emma of Normandy Trilogy

Interviewed by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

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Patricia Bracewell’s Emma of Normandy Trilogy serves as a graphic reminder of two truths: women make history and women’s history has been woefully under-recorded. Were it not for one of Bracewell’s primary sources, the Encomium Emmae Reginae (In Praise of Queen Emma), fans of historical fiction might not have the joy of reading her trilogy or of learning about Emma, the medieval queen of, at various times, England, Denmark and Norway.

The first book in the trilogy, Shadow on the Crown, introduced Emma as she made a perilous journey from the home of her father, Richard I, Duke of Normandy, to an arranged marriage with England’s King Æthelred in 1002. A haunted husband and treacherous court set the stage for Emma’s struggles, which continue in book two, The Price of Blood (Viking, February 5, 2015). Although fictional accounts of necessity, given the scarcity of documentation of Emma’s life, Bracewell’s books have made good use of the record Emma intentionally left behind.

In a recent email interview, Bracewell explained the medieval manuscript:

The Encomium Emmae Reginae is a document written in Latin by a Flemish monk at the behest of Queen Emma in about the year 1041, so about 35 years after the time frame of my trilogy. It describes, somewhat selectively, events that occurred in Britain from the year 1012 to the year 1041. Emma commissioned this ‘history’ at a time when the English court was split into factions of Normans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and Flemish. It was a court filled with mistrust and recrimination. I believe that Emma’s goal in commissioning this work was to attempt to ease the tensions in the court by portraying the events of the previous 35 years as she remembered them, thus explaining some of her own actions. … Did she succeed? I think she did. I don’t think there’s any question that the production of the Encomium was political spin doctoring on Emma’s part. What I find significant about it is that it shows that an 11th century woman had the political savvy to use the written word to manipulate current events. My study of the Encomium—and as much of the scholarship about it as I could get my hands on—was useful because I had to create a young Emma who would become that politically astute, mature woman—not in my books because they don’t go that far, but historically. In The Price of Blood, Emma uses the written word—letters—to manipulate events in her favor.

Bracewell’s research and her talent have produced a richly detailed account of a turbulent time and a vividly human rendering of Queen Emma, a bright, well-educated woman determined to survive devastating events and Machiavellian enemies. A real woman who helped make history and was invested in recording it. An insightful woman who had to make use of the power that surrounded her to protect her children and her country. According to Bracewell, today is not so different.

In The Price of Blood, Queen Emma says, “If the measure of power is how close one stands beside the king, then at this moment in time I am, indeed, powerless. But if power is measured by lands, by wealth and by ties to men of influence, then I count myself powerful indeed.” Of course, I put those words into Emma’s mouth, but I think they are as true for her time as they are for today. Power is in the hands of those with wealth and privilege—and even in modern democracies that means men. I don’t mean to be cynical; I’m just stating a fact. There is no gender parity when it comes to power. On the other hand, it’s certainly true that there are far more opportunities for women today to rise to recognized positions of power than there were for women in Emma’s time. And today, women can promote themselves as capable in their own right, not as the mother or wife or daughter of some powerful man as in Emma’s case. Nevertheless, even today the road to influence is all about alliances, networks, connections, usually to influential men. That hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

Emma’s quest for power, for control of her life and the lives of her offspring, is timeless, albeit set in the Middle Ages. Her story as told by Bracewell, deeply researched and compellingly written, makes the Emma of Normandy Trilogy a wonderful addition to the canon of historical fiction. Read an excerpt from chapter 1 of The Price of Blood, below.

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Chapter One

March 1006 Near Calne, Wiltshire

Queen Emma checked her white mare as it crested a hill above the vast royal estate where the king had settled for the Lenten season. Behind her a company of thirty men, women, and children, all of them heavily cloaked against a biting wind, rested their mounts after the long climb. In front of her, in the middle distance below the hill, the slate roof and high, gilded gables of the king’s great hall dwarfed the buildings and palisade that encircled it. The hall marked their journey’s end, and Emma looked on it with relief, for it was late in the day and her people were weary As she studied the road ahead, a single shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds massed in folds across the sky to slant a golden light upon the fields below. The furrowed land shimmered under a thin film of green—new shoots that promised a good harvest in the months to come, if only God would be merciful.

But God, Emma thought, seemed to have turned His face against England. For two years now, promising springs had been followed by rain-plagued summers so that food and fodder were scarce. This past winter, Famine and Death had stalked the land, and if the coming sea- son’s yield was not bountiful, yet more of the poorest in the realm would die.

She had done what she could, distributing alms to those she could reach and adding her voice to the faithful ’s desperate pleas for God ’s mercy. Now, as the golden light lingered on the green vale below, she prayed that her latest assault on heaven—the pilgrimage she had made to the resting places of England ’s most beloved saints—might at last have secured God’s blessings on Æthelred’s realm.

She glanced around, looking past the horse litter that bore her son and his wet nurse to find her three young stepdaughters. Wulf hilde, just eight winters old, was asleep in the arms of the servant who rode with her. Ælfa sat upon her mount slumped within the folds of her mantle. Edyth, the eldest at twelve, stared dully toward the manor hall, her face drawn and pale beneath her fur-lined hood.

Emma chided herself for pushing them so hard, for they had been on the road since daybreak. She turned in her saddle to lead the group forward, but as she did so the wind made a sudden shift to strike her full in the face. Her mount sidled nervously, and as she struggled to control the mare another fierce gust pushed at her like a massive hand that would urge her away.

She felt a curious sense of unease, a pricking at the back of her neck, and she squinted against the wind, searching for the source of her dis- quiet. On the mast atop the manor’s bell tower, the dragon banner of Wessex heralded the king’s presence within. He would be there to wel- come her—although not with anything resembling love or even affec- tion, for he had none of either to give. Æthelred was more king than man—as ruthless and cold as a bird of prey. Sometimes she wondered if he had ever loved anyone—even himself.

She did not relish the coming reunion with her lord, but that alone did not explain her sudden sense of foreboding.

As she hesitated, her son began to wail, his piercing cry an urgent demand that she could not ignore. She shook off her disquiet, for surely it must be her own weariness that assailed her. She nodded to her armed hearth troops to take the lead, and then followed them down the hill.

When she rode through the manor gates she saw a knot of retainers making for the kitchens behind the great hall, one of them carrying the standard of the ætheling Edmund. She puzzled over his presence here while a groom helped her dismount. Edmund had accompanied his el- der brothers Athelstan and Ecbert to London in February, charged with the task of repairing the city’s fortifications and the great bridge that straddled the Thames. All three of them were to remain there until they joined the court at Cookham for the Easter feast. What, then, was Edmund doing here today?

The anxiety that had vexed her on the hill returned, but she had duties to perform before she could satisfy her curiosity. She led her stepdaughters and attendants into her quarters, where she found a fire blazing in the central hearth, the lime-washed walls hung with embroi- dered linens, and her great, curtained bed standing ready at the far end of the room. Three servants were setting up beds for the king’s daugh- ters, and a fourth stepped forward to take Emma’s hooded mantle and muddy boots.

She slipped out of the cloak, then looked about the chamber for the women of her household who had been sent ahead and had, she guessed, supervised all these preparations.

“Where are Margot and Wymarc?” she asked, still unnerved by that moment of unease on the heights above the manor.

Before anyone could respond, Wymarc entered the chamber with a quick step, and Emma, relieved, drew her into an embrace. They had been parted for only a week, yet it seemed far longer. Wymarc was a bright, comforting presence in her household—and had been since the day they left Normandy together for England. Four years ago that was— four years since Emma stood at the door of Canterbury Cathedral as the peace-weaving bride of the English king, with Wymarc looking on from only a half step away.

From THE PRICE OF BLOOD: A Novel by Patricia Bracewell. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Patricia Bracewell, 2015.

Patricia Bracewell photo credit: Christine Krieg