Monday, June 26, 2006

The Ordeal of Queen Emma - William Blake

The only serious blot on the life of King Edward, according to his biographers, was his mistreatment of his mother, Queen Emma [982 – 06 Mar 1051]. In 1043, the king, with Earls Godwin, Leofric and Siward, came to Winchester and imprisoned her. Then, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, they “deprived her of all her innumerable treasures, because she had been too strict with the king, her son, in that she had done less for him than he wished, both before his accession and afterwards…” It seems that she was also accused of plotting with King Magnus of Norway. Edward’s suspicions of his mother may have been the result of her close links with Earl Godwin of Wessex, the murderer of his brother Prince Alfred.

However, as Frank Barlow writes, “Emma, when reduced to poverty and despair, had a dream in which [St. Mildred] promised to help her because she, with Cnut, had patronized the translation of St. Mildred from Thanet to St. Augustine’s, Canterbury. Whereupon Emma borrowed 20 shillings, sent them by means of her thegn [retainer], Aethelweard Speaka, to Abbot Aelfstan of St. Augustine’s, and, miraculously, the king’s heart was changed. Edward ‘felt shame for the injury he had done her, the son acknowledged the mother, he restored her to her former dignity and he who had proclaimed her guilty begged her pardon.’ Everything she had possessed was restored to her; her accusers and despoilers were confounded.”

Nor is this the only time that the queen was exonerated through the intercessions of the saints. Thus Canon Busby writes: “She had been accused of unchastity in association with Bishop Alwyn of Winchester. In order to prove her innocence she was obliged to undergo the ordeal of walking over nine red-hot ploughshares placed on the pavement of the nave of the Cathedral. The Cathedral annalist says: ‘The news was spread throughout the Kingdom that the Queen was to undergo this ordeal; and such was the throng of people who flocked to Winchester, that so vast a concourse on one day was never seen before. The King himself, Saint Edward, came to Winchester; nor did a single noble of the Kingdom absent himself, except Archbishop Robert, who feigned illness and, being inimical to the Queen, had poisoned the King’s mind against her, so that if her innocence were proved he might be able to make his escape without difficulty. The pavement of the church being swept, there was placed upon it nine red-hot ploughshares, over which a short prayer was said, and then the Queen’s shoes and stockings were drawn off, and laying aside her mantle and putting on her veil, with her garments girded closely round round her, between two bishops, on either hand, she was conducted to the torture. The bishops who led her wept, and, though they were more terrified than she was, they encouraged her not to be afraid. All persons who were in the church wept and there was a general exclamation “O Saint Swithun, Saint Swithun, help her!” The people cried with great vehemence that Saint Swithun must hasten to the rescue. The Queen prayed: St. Swithun, rescue me from the fire that is prepared for me. Then followed a miracle. Guided by the Bishops she walked over the red-hot ploughshares, she felt neither the naked iron nor the fire.’”

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