Medieval historiography, in general, tends to disregard women. That is one of the reasons why Patricia Bracewell's new novel, SHADOW ON THE CROWN, is an important book. Undeterred by he paucity of documentation on her subject, Bracewell set out to blend a mix of fact and fiction that makes Emma of Normandy leap from the page and engage the reader as only strong and intelligent women can. As the story opens, she is just a teenager who worries about her horse.
Enter Danish warlord Swein Forkbeard and his marauding troops. He asks for winter harbour and once Emma's brother, Duke Richard, ruler of Normandy, grants it, Forkbeard proceeds to make himself at home in the ducal palace. He has twelve ships. Richard has neither the military power to repulse his unwelcome guests nor the wish to damage a cozy trade in plundered English goods. The real problem is fellow Christian Aethereld, whose realm the heathen Vikings raid regularly regularly. Richard's relationship with the Dane irks him. It might irk him into declaring war on Normandy. What to do but dangle offer nubile Emma as a sop? No one cares much how Emma feels about being married off--bartered might be a more precise term--at age fifteen to an aging man with some serious mental problems. Those were the times and that was European women's lot.
Although trapped into a life of obedience to a madman, Emma is determine to do the best she can. Noblesse oblige and there is te fate of Normandy to consider. Her job is not easy. Mad—or perhaps seriously tetched-- Aethereld has a gaggle of sons., Emma's safety depends on her ability to produce yet princeling. At the same time, adding a competitor for throne to the existing gaggle will not endear her to anyone. But that becomes a mt point when her first child is stillborn.
Beset by envious envy from discarded candidates to Aethereld's bed and truculent nobles who resent for being a Norman whose mother is Danish, Emma soldiers on. Following the rule that the tougher the challenges, the stronger capable women grow, she weathers all manner of storms, finding bittersweet romance and friendship along the way. The romance will not be found in historical records, but it makes Emma more believable and certainly more sympathetic. So do her dealings with Aethereld's children from previous marriages. Bracewell imbues her with the qualities so glaringly absent from her consort. The contrast is vivid and alluring.
Viking raids and Aethereld's ill-conceived consent to the Saint Brice's Day Massacre in which scores Danes residing in England perished, provide a riveting counterpoint to Emma's evolution from green girl into a capable monarch. Women's ascent to power is one of the least explored aspects of the European Middle Ages. So is the point of view of Scandinavians who made England their home. Bracewell takes all these details, arranges them appealing and makes them count without ever burdening the narrative. The result is a story as fresh and crisp as the taste of the apple cider for which Emma's home country is known. SHADOW ON THE CROWN is the first volume of a trilogy. I look forward to subsequent volumes.