The Forever Queen / A Hollow Crown

Helen Hollick

First published under the title A Hollow Crown, Arrow, 2005. Shortened and revised edition published by Sourcebooks, 2010, ISBN 978-1-4022-4068-3, 614 pages.

Set in England, Normandy and Denmark in 1002-1042, The Forever Queen tells most of the life story of Emma of Normandy, who was Queen of England through her marriages to Aethelraed and Cnut. All the main characters are historical figures. It is a prequel to Helen Hollick's novel about King Harold II (Harold Godwinesson), Harold the King/ I Am the Chosen King.

As a shy thirteen-year-old married into a foreign kingdom, Emma of Normandy quickly discovers that her new husband Aethelraed is a disaster both as a king and as a husband. While the inept Aethelraed and his avaricious favourite Eadric Streona progressively lose England to the capable Viking Svein Forkbeard and his son Cnut, Emma will have to rely on her own political skill and innate intelligence if she is to survive and to keep the crown that has become her most precious possession.

The Forever Queen covers a period of 40 years, from Emma's arrival in England as a naïve young bride to the accession of her son Edward (later known as the Confessor) when Emma is a 53-year-old dowager. There was a lot going on in England and its neighbouring kingdoms during those four decades, and The Forever Queen covers most of it. It is thus a very long book - over 600 pages - and densely packed with detail, so some concentration is required to keep track of characters and events.

Emma seems to have had little happiness in her eventful life, and I would say The Forever Queen is the gloomiest of Helen Hollick's historical novels. Part of this is due to the political situation; The Forever Queen gives the impression that almost everyone in a position of power in England in the first decade or two of the eleventh century was ineffectual or self-seeking or both. This may be entirely justified - Aethelraed Unraed ("Ill-Advised") and Eadric Streona ("Greedy" or "Grasping") no doubt did something to earn their derogatory nicknames, and the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is scathing about the incompetence of England's leadership - but it doesn't make for a cheerful read.

Part is due to Emma's personal circumstances, particularly in the first 300 pages covering her disastrous marriage to Aethelraed, where her fortitude in enduring a husband portrayed as abusive and sometimes sickeningly violent is well conveyed. Part is due to Emma's character as developed in the novel. Coming from an unloved childhood, trapped for years in a miserable marriage, Emma has to be hard to survive. Clinging to her pride and her crown when they were all that gave meaning to her life, Emma develops a cold, calculating ruthlessness that shapes her whole life. She has little affection for her sons by Aethelraed, perhaps not surprising given the nature of her relationship with their father (and young Edward, as portrayed here, would have been a very difficult child to like!). Even when she finds some happiness in her marriage to Cnut, the demands of empire mean that Emma is often left alone for long periods while Cnut is away in one of his far-flung territories. Her son by Cnut, Harthicnut, is brought up largely in Denmark, and Emma sees little of him after early childhood. By the time her sons are grown, Emma seems to regard them in part as a means to retaining her status, and there seems little love lost even between her and Harthicnut, let alone between her and her sons by Aethelraed.

On a more cheerful note, Cnut is attractively drawn, maturing from an overgrown and somewhat blundering adolescent to an effective leader without losing his humanity along the way. Edmund Ironside, son of Aethelraed, takes his rightful place as a capable leader and a promising king. Had he not been mortally wounded in combat, Edmund might have made a worthy successor to his ancestor Alfred the Great, and English history might have followed a very different course. Edmund's short reign is often treated as little more than a footnote between Aethelraed and Cnut, so it is very pleasing to see him fully developed as a character in his own right in The Forever Queen.
Useful maps at the beginning of the book help to locate the events, and a detailed Author's Note is very helpful in setting out the historical basis for the novel.

Solid, detailed portrayal of the life and times of the formidable Queen Emma, wife to two kings and mother to two more in early eleventh-century England.