The Steel Beneath the Silk by Patricia Bracewell

In the year 1012 England’s Norman-born Queen Emma has been ten years wed to an aging, ruthless, haunted King Æthelred.

The marriage is a bitterly unhappy one, between a queen who seeks to create her own sphere of influence within the court and a suspicious king who eyes her efforts with hostility and resentment. But royal discord shifts to grudging alliance when Cnut of Denmark, with the secret collusion of his English concubine Elgiva, invades England at the head of a massive viking army.

Amid the chaos of war, Emma must outwit a fierce enemy whose goal is conquest and outmaneuver the cunning Elgiva, who threatens all those whom Emma loves.

Thoughts

The Steel Beneath the Silk is the last book in the Emma of Normandy trilogy which takes place in the final years of the reign of King Aethelred and builds towards the marriage between Emma and Cnut. Swein Forkbeard and his Viking warriors are making significant strides in their bid to conquer the whole of England and the English armies seem helpless against the might of the Danes. While Aethelred mounts a desperate fight against them, he is betrayed by the Western thanes who submit to Swein and he ensures their loyalty by taking their families hostage. As all seems lost, Emma and her children flee to Normandy and while Aethelred takes shelter on the Isle of Wight, his eldest children will pay a terrible price to keep England from the Danes.

Swein declares himself King of England on Christmas Day in 1013 but he dies within weeks and the throne passes to his son, Cnut, who doesn’t have the same power over the English nobles. Aethelred returns to England to reclaim his throne and while his armies are successful in driving out the Vikings, his victory is fleeting as Aethelred’s mental and physical health continue to decline. Already mourning the loss of Athelstan, Emma grows ever more anxious about the safety of her own sons and sends them back to Normandy. As Aethelred grows weaker, he is once again betrayed by his nobles and Cnut returns to reclaim the English throne.

As England is torn apart, the bulk of the battles fall to Edmund, the eldest surviving son of Aethelred, who gains a reputation as an impressive warrior which earns him the nickname of Edmund Ironside. Edmund becomes king in October 1016 after the death of his father, however his attempts to thwart the Danes prove to be futile and he finally agrees to a truce where he and Cnut will be joint rulers with Edmund taking Wessex. The truce proves to be short-lived as Edmund died, most likely of wounds received in battle, just a month later and Cnut is finally King of England. Knowing his best chance of being accepted as king lies with Emma’s hand in marriage, Cnut sets his sights of probably the hardest battle he has ever fought – the love of a queen.

Although there is a lot of battles in this novel which is understandable considering the immense historical events taking place, most of them happen off the page as the focus is still on Emma who is at the heart of the story. Emma has matured into a powerful queen who is fiercely intelligent and loyal to those she loves, however she faces a lot of heartache when she loses the man she loves and becomes estranged from her children. Much of Emma’s life is unknown as chroniclers didn’t find a woman’s contribution to history worth recording, however Bracewell uses a combination of facts and suppositions to recount Emma’s story in a satisfying way. Emma’s personality positively leaps from the pages and her actions as a queen and mother are totally believable. It is easy to understand why Cnut is so captivated by her and willing to wait for her rather than force his hand.

In the same vein, Cnut’s first English wife, Elgiva, who is scheming and manipulative, is portrayed in a human way. I didn’t particularly like Elgiva when she was introduced in the first book but I have grown to respect her strength and instinct for survival. Emma and Elgiva are not as different as they think they are, as they are basically mothers who want to ensure the future of their children and aren’t above using manipulation to achieve it. Seeing her husband’s growing infatuation for Emma, Elgiva realises Cnut is likely to cast her aside to marry the widowed queen but she is determined not to go quietly. While Elgiva is exiled to the north in the book, her status remained undiminished in reality and she played an instrumental part in securing the English throne for her son, Harold Harefoot, after the death of Cnut.

As the author states in the afterword, it is hard deciding when your story should be brought to an end and she chooses to do so as Emma marries Cnut. There is a whole lot of material that could have easily formed another book, particularly the battle for the throne after the death of Cnut, so it is a shame we don’t get to see Emma and Elgiva as older versions of themselves. However, I’m just sad to say goodbye to these characters and look forward to seeing what Bracewell writes next.

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