Encomium Emmæ

Unique manuscript secured for the Royal Library in Copenhagen

“Gesta Cnutonis regis” (or Encomium Emmæ reginæ) is a chronicle commissioned  by Emma of Normandy (985 -1052), the widow of Æthelred the Unready (960-1016) and later Knutr the Great (ca. 985-1035). It was written in the years after the death of Knutr in 1040, probably by an anonymous Flemish churchman, maybe a monk from the abbey of Saint-Bertin, in Saint-Omer in Flanders. In it we are told the story of the late years of Harold (Blutooth), his son Sveinn (Forkbeard) and his grandson Knutr the Great, who ended up ruling a vast North-Sea Empire composed of Denmark, England, Normandy, Norway and the south western part of Sweden.

Until 2008 it was believed that the text to the chronicle existed in only one medieval manuscript from mid-11th century plus a number of later fragmentary transcripts from the 16th century; according to one of these transcripts the chronicle had circulated two different endings: one, which extolled the virtues of Emma’s and Knutr’s son, Harthaknutr, and one which praised his halfbrother, Edward the Confessor (1042 -1066). It is believed that this version was commissioned by Edward the Confessor after his coronation.

Emma and Knutr – British Museum, MS. Add. 33241

Suddenly in 2008 a medieval manuscript surfaced with the second ending. It is assumed that a monk from Breadmore Priory transcribed the Courteney-manuscript some time in the 14th century in the scriptorium at Glastonbury Abbey. After the reformation in 1536 Breadmore Priory was dissolved and the earl of Devon, Henry Courteney leased it. It is believed that the manuscript was included in the library at Powderham Castle, where it disappeared for nearly 500 years.

The manuscript was put up for sale at Sotherby’s in 2008, but at that time the Royal Library was unable to acquire it. It sold for three times the evaluation. Recently, however, the library was able to buy it for €1.25 mill. from a Swiss dealer. (Thus the buyer in 2008 succeeded in raising the price with a premium of nearly €10.000).

Apart from the Encomium, the manuscript holds a number of important texts: an early copy of Gildas’ de Exidio et Conquestu Brittaniae as well as a copy of Marco Polo’s travels plus further chronicles. According to the Royal Library in Copenhagen the main reason to secure the manuscript for Denmark was the connection with Knutr.

The manuscript in the Royal Library

The description of the manuscript in Sotheby’s catalogue

Read about the burial of Knutr and Emma in Winchester Cathedral

The Empire of Cnut the Great: Conquest and the Consolidation of Power in Northern Europe in the Early Eleventh Century (The Northern World)
Timothy Bolton
Brill Academic Publishers 2009

Encomium Emmae Reginae (Camden Classic Reprints)
Alistair Campbell and Simon Keynes
Cambridge University Press 1998


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