Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelt Alfgyva, or even Ælfgyva as it is on the Bayeux Tapestry, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Aethelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous partners, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Ælfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call Emma by the wrong name. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English, Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard-of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name and to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelled, Ælfgyva, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Æthelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous consorts, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Aelfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call her Ælfgifu anyway. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English version of Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. This might have been a choice she had made, wanting to please her new subjects. The nobles were made up of mostly Normans who liked to make fun of the English language and names, so it might have not been her choice but one that was coerced from her.
There were so many Ælfgyvas/ Ælfgifus amongst the women of the 11thc that it must have become quite confusing at times. Even Cnut’s consort before Emma, was called Ælfgifu, mother of Cnut’s sons Harold and Sweyn. She was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton, the woman whose father had been killed during Æthelred’s reign. So one can see that if anyone called Emma, Ælfgifu, by mistake, it would not have mattered as they could be referring to either of them! Even Cnut would not have been caught out by this one.
There was a story about Cnut’s Ælfgifu, that she had been unable to produce her own off-spring and involved a monk to help her pass off a serving maid’s illigitemate babies as her sons by Cnut. In another version, it was said that the monk himself had fathered them. Were they a monk’s children fathered on a serving maid so that Ælfgifu could present them as hers and Cnut’s? Or, were they lovers themselves, the monk and Ælfgifu? These are questions that, after reading the evidence, I am pondering upon. However, Emma, it is said, hated Ælfgifu and the two women were at odds with each other for many years until Ælfgifu died. It would not be implausible that these tales, rumours, chinese whispers, if you may, were put about by the Queen to destroy her rival’s reputation.
Which leads me now to the mystery of Aelfgyva on the Bayeux tapestry. Ælfgyva is the same name as Aeflgifu, just a different spelling, much like Edith and Eadgyth. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a door way, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway. He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her? On the other hand he could be caressing her face. The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Ælfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence? Perhaps they were referring to a well known scandal of the time and they had no reason to describe the events in detail, because everyone would have known about it anyway. Who knows what the truth is? It seems the answer to the question of the lady’s identity and the relevance the scene has to the story of Harold Godwinsons downfall, died with the creators of the tapestry long ago. Those who presented it to the owner must have given a satisfactory explanation to him about the scene. One can only wonder as to what it might have been and was it a truthful explanation, or did it have a hidden story?
This brings me to my burning question. Was this scene depicting the scandal of Aelfgifu of Northampton and the monk and if so why and what did it have to do with the tapestry? What was its creator alluding to? Or had someone woven them into the tapestry, mistakenly confusing Cnut’s Aelfgifu/Aelfgyva with a similar story that did have some legitimacy with the story of the conquest? I have an interpretation, but it is just that, and most likely the fanciful ramblings of my imagination, although it could perhaps be close. I will attempt to explain my idea further sometime in part two soon. Watch this space as the mystery unfolds!