by Paula Lofting
For those who have not read any of my earlier posts about this puzzling enigmatic woman, Ælfgyva, whose image is portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry with a priest, we have been exploring her possible identity to ascertain what her role was in the events of 1064-6. It is my aim to try and shed some light and interpret what or how she came to be sewn into this enigmatic tale of Harold’s fateful trip to Normandy. After discounting the known candidates except for one, it would appear that the identity of this Ælfgyva is Ælfgifu of Northampton. She was a consort of Cnut, enjoined to him in the more danico tradition. Marrying her in this way meant that Cnut could take another, more politically convenient wife at a later date, as he did when he married Emma of Normandy, to whom the English also referred to as Ælfgifu.
Just to recap what we have found out about this particular Ælfgifu in my previous posts, she was the daughter of Ælfhelm, a major ealdorman of Northumbria whose familial origins were Mercian. His mother was a wealthy woman named Wulfrun, but I have not been able to find a source for his father. It could be that his mother was of higher status, or his father had died when Ælfhelm was young. Regardless, it was obvious that Ælfgifu came from a very important family. Her father was put to death by his enemy Eadric Streona and her younger brothers were blinded. All this was done with the connivance of King Aethelred, and Ælfgifu may never have forgotten or forgiven this deed and it quite possibly could have shaped her personality from then on. (Incidentally, the office of earldorman was later replaced by the shire-reeve).
Because of her family’s influence in the in the north, it may have been expedient for the Danish invader, Swein of Denmark, to seek an alliance with them, taking advantage of the rift Ælfhelm’s death may have caused between them and Aethelred. So, it seems she was either given as a concubine to Swein’s son, Cnut, or handfastened to him; the latter being the most likely.
Handfasted wives were not necessarily cast off when the man later married politically, and the evidence is inclined to show that like Harold Godwinson, half a century later, Cnut kept his affections for Ælfgifu and did not wholly put her aside for Emma. In fact, initially, he may have considered her with great respect, if not affection; she had, after all, provided him with two heirs, Swein and Harald, named in respect for Cnut’s father and grandfather. When Swein was old enough, Cnut sent Ælfgifu with him as regent to rule in Norway. He may have done this to keep her out of the way of his relationship with Emma, though this is not founded in any source, but one can picture that the two women were serious rivals for Cnut’s affection and that they probably felt threatened by one another. On the other hand, Cnut may have simply been keeping the interests of the Northern thegns alive by continuing to honour her and the alliance with her family. Emma may have had the upper hand, however, being the recognised queen. And it is natural to think that Emma, an astute woman that she was, would not have agreed to marry Cnut if any of her future children by him were to not have precedence over Ælfgifu’s.
One might have been forgiven for intuitively assuming that the nature of Ælfgifu of Northampton’s character was somewhat harsh when some years later she and Swein had to flee Norway for her apparent heavy-handed rule. The Norwegians rebelled against her heavy taxation and it seemed, preferred Magnus I as ruler to Cnut’s harridan. Her son, Swein, was to die in Denmark shortly after. In the Norwegian Ágrip, Ælfgifu is mentioned by the Skald Sigvatr, a contemporary of her’s:
Ælfgyfu’s time: long will the young man remember,
when they at home ate ox’s food,
and like the goats, ate rind
She may have died sometime around 1040, as nothing is heard of her after this. The story about her deception of Cnut, is strangely alluded to in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Abingdon edition (C) where it is mentioned:
‘And Harold, who said that he was the son of Cnut – although it was not true-’
This appears to be referring to the story about Ælfgifu’s sons not being fathered by Cnut, already spoken about in PART IV of this mystery. In my search for the real Ælfgyva, I have discovered that the Encomium Emmae Reginae, commissioned by Queen Emma, makes the allegation that Harold was really the son of a servant girl smuggled into Ælfgifu’s bed chamber and passed off as Cnut’s son. John of Worcester elaborates further and tells us that Cnut’s sons by Ælfgifu were neither his nor hers, even, and that Ælfgifu, desperate to have a son, ordered that the new born son of a priest’s concubine be presented to Cnut as his own son by herself. This was the child called Swein. Harold, he states, was the son of a workman, like the one seen in the border underneath Ælfgyva’s scene in the tapestry (Bridgeford 2002). Bard McNulty (1980) first drew the patrons of the Tapestry to the theory that this was Ælfgifu of Northampton. He also theorizes that William and Harold had a discussion in the previous scene whereby Harold reassures William that the English will not call upon Harald of Norway to become king when Edward dies. I have already rejected this theory because apart from her connection with Norway, her connection to Harald Hardrada is neither tenuous nor existent.
What I do, however agree with is Bard McNulty’s idea that the Ælfgyva scene is not meant to be a sequel to the scene before it, but rather that it represents what they were discussing, an issue involving a priest and Ælfgyva. So, if they were not discussing Harald Hardrada, then what were they discussing that could possibly concern a long dead noble woman and a priest? And what had they to do with the events described in the tapestry, the events that led to the invasion of 1066, or Harold’s time in Normandy?
Let us think for a moment:
What if this whole thing was a case of mistaken identity, and that the right story was projected on to the wrong lady? Or that the wrong lady was associated with the wrong Ælfgifu? The plot thickens even more, so stay tuned for the final part in this mystery. Can we solve it? You’ll have to wait until the next instalment is posted.
Encomium Emmae Reginae
John of Worcester Chronicon ex chronicis
Bridgeford A, 1066 The Hidden History in the Tapestry
J Bard McNulty, Visual Meaning in the Bayeux Tapestry: Problems and Solutions in PicturingHistory (Studies in French Civilization)
This Editor’s Choice from the EHFA Archives was originally published on January 23, 2018.