Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part III

So, to reflect on what we have this far, there were several Ælfgifus or Ælfgyvas which was a popular noble name for women in the 11thc. The name itself means noble gift, and therefore likely to be a high-status name. We have the story of Ælfgifu of Northampton who was involved in some mystery around the paternity and even the maternity of her sons by Cnut, Harold Harefoot and Swein. Then we have the tale of Emma/Ælfgifu, Edward the Confessor’s mother who supposedly committed adultery with the Bishop of Winchester. Were there any other contenders for this woman’s identity?

Yes, it seems to be so. Æthelred the Unready also had a wife called Ælfgifu of York, who was the mother of possibly all of the king’s sons apart from the two youngest, Edward and Alfred, who were born to his second wife, Emma of Normandy. Do you feel that headache coming on? (Please let me know if you need to lie down.) But to complicate things even more, it is possible that there were two wives called, Ælfgifu, as some historians have believed, for there are two named contenders for her father, however, seeing as there is as little evidence for there being two wives as for the one, we may as well discount this fact. And so, seeing as we do not know of any scandal attributed to her, and her existence is as far away from the events of the mid 11thc as the moon, it is not beneficial to think that this lady is being represented on the Tapestry.

So, is there any more Ælfgifus not mentioned as yet? There may be one other. Some historians have, in an effort to solve the riddle, gone for the simpler, but unlikely option, that Harold had a sister called Ælfgyva whom he’d promised to one of Duke William’s barons in return for his own alliance with one of the duke’s daughters. The lurid depiction of this woman called Ælfgyva and the cleric is said to explain a scandal of some sort that would have been common knowledge at the time. There are other stories that run along similar lines, but these also prove very dissatisfying, for they do not answer the riddle of the purpose of their appearance on the tapestry.

Paula Bayeux 1
Segment of the BT showing William and Harold arriving at the duke’s palace and in conference with each other.  The Alfgyva and the monk scene a caption

Here now I think, would be a good time to objectively examine the scene and the ones preceding it. If we go back two scenes, we are looking at four horsemen riding toward a tower-like building with a man in the lookout pointing at the men as they approach. The words in Latin along the top of the tapestry read, Here comes Duke William with Earl Harold to his palace. The next scene has no written explanation but simply shows an image of Duke William sitting on his throne in his great hall, and a man standing behind him whose fore-finger is pointing toward the figure of Harold stood before the duke. Harold’s right hand gesticulates, open palmed the way someone might when he is explaining something. His left-hand points behind him and appears to be almost touching the hand of a bearded guard that is standing a little way from the rest of his companions. Obviously, the bearded man represents someone important to the story of the tapestry. Curiously, this guard has not dressed his hair in the Norman fashion of shaving the back of his head to the crown, as do the other men in the image, Harold being the other exception. The guard also has a beard, which the others do not, having shaven faces. The artist seems to have gone to great lengths to distinguish this man from the others.

medmeeting-e1513857777905 (1)
William and Harold discuss the purpose of his visit

Finally, the next segment (below) shows the mysterious Ælfgyva standing in a doorway, presumably to convey a scene in a house, with a priest or monk reaching out to her, his hand touching her face and his other hand firmly on his waist. He looks as if he has taken a step toward her. He could be touching her face endearingly, or he could be slapping her face. It is open to conjecture. We will never know. Additionally, the scene in the border below show some very lewd figures. Underneath Ælfgyva, a naked man with a large appendage appears to be squatting, as though pointing under her skirt. In the scene with Harold and William, another naked, faceless man is bending over a work bench with a hatchet. The meaning of these images are obviously of a sexual nature, but what connection it has to the mystery scene is really not clear, but possibly would have been to those who had lived around the time the Tapestry was crafted, and most likely refers to a known scandal of the time.

Alf and cleric
The BT scene where William and Harold are in a consultation

Going back to the first segment, the story of the tapestry so far, is that Harold, having sailed to across the sea from Bosham, has been brought to meet William by Guy of Ponthieu. The Count of Ponthieu had captured Harold and his crew after their ship had washed up far off his destination of Normandy. William essentially rescues the English earl from the clutches of his rebellious vassal, who was hoping, perhaps, to ransom the great English earl for a large sum of silver. These two great men, Harold and William are destined to become the fiercest of enemies. At this time, however, they are friends – of a sort – and they ride toward the duke’s palace, probably Rouen, with a following escort. William is carrying the hunting bird that Harold may have bought as a gift for the duke; a sweetener for what he might wish to request of him. William may have thought of doing a spot of hunting on the way to meet his guest. Kings and nobles were often wont to take their hunting animals with them wherever they went and further back in the tapestry, we see Harold embarking the vessel that takes him to Normandy, with his own hunting hounds and birds. One of the most remarkable things about the embroidery is that if you look closely there are plenty of hidden meanings portrayed in the story as it unfolds. One of these, if you look carefully, appears in this scene. Assuming that where the names appear, they are consistently sewn above of the image of the person portrayed, Harold is in the forefront of the riders, and appears to be signalling to the man leaning out of the tower to keep quiet by touching his lips with his fingers. Andrew Bridgeford states in his book, 1066 The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry, that this is one of Harold’s kinsmen that William had kept as hostage since 1052, excitedly waving to him, almost as if he is saying, “Brother, it is me, Wulfnoth! At last you have come for me!”

Harold Meets with Edward to discuss his mission to Normandy

According to the Canterbury monk Eadmer, in his account (Historia Novorium in Anglia c 1095) of Harold’s mysterious visit to Normandy has the earl embarking on a mission to free his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon from the duke of Normandy’s clutches. A very different account to that given by the Norman propaganda machine, which has Harold travelling gaily overseas to meet with the duke, after being commissioned by King Edward, offering him his loyalty and promising to use his powers of persuasion with the Witan to have him as their king upon Edward’s death. The younger Godwin boys, were allegedly whisked away as hostages in some scheme possibly cooked up by Robert Champart, Archbishop of Canterbury, an arch enemy of Earl Godwin, sometime in 1052 when the family returned from exile. Champart may have used the hostages as a shield to help him escape without molestation, from Godwin’s revenge. Champart, being Norman, was sympathetic to the Norman cause. He may have schemed to persuade Edward to name Duke William as his heir. When the archbishop’s plot went awry, and Godwin returned to favour, the earl was gunning for those who had played a part in his exile, especially the major player, Champart.

The hostages were taken to the duke on Champart’s escape to Normandy, supposedly, as according to Norman Sources, as surety of Edward’s and possibly Godwin’s word (though the latter would have been doubtful) that he would succeed to the throne of England. Even having to flee from England with a charge of treason over his head, did not deter Champart to stir up trouble and continue with his plan to see William as Edward’s heir. It’s also possible that Edward had secretly given his blessing to Champart to take the boys, hoping that one day the tide would again turn against Godwin, that veritable boil on his bottom.

Harold and his men embark to Normandy

In the autumn of 1064, at the time when Harold’s visit to Normandy was most likely to have taken place, Wulfnoth would have been a man in his late twenties and Hakon, a teenager. The former was Godwin’s youngest son, and Hakon, the son of Godwin’s eldest, son, Swegn. How they would have fared all those years in Normandy away from their country of birth and family, one might wonder. There are no records of their progress during their stay, however one can perhaps surmise that by the time Harold appears on the scene, they have got used to being hostages, well treated in respect of their nobility and having found positions among the duke’s household. Eadmer’s version of Harold’s trip to Normandy takes a very different slant to that of the Normans, with the main purpose being to negotiate the release of Harold’s kin from the duke’s custody. In the Norman version, we are told that Harold arrived with gifts for William, gifts that it was said were for the duke from Edward, to confirm his promise of the ascendancy. Or were they boons of a different nature? Bribes perhaps for the release of Hakon and Wulfnoth, and not from Edward, but from Harold?

So, the segments of the Bayeux Tapestry that we have seen above can be interpreted in as Harold and William discussing the purpose of his visit, which could be to discuss Edward’s wish that William become his heir – or – it can be interpreted as Harold explaining that his visit is to talk about his kinsmen: brother, Wulfnoth, the bearded chap amongst William’s household guard, and Hakon, his nephew. Whatever the case, both men, it would seem, had different agendas…. and how does the curious picture of the noble lady and the monk fit into all this?

We have more to discover in the next Part.

Bridgeford A, 2004 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry Fourth Estate; First Edition edition
Eadmer c1095 Historia Novorium in Anglia
Walker I, Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King The History Press; new edition, 2010.

This post can also be read here on the English Historical Fiction Authors’ Blog


Aelfgyva: The Mysterious Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part Two

Steph by Caroline Williams

Welcome to the second part of the post concerning Ælfgyva, the woman, who over the years has caused many a historian to scratch their heads in wonder. In this piece of work we will examine one of the possibilities as to who this woman could possibly be and what was her role at the time of the conquest. There are a number of theories, all of which have been thoroughly discounted by others, myself included. I would like to examine here one particular source that  alludes to her representing Emma, who, as I previously stated in the previous post, had taken on the English name Ælfgifu upon marriage to King Aethelred. Eric Freeman in his Annales de Normandie explains through a story that was circulating in the 14thc that Emma had been involved in an unorthodox relationship with a bishop of Winchester and had proven her innocence through trial by ordeal. She was said to have achieved this by walking barefoot across 9 red-hot ploughshares. What followed is even more absurd: her son King Edward, who had instigated the trial and had always shown harsh resentment toward his mother, begged her forgiveness and was duly beaten by both his mother and the accused Bishop Ælfwine. So, could this ridiculous tale be the scandal that we think the Bayeux tapestry is referring to? Bearing in mind that it is only an assumption of a scandal, however, the lewd depictions that accompany the image would indeed strongly suggest a scandal.

My research of this strange anecdote has turned up no other contemporary source. Quite how it shaped its way into the fourteenth century, we will never know, but what it does show is how the medieval mind-set could so effectively create the believable in the unbelievable. If we were to take this story as having some basis in truth, it would be a credible subject, if not for the trial by ordeal which would have been impossible to survive. So, if we put that aside and concentrate on the rest of it, what do we have? Emma/Ælfgifu, depicted as a bishop-loving adulteress whose scandal has somehow enmeshed itself into the threads of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Now here comes the why, the how and what for. If we consider the scene and its place in the tapestry, the images before it show Harold standing before William having some sort of discussion. Incidentally, Harold appears to be touching the hand of one of William’s guards, but that is another story we will go into in part three. Our gaze next rests upon Ælfgyva and our priest, who is definitely not a bishop, otherwise the tapestry would have read, Unus Episcopus. rather than, Unus Clericus. If we can imagine that the two men are deep in conversation about some important topic, could the image of Ælfgyva have been inserted to allude to something that may have been better known at the time? If it was meant to be a representation of William’s great aunt Emma, she may well have been referred to by the English artist by her English name and this would be plausible.  Yet the insertion of a bishop touching her face and the lewd creature underneath them in the border is a strange way to portray so great and noble a lady such as the former twice Queen of England. Not only is she William’s great aunt, but also partly the basis for his claim to the English crown. Through her, he was a first cousin once removed to the reigning monarch, Edward the Confessor. It was because of this kinship that William sought acceptance as heir to Edward’s throne. Emma, in her time was often criticised but despite this, she was respected by her English subjects. It is not likely that she would have been denigrated in this way unless she was involved in something pertinent to the story of the conquest. And I think considering the lack of a contemporary insertion in the sources for this story, we can safely assume that there is no credence to this legend.
It would seem that there is no other connection with Emma and the tapestry and the absence of a bishop and the presence of a priest, although perhaps an error but this is unlikely, means that this cannot be the Ælfgyva story the artist is referring to. In my next post on the subject, I will be exploring with you, another Ælfgyva.

We must give credit to the intriguing artistry of the creator who at every turn and twist manages to confuse us all.

This post can also be read here https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2017/12/lfgyva-mysterious-woman-of-bayeux.html

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Introductory Part One

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!

This blog post can also be read here: https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2017/11/lfgyva-mystery-woman-of-bayeux-tapestry.html