Ælfgyva: The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry Part V

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.

References

Encomium Emmae Reginae

Norwegian Ágrip

John of Worcester Chronicon ex chronicis

Further Reading

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.

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

The woman in the Bayeux Tapestry called Ælfgyva has given commentators and historians alike, food for thought for as long as the Bayeux Tapestry has been studied. As we have seen in the earlier chapters, there have been plenty of Ælfgyvas to choose from, but none quite fits the bill as much as Ælfgifu  of Northampton. We have discounted the Queen Emma/Aelfgifu version, and also that Earl Harold had any daughter or sister of that name. I have also set aside the idea that the lady may have been a child of William’s, offered to Harold as a wife in return for an alliance.

Ælfgifu was a purely English name and Ælfgyva, being the Latinised version, was used instead of its English counterpart, as the text on the BT is written in Latin. Although a possibility, it was not likely that such a name would have been given to a Norman woman, especially the daughter of William, whose daughters were called, Adela, Adeliza, Constance, Agatha and Cecilia, and none were given an English name, as far as we know.

Edward Freeman, writing in 1869, suggests that the woman they are discussing was a lady at the duke’s palace, and the idea that a bride for Harold was discussed, shouldn’t necessarily be discounted. However, it seems unlikely that if such a lady was chosen from one of the duke’s daughters, she would have been portrayed with lewd men underneath her image pointing up her dress. One thing to remember, the name Ælfgyva means noble-gift in Anglo-Saxon, and might have been used to refer to a lady of noble birth, in which case her name might not necessarily be Ælfgyva, but a sort of title.

So, the wording on the Tapestry, could actually be meant to be taken as A Priest and a Noble Lady, in which case she could have easily have been anyone at the court of William’s, but, unfortunately, we will never know.

So, why then does Ælfgifu of Northampton seem the likeliest candidate to match the mysterious lady on the Tapestry? What is it about this Ælfgifu that draws me to believe that she is the one?
There are several versions of the scandal which Ælfgifu of Northampton was involved in, but Florence of Worcester tells us an interesting tale of the first wife of Cnut, the said Ælfgifu of Northampton. According to his writings, she was said to have passed off the bastard child of a priest as Cnut’s son, after failing to provide an heir of her own. This child was called Swein.

Later, Worcester states that she passed off another ‘son’, Harold Harefoot, who was a child of a workman, or a cobbler. Interestingly, if we look once again at the image of Ælfgyva and the priest, we see that in the lower border a naked figure of a man with a rather large member, is mimicking the stance and gesture of the priest. There is also another image of a naked workman.  The priest, who touches her face, is either stroking her cheek, or slapping her. The scene is also iconographic, which means it is supposed to be a representation of what perhaps, William and Harold may have been discussing in the previous scene, as I have already said in Part III. 

Unlike the other scenes in the tapestry, this one is not to be viewed as part of the story but more as alluding to some sexual scandal. Interpreting the face fondling/slapping aspect is a bone of contention, however. At first, I favoured the idea that the priest was slapping her but upon further research I came across an intriguing suggestion submitted by J Bard McNulty in the Lady Ælfgyva in The Bayeux Tapestry (1980).

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

So, if we accept that the woman referred to in the tapestry must be Aelfgifu of Northampton, we have to ponder upon why on earth Harold and William would be discussing her at this stage of the story. Aelfgifu would have been long dead at the time of this meeting (around the autumn of 1064). But let us not discount her, for she was, like her counterpart and rival, Emma of Normandy, a formidable woman. Unfortunately for her, she was not as tactful or astute as Emma. 

Cnut had most likely married Ælfgifu in the more-danico fashion, commonly known as a handfasting, rather than a marriage that is recognised by the church. We believe this, as he was later able to marry Emma, despite already being tied to Ælfgifu. A handfasted wife was, by law, legitimate, as were any children she had. However, it was customary in those times to wed traditionally for love, or for an alliance that would expediate a man’s cause, then later, marry for political reasons as Harold Godwinson did with Aldith of Mercia, to gain the support of her brothers. Cnut needed support in his early days as ruler, and had married Ælfgifu to claim the loyalty of her father’s supporters whom were opposed to Æthelred; the king had killed her father and blinded her brother. 
Cnut must have initially valued Ælfgifu and her children by him, for he sent her and her eldest son, Swein, to rule Norway as his representatives, and as Swein was a mere child at the time, Ælfgigu was to act as regent. But she was unpopular with the Norwegians, her rule being ruthless and harsh, so, after some years, she and Swein were driven out of Norway, and Magnus the Good, replaced Swein as King of Norway. It would be interesting to know if Cnut’s feelings toward Ælfgifu would have changed after she lost Norway for him.              

Cnut

Eventually, Magnus the Good would make a treaty with Cnut’s son by Emma, Harthacnut, and it was this treaty that Tostig may have used to persuade Harald Hardrada to lay claim to the English throne in 1066. Harthacnut and Magnus of Norway were said to have made an oath to each other that should one of them die, the other would inherit all the other’s kingdoms, should the deceased die without issue. Although Magnus claimed his right to England, he never pursued it beyond a threat after Harthacnut died.  
McNulty’s theory concerning this scene, centres around what the two men (Harold and William) might be discussing. William broaches the subject of the English succession with Harold, and they are conferring about the claimants to the throne, one of which was Harald Hardrada. Harold reassures William that he has nothing to worry about, because of the scandal of the sons of Cnut that weren’t really the sons of Cnut.
Sounds plausible? Nope, no, and nada. Confusing? Definitely. 
What had Ælfgifu’s indiscretion got to do with Hardrada’s claim to the throne? After all, she was not mother to Harthacnut who had made the oath with Magnus, and Emma of Normandy, who was the mother of Harthacnut, was not the Ælfgifu depicted in the scandal with the priest and the workman. What a great intrigue this is turning out to be. Just when I think I am there, another ‘but’ pops up! 
And in the immortal words of Sr Walter Scott: 

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive

Stay tuned for the next part of the intrigue, PART FIVE