1066 The Year of the Conquest: Chapter One

 For the nobles of England, gathered in the great hall that Christmas, at King Edward’s palace on Thorney Island, it must have come as a surprise that this monarch who had lived for over sixty years and had reigned for a third of that, was about to die. Despite his current age, he had always been a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true; he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, but he had rarely shown signs of ill health until that Christmas of 1065, and to know their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty those days. He would have been considered elderly by the standards of the middle-ages, but little seems to have been done, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his long-deceased brother, Edmund Ironside. The process had begun in 1054, when Bishop Ealdred was sent on a fact-finding mission to Europe to investigate the existence and whereabouts of the Exile. The mission finally came to fruition in 1057, when the mysterious son of King Edmund was located, and he and his family were brought back to the country of his origin from a long exile in Hungary. Sadly though, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only five years old at the time, took up the mantle of ætheling, (the throneworthy) but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only thirteen years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare and statesmanship, would not have put him in good stead for what might be coming was coming: the invasion of England.

King Edmund Ironside

At that time, the English would not have known the brutal nature of the terrible events that were about to befall them. Harold’s inner circle, however, would have known that Harold had been a ‘guest’ at his court only just over a year ago, and had spent time with William, with his liberty on the line; made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he would advocate for the duke as his vassal, to become the new king upon Edward’s demise. If we are to believe Eadmer’s version of what occurred on that visit, Harold had not gone to Normandy to offer William the crown of England on that visit, but to secure the release of his younger brother and his even younger nephew who had been secreted away by the Norman Robert Champart, who had fled England taking the boys with him as hostages to guarantee his escape. They fell into the hands of William of Normandy who wrongly believed that they had been sent by his cousin, Edward, to ensure the succession would go to him. This was not how the English succession worked and it was not in Edward’s gift to offer the crown independently of the witan, the king’s council.

Although Harold’s status as dux Anglorum, which was the highest designation before king, he could not possibly become William of Normandy’s liegeman, the duke of Normandy had insisted. It seemed that William’s arrogance and the fact that Harold was far from home on someone else’s turf, made it difficult for the English earl to assert himself and contend the request. It is possible that when the duke of Normandy had made up his mind to something, nothing, no reasoning, would dissuade him. Harold was given arms, and made to bend the knee to the duke, and with the subtle and intimated threat that he would never see his homeland again, the English earl was coerced into submission against his will.

 Thus armed with this knowledge, and the fact that Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s recalcitrant brother, was stirring up trouble with Harald, King of Norway, another with his sights set on England’s throne, the men of this anxious country, were looking now to the only man they knew who could save them from the coming storm. The man who had caused the predicament in the first place; Harold Godwinson.

Harold swearing an oath on Holy relics to William of Normandy
 The Vita Ædwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in detail of Edward’s last days. The king had been ill since November, with a ‘malady’ of the brain, perhaps today we would know this as a ‘stroke’, or an ischaemic attack. He seemed to recover from its initial onset but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow, he managed to attend the Christmas Day service. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the great church of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so, on the eve of the king’s death, there had been no established heir ready to step up to the dais and seat the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. Although the boy Edgar was the king’s heir, the designated throneworthy ætheling, it did not mean that he had been chosen as the definite heir apparent by the witan. In those last days of Edward’s life as he lay languishing in his death bed, the nobles knew what might come, and decided that a boy of thirteen was not going to cope with the threat of invasion as well as a fully grown experienced man.

In the written record of the Vita, we are given to imagine, the whole of the witan, along with the most important men in the land, gathered in the ante chamber, waiting to hear of the king’s last proclamation befor his passing, the name of his preferred nomination; the man he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also the visual account of the events, The Bayeux Tapestry, that King Edward, points to Harold and names him as the man he entrusts, upon his death, the care of his kingdom and his wife. According to English tradition, it was not necessarily the king’s oldest son who would naturally follow their father to kingship, as it became customary in later times. And the king’s wishes were not the end of it. Who he nominated was by the by, for it was the Witan to agree and that was how kings were made in Anglo Saxon England.

The king and his witan

At the last moment of the king’s life, everyone must have known already who that man was. It was, surely, a forgone conclusion, given that only one man was powerful enough to keep peace among the earldoms and stave off any would-be attackers.  All that was needed was the final endorsement to make the procedure complete – the king’s approval, the necessary detail that would fortify the decision against other claimants. All that needed to happen was for the king to point to that man; it was what they had been waiting for. His closest companions that were gathered around his bed within the king’s inner chamber, his wife, Edith, rubbing his feet as she had been wont to do throughout their married life; his kinsman, Robert FitzWimarc, a holder of high office in Edward’s court and later the shire-reeve of Essex under William; Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the king’s primary earl, Harold Godwinson. One can imagine how tense they were, straining their ears every time Edward made a noise; waiting in anticipation for the words to utter from his chapped lips.

The king drifted in and out of sleep, with periods of restless delirium. On the day of his impending death, which was the 4th day of January, he awoke after many attempts to arouse him, and asked his servants to assemble his household. Some more people entered the chamber, and joined those aforementioned, who had never left his side. Imagine the air of expectation that must have filled the room. Picture the sighs of desperation as the king, according to the Vita, spoke not the words they wanted to hear, but told them of a dream. In this dream, he met two monks he had once known in Normandy and were no longer alive. They told him that God was cursing England because of the wickedness of the churchmen and the earls, and that a year and a day after his death, devils would put the land to fire and sword, and war would plague the country for years to come. The punishment would continue until a tree of green was felled halfway up its trunk and the cut off part taken three furlongs away and join its self together again without the assistance of men, and finally break into leaf and fruit once more. Such a prophetic monologue seems almost to be so insightful, given what was to follow, that one would think it was inserted after the fact and not before. Why or how a man who was gravely ill having had a stroke, was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered.Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen, whom the king’s complaints were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman. Then the king seemed to be restored to sanity and spoke his last words. “Do not mourn for me but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping, and he spoke words of comfort to her, and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”It was then, we are told, that he offered his hand to Harold and spoke the words that everyone was waiting to hear: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.”

After giving his instructions for his burial, he became unconscious once more and passed later that night, somewhere between or on the 4th or 5th of January 1066.

Edward the Confessor’s deathbed scenario

We might question the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve certain aspects of it. That Harold was nominated appears to be the case, even if Edith had picked his hand up and pointed it in her brother’s direction! What is certain however, is that the Witan was on board, with the nomination. Bought or not, it seemed to have been the sensible choice – to them at least. Robert FitzWimarc was half Norman, half Breton. He had been brought to England by Edward into his service. It seems he may have kept in contact with his homeland and may have even been enlisted as a spy for William at some point, but in any case, he was there at the scene when Edward died, and could vouch either way that Edward had or hadn’t announced the man who would follow him to the throne. He does not seem to have denied it.

The next day, Edward was buried and Harold was crowned.

Harold is crowned

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.

Chapter One: Death of a King

 For the nobles of England, gathered in the Great Hall that Christmas, at King Edward’s palace on Thorney Island, it must have come as a surprise that this monarch who had lived for over sixty years and had reigned for a third of that, was about to die. Despite his current age, he had always been a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true; he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, but he had rarely shown signs of ill health until that Christmas of 1065, and to know their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty those days. He would have been considered elderly by the standards of the middle-ages, but little seems to have been done, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his long-deceased brother, Edmund Ironside. The process had begun in 1054, when Bishop Ealdred was sent on a fact-finding mission to Europe to investigate the existence and whereabouts of the Exile. The mission finally came to fruition in 1057, when the mysterious son of King Edmund was located, and he and his family were brought back to the country of his origin from a long exile in Hungary. Sadly though, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only five years old at the time, took up the mantle of ætheling, (the throneworthy) but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only thirteen years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare and statesmanship, would not have put him in good stead for what might be coming was coming: the invasion of England.

King Edmund Ironside

At that time, the English would not have known the brutal nature of the terrible events that were about to befall them. Harold’s inner circle, however, would have known that Harold had been a ‘guest’ at his court only just over a year ago, and had spent time with William, with his liberty on the line; made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he would advocate for the duke as his vassal, to become the new king upon Edward’s demise. If we are to believe Eadmer’s version of what occurred on that visit, Harold had not gone to Normandy to offer William the crown of England on that visit, but to secure the release of his younger brother and his even younger nephew who had been secreted away by the Norman Robert Champart, who had fled England taking the boys with him as hostages to guarantee his escape. They fell into the hands of William of Normandy who wrongly believed that they had been sent by his cousin, Edward, to ensure the succession would go to him. This was not how the English succession worked and it was not in Edward’s gift to offer the crown independently of the witan, the king’s council.

Although Harold’s status as dux Anglorum, which was the highest designation before king, he could not possibly become William of Normandy’s liegeman, the duke of Normandy had insisted. It seemed that William’s arrogance and the fact that Harold was far from home on someone else’s turf, made it difficult for the English earl to assert himself and contend the request. It is possible that when the duke of Normandy had made up his mind to something, nothing, no reasoning, would dissuade him. Harold was given arms, and made to bend the knee to the duke, and with the subtle and intimated threat that he would never see his homeland again, the English earl was coerced into submission against his will.

 Thus armed with this knowledge, and the fact that Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s recalcitrant brother, was stirring up trouble with Harald, King of Norway, another with his sights set on England’s throne, the men of this anxious country, were looking now to the only man they knew who could save them from the coming storm. The man who had caused the predicament in the first place; Harold Godwinson.

Harold Swearing an oath on Holy relics to William of Normandy

The Vita Edwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in detail of Edward’s last days. The king had been ill since November, with a ‘malady’ of the brain, perhaps today we would know this as a ‘stroke’, or an ischaemic attack. He seemed to recover from its initial onset but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow, he managed to attend the Christmas Day service. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the great church of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so, on the eve of the king’s death, there had been no established heir ready to step up to the dais and seat the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. Although the boy Edgar was the king’s heir, the designated throneworthy ætheling, it did not mean that he had been chosen as the definite heir apparent by the witan. In those last days of Edward’s life as he lay languishing in his death bed, the nobles knew what might come, and decided that a boy of thirteen was not going to cope with the threat of invasion as well as a fully grown experienced man.

In the written record of the Vita, we are given to imagine, the whole of the witan, along with the most important men in the land, gathered in the ante chamber, waiting to hear of the king’s last proclamation befor his passing, the name of his preferred nomination; the man he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also the visual account of the events, The Bayeux Tapestry, that King Edward, points to Harold and names him as the man he entrusts, upon his death, the care of his kingdom and his wife. According to English tradition, it was not necessarily the king’s oldest son who would naturally follow their father to kingship, as it became customary in later times. And the king’s wishes were not the end of it. Who he nominated was by the by, for it was the Witan to agree and that was how kings were made in Anglo Saxon England.

The king and his witan

At the last moment of the king’s life, everyone must have known already who that man was. It was, I’m sure, a forgone conclusion, given that only one man was powerful enough to keep peace among the earldoms and stave off any would-be attackers.  All that was needed was the final endorsement to make the procedure complete – the king’s approval, the necessary detail that would fortify the decision against other claimants. All that needed to happen was for the king to point to that man; it was what they had been waiting for. His closest companions that were gathered around his bed within the king’s inner chamber, his wife, Edith, rubbing his feet as she had been wont to do throughout their married life; his kinsman, Robert FitzWimarc, a holder of high office in Edward’s court and later the shire-reeve of Essex under William; Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the king’s primary earl, Harold Godwinson. One can imagine how tense they were, straining their ears every time Edward made a noise; waiting in anticipation for the words to utter from his chapped lips.

The king drifted in and out of sleep, with periods of restless delirium. On the day of his impending death, which was the 4th day of January, he awoke after many attempts to arouse him, and asked his servants to assemble his household. Some more people entered the chamber, and joined those aforementioned, who had never left his side. Imagine the air of expectation that must have filled the room. Picture the sighs of desperation as the king, according to the Vita, spoke not the words they wanted to hear, but told them of a dream. In this dream, he met two monks he had once known in Normandy and were no longer alive. They told him that God was cursing England because of the wickedness of the churchmen and the earls, and that a year and a day after his death, devils would put the land to fire and sword, and war would plague the country for years to come. The punishment would continue until a tree of green was felled halfway up its trunk and the cut off part taken three furlongs away and join its self together again without the assistance of men, and finally break into leaf and fruit once more. Such a prophetic monologue seems almost to be so insightful, given what was to follow, that one would think it was inserted after the fact and not before. Why or how a man who was gravely ill having had a stroke, was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered.

Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen, whom the king’s complaints were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman. Then the king seemed to be restored to sanity and spoke his last words. “Do not mourn for me but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping, and he spoke words of comfort to her, and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”

It was then, we are told, that he offered his hand to Harold and spoke the words that everyone was waiting to hear: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.”

After giving his instructions for his burial, he became unconscious once more and passed later that night, somewhere between or on the 4th or 5th of January 1066.

Edward the Confessor’s deathbed scenario

We might question the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve certain aspects of it. That Harold was nominated appears to be the case, even if Edith had picked his hand up and pointed it in her brother’s direction! What is certain however, is that the Witan was on board, with the nomination. Bought or not, it seemed to have been the sensible choice – to them at least. Robert FitzWimarc was half Norman, half Breton. He had been brought to England by Edward into his service. It seems he may have kept in contact with his homeland and may have even been enlisted as a spy for William at some point, but in any case, he was there at the scene when Edward died, and could vouch either way that Edward had or hadn’t announced the man who would follow him to the throne. He does not seem to have denied it.

The next day, Edward was buried and Harold was crowned

Harold is crowned

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.

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

Wecome to the concluding part of Ælfgyva: The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Imagine someone wants to tell you some gossip about your neighbour Joe Bloggs, something quite scandalous and outrageous. Imagine that person has already heard it from someone else and perhaps that person has heard it from some other person. Imagine that somewhere along the line, facts have become distorted or left out. Perhaps someone has mistaken Joe for a different Joe – or for a John, who looked a lot like a Joe? Imagine that by the time the rumour reaches you, the whole episode has been scrambled into something  slightly different, but with a similar concept? Perhaps the story is entirely the same, but the it is the identities of those involved that are morphed. Well, this is what I believe has happened in the Bayeux Tapestry with the Aelfgyva tale.

After studying the tapestry, the possible candidates and the possible links to the story quite thoroughly, I can come up with no other explanation other than it is a case of mistaken identity where a certain lady’s story has been wrongly attributed to another. One can imagine it would not have been that difficult to mistake one person for another when there were so many women with the same name around at the same time. Especially if you were a Norman, hearing scandalous tales passed from one person to another like a Chinese whisper.

So what are the implications of such a suggestion? This is what I believe, could be… what the Bayeux Tapestry is trying to convey. It is not a hypothesis that can be proven, but merely a suggestion and an interpretation of what this scene might signify. I am not in any way stating that I have cracked the mystery, or that I have finally found the answer. I am however presenting you with a possibility, having been unable to discover any other indisputable explanation for the woman’s role embroidered into the legend with the hints of scandal that have been attributed to a particular woman of that name.

So, here is the story, as I imagine it:

Harold embarks for Normandy from Bosham

The woman in the scene with the cleric, is Ælfgifu of Northampton, and the priest touching her face is doing so to signify some sort of collaboration with her.  In the scene before, Harold and William are discussing the earl’s reasons for coming to Normandy.  The scene in which Ælfgyva and the priest are portrayed is part of their conversation also. Harold is explaining to William that he has come to negotiate the release of his brother and nephew, hence the man that Harold appears to be almost touching with his finger, is presented with a beard in the English style of facial fashion, and not the Norman clean-shaven manner, as all the others in the scene are – apart from Harold, of course. It seems quite reasonable to me that this bearded fellow is Wulfnoth, Harold’s brother who was one of the hostages he has come to negotiate the release of. 
But William, overwhelmed by the earl’s presence and its implication for him, understands some other reason for Harold’s visit. He is convinced that Harold has come to declare his fealty to him and assure him that when Edward dies, he will support him as his successor. Why else would he come with such gifts of wonder to offer him? Could William’s mindset have been so focused on the crown of England that he cannot not hear the words Harold is trying to say to him? 
Harold mentions, carefully – very carefully – because Edward, the king, has told him to be so,  that King Edward has declared his great nephew, Edgar, grandson of the courageous Edmund Ironside, as the atheling, which means that the boy is someone who is throne-worthy, therefore a future candidate to the throne. Harold knows that William has never been named atheling, but he is very careful how he presents his case. William listens, shows interest in what the Englishman has to say, after all he is going to need him when Edward dies. Nonetheless, he is undaunted by what Harold is telling him.  He has already dismissed Edgar, having heard the scandal of Edmund Ironsides’ mother Aelfgyva, who it was said, had tricked her husband into believing her sons were his when they were really the sons of a priest and a workman. He laughs at Harold’s suggestion that the Witan should prefer a boy over a man such as him, a boy descended from dubious lineage. Is he not (the duke) a man who has cheated death many times and earned the respect of his enemies?
Harold tries to put him straight about Ælfgyva, desperately trying to make him understand that he is mistaken and that the woman in the scandal he was referring to was not Edmund Ironside’s mother, but Harold Harefoot’s mother, wife of Cnut. Yes, Aethelred’s wife was also called Ælfgifu, but there was no such scandal about her and Edgar’s lineage is indisputably of the true line of Wessex. 
Still William does not listen. He interrupts, rebuffs and insists – all in the best nature and good spirits, of course. Harold is having problems pressing home his point because William has made his mind up. It is a game that only William can win. Harold, William declares, will support him in his quest for the English throne, and consider allying himself closely to him by marrying a daughter of his. William suggests this proposition in such a way that if Harold should refuse, he may inflict great insult upon his most congenial host, who has saved him from the humiliation and torment of being held as the Count of Ponthieu’s prisoner… and in Harold’s mind, he is thinking that if he wants to leave there alive, he will have to play the game that William has already won. Perhaps it is then that Harold realises what a terrible mistake he has made. Why, oh why, did he not listen to his king when he warned him that “no good will come of it”?

William knights Harold

So any attempt that Harold might make to put right the error that William has made in identifying the correct scandal with the incorrect Ælfgifu, is from then on thwarted. Wiliam will change the subject or offer a distraction. He does anything not to talk about the subject again. And by the time he gets home, with only one of the hostages being released, Harold is ridden with anxiety, having been made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he has basically handed the English crown on a plate, to the Norman duke. The first thing he does is seek out his relative, Ælfric, who was once a monk at Canterbury, and in earnest, divulge to him what he has done. It is then that Harold learns that according to canon law, a man who gives oath under severe duress, can later recant without detriment to his soul. With this knowledge, Harold can later go on to forgo the oath he made to William, to take the crown for himself. Which he does, indeed, later in 1066.
Did the artist who designed the tapestry know the secret of the conversation that happened between Harold and William? Were they trying to convey the story that led to the mis identity of Ælfgifu and coerced oathtaking that meant the end of Anglo-Saxon rule? We shall never know, but this is the possibility that I have come to believe. How I wish I had a time machine, so that I could take you back with me to that year, 956 years ago when it all happened. 


*

I believe that this is the basis for the artist’s insertion of the scene with Aelfgyva and the priest. Whether or not my theory is right, the creator wanted to convey to the viewer that this particular scandal had some link to the conversation that William and Harold are having. The small, crude images in the border further enforces the story of Aelfgifu of Northampton’s scandal leaving me with no doubt that they represent the labourer and priest who were supposed to have fathered the children said to be Cnut’s sons. I cannot, although I have tried to, locate any other evidence that would identify a believable rationale for this scandal to have been placed in the tapestry.  
If I were a contemporary of it, I may have been privy to the tittle-tattle and also that perhaps William had wrongly identified the woman and would not have had to use my imagination to work out the innuendo of the illustration. But this is my interpretation. Unfortunately I have no way of knowing I am right, however I do not think this has been a pointless study, for it has identified the woman and shed some light on some other mysteries of the tapestry also. I hope that you all have not been disappointed.                                                 I would love to know what you think.

References

Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066 The Hidden History of The Bayeux Tapestry, Harper Perennial, London.

Eadmer Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England

Eadmer  Historia Novorium in Anglia 

Harvey Wood H, (2008) The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo Saxon England, Atlantic Books, Chatham. 

McNulty J.B. (1980) The Lady Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry, Medieval Academy of America, vol 55 (4) pp 659-688.

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

In this final examination of this mystery, I do not aim to prove,what the image of Alfgyva and the priest represents. It would be impossible, because there is no evidence to draw on – at all – that is irrefutably connected to the scene. Mind you, if there was, I’m sure it would have been discovered years ago. So, my mission is to explain, and perhaps persuade,  my theory of who she is and what the scene could be portraying. We will never know the full truth behind the image and what the artist was trying to convey, the real message has been lost down the tunnel of time and has died with those who have long since lived those events.

I imagine that in the same way one might glance at the front page of a modern newspaper, read the first line of a headline story and know exactly what the author was referring to, so the contemporaries of the Tapestry would also know about the well-known scandal of the time. The people of the 11thc may not have needed any more explanation than the image of Alfgyva and the priest for them to know who the artist was referring to – or – it might be that there was some secret underlying message linked to the woman and the priest contained within the borders of the tapestry that reports something else only known to certain people. No one can be sure. One could also say (and some have), that the images in the borders could be there for decorative purposes only, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the message the Tapestry is trying to send.

So to summarise, we discovered earlier on who the lady in question is and to my mind this is as indisputable as it can get. She was Ælfgifu of Northampton, handfastened wife of King Cnut, and it was J Bard McNulty (1980) who first identified her. She was sent by Cnut to Norway to govern there with their eldest son Swein, however her heavy handed rule did not endear her to the Norwegians and they eventually ousted her and her son. Poor Swein died in Denmark where they had both sought refuge. Nothing was heard about her after 1040, but she had become the subject of a scandal years before, when she was accused of presenting Cnut with two sons that were actually neither hers nor his. One was rumoured to be the son of a priest and a serving maid and the other was the son of a workman and perhaps herself or the same servant maid.

William secures the release of Harold from the Count of Ponthieu and brings him to his palace where they discuss the woman in the next scene

Regarding her connection to the Bayeux Tapestry, what could she possibly have had to do with the story of Harold’s sojourn in Normandy? As I explained previously in  Part V, J.McNulty Bard (1980) states in The Lady Ælfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry that the scene depicting Ælfgyva and the priest is not what happens next in the story, but what Harold and William are  discussing in the previous scene. This is highly possible, for it is the only scene that doesn’t follow the previous one. But with the absence of speech bubbles, it is still pretty much conjecture, though I can say with confidence that of all the theories, this one has substance to it.

William returns to his palace in Normandy

In order to reach the point where we can deliberate the conversation between Harold and William, we need to discuss the scene with the two men in detail. This is the one before the Aelfgyva scene. William and Harold have just arrived at William’s court from having ridden from Ponthieu where Harold had been kept, probably for ransom, by the young Count after washing up on his shore with his personal guard. According to Eadmer, somehow, a huscarle of Harold’s, escaped and called upon William for his help in releasing his lord from the clutches of Count Guy. William was the count’s overlord and demanded that Guy hand Harold over immediately, which he did. 
Now, we move on, William sits on his throne in his hall with a Norman guard standing behind him with a spear. This man appears to be pointing at Harold. The viewer can differentiate between the Normans and the English by their hairstyles. There is little disparity with the English and Norman clothing of the day, but their hair styles are very different with most Normans wearing their hair short and shaved at the back to just above the ears. The artist has obviously marked these out to give a clear distinction between the two races. The image of Harold is shown with his hair covering his ears and just above collar length. Curiously, the guard standing directly behind him as he converses with William, is not shown as a Norman. 
This man is also sporting an English style hair cut and a beard. The Normans are generally shown as being clean shaven. The English either have beards or moustaches. As we can see, the rest of William’s household guards are looking very Norman-like in contrast to the one that Harold appears to be indicating to. 

Harold and William discuss the purpose of his visit

As stated by Eadmer in his History of Recent Events in England, Harold had travelled to Normandy with the intention of negotiating the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon. These two particular Godwinsons had been taken into Edward’s care as hostages to ensure the good behaviour of their patriarch, Godwin, in 1051, when had Godwin found himself in trouble with Edward. His refusal to punish the people of Dover for their ‘maltreatment’ of the king’s brother-in-law, Count Eustace of Bologne and his retinue, had been the cause of this discontent between the earl and his king (Barlow 2002). 
Godwin had rallied his supporters to side with him against the king. At that time, the great nobles of the day were reluctant to support a civil war and so Godwin had no choice but flee into exile, leaving his son Wulfnoth and grandson Hakon behind as hostages. It is not exactly clear how Wulfnoth and Hakon, both young boys at the time, came to find themselves in Normandy, but it was quite possible that the Archbishop, Robert Champart took them with him when Godwin forced his way back to England from exile a year later. Champart had helped to engineer Godwin’s fall from grace and so feared for his life and fled back to Normandy. 
It is believed that he used the boys to shield him from those who would stop him leaving the country and brought the boys with him to present to William as surety for Edward’s promise of the crown. This might have been with Edward’s agreement, but must have been a decision that Edward later wished to forget, for he was eventually to sanction a mission by Bishop Ealdred to go abroad to look for Edward’s nephew, known as Edward the Exile, son of his brother, Edmund Ironside. 

Edmund Ironside

So, Eadmer, a monk and chronicler of Canterbury, has in his writings, Harold travelling to Normandy on a mission to secure the release of his kin with a stark warning from Edward that this may not be a good idea and that he will be inviting trouble for himself and ‘the whole kingdom’ if he does indeed embark on this journey.  Edward warns Harold that the duke is ‘not so simple’ as to give the hostages up without getting something in return. Edward apparently also states, as Eadmer tells us, that he wanted no part in Harold’s plan. 
And yet Harold still went, frivolously, one might think, considering Edward’s warning about the nature of his second cousin. This story reveals that not only was Harold possessed of a stubborn nature, it also shows that the king’s power over his subordinate was weak, for he was unable exert his kingly influence over him and persuade him not to go. But whatever Harold’s determination to ignore his king’s advice, he must have been disturbed by the plight of his brother and nephew, languishing in Normandy long after the need for them to be hostages. The original purpose for their detention had been to ensure Godwin’s good behaviour and the patriarch of the family had long been dead. Harold, I am sure, wanted only to bring them home. 
The Norman sources tell a totally different tale. They insist that Harold had been sent by Edward to confirm the succession upon him (Harriet Harvey Wood 2008). I prefer Eadmer’s version, for it holds more weight. He was said to have had access to people who might have had first hand information about Harold’s intentions when he went to Normandy. It is a plausible suggestion and upon studying the images of the Tapestry, I have not seen anything that might not support this idea; having said that, the Tapestry does support both the Norman and Eadmer’s version. 


So now, what are my conclusions? Well, you will have to wait until tomorrow to hear the rest of the story in the final concluding episode of this long, twisted journey back to the past.

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.