Sunday, 19 February 2012

Aelfgyva The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry: Part Four

The woman in the Bayeux Tapestry called Aelfgyva has given commentators trouble for centuries. As we have seen in my earlier parts, there have been plenty of Aelfgyva’s mentioned in the 11thc but none that quite fit the bill as much as Aelfgifu  of Northampton. We have discounted Emma/Aelfgifu and also that Earl Harold had any daughter or sister of that name. I have also set aside the idea that she may have been a child of William’, whom he offered to Harold as a wife in return for an alliance. Aelfgyva was a purely English name and although it may have been a possibility, it was not likely to have been given to a Norman woman; it was thought that Norman’s had no liking for English names. So why then, am I going with Aelfgifu of Northampton, King cnut’s first wife? What is it about this Aelfgifu that draws me to believe the woman they are referring to is her?

Aelfgifu was reported by Florence of Worcester as passing off the bastard child of a priest as Cnut’s son after failing to provide an heir of her own. This child was Swein. Later Worcester states that she passed off another ‘son’ Harold Harefoot who was reputed to have been a child of a mere workman or a shoe maker. Interestingly, if we look once again at the image of Aefgyva and the priest, we see that in the lower border a naked figure of a man with a 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 fondling or as some might say slapping her face. The scene is also iconographic, which means it is supposed to be a representation of what perhaps, William and Harold may be discussing. Unlike the other scenes in the tapestry, this one is not to be viewed as part of the story but more as an illusion of 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 some intriguing suggestions that were submitted by J Bard McNulty in the Lady Aelfgyva in The Bayeux Tapestry (1980).

Edward Freeman (1869) suggests that the woman they are discussing was a woman at the duke’s palace. I would disagree. As we have explored before, there could not have possibly been a woman with this name in Normandy at this time.

Then, 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 autumn of 1064). But let us not discount her, for she was, like her counterpart and rival Emma of Normandy, a formidable woman. Unfortunately, she was perhaps not as tactful or astute as Emma.

Aelfgifu was Cnut’s first wife, most likely he married her in the more-danico fashion rather than officially as he was later able to marry Emma. It was quite customary in those times for nobles to ‘handfast’ themselves to a woman so they could at a later time marry for political reasons as Harold Godwinson did with Aldith of Mercia. The Norman propaganda machine was to later make much of Harold’s relationship with Edith Swanneck, referring to her as his mistress rather than his wife, but under English law, she was just as entitled to the same considerations as an official wife was and her children would not have been viewed as ‘bastards’ or illegitimate and had the same entitlements as legal offspring would have.

Cnut must have valued Aelfgifu and her children by him, for he sent her and Swein to rule Norway for him and as Swein was a mere child at the time, she was to act as regent. But she was unpopular with the Norwegians, her rule being ruthless and harsh and so she and Swein were driven out after some years and Olaf’s son Magnus the Good replaced Swein as King of Norway. One would imagine that Cnut’s feelings toward Aelfgifu if Northampton would have changed after she lost Norway for him.                  

          Noble women of the period

Eventually, Magnus would make a treaty with Cnut’s son by Emma, Harthacnut that would become the basis for Harald Hardrada’s claim to the English throne in 1066. Harthacnut and Magnus of Norway made an oath to each other that should one of them die, the other would inherit their kingdoms should they die without issue. Although Magnus claimed his right to England, he never pursued it beyond a threat after Harthacnut died. When Harald Hardrada succeeded to the kingdom after his nephew Magnus died, he claimed that Magnus’ and Harthacnut’s oath should still stand and egged on by Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s brother, he planned his fateful invasion of England.

But if the stories that had been circulating about Aelfgifu’s deception of Cnut were to be believed as truthful by the general consensus, the two men, Harold and William, should they be discussing all claims to the throne, would have both agreed that Harald’s claim should be dismissed. McNulty’s suggestion is that Harold was reassuring William that the English had discounted Hardrada’s claim, a decision that they both agreed about and happily they both ride off to campaign in Brittany.

Sounds plausible? No it doesn’t. Because what had Aelfgifu’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 she is definitely not the Aelfgyva depicted in the tapestry. Just when I think I am there, another ‘but’ pops up!

In the words of the great man Sir Walter Scott, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive”. More in the next part of this amazing mystery.

                                                            Emma and her sons by Ethelred

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Synopsis to Sons of the Wolf

1054, pious King Edward sits on the throne, spending his days hunting, sleeping and praying, leaving the security and administration of his kingdom to his much more capable brother-in-law Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex. Against this backdrop we meet Wulfhere, a Sussex thegn who, as the sun sets over the wild forest of Andredesweald, is returning home victoriously from a great battle in the north. Holding his lands directly from the King, his position demands loyalty to Edward himself, but Wulfhere is duty-bound to also serve Harold, a bond forged within Wulfhere’s family heritage and borne of the ancient Teutonic ideology of honour and loyalty.

Wulfhere is a man with the strength and courage of a bear, a warrior whose loyalty to his lord and king is unquestionable. He is also a man who holds his family dear and would do anything to protect them. So when Harold demands that he wed his daughter to the son of Helghi, his sworn enemy, Wulfhere has to find a way to save his daughter from a life of certain misery as the daughter-in-law of the cruel and resentful Helghi, without comprising his honour and loyalty to his lord, Harold.

On Battle fields he fights for his life, but the enemy is to be found closer to home, a far sinister and shadowy enemy than he can ever know...

Sons of the Wolf is a snap shot of medieval life and politics as the events that lead to the downfall of Anglo-Saxon England play out, immersing the reader in the tapestry of life as it was before the Domesday Book. With depictions of everyday life experienced through the minds of the people of the times; of feasts in the Great Halls to battles fought in the countryside, it cannot help but enlighten, educate and entertain.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Aelfgyva, the Mystery Woman of the Bayeux: Part Three
            Starting with a summary of the first two parts of this piece of work, we will look at what we have so far.  It would seem that there are several Aelfgifus or Aelfgyvas which was a popular noble name for women in the 11thc.  We have the story of Aelfgifu of Northampton who it was said 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/Aeflgifu, Edward the Confessor’s mother who supposedly committed adultery with the Bishop of Winchester. Were there any other contenders for this woman’s identity? There maybe one other. Some historian’s have, in an effort to solve the riddle, gone for a simpler, but unlikely option; that Harold had a sister called Aelfgyva who he had promised to one of the duke of Normandy’s barons in return for his own alliance with the duke’s daughter. The lurid depiction of this woman called Aelfgyva and the cleric is explained as 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.

            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, a man standing behind him whose fore-finger is pointing toward the figure of Harold who stands before the duke. Harold’s right hand gesticulates, open palmed as if 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. It is  as if he 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. He also has a beard, which the others do not, having shaved their faces. The artist seems to have gone to great lengths to distinguish this man from the others.

            Finally, the part where the mysterious Alfgyva stands in a doorway, presumably to convey a scene in a house, with a priest or other type of cleric, 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 definitely open to conjecture, however, it does not appear to be the former, though slapping her, also may not have been the intention of the artist. We will never know. Additionally,  the scene in the border below show  some very strange figures, a naked man with a large appendix and another naked, faceless man with a hatchet and a work bench. The meaning of these images are obviously very lewd but what connection it has to the mystery scene is another thing we may never know.

             So, to scrutinize the scene, I shall start with the first part. Harold has just been brought to meet William by Guy of Ponthieu after being held captive by him following a supposed shipwreck or washed up  far off his destination of Normandy. The BT does not portray a shipwreck, though this has been mentioned elsewhere. These two great men, destined to become the fiercest of enemies, 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 sweetner for what he might wish to request of him. However, 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,Perhaps this could be 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!”

According to the Canterbury monk Eadmer, in his account ( Historia Novorium in Anglia c 1095)of Harold’s strange 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, offering him his loyalty and promising to use his powers of persuasion  with the Witan.

The young Godwin boys, were allegedly whisked away as hostages for the purpose of Edward’s promise of the crown to William upon his death. The story is not that hard to piece together and it is seems likely that in 1051 when Godwin and his family were at odds against the king, he was forced to hand over his son and grandson as hostages to Edward. The Godwins then went into exile, leaving his boys most probably in the care of his daughter, Queen Edith until perhaps when she was banished herself.  Robert Champart, Godwin’s enemy, is documented in the chronicles as having to flee Godwin’s wrath and historians have surmised that he took the Godwin hostages with him to the court of William and presented them to him as Edward’s surety for the crown upon his death. There are a number of reasons why he may have done this, but for now, I shall not discuss them; I shall leave that for another post.

In 1064, Wulfnoth would most likely have been a man in his late twenties and Hakon a teenager. The former was Godwin’s youngest son and Hakon was thought to have been the son of Godwin’s eldest wayward 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 a hostage, well treated in respect of their nobility and having found positions amongst the duke’s household.

Eadmer’s version of Harold’s trip to Normandy has a very different slant as we see, with the main purpose of releasing Harold’s kin from the duke’s custody. We are told that Harold arrived with gifts for William, gifts that it was said were for the duke from Edward and Harold to confirm his promise of the ascendancy. Or were they gifts of a different nature? Bribes perhaps for the release of Hakon and Wulfnoth?

Whilst we ponder on these aspects of the story, I shall be writing up the next instalment! I had intended to make this a three parter, but the more I delve into the embroidery, the longer the threads become.


                                                         Saxon artefact from ship burial