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


Clement of the Glen said...

So many threads to this fascinating subject. Love it!!

Michele said...

Very interesting and highly researched!

Unknown said...

Saxon artifact from ship burial..

The pattern matches parts on some of the Saxon hoard found in England recently.

Look up "The largest Anglo Saxon hoard ever found."

It's so interesting that the pieces are the exact same shape and color. This makes me think that there were jewelry makers that used interchangeable parts. Did they have jewelry business that were linked over a large area.

I think this is an under-researched area in history. Everyone thinks everyone made things one at a time by hand with NO interchangeable parts.

Still, I loved the picture.
I hope you will post more.
Thanks !

Wishing you the joy of the day,

paulalofting said...

Hi Janis, glad you enjoyed the piece. This post is one of 6 articles I did about the identity of Alfgyva of the BT

Anonymous said...

Hi Janis...I found your article quite interesting and after reading it thought to do some further research. For some insights into the identity and meaning of the Aelfgva and cleric and the nude male imagery, you might want to read this article:

The article gives a great explanation for the scene with Aelfgva and the cleric and identifies Aelfgva quite meaningfully in the context of the story that the tapestry is telling. He also discusses the imagery of the two nude men and explains why they are there. Great reading.