Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry: Part Six

 In this final examination of this mystery, I do not aim to prove, necessarily, what the image of Alfgyva and the priest represents, but to explain my theory, why I believe it is possible and how I came to that conclusion. 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. 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 reviewers of the Tapestry would also know about the well-known scandal of the time.  For the people of the 11thc, it may not have needed any more explanation than the image of Alfgyva and the priest or - it might be that there was some secret underlying message contained within the borders of the tapestry that reports something else only known to certain people. No one can be sure.

So we have discovered who the lady in question is and to my mind this is indisputable. She was Aelfgifu of Northampton, handfastened wife of King Cnut of England and it was J Bard McNulty (1980) who first identified her. She was sent by Cnut to Norway to govern there with their oldest son Swein, however her heavy handed taxation and policing did not endear her to the Norwegians and they were ousted after some years. Poor Swein died in Denmark where they had both escaped to after the debacle in Norway. Nothing was heard about her after 1040. She became the subject of a scandal 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.

Now, regards her connection to the Bayeux Tapestry, we have established her identity, but what could she possibly have had to do with the story of Harold’s sojourn in Normandy. As I explained previously in  part 5, J.McNulty Bard (1980) states in The Lady Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry that the scene depicting Aelfgyva and the priest is not what happens next at William’s court, but what Harold and William are  discussing in the previous scene.

In order to reach the point where we can consider their conversation about the lady in question, we need to discuss the scene with William and Harold in detail. This is the one before the Aelfgyva one. 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. Somehow, an Englishman, a huscarle of Harold’s, had 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. Now, 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 no or 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 the viewer a clear idea 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 had travelled to Normandy with the intention of negotiating the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon as stated by Eadmer in his History of Recent Events in England. These two particular Godwinsons had been taken into Edward’s care as hostages to ensure the good behaviour of their father Godwin.  In 1051, Godwin found himself in trouble with Edward for his refusal to punish the people of Dover for their ‘maltreatment’ of the King’s brother-in-law Count Eustace of Bologne and his men (Barlow 2002) Godwin had rallied his supporters to him 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, leaving his son Wulfnoth and grandson Hakon behind, most likely in the household of his daughter Queen Edith. It is not exactly clear how Wulfnoth and Hakon, both young boys at the time, came to find themsleves 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 he feared for his life and fled back to Normandy where he had come from. It is believed that he may have brought the boys with him to present to William as surety for the promise of the crown and perhaps to ensure him a safe departure from England.

So we have two versions of the tale of Harold’s journey to Normandy, the English, as told by Eadmer and the Normans. Eadmer’s version somewhat different to that of the Norman sources. According to Bridgeford (2004), Eadmer has Harold travelling to Normandy on a mission to secure the release of his kin with a stark warning form 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.  Eadmer states that he warns Harold that the Duke is ‘not so simple’ as to give the hostages up. Edward apparently also states that he wanted no part in this. And yet Harold still went, frivolously, one might think, considering Edward’s warning about the nature of his second cousin. This also shows the strength of Harold that the King was unable to persuade or force him not to go. But frivolous an act it might have been, Harold must have been disturbed by the plight of his brother and nephew, languishing in Normandy long after the need for them to be hostages had gone. The original purpose for their detention had been to ensure Godwin’s good behaviour and he had long been dead. Harold I am sure wanted only to bring them home.

 The Norman sources insist that Harold had been sent by Edward to confirm the succession upon him (Harriet Harvey Wood 2008). I prefer Eadmer’s version. 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.

So now, what are my conclusions? I shall keep you no longer in suspense! :

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 Joe? Imagine that by the time the rumour reaches you, the whole episode has been mixed up? 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. It was said that the Normans found English names difficult and laughable which may have compounded the confusion.

So what are the implications of such a suggestion? This is what I believe could have been what the Bayeux Tapestry was 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.

 So this is my theory. The woman is definitely Aelfgyva of Northampton and I believe the priest touching her face is doing so to signify some sort of collaboration with her.  For some reason, the two men, Harold and William are discussing in the scene before, the Earl’s reasons for turning up on the Duke’s shores.  The scene in which Aelfgyva and the priest are portrayed is part of their conversation also. But why are they discussing this woman? It all seems very strange because it has been difficult to tie her into the story with what we know of her and what we know of the events in 1066.

Andrew Bridgeford has alluded to the fact that 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 dress and not the Norman clean shaven manner as all the others in the scene are apart from Harold. It seems quite reasonable to me to assert that this bearded fellow is Wulfnoth. But William only understands something 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 wealth to offer him? Could William’s mindset have been so focussed 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 he knows how ruthless Duke William can be, that Edward has declared his great nephew Edgar, grandson of Edmund Ironside as the atheling, someone who is throne-worthy, therefore he would be considered as a candidate to the throne (William was never declared atheling as far as the documentation goes). But William is not daunted by this news. 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 Aelfgyva, 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 Aelfgyva, but there was no such scandal about her and Edgar’s lineage was of the true line of Wessex.

But William is still not listening. He interrupts, rebuffs and insists. 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 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.  

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, 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.

If you would like to know more about the Bayeux Tapestry and its characters, follow my new blog and join me on a journey back to the 11th Century.


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

Eadmer Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England

 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.


Helen Hollick said...

At risk of being accused of contradicting you: there are several flaws in your hypothesis. Most people who know me are aware I am an anti-Duke William person. For all his faults, being a fool is not one of them. He or his advisors would have known English political history. To suggest that William was stupid enough to get Ælfgifu of Northampton, Cnut’s ‘common-law’wife muddled with Ælfgifu mother of Edmund Ironside the (probably) legal common-law wife to Æthelred is stretching plausibility rather a lot.
Edmund Ironside was regarded as legitimate by the English (as was his elder brother, Athelstan.) His mother, Ælfgifu, was the daughter of Thored, Ealdorman of Northumbria. They all had an important part to play in the wars between Æthelred, Sweyn Forkbeard & Cnut. Wars in which one way or another Normandy was also involved.
There would have been a lot of talk about Athelstan & Edmund taking precedence over Edward & Alfred, sons of Emma(another Ælfgifu) sister to William’s grandfather. Through her William made his claim to England, so to imply he had no idea of political background is nonsense.
Add to this, William would have been aware of who Ælfgifu of N was – a common law wife of Cnut was
a)because his great aunt Emma was married to Cnut. Emma would have ensured Normandy knew all about her.
b)William’s father aided Edward & Alfred in their attempt to claim the throne from Harold Harefoot. Duke Robert knew Harefoot was Cnut’s son. Emma tried to discredit the legitimacy because she wanted her son, Harthacnut on the throne, but she failed as Harefoot had been acknowledged by Cnut.
c)Edward was aware who Ælfgifu of N was. It is inconceivable that he didn't mention her while exiled in Normandy!
d)Another reason why William (or again his advisors) would have known who Ælfgifu of N was is because William’s father, Robert, was married to Cnut’s sister, Estrith. They divorced very possibly because Robert was carrying on with Herleve (& had had a son by her)
It is inconceivable, therefore, that William a highly intelligent man, would have been unaware of his father’s first wife’s brother, Cnut & his offspring – particularly as another rival circa 1066 was Swein, Estrith’s son the King of Denmark. Would William really have been idiot enough to mix up the very important roles these women played?
I, personally, am convinced that the woman is William’s daughter reluctant to be betrothed to Harold, a man older than herself, and an Englishman to boot.
That explanation is the most plausible as it does not make political sense that William did not offer a daughter in marriage to Harold to bind his loyalty.

author of A Hollow Crown (UK Title) / The Forever Queen (US Title) & Harold the King (UK Title) I Am The Chosen King (US Title)

Helen Hollick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen Hollick said...

not sure the link above to the books I use for reserch works:
here it is again:

Rosanne Lortz said...

Very interesting post, Paula! I like it how you are trying to reconcile the Anglo-Saxon and Norman sources, instead of just assuming that one side is flat out wrong. The idea that the picture alludes to the story of Aelfgifu of Northampton does seem to explain the images of the priest and the workman. I do think it is a bit of a stretch to assume confusion about two different Aelgifu's, unless you could show that there was some sort of pictorial evidence for bringing the Atheling into things here.

Pat Bracewell said...

I've been reading these posts with great interest, and I love the fact that we can be having a dialogue about a mystery that is 1000 years old and still absorbing us. I also have to agree with Helen that I very much doubt that William would have confused Edmund Ironside's mother with Aelfgifu of Northampton. The brouhaha between Emma and Aelfgifu over the succession after Cnut's death must have been popular knowledge and it's inconceivable to me that William would not have had his facts straight regarding the line of succession and the mothers involved. After all, he was in England in 1051; surely there would have been some talk then of Edgar the Aetheling. The suggestion that the Tapestry Aelfgifu is William's daughter is intriguing, but I have a real problem with William giving his daughter such an Anglo-Saxon name. Helen, is there any historical reference to that? In my mind, I vacillate back and forth between thinking the figure in question is Aelgifu(Emma)(that ecclesiastic with her could be Stigand before he became a bishop) and Aelfgifu of Northampton -- although why either one would make an appearance in the tapestry at that point is still mysterious. Sometimes when I really want to drive myself crazy, I remind myself that Edward the Confessor had a half-sister named Aelfgifu, and I wonder whatever happened to HER!

Helen Hollick said...

Pat, William's daughter who was probably betrothed to Harold, was named Agatha (he also had daughters named Constance, Adela, Cecilia and possibly Adeliza and Matilda.)
I was going to add it could be Emma & Stigand above - but ran out of characters - but as you say, why would this be mentioned in the Tapestry? A daughter unwillingly pledged to Harold makes much more sense.
And do you mean Aelfgifu Aethelred's daughter = Edward's half sister? She married Uhtred of Northumbria - Uhtred was murdered with Cnut's connivance by Thurbrand the Hold, who in turn was killed by Uhtred's son - which started a blood feud which lasted many years. What eventually happened to Aelfgifu, we don't know. The usual fate for a woman I expect - the Nunnery.

I can't help thinkig I wish the Anglo Saxons had access to Baby Name books back then - might hve helped with a bit more variety of choice! LOL

Godgifu Gunnhild

Pat Bracewell said...

Helen, yes, I was referring to Aethelred's daughter, Aelfgifu, who married Uhtred. But there is also a story that one of Aethelred's daughters married Thorkell Havi (who knows if it's true? Supposedly he married Cnut's niece, too), and that could have been any of Aethelred's three daughters because all of their husbands were dead by 1017. Indeed, any of the three could have had a daughter named Aelfgifu that nobody today could know about (and so could any of the major Anglo-Saxon players). As for Emma being the Aelfgifu in the Tapestry, I've just had my nose in Alistair Campbell's remarks about the Encomium, and he states that Emma was never referred to as Aelfgifu in any post-Conquest document, so I'm thinking, why would she be called that in the Tapestry? Paula, I think you're right and if it's not some unknown Aelfgifu it has to be Aelfgifu of Northampton. I'm just not on board with your theory about WHY Aelfgifu of Northampton would be there. Your posts, nevertheless, have been terrific and great fun to read.

Helen Hollick said...

Yes I think one of Aethelrd's daughters married Thorkell - its late & I'm too tired to go check. Have you read my novel about Emma Pat? You might like it.
Sorry, but I cannot see the lady in the tapestry as A of N.

Maybe the Akashic records can help! (see Elizabeth Chadwick & my own Akashic blog)

Ragged Staff said...

I can't quite reconcile that the same person who said that there were 'flaws' in the argument then followed it with a suggestion that it's left up to the 'Akashic'! I'd rather take the 'flaws' of someone who's clearly researched this enough to write a six part blog than the word of a cold reader who's paid to tell their client exactly what they want to hear! That neither satisfies my curiosity nor my sense of reason. Bizarre to say the least. While I've got a little lost in the maze of names (this isn't my time) I've found this an intriguing series of posts.

paulalofting said...

Just wanted to remind readers that I wasn't intending to prove my theory but merely explain it. Thank you all so m uch for your comments. I do believe that it is Aelfifu of Northampton I certainly don't think that William's daughter would have been portrayed so crudely. Plus this is not a Norman name. Normans did not like English names. I will discuss this further with yoy all when I get home from St Alfeagh 's martyrdom.

Helen Hollick said...

Ragged Staff : my reference to the Akashics was only meant as a slight tongue in cheek different point of interest. (And I'd defy anybody to not be keen to take a ride on a time machine if one was offered! :-) Some people do believe in this area of interest, some don't - whether you do or don't though, nothing can replace detailed research.
I find the Akashics fascinating - and if nothing else, the few sessions I have had have triggered ideas for several imaginative chapters in the novel I am currently writing. After all, all fiction is nothing more than imagination (based around research if it's historical fiction) whether the ideas come from reading a few facts, from a dream, the Muse, a thought - or the Akashics. As authors, what triggers that imaginative process is immaterial.
Just to be clear though, I have spent many years researching and studying the 11th century - my two novels being the result of the hard work. One day I might get around to finishing the degree I half completed.
Paula - I agree about the name not being Norman, which does rather upset the applecart re my preference for the woman being William's daughter (and if the betrothal had been called off - why put the scene there? William would have wanted to forget all reference to his "mistake" of suggesting it) but Aelfgifu isn't Norman either is it? Is 'Alfgiva' Norman? Are all the names in the Tapestry Norman/French?
What about Matilda "Mrs William"? Could she have been involved - could it be her? We've not considered that possibility!
If anyone is interested in reading more about Emma (fascinating woman!) I posted my degree thesis on my Blog (scroll down through the excerpts of the book)

Interesting subject Paula - good debate. Thanks for sharing.

paulalofting said...

Aelfgifu and Aelfgyva are two different spelling if the same name. Those who were following my blog would have read that in my earlier posts. They ate both English names. The lewd figures in the border indicate that this was a scandal. Have you read the other parts of the mystery Helen? I have researched all possible candidates.

Pat Bracewell said...

Paula I think you're right that the naked man in the margin who is mirroring the stance of the cleric is salacious and indicates a scandal. It fits your theory perfectly in my mind. I'm still struggling with William's confusion over the two women, though. It seems to me more likely that if there was confusion, it was the artist who drew the cartoon for the tapestry who was confused. But the towers on either side of the scene (one to the left of William's palace and one to the right of the priest) seem to indicate that this event between Aelfgyva and the priest took place in Normandy at the same time as Harold's visit. I'm still drawn to the idea of a Mysterious Anglo-Saxon Aelfgyva whose role in all this has been lost to us. It might make a wonderful starting point for a novel! Your theory, of course, may very well be right. You've certainly done the research and it makes a wonderful blog series. Thank you!

Helen Hollick said...

Just a thought..... we know that in several places stitching has been removed (or fallen out)i.e. the "arrow in the eye" if you look closely you can see stitch holes making this a spear (about to be thrown) I wonder.... is there any indication of stitch marks near this scene in question? Wouldn't it be grand if it looked like there were two more words originally ("of Northampton" for instance! (anyone know what that would be in Latin?)
Anyway, I must move on - falling behind with my own WIP, thanks for the interesting topic.

Kathryn Warner said...

Have really enjoyed this series of posts, Paula. It's a fascinating mystery!

paulalofting said...

Ive decided to address all of Helen's points in her first comment. Hopefully she will return to read them as I know she has 'moved on now'lol. I was away and only had access to my mobile phone and was difficult to reply properly.
a) William was born in 1027 or there abouts and would not have known Emma very well. He and Emma would have had very little contact. Not really sure how we could be certain that Emma 'let everyone innormandy know who Aelfgifu was'. No documented evidence for that and she did not return to Normandy after she married Cnut.
b)William was only 7 when his father died, so any tales of what was going on in England before he was born could easily have been confused and twisted by the time William got to hear them.
c)When Edward was exiled in Normandy he was only a boy himself and was in his late thirties when he returned to England to take the throne. Whether or not he knew that tale about Aelfgifu has no bearing whatsoever on William. William was only 13 when or so when Edward left Normandy for England. Nothing is recorded of them being close.
d)William may have been aware indeed of who Aelfgifu was but it might have been 'convenient' for him to muddle the women up when Harold came to visit.
Lastly, i would think the above comment would make William a very clever man indeed if he could fudge round the issue of Edgar by dismissing him in this way, other wise William would have had a problem on his hands. The issue of Edgar would have been very much a difficulty for him to surmount.

I am not saying though, that my theory is right and i never have. I aimed merely to explain what my theory was and why i have interpreted it in this way.
Yes i do believe William would have suggested an alliance between his daughter and Harold and i stated this in my post. However the image of Aelfgyva is not William's daughter and points to being Aelfgifu of Northampton. I cannot find any other explanation for her being there although I have tried.
Thankyou all so much for your comments and hope oyu will follow me on Threads To the Past

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the series of posts, Paula. It has been very amazing to read and gave me a glimpse of an era I have absolutely no knowledge about.

paulalofting said...

I hope this will inspire you to read more Kavitha

Stephen Lark said...

Try this another way.

In confusing two women of the same name, William is not being stupid but manipulative - using the scandal of one Aelfgyva to smear her namesake. It fits with his character.

paulalofting said...

Wow, thanks Steven. Someone who understands my point. Thats what I was trying to say, seems you did it better!

Stephen Lark said...

William's intentional stupidity would rule two of Ethelred's sons (Edmund and Athelstan) and their descendants - ie Edgar and his sister (St.) Margaret - but not Edward and the incapacitated (or even dead by 1064) Alfred.

paulalofting said...

Did you mean rule them out, Stephen? Yes my point exactly.

Zoe Porphyrogenita said...

William definitely had a daughter Matilda: she’s named in Domesday Book and other contemporary documents as “Matilda, daughter of the King”.
According to Trevor Foulds, Nottingham City historian, she is also known as Matilda, wife of Walter d’Aincourt, whose son William, buried at Lincoln, is described on his epitaph as of royal descent.
Walter carried William II’s writ to the Bishop of Durham in August 1088.
Matilda, daughter of King William, is memorialised at the church of St Nicaise, in Meulan on the Seine, a few miles downhill from the Vexin location of Aincourt.
The d’Aincourt family always had a William and a Matilda in every generation.

Zoe Porphyrogenita said...

Bretons did love English names, especially variations on “Alfred”.

Zoe Porphyrogenita said...

As to provenance, Count Eudon of Brittany (c999-1079) was alive and kicking throughout all these events, and he was raised from the time of his father’s early death in 1008 by his mother Hawise of Normandy and her brother Duke Richard II.

Scolland, the famed document illuminator of Mont St-Michel (later Abbot of St Augustine’s Kent, where the Bayeux Tapestry was made) and his family were connected with Eudon and with Eudon’s second son, Alan Rufus.