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 http://threadstothepast.blogspot.co.uk/ 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.