Monday, July 8, 2013

Wilton Abbey and The Bayeux Tapestry

by Carol McGrath

There is a strong argument that panels of The Bayeux Tapestry may have been embroidered at Wilton Abbey. The Bayeux Tapestry is generally thought to have been the product of Canterbury where Bishop Odo, who was responsible for the new Church at Bayeux, had his headquarters. One of the most mysterious vignettes on the Tapestry supports the possibility of Wilton's connection with its construction, depending on its interpretation.

A cleric and Ælfgyva - Bayeux Tapestry, 1070
A Cleric and Elfgyva (just to the side Harold is pointing)

The inscription above this particular vignette has the title 'Where a Cleric and Elfgyva...' We ask: Who was this lady? Why was she included in the Tapestry?  There is a suggestion that Elfgyva was Harold's sister (M.W. Campbell, 1984, E.A. Freeman 1867-9), and that she was alive at the time of Harold's visit to Normandy in either 1064/5 and that she was well-known to a contemporary audience. She is mentioned in The Domesday Book along with other members of the Godwin family. Elfgyva is connected with lands held by the Abbess of Wilton Abbey. Now, why might this lady depicted on  the embroidery be Harold's sister?

  • She was Abbess of Wilton from 1065-67, the time scale of the events depicted on the Tapestry.

Queen Edith is kneeling at her husband's death-bed.

  • Queen Edith was strongly connected with Wilton and, interestingly, one of the other two vignettes which feature women depicts Edith Godwin, wife of Edward the Confessor rubbing his feet in the death-bed scene. She was also at the abbey during 1065 supervising building work of a new abbey church just as her husband was responsible for the new Westminster Abbey consecrated in January 1066. The third vignette of a woman fleeing a burning house before the battle could also be a Godwin woman, Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold's hand-fasted wife with his youngest son Ulf.

A house is being burned - Bayeux Tapestry, 1070
A House Is Burned

  • Earl Godwin had his daughters educated at Wilton and Harold's youngest daughter was educated there during this period. There was a school for young noblewomen attached to the abbey.

Looking closely at the vignette--one wonders if Harold, who seems animated, is drawing attention to her and telling William something about her. The cleric draws attention to her eyes. Perhaps Harold is telling William and others present, including his brother, Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon, hostages living at William's court about the miraculous healing of Harold's sister's eyes by St. Edith of Wilton Abbey. Now who could that priest be and why in the Tapestry border below the vignette is there naked male genitalia?  To understand how this connects with Harold's sister one can turn to Goscelin's story.

File:Edith of Wilton.jpg
Saint Edith of Wilton

Goscelin was Chaplin to Elfgyva and he tells the story in 1080 of how St Edith who was the daughter of King Edgar and a woman, Wulfrith, whom he had seduced when visiting the abbey school. Wulfrith returned to the abbey with their baby daughter Edith and became a nun. Edith remained at Wilton all her life. The next king her half brother, Athelred II, built a chapel for her.

After she was interred there prayers were answered and miracles occurred. She quickly became a saint. Elfgyva was lighting a lamp in the chapel which overturned burning her. Her right eye became badly swollen. She lost her sight. However, while she slept she had a vision of St Edith making the sign of the cross over her and telling her all would be well. When she woke the swelling went down and she regained her strength. It is just possible that Harold is telling William this story. The gateway by which she stands is another clue. Goscelin gives details as he also gives details of Westminster Abbey, details that do appear for both on the Tapestry.

Holy Trinity Church, Bosham
Holy Trinity Church Bosham, Harold's Church

The cleric is emerging down some stone steps at an entrance porch. Two double doors are depicted, with crosses set on them. The entrance to this chapel is also described in a fifteenth century poem just as it appears on the Tapestry. The cleric drawing attention to Elfgyva's eyes is surely Goscelin himself, her chaplain. She is standing in her own gateway at Wilton Abbey, just as the abbess of Wilton appears on her Anglo-Saxon seal.

As for the naked figure in the border there is a possible explanation there too, associated with St Edith's story and Wilton Abbey. She is the only woman named on the Tapestry therefore this was obviously an important scene for those making it. The embroiderers throughout convey realistically the typical Wilton chequer-board style of architecture. These are squares made of flint and stone!

It is also likely that Goscelin who was also chaplain to Queen Edith, composed the Vita Edwardii Regis. His description of Westminster Abbey is just as the abbey appears exactly half way through the Tapestry. Further reasons that the Tapestry may have been embroidered at least in part at Wilton are:

  • Praise for Queen Edith's family. Harold is depicted nobly with hawk and hounds as he rides to Bosham.
  • A team of embroiderers may have wanted to show a portion of the Tapestry showing Queen Edith's new building.
  • Queen Edith was an expert embroiderer, one of the greatest in the land, seriously educated and religious and also she was pragmatic towards the Invasion. She was at Wilton during the 1070s.
  • This adds weight to the argument--Muriel, a poetess and possibly Odo's sister, was a widow and lived as a nun at Wilton during the 1070s.
  • Could the Tapestry be seen as a memorial to the dead, Norman and Saxon?
  • Pragmatically, the Norman story takes up the second half of the work restoring the balance from it being Godwin orientated.
  • The story of Elfgyva and her miraculous cure from blindness may foreshadow the death of Harold during which scene he is struck down by an arrow and then hacked to death. Foreshadowing Roland's death in the popular Song of Roland occurs early on in the poem with Charlemagne's vision. A contemporary audience, used to miracles and visions would have understood why Elfgyva and Goscelin were there. The embroiders are denoting the place where a cleric and Elfgyva are performing a miracle.
  • So was the Tapestry embroidered at Wilton and is it, in fact, a memorial to the dead!
I would like to acknowledge Patricia Stephenson whom I heard give a paper on this topic at The British Museum. It is titled Where a Cleric and Elfgyva.


Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, the story of Harold's common-law wife and a woman's perspective on the events of 1066. It is available as a paperback and for all e readers.

1 comment:

  1. Four years later, the above is still a powerful analysis - perhaps all the more so as understanding of the Bayeux Tapestry deepens.

    It's curious that Alan Rufus is depicted in many scenes of the BT, as I've realised from pulling together threads from numerous sources (Gaimar, Wace, Orderic, Domesday Book, insights by the historian Stephen Morillo, and details of the BT itself). For instance, he is the soldier standing immediately behind Hakon: his white shield with an array of 12 spots signifies he is a Breton of the highest tier in the aristocracy. (Duke William's shield in a later scene also has 12 spots and is embossed with a large cross.)


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