Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ælfgyva: The Mysterious Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry - Part II

By Paula Lofting

Welcome to the second part of the post concerning Ælfgyva, the woman, who over the years has caused many a historian to scratch their heads in wonder. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, in the Bayeux Tapestry, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a doorway, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway.  He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her?  On the other hand he could be caressing her face.

The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Aelfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence?

In this piece of work we will examine one of the possibilities as to who this woman could possibly be and what was her role at the time of the conquest. There are a number of theories, all of which have been thoroughly discounted by others, myself included. I would like to examine here one particular source that alludes to her representing Emma, who, as I stated in the first of this series, had taken on the English name Ælfgifu upon marriage to King Aethelred. Eric Freeman in his Annales de Normandie explains through a story that was circulating in the fourteenth century that Emma had been involved in an unorthodox relationship with a bishop of Winchester and had proven her innocence through trial by ordeal. She was said to have achieved this by walking barefoot across nine red-hot ploughshares.

What followed is even more absurd: her son King Edward, who had instigated the trial and had always shown harsh resentment toward his mother, begged her forgiveness and was duly beaten by both his mother and the accused Bishop Ælfwine. So, could this ridiculous tale be the scandal that we think the Bayeux tapestry is referring to? Bearing in mind that it is only an assumption of a scandal, however, the lewd depictions that accompany the image would indeed strongly suggest a scandal.

My research of this strange anecdote has turned up no other contemporary source. Quite how it shaped its way into the fourteenth century, we will never know, but what it does show is how the medieval mind-set could so effectively create the believable in the unbelievable. If we were to take this story as having some basis in truth, it would be a credible subject, if not for the trial by ordeal which would have been impossible to survive. So, if we put that aside and concentrate on the rest of it, what do we have? Emma/Ælfgifu, depicted as a bishop-loving adulteress whose scandal has somehow enmeshed itself into the threads of the Bayeux Tapestry.

photo credit: Caroline Williams

Now here comes the why, the how and what for. If we consider the scene and its place in the tapestry, the images before it show Harold standing before William having some sort of discussion. Incidentally, Harold appears to be touching the hand of one of William’s guards, but that is another story we will go into in part three. Our gaze next rests upon Ælfgyva and our priest, who is definitely not a bishop, otherwise the tapestry would have read, Unus Episcopus, rather than, Unus Clericus. If we can imagine that the two men are deep in conversation about some important topic, could the image of Ælfgyva have been inserted to allude to something that may have been better known at the time? If it was meant to be a representation of William’s great aunt Emma, she may well have been referred to by the English artist by her English name and this would be plausible. 

Yet the insertion of a bishop touching her face and the lewd creature underneath them in the border is a strange way to portray so great and noble a lady such as the former twice Queen of England. Not only is she William’s great aunt, but also partly the basis for his claim to the English crown. Through her, he was a first cousin once removed to the reigning monarch, Edward the Confessor. It was because of this kinship that William sought acceptance as heir to Edward’s throne. Emma, in her time was often criticised but despite this, she was respected by her English subjects. It is not likely that she would have been denigrated in this way unless she was involved in something pertinent to the story of the conquest. And I think considering the lack of a contemporary insertion in the sources for this story, we can safely assume that there is no credence to this legend.

It would seem that there is no other connection with Emma and the tapestry and the absence of a bishop and the presence of a priest, although perhaps an error but this is unlikely, means that this cannot be the Ælfgyva story the artist is referring to. In my next post on the subject, I will be exploring with you, another Ælfgyva.

We must give credit to the intriguing artistry of the creator who at every turn and twist manages to confuse us all.


Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane

Find Paula on her Blog
on her Amazon Author Page


  1. I discount the Emma story too though do remember the Tapestry was made in England by English embroiderers and many vignettes have double meanings to appeal in differing ways to whoever is looking. The theory I like here is that of the blindness suffered by another lady associated with Winchester ( the pillars resemble those at the original gateway to a chapel at Winchester) who was cured of blindness in said chapel. She was also associated with the Godwins. In fact some say she might have been a sister to Harold who later dies.

    1. While I haven't studied as many of these legends as you, I see the gesture in the image to be much the same as the cradling of the cheek one associates with "healing", particularly in a physical-spiritual sense (the suggestion of a miracle or God's grace being called down to heal someone). This could fit what you are describing quite well, Carol.

    2. But how would this relate to the story of Harold in Normandy and what William and Harold are talking about. She must have a purpose in the story otherwise why?

  2. Aelfgifu, Abbess of Wilton from 1065 to 1067, attributed the healing of her eye to the intercession of St Edith of Wilton. See William of Malmesbury’s “Vita Wulfstani”. Perhaps the cleric is a young St Wulfstan (Bishop of Worcester 1062-1095)?
    Wilton (home of the Breton nun, Muriel the Poetess) and Wulfstan were both well-known to Alan Rufus who figures some fifteen times on the Bayeux Tapestry, including as the captain of the palace guard in the previous scene with William, Harold and Hakon.
    Scolland, Abbot of St Augustine’s at Canterbury, in the workshops of which the BT was made, also had significant connections with Alan.

  3. Carol, I just read your reply here. Godwin did have a daughter named Ælfgifu. Since one of his daughters was promised to a Norman lord and the BT’s Ælfgyva is depicted between two occurrences of Alan Rufus (as captain of the guard, and as the rider on the dark horse at the rear of Duke William’s cavalry), I wonder...

    1. Alas for this second suggestion of mine, Paula has advised that Ann Williams has disproven the notion that Harold Godwinson had a sister named Ælfgifu. (Article citation, please, Paula?)

  4. I don't think there is any evidence that Harold had a daughter named Aelfgifu.


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