Friday, December 22, 2017

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part III

by Paula Lofting

So, to reflect on what we have this far, there were several Ælfgifus or Ælfgyvas which was a popular noble name for women in the 11thc. The name itself means noble gift, and therefore likely to be a high-status name. We have the story of Ælfgifu of Northampton who 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/Ælfgifu, Edward the Confessor’s mother who supposedly committed adultery with the Bishop of Winchester. Were there any other contenders for this woman’s identity?

Yes, it seems to be so. Æthelred the Unready also had a wife called Ælfgifu of York, who was the mother of possibly all of the king's sons apart from the two youngest, Edward and Alfred, who were born to his second wife, Emma of Normandy. Do you feel that headache coming on? (Please let me know if you need to lie down.)  But to complicate things even more, it is possible that there were two wives called, Ælfgifu, as some historians have believed, for there are two named contenders for her father, however, seeing as there is as little evidence for there being two wives as for the one, we may as well discount this fact. And so, seeing as we do not know of any scandal attributed to her, and her existence is as far away from the events of the mid 11thc as the moon, it is not beneficial to think that this lady is being represented on the Tapestry.

So, is there any more Ælfgifus not mentioned as yet? There may be one other. Some historians have, in an effort to solve the riddle, gone for the simpler, but unlikely option, that Harold had a sister called Ælfgyva whom he’d promised to one of Duke William’s barons in return for his own alliance with one of the duke’s daughters. The lurid depiction of this woman called Ælfgyva and the cleric is said to explain 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, for they do not answer the riddle of the purpose of their appearance on the tapestry.

Segment of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing William and Harold
arriving at the duke's palace, in a conference with each other,
and the Alfgyva and the monk scene

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, and a man standing behind him whose fore-finger is pointing toward the figure of Harold stood before the duke. Harold’s right hand gesticulates, open palmed the way someone might when 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. Obviously, the bearded man 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. The guard also has a beard, which the others do not, having shaven faces. The artist seems to have gone to great lengths to distinguish this man from the others.


Finally, the next segment shows the mysterious Ælfgyva standing in a doorway, presumably to convey a scene in a house, with a priest or monk 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 open to conjecture. We will never know. Additionally, the scene in the border below show some very lewd figures. Underneath Ælfgyva, a naked man with a large appendage appears to be squatting, as though pointing under her skirt. In the scene with Harold and William, another naked, faceless man is bending over a work bench with a hatchet. The meaning of these images are obviously of a sexual nature, but what connection it has to the mystery scene is really not clear, but possibly would have been to those who had lived around the time the Tapestry was crafted, and most likely refers to a known scandal of the time.


Going back to the first segment, the story of the tapestry so far, is that Harold, having sailed to across the sea from Bosham, has been brought to meet William by Guy of Ponthieu. The Count of Ponthieu had captured Harold and his crew after their ship had washed up far off his destination of Normandy. William essentially rescues the English earl from the clutches of his rebellious vassal, who was hoping, perhaps, to ransom the great English earl for a large sum of silver. These two great men, Harold and William are destined to become the fiercest of enemies. At this time, however, they are friends - of a sort - and they 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 sweetener for what he might wish to request of him. 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, that this is 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 mysterious 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, after being commissioned by King Edward, offering him his loyalty and promising to use his powers of persuasion with the Witan to have him as their king upon Edward’s death. The younger Godwin boys, were allegedly whisked away as hostages in some scheme possibly cooked up by Robert Champart, Archbishop of Canterbury, an arch enemy of Earl Godwin, sometime in 1052 when the family returned from exile. Champart may have used the hostages as a shield to help him escape without molestation, from Godwin’s revenge. Champart, being Norman, was sympathetic to the Norman cause. He may have schemed to persuade Edward to name Duke William as his heir. When the archbishop's plot went awry, and Godwin returned to favour, the earl was gunning for those who had played a part in his exile, especially the major player, Champart. 

The hostages were taken to the duke on Champart's escape to Normandy, supposedly, as according to Norman Sources, as surety of Edward’s and possibly Godwin’s word (though the latter would have been doubtful) that he would succeed to the throne of England. Even having to flee from England with a charge of treason over his head, did not deter Champart to stir up trouble and continue with his plan to see William as Edward's heir. It's also possible that Edward had secretly given his blessing to Champart to take the boys, hoping that one day the tide would again turn against Godwin, that veritable boil on his bottom.

In the autumn of 1064, at the time when Harold's visit to Normandy was most likely to have taken place, Wulfnoth would have been a man in his late twenties and Hakon, a teenager. The former was Godwin’s youngest son, and Hakon, the son of Godwin’s eldest,  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 hostages, well treated in respect of their nobility and having found positions among the duke’s household. Eadmer’s version of Harold’s trip to Normandy takes a very different slant to that of the Normans, with the main purpose being to negotiate the release of Harold’s kin from the duke’s custody. In the Norman version, we are told that Harold arrived with gifts for William, gifts that it was said were for the duke from Edward, to confirm his promise of the ascendancy. Or were they boons of a different nature? Bribes perhaps for the release of Hakon and Wulfnoth, and not from Edward, but from Harold?

So, the segments of the Bayeux Tapestry that we have seen above can be interpreted in as Harold and William discussing the purpose of his visit, which could be to discuss Edward's wish that William become his heir - or - it can be interpreted as Harold explaining that his visit is to talk about his kinsmen: brother, Wulfnoth, the bearded chap amongst William's household guard, and Hakon, his nephew. Whatever the case, both men, it would seem, had different agendas.... and how does the curious picture of the noble lady and the monk fit into all this? 

We have more to discover in the next Part.


References
Bridgeford A, 2004 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry Fourth Estate; First Edition edition 
Eadmer c1095 Historia Novorium in Anglia 
Walker I, Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King The History Press; new edition, 2010.

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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

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