Aelfgyva The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry: Part Four
The woman in the Bayeux Tapestry called Aelfgyva has given commentators trouble for centuries. As we have seen in my earlier parts, there have been plenty of Aelfgyva’s mentioned in the 11thc but none that quite fit the bill as much as Aelfgifu of Northampton. We have discounted Emma/Aelfgifu and also that Earl Harold had any daughter or sister of that name. I have also set aside the idea that she may have been a child of William’, whom he offered to Harold as a wife in return for an alliance. Aelfgyva was a purely English name and although it may have been a possibility, it was not likely to have been given to a Norman woman; it was thought that Norman’s had no liking for English names. So why then, am I going with Aelfgifu of Northampton, King cnut’s first wife? What is it about this Aelfgifu that draws me to believe the woman they are referring to is her?
Aelfgifu was reported by Florence of Worcester as passing off the bastard child of a priest as Cnut’s son after failing to provide an heir of her own. This child was Swein. Later Worcester states that she passed off another ‘son’ Harold Harefoot who was reputed to have been a child of a mere workman or a shoe maker. Interestingly, if we look once again at the image of Aefgyva and the priest, we see that in the lower border a naked figure of a man with a large member is mimicking the stance and gesture of the priest. There is also another image of a naked workman. The priest who touches her face is either fondling or as some might say slapping her face. The scene is also iconographic, which means it is supposed to be a representation of what perhaps, William and Harold may be discussing. Unlike the other scenes in the tapestry, this one is not to be viewed as part of the story but more as an illusion of some sexual scandal. Interpreting the face fondling/slapping aspect is a bone of contention, however. At first I favoured the idea that the priest was slapping her but upon further research I came across some intriguing suggestions that were submitted by J Bard McNulty in the Lady Aelfgyva in The Bayeux Tapestry (1980).
Edward Freeman (1869) suggests that the woman they are discussing was a woman at the duke’s palace. I would disagree. As we have explored before, there could not have possibly been a woman with this name in Normandy at this time.
Then, if we accept that the woman referred to in the tapestry must be Aelfgifu of Northampton, we have to ponder upon why on earth Harold and William would be discussing her at this stage of the story. Aelfgifu would have been long dead at the time of this meeting (around autumn of 1064). But let us not discount her, for she was, like her counterpart and rival Emma of Normandy, a formidable woman. Unfortunately, she was perhaps not as tactful or astute as Emma.
Aelfgifu was Cnut’s first wife, most likely he married her in the more-danico fashion rather than officially as he was later able to marry Emma. It was quite customary in those times for nobles to ‘handfast’ themselves to a woman so they could at a later time marry for political reasons as Harold Godwinson did with Aldith of Mercia. The Norman propaganda machine was to later make much of Harold’s relationship with Edith Swanneck, referring to her as his mistress rather than his wife, but under English law, she was just as entitled to the same considerations as an official wife was and her children would not have been viewed as ‘bastards’ or illegitimate and had the same entitlements as legal offspring would have.
Cnut must have valued Aelfgifu and her children by him, for he sent her and Swein to rule Norway for him and as Swein was a mere child at the time, she was to act as regent. But she was unpopular with the Norwegians, her rule being ruthless and harsh and so she and Swein were driven out after some years and Olaf’s son Magnus the Good replaced Swein as King of Norway. One would imagine that Cnut’s feelings toward Aelfgifu if Northampton would have changed after she lost Norway for him.
Noble women of the period
Eventually, Magnus would make a treaty with Cnut’s son by Emma, Harthacnut that would become the basis for Harald Hardrada’s claim to the English throne in 1066. Harthacnut and Magnus of Norway made an oath to each other that should one of them die, the other would inherit their kingdoms should they die without issue. Although Magnus claimed his right to England, he never pursued it beyond a threat after Harthacnut died. When Harald Hardrada succeeded to the kingdom after his nephew Magnus died, he claimed that Magnus’ and Harthacnut’s oath should still stand and egged on by Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s brother, he planned his fateful invasion of England.
But if the stories that had been circulating about Aelfgifu’s deception of Cnut were to be believed as truthful by the general consensus, the two men, Harold and William, should they be discussing all claims to the throne, would have both agreed that Harald’s claim should be dismissed. McNulty’s suggestion is that Harold was reassuring William that the English had discounted Hardrada’s claim, a decision that they both agreed about and happily they both ride off to campaign in Brittany.
Sounds plausible? No it doesn’t. Because what had Aelfgifu’s indiscretion got to do with Hardrada’s claim to the throne? After all, she was not mother to Harthacnut who had made the oath with Magnus and she is definitely not the Aelfgyva depicted in the tapestry. Just when I think I am there, another ‘but’ pops up!
In the words of the great man Sir Walter Scott, “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive”. More in the next part of this amazing mystery.