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Friday, 24 February 2012

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Aelfgyva, the mystery woman of Bayeux: Part One, 2nd ed.

Aelfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelt Aelfgyva, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Aethelred, the witan insisted that she be called Aelfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Aethelred's previous consorts, though none of those women had been given the title of queen unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Aelfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call her Aelfgifu anyway. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English version of Ymma. But changing a queen's name is not an un heard of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, was sneered at for her Saxon name and was forced to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first.

There were so many Aelfgyvas/ Aelfgifus amongst the women of the 11thc that it must have become quite confusing at times. Even Cnut's first consort was called Aelfgifu, mother of Cnut's sons Harold and Sweyn. She was known as Aelfgifu of Northampton whose father had been killed during Aethelred’s reign. So one can see that if anyone called Emma, Aelfgifu, by mistake, it would not have mattered as they could be referring to either of them! Even Cnut would not have been caught out by this one.
There was a story about Cnut's Aelfgifu, that she had been unable to produce her own off-spring and involved a monk to help her pass off a serving maid's illigitemate babies as her sons by Cnut. In another version, it was said that the monk himself had fathered them himself. Were they a monk's children fathered on a serving maid so that Aelfgifu could present them as hers and Cnut's? Or, were they lovers themselves, the monk and Aelfgifu? These are questions that, after reading the evidence, I am pondering upon. However, Emma, it is said, hated Aelfgifu and the two women were at odds with each other for many years until Aelfgifu died. It would not be implausable that these tales, rumours, chinese whispers if you may, could have been put about by the Queen to destroy her rival's reputation.
Which leads me now to the mystery of Aelfgyva on the Bayeux tapestry. Aelfgyva is the same name as Aeflgifu only a different spelling, much like Edith and Eadgyth. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman stands in a door way, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind the door. 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? Perhaps they were referring to a well known scandal of the time and they had no reason to describe the events because everyone would have known about it anyway. Who knows what the truth is? It seems the answer to the questions of the lady’s identity and the relevance the scene has to the story of the downfall of Harold Godwinson, died with the creators of the tapestry long ago. Those who presented it to the owner must have given a satisfactory explanation to him about the scene. One can only wonder as to what it might have been and was it a truthful explanation, or did it have a hidden story?
This brings me to my burning question. Was this scene depicting the scandal of Aelfgifu of Northampton and the monk and if so why and what did it have to do with the tapestry? What was its creator alluding to? Or had someone woven them into the tapestry, mistakenly confusing Cnut's Aelfgifu/Aelfgyva with a similar story that did have some legitimacy with the story of the conquest? I have an interpretation, but it is just that, and most likely the fanciful ramblings of my imagination, although it could perhaps be close. I will attempt to explain my theory further sometime in part two soon. Watch this space as the mystery unfolds!
More about this post on my Sons of the Wolf blog


Rosanne Lortz said...

Do you believe the borders on the Bayeux tapestry hold commentary for what is going on in the scenes of the main section? What do you make of the naked man in the border below the Aelfgyva/monk scene?

paulalofting said...

Hi Rosanne, well i think they are something to do with Aesop's tales and there are images of the fox and the crow story where the crow outsmarts the fox (I think its that way round). If you would like to take a look at my Aefgyva the Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry (see the links below this post) I mention about the little naked men man the borders below that particular scene. I believe that they have something to do with the identity of this woman as I reveal in my Aelfgyva posts on my other blog Sons of the Wolf. It was this study that made me decide to write a blog for the Bayeux Tapestry of its own.
Thank you so much for your comment, its great that your interested in this.