Aelfgyva: The Mystery Woman of The Bayeux Tapestry Part Five
We are getting closer to the end of this discussion, but I have by not finished it by a long shot. For those who have not read any of my earlier posts about this puzzling enigmatic woman, Aelfgyva, whose image is portrayed in the tapestry with a priest, we have been exploring her possible identity in an effort to ascertain who exactly she was. Furthermore, it is my aim to try and shed some light and interpret what or how she came to be sewn into this tragic tale about the story of Harold’s fateful trip to Normandy. After discounting the known candidates except for one, it would appear that the identity of this Aelfgyva is Aelfgifu of Northampton, as she was generally known according to one of the Anglo Saxon chronicles, in the early 11thc when she lived. She was a consort of Cnut, enjoined to him in the more danico tradition. Marrying her in this way meant that Cnut could take another, more politically convenient wife at a later date, as he did when he married Emma of Normandy, whose English name was also a Aelfgifu.
Aelfgifu of Northampton was the daughter of Aelfhelm, a major ealdorman of Northumbria whose familial origins were from Mercia. His mother was a wealthy woman named Wulfrun and I have not been able to find a source for his father, perhaps his mother was of higher standing. Regardless of her grandfather’s status, it was obvious that Aelfgifu came from a very important family. Her father was put to death by his enemy Eadric Streona and her younger brothers were blinded. All this was done with the connivance of King Aethelred. Aelfgifu may never have forgotten or forgiven this deed and it quite possibly could have shaped her personality from then on.
Because of her father’s status in the north, Swein of Denmark may have sought an alliance with her kinsmen and father’s followers, taking advantage of the rift Aelfhelm’s death may have caused between them and Aethelred. So she was either loosely married or handfastened to his son Cnut.. This was not an unusual practice, some years later Harold Godwinson was to do the same with his longtime love, Edith Swanneck. Many years later her puts her aside and marries the daughter of Alfgar of Mercia, wife of Gruffydd of Wales in order to enlist the support of her brothers, Edwin and Morcar who were earls of the north. The Normans were to make much of this when their propaganda machine got their claws stuck into Harold. He was promulgated as an adulterer who liked women although he seems to have stayed faithful to Edith Swanneck throughout their time together. They referred to her as being his mistress, although in legal terms she was considered his ‘wife’ and his children were treated as legitimate. However, perhaps she was not cast aside quite in the manner one would think, for legend alludes to her having been on the battlefield looking for his mutilated body at Senlac. This may have meant that their relationship was still very much an entity at Harold’s death.
Handfastened wives perhaps were not necessarily cast off when the man married politically and the evidence is inclined to show that like Harold may have done, Cnut kept his affections for Aelfgifu and did not wholly put her aside for Emma. In fact initially, he may have considered her with great respect, if not affection. She had given birth to two sons, Swein and Harald, named in respect for Cnut’s father and grandfather. When Swein was old enough, Cnut sent Aelfgifu with him as regent to rule for him in Norway around 1030. He may have done this to keep her out of the way of his relationship with Emma, though this is not founded in any source, but one can picture that the two women were serious rivals for Cnut’s affection and that they probably felt threatened by one another. On the other hand, Cnut may have simply been keeping the interests of the Northern thegns alive by continuing to honour her and the alliance with her family. Emma may have had the upper hand, however, being the recognised queen. And it is natural to think that Emma, an astute woman that she was, would not have agreed to marry Cnut if her children by him would not have had precedence over Aelfgifu’s.
One might have been forgiven for intuitively assuming that the nature of Aelfgifu of Northampton’s character was somewhat harsh when some four years later she and Swein had to flee Norway for her apparent heavy-handed rule. The Norwegians rebelled against her heavy taxation and it seemed, preferred Magnus I as ruler to Cnut’s harridan. Her son, young Swein, was to die in Denmark shortly after. In the Norwegian Ágrip Aelfgifu is mentioned by the Skald Sigvatr, a contemporary of her’s:
long will the young man remember,
when they at home ate ox’s food,
and like the goats, ate rind
She may have died sometime around 1040. Nothing much was heard of her after this. The story about her deception of Cnut is strangely alluded to in the Anglo Saxon chronicle, Abingdon edition (C) where it is mentioned: “And Harold, who said that he was the son of Cnut – although it was not true-..” This appears to be referring to the story about Aelfgifu’s sons not being Cnut’s, or indeed not even Aelfgifu’s. In my search for the truth, I have discovered that the Encomium Emmae Reginae makes the allegation that Harold was really the son of a servant girl smuggled into Aelfgifu’s bed chamber and passed off as Cnut’s son. John of Worcester elaborates further and tells us that Cnut’s sons by Aelfgifu were not his or hers even. That Aelfgifu, desperate to have a son, ordered that a new born son of a priest’s concubine be presented to Cnut as his own son by her. This was the child called Swein. Harold, he states, was the son of a workman, like the one seen in the border underneath Aelfgyva’s scene in the tapestry (Bridgeford 2002). Bard McNulty (1980) first drew the patrons of the Tapestry to the theory that this was Aelfgifu of Northampton. Bard McNulty also theorizes that William and Harold had a discussion in the previous scene whereby Harold reassures William that the English will not call upon Harald of Norway to become King when Edward dies. I have already rejected this theory because apart from her connection with Norway where Harald Hardrada invades England from in 1066, her connection to Harald Hardrada is neither tenuous nor nonexistent.
What I do, however agree with is Bard McNulty’s idea that the Aelfgyva scene is not meant to be read as what is happening after the scene before it, rather that it represents what they were discussing, an issue involving a priest and Aelfgyva. So, if they were not discussing Harald Hardrada, then what were they discussing about Aelfgyva and the priest? And what had it to do with the tapestry and Harold’s time in Normandy?
Look forward to the final conclusion in Part Six where I will explain what my theory is.
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