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The Bayeux Tapestry: A Canterbury Tale

J.L. Laynesmith unravels one of the mysteries of the Bayeux Tapestry.

An unknown cleric touches Ælfgyva's face in a gesture mirrored by the naked man in the border beneathThe Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most celebrated artefacts of the medieval world, yet much about its meaning and origin is still subject to debate. The most enigmatic section of the embroidery involves a woman called Ælfgyva and an unnamed cleric who is touching her face. The scene’s position in the storyline suggests that it is the subject of an important conversation between Harold Godwinson and William, Duke of Normandy. But, without knowing who Ælfgyva and her cleric are, we cannot understand what the Bayeux artist(s) were trying to communicate about this crucial meeting. Theories abound about who Ælfgyva may have been, although curiously little attention has been paid to the cleric’s identity. I would suggest that this scene plays a crucial part in our understanding of the motive and message of the entire Bayeux Tapestry. Having re-examined the women most commonly identified with the Bayeux Ælfgyva, a possible alternative emerges not previously considered.

Most historians are agreed that the tapestry was probably produced in England and made for William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent, probably in the 1070s. It is likely to have been embroidered in a workshop in Canterbury associated with St Augustine’s Abbey. Illuminated manuscripts from the abbey are thought to have influenced the design. The tradition that William’s queen, Matilda, was responsible for the embroidery seems to have been an 18th-century invention, although other 11th-century queens are known to have embroidered smaller pieces for churches. Embroideries in silks and gold thread for vestments and altar cloths were commonly produced in noble households. Nonetheless the sheer scale of this 70-metre linen hanging, embroidered in wool, suggests a workshop or abbey production.

When 19th-century English embroiderers sought to make a replica (now displayed in Reading Museum) it took 35 women over a year to complete. The original embroidery was most likely carried out by women, too, but the principal design was probably drawn across the linen for them by someone accustomed to manuscript illumination. A century earlier the young St Dunstan was reported to have drafted the designs on a stole for a noblewoman and her ladies to embroider, so monks from St Augustine’s could well have produced the design for this work. The principal template may have included the hundreds of detailed border images, too. But these could equally have been composed by the embroiderers themselves, which leads to all sorts of possibilities of interpretation. For instance, should the many border depictions of Aesop’s Fables be read as observations on greed and on property acquired by trickery and, if so, do they justify William’s actions or Harold’s, or are they mere decoration?

The tapestry records William’s invasion and victory and probably ended with an image of his Christmas Day coronation (the final section has now disintegrated, being the outer layer when it was rolled up for storage). However across the embroidery there is a greater focus on Harold’s story. This could reflect English influence on its composition: a century earlier a hanging was produced to record the deeds of Ealdorman Byhrtnoth, who had died heroically resisting the Vikings at the Battle of Maldon in 991. No fragment of that embroidery remains, just the written record of his wife giving the hanging to Ely Cathedral. Byhrtnoth’s story is preserved in the great tragic poem The Battle of Maldon, probably written in the late 11th century. Nonetheless Harold’s central role in the Bayeux Tapestry was more likely designed to exalt Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry reinforced the cathedral’s disputed claim that it housed the relics upon which Harold had sworn his famous oath of allegiance to William. The relics in question were probably meant to be those of the recently discovered and rather obscure British-born martyrs Ravennus and Rasiphus, whose cult would certainly benefit from association with such an important event. Unlike written Norman accounts of the Conquest, in the tapestry the oath-swearing occurs as the climax of Harold’s visit. Harold’s defeat at Hastings was proof of the power of the Bayeux relics.

One of the great debates of Conquest literature is Harold’s reason for travelling to Normandy. Was it to confirm William of Normandy’s status as Edward the Confessor’s heir, or was that story mere Norman propaganda? The ‘Ælfgyva Interlude’ has commonly been used in attempts to interpret the Bayeux Tapestry’s record of this. The scene depicts a woman, clad in a sage-green dress and dusky red veil, curiously poised above the ground line on which all other figures stand. She is framed by a striking rectangular construction of twisted pillars topped with the heads of mythical beasts, quite unlike any other edifice in the tapestry. To the right of this framing structure stands a tall, imposing, tonsured cleric in secular dress (a short fawn tunic and flowing dark-green cloak clasped with a square golden brooch). He stands with his left hand on his hip, his right reaching in behind the pillar to touch her face. The caption enigmatically reads ‘VBI VNVS CLERICVS ET ÆLFGYVA’ (where [or ‘when’] a certain cleric and Ælfgyva’). It is the only caption on the tapestry that has no explanatory verb.

Just before this image is William’s ‘palace’ (probably at Rouen), in the centre of which Harold stands before the seated Duke William. In previous scenes Harold has been depicted first conversing with his brother-in-law, Edward the Confessor, then crossing the Channel; being captured by Guy, Count of Ponthieu but released at William’s request. Now in the palace Harold is evidently talking to William and pointing behind him with outstretched arm, either at the grey-haired man beside him, or at Ælfgyva beyond.

Ælfgyva has very often been identified as a potential bride whose betrothal was one subject of the conversation in the palace. This interpretation fits with the Gesta Guillelmi written by Duke William’s chaplain, William of Poitiers around 1072. In this account Harold had travelled to Normandy in order to confirm Edward the Confessor’s earlier promise that Duke William should be the next king of England. Harold then swore loyalty to William and sealed this with betrothal to William’s daughter. A variation of this marriage story appears in the History of Recent Events in England, written in the 1120s by Eadmer, who lived at Christ Church, Canterbury from the 1060s and was more sympathetic to Harold. Eadmer claimed that Harold had been trapped into promising both this marriage and a match for his own sister to a Norman nobleman. However none of William’s daughters or Harold’s sisters were, as far as we have records, called Ælfgyva.

Confusingly an earlier Norman bride, Edward the Confessor’s mother, Emma (c. 985-1052), had adopted the Anglo-Saxon name Ælfgyva on her marriage in 1002 to Æthelred II, the Unready (r. 978-1016)). But there is no reason to imagine that a daughter of William, who had never actually married Harold, would have changed her name in the same way or that she would have been known by that name after 1066. Much more significantly, the cleric who is allegedly lifting her wedding veil in this scene is very clearly in secular dress and not the robes he would require for performing a wedding or betrothal service. Ælfgyva cannot have been a bride.

By contrast it has also been argued that the conversation in the palace concerned Harold’s mission to ransom his brother and nephew, who had been hostages in William’s custody ever since Harold’s family’s temporary fall from power in 1051. According to Eadmer this had been Harold’s reason for the journey, not any desire by Edward the Confessor to confer the English throne on William. It has consequently been suggested that Ælfgyva could be the mother of Harold’s captive nephew Hakon (we do not know his mother’s name). Yet this scarcely seems to justify her prominent inclusion in the embroidery or to explain the cleric’s role beside her.

In recent years a more widely quoted suggestion is that Ælfgyva’s curious position above the ground line and the archaic structure around her indicate that Harold is recalling much earlier events, depicted as if in a flashback. Specifically the story recalled is said to be that of King Cnut’s first wife Ælfgyva of Northampton. This interpretation assumes that the images in the lower border of the embroidery are intended as a commentary upon the events in the main narrative. According to John of Worcester, writing around 1138, Ælfgyva of Northampton was a concubine who had duped Cnut by pretending to bear him two sons. But the eldest, Swein, was actually the child of a priest’s concubine, while Harold Harefoot, subsequently king of England, was the son of a cobbler. In the lower border of the tapestry, below William’s palace and the Ælfgyva Interlude, there are two naked men. One is a workman and the other strikingly mirrors the gestures of the priest above him, hence the suggestion that these are the real fathers of Swein and of Harold Harefoot. The priest then occupies the scene above because it was his son, Swein, with whom Ælfgyva briefly ruled Norway as regents for Cnut. The theory goes that William and Harold were discussing the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada’s potential claim to the English throne and concluded that when the Norwegians had cast Ælfgyva and Swein out of their country in 1035 they had forfeited any claim to the English throne.

Enticing though this hypothesis is, it is hard to sustain. The workman is not a cobbler but a carpenter. He wields an axe of the type next seen within the walls of William’s palace as the duke issues the order to prepare the invasion fleet. If this naked carpenter has any symbolic value it is surely, like the ghost ships in the border beneath Halley’s Comet, a foreshadowing of the events that will follow. The ‘certain cleric’ also does not fit the role of the priest who had served Ælfgyva in allowing her to take his concubine’s child. Throughout the embroidery greater size and the wearing of cloaks designate high status and this cloaked cleric is certainly more imposing than Ælfgyva, her hands raised seemingly either in surprise or submission. He may be caressing or hitting her, but this cleric is not doing her bidding.

Much more significantly, Ælfgyva of Northampton’s unfortunate experiences in Norway had no bearing on Harald Hardrada’s claim to the English throne. Ælfgyva of Northampton has rather unfairly been portrayed as a tenth-century Iron Lady, who so oppressed the Norwegians with cruel Danish laws that they were driven to rebellion. In practice both Cnut’s victory in Norway and his wife’s exile were a consequence of the actions of ambitious Norwegian nobles hoping to expand their power, first under an absentee king and then during the minority of Magnus Olafsson with whom they replaced Ælfgyva and Swein. After the death of Cnut’s son, Harthacnut, king of Denmark and England, this Magnus took possession of Denmark. His invasion was subsequently justified by a story that Magnus and Harthacnut had promised that if either should die without a male heir the other should inherit their lands. The story was then used to justify Norwegian pretensions to the English throne as well. It was on this that Magnus’ uncle Harald Hardrada based his claim to England, so it had nothing at all to do with Ælfgyva of Northampton.

But there was another Ælfgyva whose story did become embroiled in that of Magnus’ claim to England. This was William the Conqueror’s great-aunt Emma. As mentioned earlier, she had been given the name Ælfgyva when she married Æthelred the Unready. She retained it on her subsequent marriage to Æthelred’s successor Cnut. By her first marriage she was the mother of Edward the Confessor, who was Harthacnut’s successor in England. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles shortly after his coronation Edward stripped his mother of all her lands and ‘all she owned in gold and silver and untold things’. He also cast Stigand, bishop of Elmham, from his bishopric ‘because he was his mother’s closest adviser’. Here we have an Ælfgyva and a certain cleric in disgrace, but it was only later writers who linked this either to Magnus of Norway or to sexual scandal.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles indicate that Edward took his mother’s treasures out of resentment at her behaviour in earlier years. Given her support for his younger half-brother, Harthacnut, this would scarcely be surprising. The earliest rewriting of Emma’s downfall was composed at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury within a couple of decades of the likely completion of the tapestry itself. It occurs in Goscelin of St Bertin’s Translation of St Mildreth. Perhaps like the tapestry, Goscelin’s work was primarily concerned with enhancing the status of contested relics, in this case the bones of St Mildreth at St Augustine’s Abbey. Among the many miracles these relics were supposed to have achieved was Emma-Ælfgyva’s reinstatement into her son Edward’s favour. According to Goscelin, Emma was falsely accused of offering ‘boundless treasures’ to Magnus of Norway and encouraging him to invade England. Deprived of all her worldly possessions by the king’s men, the grief stricken Emma was visited by a vision of St Mildreth. The saint advised her to hope in God rather than princes and treasures but promised that if this advice was obeyed she would restore Emma to her former glory. Emma swiftly sent off a borrowed gift of 20 shillings to Mildreth’s shrine at St Augustine’s Abbey upon which the brothers there prayed for her. Edward immediately saw the error of his judgement and reinstated his delighted mother to her accustomed status.

It is a fairly standard miracle tale of wrongs righted and lessons learnt. The idea of accusing Emma of supporting Magnus almost certainly emerged some time after her death so that Mildreth could be seen righting an obvious wrong. But if the Ælfgyva Interlude of the Bayeux Tapestry does refer to the Norwegian claim it is surely this story of Emma-Ælfgyva that was meant. In Emma’s story the righteous, but misguided, anger of the king’s men followed by the intercession of the virgin saint affirmed that Magnus had no claim to the English throne. But noticeably the cleric, Stigand, had disappeared from the story in Goscelin’s account. This is no mere oversight. In the years since Emma’s disgrace in 1043 Stigand’s position had become highly problematic. In 1052 he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Edward the Confessor after helping to make peace between the king and the Godwins. However, the position was not actually vacant. A year earlier it had been granted to the Norman Robert of Jumièges. Moreover Benedict X, who granted Stigand his pallium, was subsequently excommunicated and considered an anti-pope. Despite Robert of Jumièges’ remonstrations and excommunications by successive popes, Stigand retained the archbishopric as well as the see of Winchester. Consequently, when William of Normandy sought papal support for his invasion of England, one reason for Pope Alexander II’s agreement was his desire to rid Canterbury of Archbishop Stigand.

For the monks of St Augustine’s Abbey Stigand was yet more problematic as a result of the rivalry between their own house and the cathedral at Christ Church. If they were trying to write their former archbishop out of the records of Emma’s disgrace this could also explain the curious anonymity of the ‘certain cleric’ on the tapestry, who looks far too powerful to be nameless. However by the late 12th-century the story of Emma’s fall had taken on an altogether different character in the work of Richard of Devizes. Again Stigand is not mentioned. Instead his predecessor as Bishop of Winchester, Ælfwine, has become the cleric sharing Emma’s disgrace, not for political treachery but sexual impropriety. Emma is made to walk barefoot over red hot ploughshares to prove her innocence and the saint who intervenes to restore Emma’s good name is Winchester’s St Swithun. It seems unlikely that this story, conflating several narratives of falsely-accused queens, would have been current early enough to shape the Bayeux Tapestry. Yet the Bayeux cleric’s apparently caressing hand juxtaposed with the very well-endowed naked figure mirroring the gesture below do seem to hint that some story of sexual scandal was already present.

Emma’s role in the Conquest story is a complex one because she was also William the Bastard’s closest blood link to the English throne. She was only his great aunt, but William of Poitiers still cited this as William’s ‘blood claim’ to England. This connection might itself have justified her inclusion in the tapestry on Harold’s meeting with William. However the tapestry gives her name in its Anglo-Saxon form (used by the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers but not by Goscelin or William of Poitiers). Moreover the powerfully positioned anonymous cleric and the unfinished sentence seem only to recall her infamous disgrace. If the Bayeux Ælfgyva is indeed Emma, the scene would seem to be casting aspersions on William’s claim, perhaps even recalling rumours of his great aunt’s treachery towards England. So, if the Bayeux Ælfgyva is Emma, the tapestry implies that it was not until Harold had sworn upon the Bayeux relics that William’s claim really had been guaranteed superior in God’s eyes to Harold’s own. Something of this idea is implied by Eadmer’s observation on the Battle of Hastings at which even:

the French who took part in it do to this day declare that . . . the victory which they had gained is truly and without doubt to be attributed to nothing else than the miraculous intervention of God, who by so punishing Harold’s wicked perjury showed that He is not a God that has any pleasure in wickedness.

This interpretation of Harold’s position fits with the seeming ambivalence of the tapestry elsewhere, such as the recognition of Harold’s bravery in saving William’s men from quicksands and the absence of the open condemnation found in written Norman sources. As such the tapestry appears less a tale of Norman righteousness and conquest and more an attempt at conciliation between the interests of different nationalities. The martyrology of St Augustine’s Abbey certainly included prayers for the departed souls of those on both sides of the conflict (and for at least five women called Ælfgyva). The abbey had every reason to avoid upsetting either English neighbours or Norman overlords.

Emma seems a better fit than the other women suggested so far. But there was one more Ælfgyva who was arguably of even greater importance to any discussion about legitimate claims to the English throne. What can be conjectured of this woman’s story would also fit with a more conciliatory interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry. She has been almost lost to history and was scarcely recorded in her own lifetime. The 12th-century chronicler William of Malmesbury called her a woman ‘whom fame in darkness hides’. But she was key to a much more significant claim to the English throne than Harald Hardrada’s: that of Edgar the Ætheling (c. 1051-c.1126). Edgar was a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready. Before Æthelred married Emma he had had at least six sons and four daughters by an earlier marriage. Æthelred’s mother, Ælfthryth, was the dominant woman at court during the first part of his reign, so this first wife did not witness any charters or leave her name on any document that now survives. However the fact that her children were later given precedence over Emma’s children indicates that it was considered a lawful marriage and that her children were throne-worthy. She was probably not actually anointed queen as Emma was.

It is the early 12th-century manuscript of John of Worcester’s chronicle that provides the earliest evidence that her name was Ælfgyva. Disconcertingly the reference says that she was the daughter of ‘comes Agelberhtus’, a name that cannot be traced elsewhere. In contrast, Ailred of Rievaulx said she was the daughter of the well known and powerful Thored of York, Ealdorman of Northumbria. Ailred does not give her name. There have been speculations that Æthelred had actually married twice before Emma but both the Worcester manuscript and Ailred were specifically referring to the mother of Æthelred’s heir, Edmund Ironside. It is plausible that the Worcester manuscript was mistaken, perhaps even in assigning her the name Ælfgyva (an understandable result of the confusing plethora of Ælfgyvas in the late Saxon royal family). What matters for our present purposes is that by the time the Bayeux Tapestry was being embroidered it was believed that Edmund Ironside’s mother had been called Ælfgyva. For the sake of clarity, if perhaps not accuracy, she has been called Ælfgyva of York.

Edmund Ironside had briefly shared the kingdom with Cnut before his untimely death in October 1016. Cnut had then sent Edmund’s own children into exile. In 1057 Edward the Confessor recalled the eldest, Edward the Exile, presumably having accepted that he himself would have no children and considering appointing his nephew as his heir. Edward the Exile died within weeks of his arrival in England, leaving three young children: Edgar the Ætheling and his sisters Margaret and Christina. Aside from his youth, Ælfgyva of York’s great grandson, Edgar, now had a claim to the throne that was much stronger than that of either Harold Godwinson or William the Bastard. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles imply that there was no thought of putting Edgar on the throne until after Harold’s death at Hastings. But at that point the young Edgar became a rallying point for the Londoners’ resistance to William. This resistance swiftly crumbled, though Edgar remained the focus of several later challenges to William’s authority.

At the time of Harold’s meeting with William in Rouen Edgar the Ætheling would have been the most obvious barrier to either of them taking the English throne. If Edgar’s great grandmother was alleged to have had an affair with a certain cleric then Edgar’s right could be challenged. Allegations of sexual scandal between queens and high status clerics were rife in early medieval Continental politics, usually as an excuse for royal divorce and to oust over-mighty priests. Versions of these fed into the story of Emma and the bishop of Winchester mentioned earlier and indeed to several other 12th-century tales of English queens. Perhaps some hint of scandal did still attach to Ælfgyva of York’s memory in William of Malmesbury’s day, since he recorded that she might have been a concubine. But after Edgar the Ætheling’s niece, Matilda, had married Henry I of England in 1100 there would have been no political value in repeating such stories. If the Bayeux Tapestry does indeed record an allegation that Ælfgyva of York bore Edmund Ironside as a result of adultery with a cleric of high status the surviving shadows of this story in the written record exist only in the later tales of her namesakes: Ælfgyva of Northampton employing a priest’s concubine and Ælfgyva-Emma dallying with the Bishop of Winchester.

To base a theory on the possible existence of a story that does not survive is of course to conjure with phantoms. We can never claim with certainty the identity of the Bayeux Tapestry’s Ælfgyva. But Ælfgyva of York’s dynastic position made her of far greater importance to Harold and William than any of the other women usually cited in examinations of the tapestry. If she was the mysterious Ælfgyva, or if it was her immediate successor, Emma, or even some confusion between the two, this does not answer questions about Harold’s motive for travelling to Normandy. But their presence would reinforce the arguments of those historians who see the Bayeux Tapestry as a constructive conciliatory depiction of the Norman Conquest. In either case Harold and William appear as equals in throne-worthiness until Harold makes and breaks his notorious vow on the relics in Bayeux Cathedral.

J.L. Laynesmith is visiting Research Fellow, University of Reading

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