The lady named as Ælfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry intrigues and teases us in many ways [scene 17; plate 3]. She is clearly meant to be a focus of our attention. There are only three women depicted in the whole of the main frieze; by contrast, some 600 men strut and saunter across the embroidered stage. Out of the three women, Ælfgyva is the only one who is given a name and it is a name that was popular in the very highest echelons of Anglo-Saxon society. Who this Ælfgyva was and what she is doing in the tapestry are questions which have long baffled observers. With its hint of sex and scandal the Ælfgyva scene remains one of the most mysterious in the whole work.
The scene seems like a curious interjection into the flow of the story, with no obvious link to what occurs before or after. During his enforced stay in Normandy, Harold has been brought to Duke William's palace, probably at Rouen. Harold is seen in earnest discussion with William: we have seen how the artist is probably illustrating his attempt to negotiate the release of his brother Wulfnoth. Then follows ÆElfgyva's scene. She is shown being touched, perhaps stroked, on the cheek by a priest; and a bizarre naked figure in the lower border, gesturing up Ælfgyva's skirt, lewdly appears to mimic the action of the priest. Immediately after this scene, the story moves on. Harold and William depart together in order to campaign in Brittany; they are soon seen crossing the flat sands near Mont-Saint-Michel into Breton territory. The inscription above the Ælfgyva scene is enigmatically short. All it says is UBI UNUS CLERICUS ET ÆLFGYVA (Where a certain cleric and Ælfgyva). Dot, dot, dot, one can almost hear.
What is going on? Who is Ælfgyva? Who is the priest? Does the absence of a verb in the inscription hint at some sexual scandal, as we might suppose from the lewd figure in the lower border? Ælfgyva's identity and her role in the story have been given a great deal of attention by scholars, but there has been little agreement; much mystery remains. For one thing, the meaning of the priest's gesture is disputed. For another, there was no shortage of well-born ladies named Ælfgyva.
The name Ælfgyva (elf-gift) was the name of a family saint in the West Saxon royal dynasty. St Elfgiva, as she is also spelt, died in 944, having piously retired to an abbey. 'She was,' wrote William of Malmesbury in the 1120s, 'a saintly person to whom God granted many revelations.'1 This lady was the wife of King Edmund of England and the mother of Kings Edwy and Edgar; and through her grandson, Æthelred the Unready, she was a great-grandmother of Edward the Confessor. A name with such connections was bound to appeal, and by the eleventh century it was a common name in the best circles of Anglo-Saxon England.
Many Ælfgyvas/Ælfgifus (the spelling is used interchangeably) have, over the years, been proposed as the tapestry's lady. In the very highest echelons of Anglo-Saxon society we know of three Ælfgyvas/Ælfgifus in particular; each held the status of a queen in the generation before 1066.2
A lady named Ælfgifu was the first wife of Edward the Confessor's father Æthelred the Unready. From her union with Æthelred descended the once-exiled and now returned branch of the Anglo-Saxon royal family represented in 1066 by Edgar Ætheling. Edgar's hereditary claim to the throne was strong. Could his great-grandmother Ælfgifu, who had died at the dawn of the millennium, be the lady in the tapestry? Is, perhaps, some point being made detrimental to Edgar's claim to the throne?
When this first Ælfgifu died, King Æthelred married Emma, the daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy. Upon her marriage to Æthelred, Emma of Normandy abandoned her name of birth and obligingly took the same name as her husband's first wife, Ælfgifu. Their children were Edward, Alfred and Godgifu; and Edward, of course, was later to reign as Edward the Confessor. Æthelred died in 1016. Following the Danish conquest of England, and the flight of her children by Æthelred to Normandy, Ælfgifu-Emma retained her position as queen by marrying the new all-powerful King Canute. The vast empire of her Danish husband included at its height England, Denmark and Norway. She now despised Æthelred. By Canute, she had a son Harthacanute and a daughter Gunnhildr; Harthacanute would reign as king of Denmark (1035-42) and as king of England (1040-42). Ælfgifu-Emma's Norman parentage also provided the tenuous blood link that gave William the Conqueror part of his justification for invading the country in 1066; she was William's great-aunt. In these ways, Ælfgifu-Emma was a pivotal person in the great struggles for England, both Scandinavian and Norman, that marked the eleventh century.
When Ælfgifu-Emma married Canute in 1017 she found that he already had an English mistress, a mistress, moreover, who had already borne him two sons. The mistress turned out to be a strong-minded lady intent on following her own agenda. Her name - could it be anything else? - was Ælfgifu. 'The other Ælfgifu' is how the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes her. But in modern history books Canute's mistress is most commonly called Ællfgifu of Northampton. In the circumstances, Ælfgifu of Northampton and Emma were at odds from the start. Indeed, the next twenty-five years of English, Danish and Norwegian history were to be profoundly affected by the personal jealousy and bitter rivalry that existed between these two able and ambitious women. Ælfgifu of Northampton succeeded in placing one of her sons by Canute on the English throne, Harold Harefoot (king, 1037-40); and she was also the mother of Sveyn 'Alfifasson', who ruled as king of Norway under her own regency between 1030 and 1035. She died at some point after 1040, although exactly when is not known. Could she be the eponymous lady depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry?
Most commentators take sexual scandal to be the point of the Ælfgyva scene. Some, however, have argued that what is being represented is not a sexual scandal at all. We learn from William of Poitiers that in 1064/5 one of the undertakings made, and later repudiated, by the captive Harold was to marry one of Duke William's daughters (the fiancee may have been called either Agatha or Adelaide).3 It has been suggested that the lady named as Ælfgyva. in the tapestry is in fact this Norman lady; and that what we see is some ceremony of betrothal. Thus, according to this theory, there is no scandal; it is said that the priest is actually placing a veil over the bride-to-be's head, this apparently being part of the formalities of engagement.4 (Alternatively, it is said that the priest isremoving her veil, which, according to another theory, was what was involved in the formalities of engagement).5 William's daughter is called by the English name Ælfgyva because, so the theory goes, she would have taken that name upon her marriage to Harold - just as her great-great-aunt Emma had done when she adopted the English name Ælfgifu in 1002 upon her own marriage to King Æthelred the Unready. This theory has the great advantage of allowing us to place the Ælfgyva scene not only in Rouen, but also neatly within the thread of the story line. It is suggested that in the immediately preceding panel Harold and William are meant to be discussing the planned marriage. The formal indication of betrothal thus follows; and there would otherwise be no mention of Harold's betrothal.
There are nonetheless considerable difficulties with this theory. For one thing, it is a matter of conjecture that William's daughter would have taken the name Ælfgyva on her marriage; Harold repudiated the engagement and it never took place. And can we really take the designer of the tapestry, working most probably in the 1070s, as referring to the king's very daughter by a purely hypothetical name, a name by which she was not known in the 1070s and indeed which she had never borne and which she would only have taken had the thoroughly discredited marriage to Harold taken place? For another thing, the marriage was deferred in 1064/5 because the girl in question was a mere child; but the lady we see in the tapestry is clearly an adult.
Most problematic of all, however, is the allusion to scandal. For it is very hard not to regard the Ælfgyva scene, with its teasingly incomplete inscription, as relating in some way to a sexual scandal. The naked figure in the lower border, gesturing up Ælfgyva's skirt, explicitly seems to mimic the action of the priest; and there is another partially clothed figure, a workman wielding a tool, in the immediately preceding lower compartment. This is not, it has to be said, the way one would naturally expect a royal princess, one still living and unmarried, and a half-niece of Bishop Odo, to be portrayed in the embroidery. Even if, as some would implausibly argue, the figure in the lower border is purely 'decorative', and nothing to do with the scene above, to juxtapose such lewd imagery with a portrait of the king's daughter would have been unbelievably negligent on the part of the designer. The contrasting buildings in which Ælfgyva stands and from which the priest strides are open to similar sexual innuendo.
A not dissimilar explanation of the Ælfgyva scene is that the eponymous lady is the sister of Harold whom Eadmer tells us (without giving her a name) was to be engaged to one of William's nobles.6 This was part of the agreement Harold was constrained to enter into in order to secure his release from Normandy. Harold may have had a sister named Ælfgyfu; she is mentioned in the Domesday Book.7 This Ælfgyfu's existence is otherwise unattested, and it is possible that the Domesday entry is a scribal error, but assuming she did indeed exist, she may be the sister of Harold whom Eadmer referred to and we have the beginnings, at least, of a more promising explanation. Given the tapestry's close association with Eadmer's account of Harold's visit to Normandy it cannot be without interest that the story of the betrothal of Harold's sister should also come from Eadmer. The appearance of Ælfgyva where we see her in the embroidery, just after Harold and William's discussions, is consistent with this explanation, although it is unlikely that she was actually in Normandy at the time. Thus there may just be an allusion in this scene to Harold's promise to wed his sister to a Norman noble; but even if true it cannot be the entire explanation. We have noted on many occasions the artist's ingenuity at teasing his audience with multiple meanings. Invariably, however, he has one underlying meaning which he wishes to convey. Failure to realise this has long bedevilled research into the Bayeux Tapestry; historians have too often assumed that there can only be one meaning and have thus been misled on to false trails by one of the more superficial interpretations. What suggests that the Ælfgyva scene has some further, deeper meaning is the sexual innuendo.
The gesture of the priest, using a single open hand, does not obviously amount to the placing or arranging, or even the removing, of a veil. On the contrary, the closest, if somewhat later, parallels in medieval art once again give the scene an erotic import. 'The face-fondling gesture,' writes J. Bard McNulty, 'was for centuries charged with sexual meaning. It continued to be used in the art of later centuries, where it was sometimes combined with gestures even more sexually explicit.'8 The earliest example of such a gesture quoted by scholars is a sculptured scene of Salome dancing before Herod from a twelfth-century capital which originally decorated the church of Saint-Etienne in Toulouse (the capital is now to be found in the Musee des Augustins, Toulouse). Overall, the evidence for the view that the Ælfgyva scene relates to a sexual scandal appears to be pretty compelling.
Were there any important women named Ælfgyva/Ælfgifu who were known, or rumoured, to have had some scandalous involvement with a priest? Intriguingly, rumours of this nature circulated at various times about two of the Ælfgifus already mentioned: Canute's wife Ælfgifu-Emma (whom we shall henceforth refer to as Emma) and her bitter rival for her husband's affections, 'the other Ælfgifu', she of Northampton. Both were long dead in 1064/5. If either of them is the tapestry's Ælfgyva we will be forced to conclude that the designer has used a 'flashback' to an earlier event in order to make some point about the present. The existence of rumours of clerical impropriety involving not one but two persons named Ælfgifu cannot fail to interest us.
According to a curious story that was circulating in the fourteenth century, the widowed Emma, Canute's former queen and mother of Edward the Confessor by her earlier marriage, was accused in 1043 or 1050 (the accounts differ) of a liaison of particularly scandalous proportions.9 In short, she was supposed to have been on much more friendly terms than she ought to have been with one of England's foremost ecclesiastics, Ælfwine of Winchester. At first King Edward believed the stories, but protesting her innocence, and that of the bishop, Emma successfully endured a trial by ordeal by walking unscathed across nine red-hot ploughshares (the horizontal cutting blade of the plough). A penitent Edward begged forgiveness; but he was nonetheless beaten with a rod (so the fourteenth-century story goes) by both his mother and Bishop Ælfwine. Could it be that the tapestry's Ælfgyva scene is an allusion to this late-reported scandal involving Emma and the Bishop of Winchester?
The story is found in no contemporary source. It has every appearance of being purely legendary. Its relationship with known events is confused and no modern historian takes it seriously.10 It also differs in key respects from what we see in the tapestry. For one thing, the alleged affair was with a bishop. If the Ælfgyva scene concerned Emma and an episcopal lover, the Tapestry would surely have called the tonsured character a bishop, 'UNUS EPISCOPUS', not simply a cleric, 'UNUS CLERICUS'. For another, according to the story, Emma was widely believed to have proved her innocence by enduring hot iron: in other words by the miraculous intervention of God; and to the medieval mind that was the highest and most indisputable indication of the purest innocence. That the scandal was raised again in the 1070s by the artist of the Bayeux Tapestry, if indeed it was ever raised at all, seems pretty inconceivable. It is also hard to find a reason why Emma should be called out as a subject of special interest at this point in the Bayeux Tapestry. We must therefore turn to the story of scandal that involved her rival and namesake Ælfgifu of Northampton, Canute's mistress. To do so it is necessary to enter the turbulent world that threw these two forceful woman into bitter rivalry.11
At the tail-end of the tenth century successive waves of Danish attack and pillage had brought the country almost to its knees. King Æthelred was proving himself an ineffectual ruler, helpless to resist the Vikings. His attempts to buy them off only encouraged them to return; and in the north and east they had long settled in large numbers. It was into this violent world that Ælfgifu of Northampton was born. Her family were important landholders in Northamptonshire, coming from English or Anglo-Danish stock. In these dark and lawless days suspicion and treason were rife and violence was never far away. In 1006 Ælfgifu's father, Ælthelm, was tricked and murdered while hunting and around the same time her brothers Ufegeat and Wulfheah were blinded, apparently on King Æthelred's orders. The situation for the native dynasty worsened until at last it became untenable. In 1013 Swein Fork-Beard, the King of Denmark, invaded at the head of his own army and within a year he had conquered the whole of England. Æthelred and most of his family were forced to flee to exile in Normandy, the land of his wife Emma. Swein's sudden death on 3 February 1014 provided only a temporary respite from the Danish onslaught. Both Æthelred and Edmund Ironside, his son and heir, died in short succession of each other in 1016. Swein's son Canute, already in possession of much of the country and now without any serious rival in England, was accepted as undisputed king. Edmund's own sons narrowly escaped death by fleeing to the Hungarian exile from which one of them, Edward the Exile, was to return reluctantly with his young family in 1057.
At some time before 1016, and perhaps as early as 1013, Canute must have been introduced to Ælfgifu of Northampton and they became lovers. What we know of Ælfgifu indicates that she was probably a beautiful and certainly a manipulative young woman. One story, which may be fanciful, tells us that she was also a lover of Olaf, afterwards the king and saint of Norway, during one of his reputed stints as a fighter in England. The story goes on to say that Ælfgifu's affair with Canute was the main cause of the enmity that subsequently arose between Canute and Olaf. What is known with greater certainty is that during her affair with Canute two sons were born, Harold, nicknamed Harefoot, and Swein. Canute and Ælfgifu of Northampton never married; contemporaries euphemistically referred to their union as 'Danish' in style [more danico). JEMgiiu may have hoped that Canute would one day marry her but she must have been aware that this sort of arrangement was far from uncommon. It held out the advantage to Canute of allowing him to satisfy his amorous appetites with a prominent English beauty, whilst leaving open the option of negotiating a diplomatic marriage for reasons of state later.
The opportunity for such a marriage soon arose. In July 1017 Emma coldly abandoned her exiled sons in Normandy and crossed the Channel to accept Canute's hand in marriage. The union had advantages for both sides. For Emma, the marriage to the Danish conqueror of her late husband's land meant that she could regain her high position as queen of England, and all the wealth, power and pomp that went with it. She had, moreover, grown to despise Æthelred and she no doubt hoped that the children she had borne him would with the new turn of events fade into insignificance. In a work of tendentious history which was written at her request in the early 1040s the Encomium Emmae Reginae - the marriage to Æthelred is never mentioned; indeed it is implied that Edward and Alfred were the sons of Canute. For Canute the marriage was particularly useful in securing the goodwill of Emma's brother, Duke Richard II of Normandy, at a time when the exiles might have been championed by the Normans and thereby posed a threat to the new Danish rule.
A more immediate threat to Emma's position was the existence in England of the two bastard sons of Ælfgifu of North ampton. As part of her agreement to marry Canute, Emma insisted on an undertaking by him that the throne of England should pass to their progeny alone. By this requirement she sought to exclude Ælfgifu's bastards as well as her own children by Æthelred. In due course, Emma and Canute did have a son, Harthacanute by name, who was born in 1018. The chances of Ælfgifu of Northampton's boys ever inheriting the throne seemed to diminish still further when in succeeding years rumours were spread that they were not Canute's children at all - or even Ælfgifu of Northampton's. This sounds rather suspiciously like malicious gossip put about by a jealous wife in order to undermine the position of her husband's former lover and that of his bastards; but we are hardly in a position to judge the truth of the matter today. Whether true or not, these rumours about Ælfgifu of Northampton and her sons were widely reported and are of the highest interest in our investigation.
In the Encomium Emmae Reginae the allegation is made that Harold Harefoot, rather than being Ælfgifu of North ampton's child, was actually the son of a servant girl who, as a newborn baby, had been smuggled into Ælfgifu's bedchamber so that he could be passed off as a child of her union with Canute. The rumour about Harold Harefoot's lowly parentage was evidently widespread; it also found its way into three versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, compiled in different parts of the country, for the year 1035. In the next century the rumours were repeated in more detail by the apparently well-informed chronicler John of Worcester. Here, most interestingly, is what John of Worcester says of the other bastard, Swein: 'Several asserted that Swein was not the son of the king and that same Ælfgifu, but that Ælfgifu wanted to have a son by the king, and could not, and therefore ordered the new-born child of some priest's concubine to be brought to her, and made the King believe that she had borne him a son.'
And of Harold Harefoot he wrote this: 'Harold claimed to be the son of King Canute by Ælfgifu of Northampton, but that is quite untrue, for some say that he was the son of a certain sutor [a "cobbler" or "workman"], but that Ælfgifu acted in the same way as she had done with Swein. But because the matter is open to doubt, we have been unable to make a firm statement of the parentage of either.'12
Swein, then, is supposed to have been the son of a fornicating priest; Harefoot the offspring of a cobbler or other workman. It was only in 1980 that the American historian J. Bard McNulty drew full attention to the relevance of these stories to the Bayeux Tapestry, arguing that the Ælfgyva in the tapestry was Ælfgifu of Northampton.13
It was not alleged, it is true, that Ælfgifu of Northampton had actually had an affair with a priest. Rather it was said that, desperate to produce a child for Canute, she had connived with a fornicating priest so as to smuggle his child by an unknown mistress into her bedchamber and to pass him (Swein) off as a son of her relations with Canute. It appears, however, that the face-touching gesture did not necessarily imply sexual intercourse between the persons shown; it could merely imply connivance in a plot in which sex played an important part.14 The case for Ælfgifu of Northampton as the tapestry's eponymous lady appears to be becoming strong. Certainly the coincidence of the name and the hint of sexual scandal involving some priestly interest are suggestive. Some sort of workman was alleged to be the father of Harold Harefoot, and the depiction of a workman in the preceding lower compartment in the tapestry is again intriguing. It may not be irrelevant either that the rumour about Harefoot is specifically found in the E version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was being written at the time at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury, where the tapestry's artist appears from art historical evidence to have been connected. Moreover, the rumour about Harefoot is also found in the Encomium Emmae Reginae, a work written by a monk from St-Omer, which survives in a single manuscript copy that is itself first heard of in the possession of St Augustine's Abbey in the later Middle Ages, but which may well have belonged to St Augustine's from the mid-eleventh century.15
What we lack at this juncture is a plausible reason why this fifty-year-old scandal should have been referred to, seemingly in quite another context, in the Bayeux Tapestry. There is no obvious solution to this difficult question. To attempt an answer we must trace the subsequent course of events, as the jealous rivalry between Emma and Ælfgifu of Northampton grew yet more bitter in emotion and tragic in its consequences.
If Canute ever heard any of the rumours concerning Swein and Harold Harefoot, there is no evidence that he believed them. His continuing attachment to Ælfgifu of Northampton and the two boys is evident from the positions he sought to give them within his empire. The death of Canute's brother in 1018/19 meant that Denmark fell under Canute's control and it seems that in the early 1020s he appointed the young Swein as his lieutenant in the Wendish region of Denmark. Because of the lad's youth - he cannot have been more than about ten years old - the ambitious Ælfgifu of Northampton accompanied her son to Denmark as his regent and protector. Herself of Anglo-Danish stock, and coming from a region of England where there had been substantial Danish settlement, she would have had little difficulty in passing from one part of Canute's empire to another.
By 1028 Canute was seeking to expand that empire by bringing Norway under his control. He sought to defeat the Norwegian King Olaf - Olaf apparently being, it will be recalled, himself a former lover of Ælfgifu of Northampton. Olaf was a Christian convert and he had sought to rule a still largely pagan Norway with a zealous bias towards his own religion. In the process he had become very unpopular and Canute realised that he could exploit this situation to his advantage. He travelled along the coast with a sizeable Anglo-Danish fleet, putting in here and there, offering bribes and promises of greater freedom to the disgruntled locals. It was enough. Powerful nobles submitted to Canute and Olaf was forced to flee. In 1030 Olaf was killed in battle attempting a comeback. Canute was now able to appoint the young bastard Swein as king of Norway; and once again, because of Swein's youth, his mother Ælfgifu of Northampton ruled as regent. At around the same time, in the delicate balancing act that was needed to keep the two women of his life contented, Canute placated Emma by naming her young son Harthacanute as King of Denmark.
As effective ruler of Norway, the lady from Northampton had reached what should have been the pinnacle of power, but her rule turned out to be an abysmal failure. She increased taxation, demanded greater services and made the Norwegians follow unpopular Danish laws. Those guilty of acts of violence - violence that, as one historian puts it, was 'characteristic of the fierce northern people'16 - were subjected to severe and unexpected penalties. The Norwegians did not care for this new, brash foreign ruler, and she was a woman to boot; they found themselves longing for the days of Olaf. What is more, a succession of poor harvests, which spread hunger throughout the land, and bad luck were attributed to the Northamptonshire lady. Ælfgifu's rule of Norway was short-lived but long remembered. The expression 'Ælfgifu's time' was subsequently to become a synonym in Norway for any period of great poverty and repression. Norwegian resentment inevitably erupted into violence. The revolt was underpinned by a Christian cult which now began to develop around the memory of the late King Olaf. Realising the danger in this, Ælfgifu and her Danish bishop - Christians, of course, themselves - urgently sought to dispel any suggestion that Olaf had been a martyr for the Christian faith. But tales of miracles concerning the slain Norwegian king continued to proliferate. The Christian religion was taking firmer root in the land of Odin and Thor; and politically, as a by-product, Ælfgifu of Northampton was losing out.
She and Olaf may once have embraced as lovers. As bitter enemies, he had been defeated and killed by her allies. Now in death Olaf returned to haunt Ælfgifu of Northampton and would ultimately bring about her downfall in Norway. In 1031 Bishop Grimkell, a Norwegian, located Olaf's grave at Nidaros and exhumed the body. It was reported that the corpse was miraculously as fresh as it had been on the day that Olaf was living. To the Norwegians, this was truly proof of his saintliness; and he was popularly canonised as a saint. It was later said that Ælfgifu of Northampton was herself at the graveside as the body was exhumed and that she frantically tried to explain away the state of the corpse on the basis of unusual soil conditions. Few would believe her. The revolt gathered fresh momentum when in 1035 Magnus, the young son of Olaf, returned to Norway. After an ineffectual period of struggle, Ælfgifu and Swein accepted the inevitable. Mother and son fled to Denmark, where Swein's half-brother Harthacanute ruled. With Magnus proclaimed king, Norway ceased to be part of the vast empire belonging to Canute and his complicated family. 'Ælfgifu's time' had ended with a humiliating retreat.
During all this period Canute, perhaps hampered by illness, had remained in England. On 12 November 1035 he died at Shaftesbury. With the passing of the great Danish monarch, who had entered into legend even in his own lifetime, the question of succession arose. His legitimate son by Emma, Harthacanute, was already ensconced as King of Denmark but the English succession remained outstanding. The death of the bastard Swein not long after his reputed father removed one of the potential claimants from the scene. Swein's mother Ælfgifu of Northampton now returned to England to make what she could of the new situation. The main contestants for Canute's crown were Emma's son, Harthacanute of Denmark, and Ælfgifu's younger son, Harold Harefoot. The conflict between the two women to win for their sons the crown of England and for themselves the position of queen mother now entered its most bitter and tragic phase.
Emma could rightly point out that Canute had promised that only a son she bore him would succeed to England; but Harthacanute was now faced with an invasion in Denmark from a confident Magnus of Norway and he was unable to cross the North Sea to take up the English part of his inheritance. Two factions then emerged in England. Concentrated largely to the north of the Thames were the supporters of Harold Harefoot, energetically orchestrated by Ælfgifu of Northampton. In the south, supported by Emma and the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex, were the advocates of the absent Harthacanute. From the beginning Harthacanute's case was hampered by his absence in Denmark. A compromise was reached. It was decided by the Witan, the assembly of the great and good of the nation, that Harold Harefoot should rule, but only temporarily as regent until the arrival of Harthacanute.
In the months that followed, however, Harefoot and his mother Ællfgifu of Northampton worked hard, travelling around the country, offering bribes and issuing threats, and winning leading men over to their cause. During the course of 1036 Harefoot gradually increased his powers so that he became effectively king of all England; and in the process Ælfgifu was regaining for herself the position of queen mother that she had once held in Norway, only this time on her home turf. With still no sign of Harthacanute, Earl Godwin and other important men in the south began to waver in their support for the young King of Denmark. Emma despaired; in this battle of the mothers, it seemed as if Ælfgifu of Northampton was going to be triumphant. At last she accepted that her favourite son Harthacanute was not going to be able to help her in her time of need. Emma's thoughts turned, as they had not done for many years, to the two sons by Æthelred whom she had long ago abandoned in their exile in Normandy.
Some time in 1036 an English messenger arrived in Normandy with an urgent and unexpected letter. It was a letter from the dowager Queen of England to her two long-forgotten sons, Edward and Alfred. 'Emma,' the letter began, 'queen in name only, imparts motherly salutation to her sons Edward and Alfred.' The letter then quickly turned to the question of the English succession, now that 'our lord' Canute had died. Disingenuously, Emma was silent about her earlier hopes that Harthacanute would reign; still less did she mention that the Danish dynasty of Canute had been responsible for Edward's and Alfred's exile in the first place. To her sons she now said:
daily you are deprived more and more of the kingdom, your inheritance, and I wonder what plan you are adopting . . . your procrastination is becoming from day to day a support to the usurper of your rule [Harold Harefoot]. For he goes around hamlets and cities ceaselessly, and makes the chief men his friends by gifts, threats and prayers. But they would rather that one of you should rule over them . . . I entreat, therefore, that one of you come to me speedily and privately, to receive from me wholesome counsel, and to know in what manner this matter, which I desire, must be brought to pass.
Send back word what you are going to do about these matters by the present messenger, whoever he may be. Farewell, beloved ones of my heart.17
Emma would later claim that the letter was a forgery concocted by Harold Harefoot in order to lure Edward and Alfred into a trap. Without further evidence (which is highly unlikely to surface at this distance in time) it is impossible to discern the truth; but many historians believe that Emma probably did write the letter and only later wished to disassociate herself in view of the tragedy that ensued from its delivery. If she did write the letter, appealing as a last-ditch measure to her sons by Æthelred in order to prevent the victory of Harefoot and his mother Ælfgifu of Northampton, it was a crass miscalculation of the situation. In 1036 England was simmering on the brink of civil war.
Edward sailed across the Channel with a band of Normans. A few years earlier he had attempted the same crossing, but storms had driven him only as far as the island of Jersey. This time he succeeded in raiding the Southampton area, but, faced with opposition, he retreated back to the continent with little loss and some booty. The king to be known in history books as Edward the Confessor would have to wait another six years before his own peaceful accession to the throne. The fate of Edward's younger brother Alfred, which has been alluded to earlier in this book, now took its dark and tragic course. Refusing aid from Flanders, Alfred came to Boulogne, where his sister Godgifu had recently entered into her marriage with the young Count Eustace II. Supported by Count Eustace I, who provided him with the assistance of 'a few men of Boulogne', Alfred crossed to England from the Boulonnais port of Wissant.18 'Few' is a relative term; the force was evidently large enough to be later billeted in separate groups of twenties, twelves and tens and John of Worcester, writing in the twelfth century, implies that it exceeded 600 soldiers.19 Narrowly avoiding capture at their first attempted point of landing, Alfred's force made ground at 'another port' along the south coast. Believing they had evaded their enemies, they now sought to make their way across land to London. But the party was intercepted by Earl Godwin of Wessex.
Godwin, the foremost of the English earls, was in a delicate position. To preserve his power and wealth, he needed to back the right candidate for the throne; the wrong decision could be disastrous both for him and his family. He had been a supporter of the absent Harthacanute. Lately, however, the south had been swinging behind Harold Harefoot and Godwin knew this. The intervention, now, of a third royal claimant complicated an already complicated position. Godwin at first greeted Alfred as a friend and lord. He then diverted the English prince and his Boulonnais soldiers away from London and led them to Guildford. He was evidently seeking to curry favour with Harefoot and had decided to fall in with what Harefoot wanted. At Guildford, as evening fell, Godwin had the Boulonnais soldiers split up, billeting them in separate groups of twenties, twelves and tens. Only a small force was left behind to guard the young prince. The men of Boulogne were fed and given drink. Soon they took to their beds. They were now at their most vulnerable.
As they slept, the sound of quickening footsteps and low whispers would have broken the silence of the night. Earl Godwin, it seems, had washed his hands of the matter, leaving the sleeping soldiers to the mercy of Harold Harefoot's men, who had been secretly waiting in the dark. Godwin was always to deny any culpability for what followed; but at best he turned a blind eye. As the soldiers from Boulogne slept, Harefoot's men slipped on to the scene and robbed them of their weapons. Then they surprised them, securing them in fetters. When morning broke the helpless soldiers were taken out and, with their hands bound behind their backs, they were lined up and mocked. Then, in a cruel lottery, all but every tenth man was murdered in cold blood. 'They butchered innocent heroes,' the Encomium Emmae Reginae tells us,
with blows from their spears, bound as they were like swine. Hence all ages will call such torturers worse than dogs, since they brought to condemnation the worthy person of so many soldiers, not by soldierly force but by treacherous snares. Some, as has been said, they slew, some they placed in slavery to themselves; others they sold, for they were in the grip of blind greed, but they kept a few loaded with bonds to be subject to greater mockery.20
Alfred fared perhaps the worst of all. He was bound and taken captive. He was then taken to Ely where he was mocked and tortured. At this point it was decreed that he should be blinded as a sign of contempt. No doubt Harefoot intended this as a warning designed to frighten Edward, and anyone else, from making any future intervention into English affairs. Two men were placed on Alfred's arms, and one each on his legs and chest. With his writhing body thus stilled, his eyes were put out. Horribly maimed, Alfred was then taken to Ely Abbey and in the care of the monks he died of his wounds not very long afterwards. The callous manner of Alfred's murder, and that of his Boulonnais entourage, was shocking even to those who lived in this shockingly violent age.
If nothing else, Harold Harefoot had stamped his authority on the land. In the following year, 1037, he was officially recognised as king of all England. Ælfgifu of Northampton had got what she wanted. Her son was now king; Emma's humiliation was complete and she was forced into exile in Flanders. But the saga of rivalry between the two women had further to run. Emma immediately set about plotting revenge on Harefoot and Ælfgifu. Her utter hatred of them both now rose to a new level of intensity. In a flailing gesture, she appealed once again to Edward to help her return to England. Edward wisely replied that such an enterprise would be foolhardy. No men in England had sworn oaths in his favour; another disaster would surely ensue. On the other hand, he told her, his half-brother Harthacanute already had enough men and power in Denmark to invade England and overcome opposition. So Emma turned to her son by Canute. By 1039 Harthacanute had at long last made his peace with King Magnus of Norway and was free to turn his attention to England.
He journeyed first to Bruges to meet his mother and they agreed on a plan. Emma had finally found her champion - an eager son seeking to extend his own domain. Together they raised an army of invasion and sixty ships to carry it to England. But with the preparations in full flow, Harold Harefoot suddenly died at Oxford on 17 March 1040. So ended the short reign of one England's least respected kings. From the perspective of the island shores, it was clear that Harthacanute stood ready to invade; Edward's claim was forgotten. The crown was offered to Harthacanute, and shortly before midsummer 1040 he and Emma arrived with their sixty ships, originally prepared for war but now peacefully received. After almost twenty-three years of bitter rivalry, Emma had finally emerged triumphant over Ælfgifu of Northampton. With the death of Harold Harefoot, Ælfgifu disappears from the old records. She probably fled and lived out her remaining years in obscure exile; but a more grisly fate cannot be excluded. One of Harthacanute's first acts as king was to have Harold Harefoot's body dug up from Westminster Abbey and ignominiously discarded in a fen.
Earl Godwin was left with the tricky task of explaining why he had switched to Harefoot's side in 1036. Most damagingly, he was accused of complicity in the death of Alfred. On trial he swore an oath that he had merely been obeying Harefoot's orders in delivering Alfred and his party to him. He swore that he had had no part in what followed; nor had he wished or counselled it. A number of men bore witness for him. To ease the matter through, he donated an enormously expensive ship with a gilded prow to Harthacanute. The ship was fully equipped with eighty hand-picked men and it gleamed with magnificent gold and gilt armaments and fittings. By dint of these manoeuvres, Godwin survived. The contemporary and later chronicles differ as to what degree of culpability was really to be ascribed to the Earl of Wessex. He would need to defend himself again against these charges during the reign of Edward the Confessor. Unfairly, the taint of guilt was to be inherited, in the eyes of some, by his son Earl Harold.
Obscurity surrounds the reason for Harthacanute's next move. In 1041 he appears to have called over Edward from Normandy in order to associate him in the rule of England. Perhaps he and Emma, faced with unpopularity, particularly as a result of Harthacanute's policy of harsh taxation, needed to bolster their position by bringing in a prince of the authentic Anglo-Saxon line. At any rate, Edward returned to his native shores after almost thirty years of exile in Normandy, French-speaking and French-educated. The first step had been taken in turning the face of England away from Scandinavia and towards France. The following year King Harthacanute, though he was no more than twenty-four years old, suddenly died at a Danish wedding feast by the Thames at Lambeth. It was said that he had been merry and in good spirits, but when he drank from a beaker he was suddenly seized with convulsions, lost the power of speech, collapsed and shortly expired. The whiff of poison hangs around his ending, though neither contemporaries nor modern historians have made any specific allegation. Certainly Harthacanute had quickly become unpopular. Now that he was dead Edward the Confessor ascended the throne as sole king. Godwin again protested his innocence in the murder of Alfred, apparently providing the new king with a ship as magnificent as the one he had given to Harthacanute. Much as he might have wished to banish the powerful Earl of Wessex, Edward needed Godwin as much as Godwin needed Edward. The two formed an uneasy alliance. It was to be another ten years before Edward was able to break away, and then only temporarily, from the influence of the Godwin family.
Edward's attitude to his mother was a different story. Smug, no doubt, at her ultimate triumph over Ælfgifu of Northampton, Emma must have hoped that she would retain her position as a wealthy and influential queen mother. Edward had different plans; he disliked and distrusted her. Harthacanute had been her favourite all along; wriggle as she might, it was probably her own foolhardiness that had led to the death of his full brother Alfred; and for Edward himself she had persistently done less than he wanted. As soon as he was in a position of sufficient power, Edward rode from Gloucester to Winchester with Earl Godwin and others, and taking Emma by surprise, seized her many treasures and disgraced her. She was allowed to live out the remainder of her days - which extended for another nine years - quietly at the palace in Winchester. She played no more active role in the affairs of England. Emma died in 1052, and was buried alongside her second husband Canute in old Winchester Cathedral.
So ended the story of bitter rivalry that engulfed two of the most powerful women of their age. The thrust of the argument of this chapter has been that the lady depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry is Ælfgifu of Northampton, whose eventful life in England, Denmark and Norway we have recalled. But why should the artist of the tapestry have broken off his tale of Harold and William in order to allude to an old scandal that had ceased to be relevant after 1040, when the last of Ælfgifu's bastards died? McNulty, who first proposed that the Northampton lady was Ælfgyva, argued that the reason for Ælfgifu of Northampton's portrayal at this point in the tapestry was to undermine the Norwegian claim to the English throne.21 But the Norwegian claim to England rested upon a treaty that was said to have been entered into in the late 1030s between Harthacanute and King Magnus of Norway. Under the terms of this treaty each agreed that the other would inherit his kingdom should he die childless. Harthacanute was the legitimate son of Emma and Canute; the bastardy and low birth of his half-brothers Swein and Harold Harefoot would have had no bearing on this treaty and, therefore, no bearing on the Norwegian claim in 1066. Nor would the fact that the Norwegians had ousted Swein from their kingdom in 1035 affect the terms of Harthacanute's treaty with Magnus, which was made in or shortly before 1039. Moreover, at the time that the tapestry was made the Norwegian claim was not an issue. Harold's victory at Stamford Bridge had seen to that.
What, then, could be the true reason for making an allusion to the scandal of Ælfgifu of Northampton at this point in the Bayeux Tapestry? The import of the scene remains enigmatic; the answer can only be guessed. A principal contention of this book is that Count Eustace II of Boulogne is a much more important person in the tapestry than has conventionally been thought. He may even have been its patron. To depict the scandal of Ælfgifu is not simply to hold her up for vilification and amusement, it is to vilify the product of her illicit connivances, Swein and Harold Harefoot. It is to remind those observers of the eleventh century who knew of the matter that Swein and Harefoot were of low and illicit birth (those who did not know would simply be amused by the enigma). Indeed, the most obvious way, and perhaps the only way, of illustrating ignominious birth, purely pictorially, is to make an allusion to the parent. If the true point of the scene is to show up the bad blood of Swein and Harefoot, the chief point of that must have been to vilify Harold Harefoot in particular.22 It was Harold Harefoot who was primarily responsible for the terrible murders of Alfred and so many men of Boulogne in 1036. This was something that directly affected Count Eustace. Whatever he thought of Earl Godwin, the vilification of Harefoot would not have been inimical to his own viewpoint.
Nor would it be inimical to a point of view more favourable to the memory of Earl Godwin, for it singles out for vilification, not Godwin, but, by implication Harefoot. Harold, like his father, would presumably have argued that Harefoot alone was responsible for the crimes of 1036. At any rate, to show up Harefoot in the tapestry represents common ground between a Boulonnais and a more Godwinist point of view on the grisly matter of Alfred's murder and the slaughter of the men of Boulogne. Perhaps the artist's intention was to do no more than that.