Aelfgyva: The Mysterious Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry
By M.W. Campbell
Annales de Normandie, Vol: 34:2 (1984)
Introduction: The Bayeux Tapestry, long recognized as a significant legacy of the Middle Ages, is a treasure not alone for its intrinsic artistic merit but also as a historical source of major importance. A near contemporary pictorial narrative of the background to and the course of the Norman Conquest from 1064 to the triumph of Duke William at Hastings, its many panels have been meticulously examined by generations of scholars, each of its hundreds of figures, decorative embellishments and fifty-seven terse Latin inscriptions closely scrutinized for whatever information they might yield regarding that momentous event. Yet, in spite of the intense study devoted to the Tapestry, uncertainties remain concerning both its place of origin and the tale woven into it.
One of the most intriguing of these puzzles centers upon a scene in that initial segment of the Tapestry treating with Earl Harold Godwinson’s famed and controversial visit to the court of the Norman duke. Beneath an ornate gateway is portrayed a woman confronted by a tonsured cleric who, perhaps in anger, perhaps out of affection, is touching her face. The inscription immediately above the scene states simply and enigmatically only Ubi unus clericus et Aelfgyva — “Here a certain clerk and Aelfgyva”. There is no indication as to who Aelfgyva, who appears nowhere else in the Tapestry, may have been or why she or the unnamed cleric merited inclusion in the story woven into that work. As this is the only panel in the Tapestry in which a woman serves as the focal point — indeed, one of the very rare occasions when a woman is depicted anywhere in that work — her role in the episode represented must have been viewed by the designer as significant. While the scene has been studied by many scholars over the years the questions it raises have yet to find satisfactory answers, leading a number of historians to conclude that the ‘mysterious Aelfgyva’s’ appearance probably referred to some incident, perhaps one of a scandalous nature, associated with Harold’s trip to Normandy which, while well known to contemporaries, “has long since been forgotten”.
That no convincing solution as to the identity of Aelfgyva or the reason for her presence in the Tapestry has been found, has not been due to a want of theories. Indeed, a survey of the various studies made of the Tapestry in the last two centuries reveals that no less than a dozen different women have been proposed, albeit sometimes hesitantly, as having been the perplexing lady of the fabric. Several members of the duke’s family have been mentioned, as have two sisters and an alleged daughter of Harold. Eadgyth, the widow of King Gruffydd ap Llewelyn of North Wales and, at some undetermined date, the bride of Harold, has been suggested, as has been her mother.
Nominated, too, has been Aelfgifu-Emma, the mother of King Edward the Confessor and queen, in turn, of Kings Aethelred the Redeless and Canute the Great. Aristocratic birth, it might be observed, hat not been a requirement for consideration as the elusive lady, for it has been theorized that the woman portrayed may have simply been an embroidress receiving instructions from a cleric to begin work on the Tapestry. Most recently it has been argued strongly that Aelfgifu of Northampton, Canute the Great’s mistress and the mother of his sons Sweyn and King Harold Harefoot, is the most logical choice as the mysterious Aelfgyva.