Ӕlfgyva: The Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is the famous pictorial depiction of the Norman Conquest of 1066, and of the events of the two years leading up to it. Commissioned in the 1070s, probably by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, rather than a woven tapestry, the work is in fact an embroidery. Started within ten years of the Norman Conquest it is a near-contemporary narrative of the events that changed England forever. It is told from the viewpoint of the victorious Normans, but with a sympathetic view of the English, at times. It begins in 1064 with Harold’s journey to Normandy, his meeting with Duke William and campaigning in Brittany, followed by the controversial oath-swearing; it then follows Harold’s return to England and his coronation following the death of Edward the Confessor, before concentrating on William’s preparations for invasion and the Battle of Hastings itself; the missing end panels may have included King William’s coronation.

As a prime example of how women have been given little or no part in the story of the Norman Conquest, out of 626 human figures, there are only three women who appear in the main narrative of the Bayeux Tapestry. One of these is easily identifiable as Edward the Confessor’s queen, Edith of Wessex, attending her husband on his deathbed. Another scene, as the Normans land on the shores of England, shows a woman and her child fleeing from a burning house, set alight by the invaders – possibly King Harold’s first wife, Edith Swanneck. The most intriguing woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, appears in one scene when Harold is in Normandy in 1064. She is identified as ‘Ӕlfgyva’, the name sewn into the tapestry above her head. However, the scene does not appear to be related in any way to the scenes either before or after and has therefore caused much discussion and theorising among historians.

Ӕlfgyva appears to be in a doorway, possibly as a suggestion that she was indoors, with a priest touching her cheek. Whether the touch is in admonishment or blessing is open to interpretation, some take it is a collaboration of some sort between the two. Written in Latin as ‘Ubi unus clericus et Ӕlfgyva’, the inscription simply reads, ‘Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva’. Incomplete, the phrase fails to identify Ӕlfgyva or the priest, nor the context in which the two are together. In the borders, at Ӕlfgyva’s feet, is a naked man, imitating the stance of the cleric, perhaps placed there to indicate some kind of scandal associated with the lady.

As this is the only scene in the entire Bayeux Tapestry in which the woman is the leading character and considering that she is only one of three women depicted in the whole embroidery, the story which is depicted must be of some significance to the story of the Norman Conquest. But who was the mysterious Ӕlfgyva? Unfortunately, we are not without a substantial number of potential candidates who could be identified as Ӕlfgyva; Ӕlfgyva and its variants, Ӕlfgiva, Ӕlfgyfu, Ӕlfgifu and Elgiva, were popular names in England in the eleventh century. Indeed, Emma of Normandy’s name was changed to Ӕlfgifu on her marriage to King Ӕthelred II (often referred to as ‘the Unready’) and, just to make matters more confusing Ӕthelred’s first wife was also called Ӕlfgifu. Many historians have their own favourite theories for the identity of Ӕlfgyva; the numerous possible candidates include Emma herself, a sister of King Harold and the first, handfast wife of King Cnut. Each possibility comes with her own reasons for being the mysterious Ӕlfgyva, and her own claim for inclusion in the tapestry that tells the story of the Norman Conquest.

Several theories can be easily discounted. In the 18th century, it was suggested that ‘Ӕlfgyva’ translated to mean ‘queen’ and the image was therefore of a clerk informing Queen Matilda that King William had promised one of their daughters as a bride for Harold of Wessex. Of course, in 1064, Matilda was not queen, and so ‘Ӕlfgyva’ would have to translate as ‘duchess’.  In the 19th century, it was suggested that the scene depicted the daughter of Matilda and William being informed of her betrothal. This theory ignores the fact that Matilda and William did not have a daughter with the name Ӕlfgyva. A final, easily discounted theory is that the lady is Ealdgyth, Harold’s future queen, receiving the news of Harold’s rescue, either from the shipwreck or from the clutches of Count Guy of Ponthieu, by Duke William. This is meant to demonstrate Harold’s dishonesty in agreeing to marry a daughter of Duke William while he has a betrothed waiting at home. The fact is that there is no evidence that Harold was betrothed to Ealdgyth any earlier than late 1065 or early 1066. In fact, we do not know when Harold and Ealdgyth were betrothed or married, but it is likely to have happened shortly before, or during, his kingship, when he needed the support of the Earls Edwin and Morcar, Ealdgyth’s brothers. 

Ӕthelred II’s second wife is a candidate who does merit closer investigation. Emma of Normandy was the wife of Ӕthelred from the spring of 1002 until his death in 1016. In 1017, however, she married Ӕthelred’s nemesis and eventual successor, Cnut. Emma had three children by her first husband, Alfred, Edward and Goda, or Godgifu. She had three further children by King Cnut; Harthacnut, Gunhilda and an unnamed daughter who died as a child, aged 8. Emma’s name had been changed to Ӕlfgifu on her marriage to Ӕthelred and she was a prominent figure at the English court, having been crowned and anointed queen after the wedding ceremony. Emma gained even more prominence in the reign of King Cnut, who married her soon after he took the crown. Cnut appears to have trusted Emma a great deal and is known to have left his treasury with her, as did her son, Harthacnut.

As Cnut’s wife, Emma served to provide a link between Ӕthelred’s ancient dynasty of Wessex, dating back to King Alfred and beyond, and the new Danish dynasty of Cnut. As Cnut’s queen, until his death in 1035, her position appeared unassailable. That changed, however, when Cnut died and was succeeded by his sons as co-regents. With Harthacnut fighting in Denmark, Emma was left isolated and Harold I Harefoot moved against her. Emma was banished from England, and Harold seized control of the whole country. Following Harold’s death in 1040, Emma and her son returned unopposed and Harthacnut finally claimed the crown. Her triumph was short-lived, however, as Harthacnut collapsed and died at a wedding in 1042, and was replaced as king by his older, half-brother, Edward. Edward was also a son of Queen Emma, but his relationship with his mother was far less cordial. Having been exiled in Normandy for twenty-five years, while his mother sat beside Cnut on the English throne for much of that time, Edward held a great deal of resentment for his Emma.

Emma’s lands and property were all taken from her. The Dowager Queen’s close friend and advisor, Stigand, newly consecrated as bishop of East Anglia, shared in Emma’s disgrace and was stripped of office and ‘they took all that he had into their hands for the king, because he was nighest the counsel of his mother; and she acted as he advised, as men supposed’. Taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this shows that Edward thought that Stigand had encouraged Emma in her perceived maltreatment of her only surviving son. It was probably as a result of this incident that various legends arose over Emma’s disgrace.

One story, appearing only two centuries later, suggested that Emma’s relationship with Bishop Stigand was far more than that of a queen and her advisor and that he was, in fact, her lover. The story continues that Emma chose to prove her innocence in a trial by ordeal, and that she walked barefoot over white-hot ploughshares. Even though the tale varies depending on the source, the result is the same; when she completed the ordeal unharmed, and was thus proven guiltless, she was reconciled with her contrite son, Edward. Emma appears to have never recovered fully from the depredations placed on her. Both she and Stigand seem to have been reconciled, to some extent, with Edward’s regime by 1044 but she never again enjoyed the status to which she had become accustomed during the reigns of Cnut and Harthacnut.

If Emma were the Ӕlfgyva/Ӕlfgifu of the Bayeux Tapestry, this story could well explain her inclusion, especially if the touch of the cleric in the Ӕlfgyva scene is that of a tender lover, rather than an admonishing priest. However, there are several reasons for discarding Emma as the candidate. The first instance of the story of Emma and Stigand as lovers appears two or three hundred years after her death, and there is no contemporary evidence of an affair that would have been the scandal of the decade, if not the century. Given that many of the chroniclers of the time were not averse to including such stories, it seems strange that they were all silent on the subject; unless, of course, the whole incident was a 14th century fabrication. Another argument against the theory is that Emma’s affair with Bishop Stigand, even in the unlikely event that it happened, would have had little bearing on the Norman Conquest, and would therefore be unlikely to merit inclusion in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Another leading possibility for the identity of the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry is Ӕlfgifu of Northampton. Ӕlfgifu was the first wife of King Cnut, whom he had married as a handfast wife, in the Danish fashion rather than in a church. She was born around 990, into a prominent and influential Midlands family. It was possibly as a love-match, but also as part of the policy of Cnut’s father, King Sweyn Forkbeard, to establish himself in the midlands, that Ӕlfgifu was married to Cnut sometime between 1013 and 1016. The couple had two sons, Swein and Harold Harefoot. Swein would later be sent by his father to rule Norway, with his mother as regent, but was driven out by the Norwegians following years of misrule. He died in Denmark and Ӕlfgifu returned to England and her only surviving son, Harold I Harefoot who was crowned as sole king in 1037.

If Ӕlfgifu is the woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, then she is probably there in reference to a scandal that was spoken about even in her lifetime, in that Ӕlfgifu was so desperate to have a son by Cnut that she, with the help of a monk, passed off the new-born son a serving maid as her own child; Swein. Similar was said of Ӕlfgifu’s second son by Cnut, Harold I Harefoot, in the Anglo-Saxon Chonicle, which reported that, ‘some men said of Harold that he was son of King Cnut and Ӕlfgifu, daughter of Ealdorman Ӕlfhelm, but to many men it seemed quite unbelievable’. The scandalous stories arose after Cnut’s death in 1035, when Ӕlfgifu was back in England, working to establish the rule of her son, Harold Harefoot, as king. In another version of the tale, the monk had fathered the children himself. The stories may have been mere propaganda used to discredit Ӕlfgifu and cast doubts on the legitimacy of Harold and, therefore, his right to rule as Cnut’s successor.

The main question arising from the theory that Ӕlfgifu of Northampton is the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry would be the relevance of a scandal that had arisen more than thirty years earlier. It has been argued that both William and Harold would view the scandal as propaganda, to discredit any claims by the Norwegians, such as Harald Hardrada, to the English throne. The naked men in the margins of the scene, one of whom is swinging an axe, are used as further evidence that it was Ӕlfgifu’s scandalous behavior to which the tapestry is referring. However, the fact that both of Ӕlfgifu’s sons died without heirs and that, therefore, there were no claimants descended from her to contest the throne in 1066, makes Ӕlfgifu’s inclusion – if, indeed it is Ӕlfgifu – rather redundant.  

My own leading candidate for Ӕlfgyva is a woman of a different name, but whose story included a scandal that would have been relevant to Harold of Wessex and his hostages. This lady was Eadgifu, or Eadgyva, who was Abbess of Leominster in 1046. Eadgifu’s story is told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when she came under the power of Swein Godwinson, oldest son of Earl Godwin and Countess Gytha. Swein, had been given an earldom made up from lands in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Somerset in 1043. In 1046 he had been campaigning in south Wales alongside Gruffydd, King of Gwynedd. The military campaign had ended successfully, with Swein receiving hostages for the good faith of the Welsh. On his return homeward, Swein stopped at Leominster, which was owned by the abbey of Leominster and administered by its abbess, Eadgifu. Swein abducted Eadgifu, probably in order to gain control of Leominster’s vast estates in Herefordshire. However, the king refused to give his permission for Swein and Eadgifu to marry; the pious King Edward the Confessor was understandably horrified at the idea of Swein marrying an abbess, a woman who had dedicated her life to God. Thwarted in his plans, Swein released Eadgifu after he had held her for some considerable time, possibly as long as a year.

As a result of his actions, which were considered not only criminal but sacrilegious in the eyes of the church, Swein was forced to flee England. A few months later, Swein returned to England, but was exiled again for the murder of his cousin, Beorn Estrithson. He was eventually forgiven and allowed to return home. When the feud between Earl Godwin’s family and the king arose in 1051, Earl Godwin and Swein were forced to give up hostages to the king, each handing over a son, Wulfnoth for Godwin and Hakon for Swein. Rather than face the witan, Godwin and his family chose to go into exile at the end on 1051 and only returned to England in the spring of 1052. Swein would never return as he had left on barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem and died on his homeward journey. The two hostages, however, were not restored to the family and are thought to have been sent to Normandy, possibly as a way to guarantee the future cooperation of the Godwin family.

It is possible that the union between Eadgifu and Swein resulted in a son, Hakon. It is not entirely certain that Hakon was the son of Eadgifu, but it does seem likely, as no other wife or concubine of Swein’s is mentioned in the chronicles. If he was the son of Eadgifu and Swein, the child would have been five or six years old when he was taken as a hostage to Normandy in 1052. If Eadgifu was the mother of Hakon it would not only explain her presence in the Bayeux Tapestry, but also the inclusion of Ӕlfgyva (Eadgifu) and her cleric in that part of the tapestry. Although there is no direct mention of these hostages in the tapestry, the scene immediately before the Ӕlfgyva scene is that of Harold arriving at Duke William’s court; and one of the possible reasons for Harold’s presence at William’s court was the recovery of the hostages, Eadgifu’s son included. Given the disgrace that Eadgifu must have faced, as an abbess having given birth to an illegitimate child, and the fact the child was only five years old when he was taken to Normandy as a hostage, it is not implausible that his mother accompanied him, and therefore is included in the Bayeux Tapestry as Hakon, no longer a valuable hostage given that his father had been dead for over ten years, was allowed to return to England with Earl Harold.

There is one major flaw in this argument, and that is the confusion of names, Eadgifu and Ӕlfgyva are similar but very different names and it is hard to imagine that someone would make such a big mistake on so important an undertaking as the Bayeux Tapestry; although not implausible, given that Harold’s brother, Leofwine, is identified as Lewine on another portion of the tapestry. We do not know, moreover, that Eadgifu ever accompanied her son to Normandy, or visited him there while he was a hostage. However, Eadgifu’s story, the scandal associated with her abduction by Swein and the presence of her son in Normandy, still makes her a contender. The scene with the cleric could well be him giving her a blessing on her return to England, or an admonition on the fact she had a child out of wedlock – and while she was an abbess who had given her life to God. Despite the disparity in names, the fact that she had links to Normandy through her son, and that her story was associated with Harold’s visit to Normandy and the request for the hostages to be freed, gives her a relevance to the tapestry and makes her one of the most plausible candidates for Ӕlfgyva.

Despite the many possibilities and theories surrounding Ӕlfgyva and her cleric, their identities and the reason for their inclusion in the Bayeux Tapestry, one fact remains; no definitive explanation is forthcoming. It is not beyond reason that the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry is none of the ladies I have suggested, but someone else entirely who, in the passage of nearly a millennium, has been lost in the fogs of time. The story may well have been a familiar one at the time the tapestry was created, and no explanation beyond ‘Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva’ may have been needed to identify the protagonists to viewers in the eleventh century.

Today, however, the story and the identity of the players continues to elude us…

Historical Writers Forum hosted a fabulous debate on ‘Ӕlfgyva’: The Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is available on YouTube. Hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson, it features myself, Pat Bracewell, Carol McGrath and Paula Lofting.

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Images:

Courtesy of Flickr and Wikipedia

Sources:

A Historical Document Pierre Bouet and François Neveux, bayeuxmuseum.com/en/un_document_historique_en; The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by Paula Lofting, annabelfrage.qordpress.com; Ӕlfgyva: The Mysterious lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by M.W. Campbell, Annales de Normandie; The Bayeux Tapestry, the Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks; Æthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready] (c. 966×8-1016) (article) by Simon Keynes, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; Britain’s Royal Families; the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Queen Emma and the Vikings: The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066 by Harriet O’Brien; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; Swein [Sweyn], earl by Ann Williams, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com, 23 September 2004; Ӕlfgifu [Ӕlfgifu of Northampton (fl. 1006-1036) (article) by Pauline Stafford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester, A.M; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton.

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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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Emma of Normandy, Queen of England

Detail of Emma of Normandy before an altar

In the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of 1066 one woman, in particular, stands out as the matriarch of the period: Emma of Normandy.

As wife of both Æthelred II and King Cnut, Emma of Normandy was the lynchpin of the story of the 11th century. As a Norman, and the mother of both a Danish king of England and a Saxon King of England, it was Emma who bound all three sides together in the conflict of 1066. Her story is suitably dramatic; with exile, tragedy and scandal all playing their part, starkly contrasting with the wealth and privilege of her role as the only twice-crowned Queen of England.

Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Gunnora. Born in around 985/987, she was married to Æthelred at Winchester on 5 April 1002, at which time she was given the English name Ælfgifu, although in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle she is often referred to, simply, as ‘The Lady’. Her marriage with Æthelred was an attempt to seal a peace between England and Normandy, and to persuade the Normans not to allow the Viking raiders, who tormented England’s shores, to winter in their lands between raids into England. Despite the fact the Vikings continued to shelter in Normandy every winter, and raiding into England continued throughout the early years of the 11th century, the marriage was a success in that it produced two more sons and a daughter for Æthelred; a second family considering he was the father of as many as thirteen children by his first wife, Ælfgifu of York, including at least six sons.

Edward the Confessor

Of Emma and Æthelred’s two sons the eldest, Edward, would eventually succeed his half-brother, Harthacnut, to the English throne in 1042, ruling until his death on 5 January 1066. Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, was cruelly murdered during the reign of his step-brother, Harold I Harefoot. Harold was the son of Cnut by his first, handfast wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Alfred had arrived in England in 1036, ostensibly to visit his mother, though there are also theories that he intended to mount a challenge for the throne, and was welcomed by Earl Godwin of Wessex. However, his party were ambushed whilst being entertained by Godwin and Alfred was seized and taken to the abbey at Ely in Cambridgeshire, where he was later blinded and either murdered, or succumbed to his wounds. Either way, he died on 5 February 1037 and was buried in Ely Cathedral. Edward and Alfred’s sister, Goda (or Godgifu), was married firstly to Drogo, Count of Mantes and, secondly to Eustace II, Count of Boulogne. One of her sons by Drogo, Ralph, was made Earl of Hereford by his uncle, Edward, but earned himself the insulting nickname Ralph the Timid after fleeing the Welsh in battle.

As the Viking raids increased from 1010 onwards, Æthelred’s position on the throne proved precarious and he sent his wife and her young sons to Normandy for safety, before being forced into exile there himself in 1013, when Sweyn Forkbeard seized the throne. Sweyn’s death early in 1014 offered Æthelred a way back and he sent Edward to England to negotiate his return with the English Witan, who invited Æthelred to resume the throne ‘if he would govern them better than he did before’.1 Despite his promises, Æthelred proved just as inept as previously, failing to defeat the Danish invaders, led by Cnut. Æthelred died just two years later, on 23 April 1016 (ironically, St George’s Day), and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund II Ironside. Although Edmund put up a valiant fight against the Danish invaders, led by Cnut, a summer of fighting took its toll and he died on 30 November 1016.

Coin from the reign of Harthacnut

Cnut took control of the whole of England and one of his first actions was to send for Emma, who he married on 2 July 1017. Although Emma appears to have had little influence during the reign of her first husband, her marriage with Cnut appears to have been a partnership. She was a more visible figure in public, enjoying considerable influence at court and offering substantial patronage to the church. She gave Cnut three children including a son, Harthacnut, and two daughters, one who’s name is lost, died aged 8 and is buried in Bosham, Sussex. A second daughter, Gunhilda, married Henry III, Emperor of Germany.

When Cnut died in 1035 Emma was in England and retired to her manor in Winchester, taking the royal treasury with her in the hope she could pass it to her son, Harthacnut. However, Harthacnut was in Denmark and it was Harold Harefoot, one of Cnut’s sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton, who seized the initiative. An agreement was reached whereby the half-brothers ruled as co-kings with Emma acting for Harthacnut and ruling in Wessex. However, two years later Harthacnut had still not returned to England and Harold took the crown for himself, driving Emma into exile with Count Baldwin in Flanders.

Genealogical table of Cnut, Harold I and Harthacnut

Harthacnut appears to have been, by far, Emma’s favourite child. It was for his accession to the English throne that she schemed, rather than for her eldest son, Edward. In the early months of 1040 she and Harthacnut were preparing to invade England when they heard of Harold’s death. Harthacnut succeeded to the English throne without a fight and a year later invited his half-brother Edward, who had spent almost 25 years in Norman exile, to join him in England as his successor.

Harthacnut reigned for just ten days short of two years, he died after collapsing during a wedding celebration at Lambeth. He was buried alongside his father in the old minster at Winchester and Emma gave the head of St Valentine to the new minster for her son’s soul. Emma’s relationship with Edward, however, was more strained than that she experienced with Harthacnut. Years of separation and a strong sense of abandonment on Edward’s part cannot have helped the situation. Following his coronation in 1043, one of Edward’s first actions was to ride to Winchester and take charge of the Treasury, which had been left in his mother’s hands by Harthacnut. Accompanied by the three greatest earls of his realm – Siward, Godwin and Leofric – ‘they deprived her of all the treasure that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king…’2

Emma’s friend and close adviser, Bishop Stigand, was deprived of his bishopric, although he was later reinstated and created Bishop of Winchester. He eventually rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury but was removed from office by William the Conqueror. However, at the time of her disgrace, Emma and Stigand’s close relationship gave rise to a later legend that they were more than friends and that Emma was accused of adultery with Stigand (although the 13th century story claimed the bishop’s name was Ælfwine). There is no contemporary evidence of the story, however, and it first appears more than 100 years after the Conquest. As the story went, Emma was accused of adultery and required to walk across red-hot ploughshares in order to prove her innocence. Being neither cut nor burned by the instruments she was declared innocent. As a consequence, Emma was welcomed back into the royal circle by a contrite Edward.

Winchester Cathedral

Although the story is almost certainly a fabrication, Emma was eventually reconciled with Edward, although she enjoyed a much less exalted position as the king’s mother than she had when Harthacnut reigned. She eventually retired to her own estates, living away from the limelight until her death on 6 March 1052. She was buried in the old minster at Winchester, alongside her second husband, Cnut and her favourite son, Harthacnut. Emma’s story forms the basis for the book Encomium Emmae Reginae, possibly commissioned by Emma herself, which provides a significant insight into English politics for the first half of the 11th century.

Emma had played a pivotal role in English politics in the first half of the 11th century, the effects of which would lead to the fateful events of 1066. She helped to shape the events from which the unique situation of the Norman Conquest would arise.  A prominent figure, particularly in the reigns of Cnut and Harthacnut, she was the most distinguished woman of her time. More than any other single person, Emma’s story provides the background to the Norman Conquest through the political and personal relationships formed in the first half of the 11th century.

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Footnotes: 1The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; 2ibid.

Picture credits: Detail of Emma of Normandy before an altar courtesy of the British Library; Edward the confessor courtesy of Wikipedia; coin from the reign of Harthacnut, courtesy of Hedning, taken from Wikipedia; Genealogical table of Cnut, Harold I and Harthacnut from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, British Library; Winchester Cathedral courtesy of Anne Marie Bouchard.

Sources: The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  AmazonBookshop.org and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Bookshop.org and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Dreadful Fate of Alfred the Aetheling

Emma fleeing England with Edward and Alfred, following the invasion of Sweyn Forkbeard

Alfred the Ætheling was the younger son of Æthelred II the Unready and his second wife, Emma of Normandy.

Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Gunnora. Born in around 985/987, she was married to Æthelred at Winchester on 5 April 1002, at which time she was given the English name Ælfgifu, although in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle she is often referred to, simply, as ‘The Lady’. Her marriage with Æthelred was an attempt to seal a peace between England and Normandy, and to persuade the Normans not to allow the Viking raiders to winter in their lands between raids into England. Although the Vikings continued to shelter in Normandy during the winter, and raiding into England continued throughout the early years of the 11th century, the marriage was a success in that it produced two more sons and a daughter for Æthelred; a second family considering he was the father of as many as thirteen children by his first wife, Ælfgifu of York, including at least six sons.

Of Emma and Æthelred’s two sons the eldest, Edward, would eventually succeed to the English throne following the death of his half-brother, Harthacnut, son of Emma by her second husband, King Cnut. Edward became king in 1042 and ruled until his death on 5 January 1066, leaving the crown on his deathbed to the ill-fated Harold II Godwinson. Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, however, was to suffer a rather different fate.

Alfred was born sometime before 1012 and styled ætheling, or throne-worthy, although he had numerous older brothers also holding that title. However, whilst still a young child, his father’s hold on the kingdom was becoming ever more precarious. By 1013 Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard was gaining victory after victory. Emma and her children were sent to safety in her native Normandy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

‘the Lady then turned across the sea to her brother Richard, and Ӕlfsige, abbot of Peterborough with her. And the king sent Bishop Ӕlfhun across the sea with the ӕthelings Edward and Alfred in order that he should look after them.’¹

Ӕthelred spent Christmas on the Isle of Wight, before joining his family in Normandy as Sweyn consolidated his victory. The Dane’s ascendancy was short-lived however, as he died after a fall from his horse on 3 February 1014. His death gave Ӕthelred a way back to his kingdom and he sent Edward to England to negotiate his return with the English Witan, who invited Æthelred to resume the throne ‘if he would govern them better than he did before’.¹ Unfortunately, despite his promises, Æthelred proved just as inept as before, failing to defeat the Danish invaders, led by Sweyn’s son Cnut. The beleaguered Æthelred died just two years later, on 23 April 1016, and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund II Ironside. Although Edmund put up a valiant fight against the Danish invaders, a summer of fighting took its toll and he died on 30 November 1016, probably from wounds received in the recent string of battles. The rumours of murder by a sword thrust into the bowels as Edmund visited the latrine, only arose centuries later.

Emma, with Edward and Alfred, welcomed to the Norman court by Duke Richard II

Alfred and his brother Edward, again, sought in exile in Normandy, as Cnut consolidated his control on the whole of England.. One of the new king’s first actions was to send for their mother Emma, who he married on 2 July 1017. Marrying Emma was a sensible move for Cnut, she was a link to the old regime and provided a sense of continuity for England’s conquered people. How much choice had in accepting the most powerful man in the country as her husband, we do not know; she may have thought it the only way of ensuring Cnut did not pursue the deaths of her sons in exile. Emma gave Cnut three children including a son, Harthacnut, and two daughters; one, who’s name is lost, died aged 8 and is buried in Bosham, Sussex. A second daughter, Gunhilda, married Henry III, Emperor of Germany.

When Cnut died in 1035 Emma was in England and retired to her manor in Winchester, taking the royal treasury with her, in the hope she could pass it to her son, Harthacnut. However, Harthacnut was in Denmark and it was Harold Harefoot, one of Cnut’s two sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton, who seized the initiative. An agreement was reached whereby the half-brothers ruled as co-kings with Emma acting for Harthacnut, in his absence, and ruling in Wessex.

As it was, in 1036 Harold was accepted as England’s ruler, Harthacnut was ruling in Denmark and Emma was living on her estates in Winchester. Emma faced tragedy, however, when her son Alfred arrived in England. The ætheling was probably approaching thirty years of age and had been living in exile in Normandy for the last twenty years, arrived in England. According to Norman sources, it was Edward who had first tried to join their mother in Winchester in 1036, sailing up the Solent and winning a battle near Southampton before returning to Normandy with his plunder. It was after this that Alfred attempted to visit his mother in Winchester, but many feared he would make a play for the crown.

However, before he had the chance to see Emma, the ӕtheling was welcomed by Earl Godwin, taken to Godwin’s estate at Guildford, where he was seized and taken to Ely. At Ely he was blinded; blinding was a symbolic gesture aimed at destroying his worth as a king.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle retold the tale in rhyme:

Detail of Queen Emma before an altar

‘But then Godwine stopped him, and set him in captivity,

and drove off his companions, and some variously killed;

some of them were sold for money, some cruelly destroyed,

some of them were fettered, some of them were blinded,

some maimed, some scalped.

No more horrible deed was done in this country

since the Danes came and made peace here.

Now we must trust to the dear God

that they who, without blame, were so wretchedly destroyed

rejoice happily with Christ.

The ӕtheling still lived; he was threatened with every evil;

until it was decided that he be led

to Ely town, fettered thus.

As soon as he came on ship he was blinded,

and blind thus brought to the monks.

And there he dwelt as long as he lived.

Afterwards he was buried, as well befitted him,

full honourably, as he was entitled,

at the west end, very near at hand to the steeple,

in the south side-chapel. His soul is with Christ.²

Emma’s own biography, the Encomium Emmae Reginae tells the story slightly differently, saying that Harold Harefoot forged a letter from Emma to her son, which claimed that the English would prefer Edward or Alfred as king, enticing Alfred to come to England and claim the crown. It does seem likely that Alfred received such a letter, but it may well have come from Emma herself, who sought to lay the blame on Harold when the expedition failed so abysmally.

Edward the Confessor, taken from the Bayeux Tapestry

The sources are confusing over what exactly happened. Some state that when Alfred arrived in England, he was met by Earl Godwin, who swore fealty to him and established the ætheling at Guildford, but then Harold attacked in the night and took Alfred to Ely, where he was tried, blinded, killed and buried. While others suggest that Godwin betrayed Alfred and handed him over to King Harold. Either way, the result is always the same; Alfred was blinded and either intentionally killed or died from wounds caused by his blinding, on Harold’s orders, with or without the connivance of Godwin in late 1036 or early 1037.³ This one potential threat to Harold’s crown was thus eliminated and buried in Ely.

Emma must have been relieved that at least Edward had remained safe in Normandy. Despite the fact she had not seen him for many years, the loss of Alfred must have been a cruel blow to his mother. His brothers, moreover, did not forget Alfred’s fate. On his accession in 1040, Harthacnut pursued the prosecution of Godwin and Lyfing, the Bishop of Worcester and Crediton who had also been implicated in Alfred’s death, for Alfred’s murder. Lyfing was deprived of his see in punishment. Godwin gave the king a warship carrying eighty fighting men as appeasement – an expensive sweetener – and swore that he had not wanted the prince blinded and that whatever he had done had been on the orders of King Harold.

Like Harthacnut, Edward was never convinced of Godwin’s innocence, a fact which added to the increasing distrust and conflict between the king and his most powerful earl in the first ten years of Edward’s reign. Indeed, when the Godwin family and Edward quarrelled in 1051, it was Edward’s demand to have his brother returned to him that made Earl Godwin realise there would be no rapprochement; the earl sailed into exile in Flanders with his family. When he did manage to negotiate his return the following year, Edward and Godwin were still wary of each other. Moreover, when Godwin died at Winchester 1052, having collapsed during the Easter feast to entertain the king, a story arose that Godwin had called on God to choke him with a mouthful of cake if he were guilty of Alfred’s murder. Needless to say, Earl Godwin collapsed on the floor the very next moment. Though it is a great moral story, there is probably little truth in it, and it is likely we will never know the extent of Godwin’s guilt, or innocence.

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Footnotes: ¹The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James ingram; ²The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; ³Alfred Ætheling (article) by M.K.Lawson, oxforddnb.com

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except Queen Emma, courtesy of British Library.

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.

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