© Michael Leete 2005
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The action in the Tapestry is rapid and continuous except where the designer deliberately slows down the spectator's eye. There are three devices used to do this. Sometimes the border is used; sometimes a reversal of direction and, more frequently, there is a form of punctuation between the scenes in the shape of trees or redundant buildings. The skill of the designer is breath-taking in this respect and, perhaps, not even yet fully appreciated. We easily assume that the designer was a man, but a woman cannot be ruled out, particularly if Matilda is accepted as the patron. Above all, the designer was a native Norman. Historians have asserted that the designer was a man because of what they delicately term the indelicacies. They have asserted that he was Norman because of his precise knowledge of horses, weapons and armour. Of course, any Anglo-Saxon artist will have seen the Norman soldiers swaggering about his home town more than enough to be familiar with their equipment and many artists, like police Identikit artists, can draw what they are told until their informant is satisfied. The principal reason why the designer was more likely to have been Norman than Anglo-Saxon is simply one of language. It cannot be denied that the patron was one of the newly enriched Normans for whom communication in Anglo-Saxon would have been more difficult than communication in latin! And we can safely assume that neither the designer nor the patron spoke scholarly or clerical latin from the quality of the inscriptions in the finished Tapestry. Therefore, the patron gave instructions in Norman French and the designer, evidently, understood precisely.
The first phase, or chapter, in the story of the Tapestry goes up to Ælfgyva (Panels 1-39). Immediately after Ælfgyva there is a small tower that divides her scene from a complete change of subject. The beginning of the expedition to Brittany. Within the chapter, the other pauses are little more than the ends of paragraphs. At the first, Harold arrives in Bosham with his hawk, his dogs and his companions. A tree, or two trees intertwined, signal a pause while the hawk, the dogs and the companions are parked before (perhaps on the next day) Harold and his friend enter an odd-looking church (Panel 4). It seems to be universally accepted that they went in to pray for a safe voyage. If this were the case, then not only were their prayers not answered as they might have hoped but this scene is virtual proof that bishop Odo was not the patron. Harold is portrayed entering a church with imminent prayer implied. Nowhere in the Tapestry is William shown at prayer! William claimed papal backing for his invasion; his half-brother - the bishop - was with him all the way and we hear that the whole Norman army spent the night before the battle of Hastings in making their confessions and receiving the sacrament. Furthermore, William attended a Mass administered by both bishops just before leaving Hastings. How is it that William's half-brother, the bishop, did not think William's public piety worth recording in the Tapestry either in a public display at Bayeux Cathedral or as a decoration to his own apartments?
From the church, the party wait for the tide by taking a meal1 (Panel 5), where a watcher on the steps tells them that the tide has floated their boat off the mud. They kirtle their tunics into their belts, carry out the oars and the tiller2 and embark on their voyage. Harold himself punts them off the shallows and they probably rowed the ship from Bosham until they entered what is now Chichester harbour and, about there, hoisted their sail and sailed, with the wind full in their sail, towards Le Havre and the mouth of the river Seine. Eadmer tells us that they were blown off course by a storm and landed at the river Maye, near Saint Valéry. William of Poitiers says that they ran east to escape from a heavy storm. Both may have been right but the conditions would not be normal. Their course to Le Havre was roughly south-south-east, so if they had the wind full in their sail, it will have been from the north-north-west, or a point or two either side. Their meal at Bosham might have been taken at about 4pm so that, leaving within an hour or so, they might expect to arrive off Le Havre in the early morning daylight3. If a storm blew them east to the Somme, the wind will have to have backed into the west and strengthened. As it happens, when the wind backs in the northern hemisphere, it usually decreases although the wind in the English Channel in April tends to be more frequent and stronger from the west and south-west than from the north and north-west4. It seems possible that the early historians were guessing about the storm to account for the change of course. The most likely reconstruction is that clouds obscured the stars and the wind backed imperceptibly during the night causing the helmsman to steer more and more towards the east without realising he was altering his course5. At dawn, they were enveloped in fog, an ever-present danger on both sides of the Channel except in high summer. Before long, breakers could be heard ahead. The illustration of the crew punting the boat slowly forward with the anchor poised so that it could be dropped in an instant, suggests poor visibility and the lookout up the mast confirms it.
We do not know their intended destination but it certainly was not the Somme estuary because they clearly did not have a specific mission to perform when they arrived. However, whatever unexplained difficulties they may have encountered during the crossing, they made a safe landfall, and the whole party was captured by Guy of Ponthieu. In the illustration, Harold looks both surprised and affronted.
The next pause (Panel 16) indicates the time taken in the journey to Beaurain castle6 where Guy and Harold parabolant. This word, incidentally, is French-Latin from which 'parler' is derived. Its many syllables carry the weight of a negotiation rather than a mere conversation. Meanwhile, an Anglo-Saxon slips away when nobody is looking. This is followed by an exuberant tree (Panel 21) and a little agricultural scene in the lower border indicating a time span of about three weeks7, or a little longer. The passage of time consists of ploughing, sowing, harrowing-in the seed and bird-scaring while the seed germinates. The universally held idea that the last scene is hunting birds with a sling is, in this context, utter nonsense. The escaped Anglo-Saxon had to make his way, in strange and hostile country, into Normandy. There, probably at Eu, he had to convince, in a strange language, whoever was in charge that duke William should be informed without delay and then, with William's messengers coming to Guy, the story picks up again. There are two pieces of important information in this sequence. Firstly, it must have been well into April before the messengers from William got back to Guy. Secondly, why did the 'eavesdropper' make his way into Normandy? He will have had a very natural desire to get out of Ponthieu as soon as possible but the relatively rapid approach to William rather confirms that Rouen was where they had been heading in the first place.
Inevitably, the messengers will have made several journeys as negotiations proceeded, so it does not really matter in which direction of travel they should be depicted. As it is, the designer slows down time and shows two messengers galloping from right to left, towards a completely empty building. The speed of their passage is indicated by the flying tails of the horses and the flying hair of the riders. This is galloping ventre à terre. It is also the first example of the expected flow of the action being reversed, which seems to represent the famous caption of the silent 'cowboy' movies - Meanwhile, back at the ranch The artist has drawn Beaurain once and, rather than draw it again, he shows the messengers riding 'back' towards it from Rouen, where, meanwhile, William has interviewed the Anglo-Saxon. William will have known all about Guy of Ponthieu being a wrecker. But he had his own agenda and his first thought will have been to get a message to Guy to the effect that if he harmed his captives in any way he would find himself being answerable to William. William will not have known the purpose of Harold's presence but he will have appreciated very quickly that there would be an advantage to him in 'rescuing' Harold and his party. Meanwhile, he sent to Eu and had the Anglo-Saxon brought to him to hear his story at first-hand. Here the structure drawn behind William is probably Rouen (Panel 28), with sentries at the gate watching events unfold. It is also a punctuation mark. The negotiations are completed and Guy, evidently riding a lightly built mare, leads Harold to meet William. The meeting goes off without any untoward incident and after the punctuation of another dual tree, William and Harold's party set out for Rouen. This brings us to the Ælfgyva scene, which, graphically, appears to be nothing less than the reason for Harold's visit.
Practically everyone who has written about the Tapestry has made suggestions about Ælfgiva, ranging from the seductively tempting to, frankly, the absurd. An appealing version8, that does not seem to have enjoyed much support, considers the picture of Ælfgyva to be 'iconographic', meaning that it is an allusion to the late Ælfgifu of Northampton, wife of king Cnut. Florence of Worcester reported a rumour that she wanted to have a son by Cnut, but as she could not, she took the newborn child of a priest and made the king believe that she had just borne him a son, Swen. Florence says it was further rumoured that she pulled the same trick when she convinced Cnut that Harold Harefoot was also his son, whereas in fact Harold was the son of a sutor - a shoemaker in the least disparaging translation. The interpretation of the allusion being that both William and Harold were able to agree that any claims to the English throne from either Denmark or Norway would fail on two counts. The political events in Scandinavia had broken the lineal connections and, in any event, the simple illigitimacy of Swegn and Harold Harefoot ruled out their descendants. This does seem to have been a rather unlikely topic of conversation between William and Harold at that time but this version of the Ælfgifu story at least attempts to relate the scenes before and after Ælfgyva in the Tapestry. That is to say, they agree in principle that Scandinavia does not enter into the equation and go off, the best of friends, into Brittany. It does not take into account that William might have been sensitive about disbarring a claim on the grounds of illigitimacy and that Harold had no lineal claim at all!
If Ælfgyva was alive and in Rouen9, we are left with two facts that are not really in dispute. She was Anglo-Scandinavian and she was at the centre of some event, scandal or not, that was sufficiently well known to need no further elucidation. This, in itself, is powerful evidence for the earliness of the Tapestry's manufacture since, as they say, yesterday's news is no more than a wrapper for fish and chips. Unless she is treated as the primary reason for all that has gone before, the difficulty is that she is simply an isolated picture with the caption UBI: UNUS: CLERICUS: ET: ÆLFGYVA. Apparently the designer had forgotten the latin verb for whatever the cleric was doing. The graphics show that he is either touching or fondling Ælfgyva's face. In fact, since he seems to be using his whole hand, it looks more like either a slap or a caress than a mere touch. A caress has obvious affectionate or even sexual implications (Figures 12 & 13).
The only other small clue to why she was shown as the culmination to the 'chapter' is that in the previous scene, where Harold is talking vehemently to William, Harold appears to be pointing at her. On the face of it, the first thing that Harold does after his arrival in Rouen is to tackle William about Ælfgyva. Given that she was both from England and physically in Normandy at that time, the interpretation of the graphics can only be that Harold had come to Normandy specifically to take her back home. In that case, it is probable that he also hoped to take home both Wulnoth and Hakon.
After the Conquest, in the Domesday Survey10, it has been noticed that among the Buckinghamshire lands of Odo of Bayeux in Ixhill hundred, there was mention of Alveva soror comitis Heraldi. If only things were so simple! In the north of the county among the lands of William fitzAnsculf, at Tyringham in Seckley hundred, there was an Aelfgifu, wife of Harold, who, just to add to the confusion, appears to have held this land TRE.
The hostage situation was not very clear at the time of earl Godwin's rebellion. The account by William of Poitiers and the account by Eadmer11 are closest to the events as they happened. They conflict but Frank Barlow12 suggested a compromise as follows:
Yet it is possible, by taking elements from the two basic accounts of the hostages, to construct an explanation which at least harmonizes with the view of events presented by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. According to this source, it was in the autumn of 1051, between the abortive rebellion of Godwin and his sons and their banishment, that Edward demanded hostages; and this would indeed seem the likliest moment for Godwin and Swegn Godwinsson each to surrender a son. Then, after the sentences of outlawry and before the earl's return by force (October 1051 - June 1052), Edward could have transferred the hostages to Normandy, possibly by means of the duke himself if he indeed visited England at this time. The reason could have been either to put them beyond the reach of the returning earls or to provide security in some diplomatic scheme. But the first reason could have been succeeded by the second, or William could have refused to part with his valuable acquisition.
Godwin surrendered his son Wulfnoth, Harold's brother. The other named hostage was Hakon, nepos to Godwin, interpreted in this instance as nephew to Harold. Only Swegn of Godwin's sons would have been in a position to have had a son from sometime before his notorious abduction of Eadgifu, abbess of Leominster, in 104613. On the other hand, Godwin's wife Gytha will have had many eminently suitable hostages within her family circle. All the same, while the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is silent about the names and numbers of the hostages, it is clear that when earl Godwin and all his family were restored in full to their former positions, the hostages should have been returned. That they were not, reflects badly on king Edward and that, perhaps is why nothing was written about it. It was Edward's duty to look after the hostages and he failed. He evidently sent them to Normandy and William simply refused to give them up.
It is not claimed that Ælfgyva was a hostage but 1051/52 does seem to have been a likely time for her transfer to Normandy for some reason or other. Perhaps she had been sent as a bride for one of the Normans and the marriage had not taken place as planned. The fact is that we have absolutely no evidence about her at all except for the visual evidence of the Tapestry. The very first scene in the Tapestry consists of king Edward sitting in what must have been a formal audience, probably at Westminster but possibly Winchester, which is much closer to Bosham. He is wearing his crown, holding his sceptre and seems to be seated on a lion-like throne. Before him are two men. One of whom is surely Harold because in the next scene, he is named as he rides to Bosham as a clear consequence of the interview with the king. The usual interpretation is that king Edward is telling Harold to be his ambassador to Normandy to promise the kingdom to William the Conqueror. There is no need here to discuss the improbability of such an order because it has already been endlessly analysed. It is sufficient to note that it was not in Edward's power to give away the crown and, of course, Harold knew full well that only the Witan could appoint Edward's successor. The thesis here is that the Crown of England was indeed the subject under discussion but, rather oddly, the one interpretation that would make some kind of sense if the embassy had to do with the succession, has never been mentioned. Like all the rest of us, Edward had no inkling of 'the hour and the day' of his own death. On the face of it, he had chosen Edgar the Æthling as his heir. More precisely, he had chosen his father but Fate had intervened and Edgar, with an impeccable Anglo-Saxon lineage, would eventually grow into an eminently suitable heir from the point of view of his lineage. All Edward had to do was to live for another half-dozen years! Perhaps, therefore, he felt that he may have made what duke William might construe as promises14 about the succession and he wished to set the record straight. If Harold were sent to Normandy to tell William that king Edward now wished to be succeeded by the young Prince then no better envoy could have been chosen. To make a solemn promise of the Crown to William, Edward must have sent for him and gone through the formal medieval process of Oaths and the exchange of hostages. To tell him that all bets were off, since no formal arrangements had been made, was simply a matter of sending an ambassador of sufficient standing to be convincing. Harold's oath, in this event, being no more than an undertaking that Harold would use his best endeavours to arrange English support for William in Normandy in the event of invasion. This, at least, would follow rather neatly from their co-operation in Brittany.
King Edward is illustrated as being much larger than the other two. The next, in size, will be Harold while the smallest of the three, the man of a lower rank is in the foreground. Both Harold and his companion are making their request. The companion is no mere attendant on Harold. He is participating fully in the audience. The companion is also pointing towards the king and making his point with his index finger either touching or overlapping that of Edward. Point and counter-point. The graphics of the Tapestry appear to indicate that the request has to do with Ælfgyva. We must imagine Harold's companion as a relative of Ælfgyva who has sought Harold's aid in rescuing her from whatever trouble she was in. Harold has evidently agreed to make the attempt because, at the same time, he could solicit the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon15. Accordingly, they are asking the king if they may leave England for this purpose. Perhaps king Edward readily agreed because he saw that Harold could do something for him while he was there. Harold could tell William that the young Prince Edgar was the chosen heir.
Only the three of them knew directly what was discussed in the first scene of the Tapestry. Two were certainly dead before any history about the event was written. The third, dead or alive, was not likely to have been asked! Harold's most obvious confidant among the possible Norman patrons of the Tapestry was surely the duchess Matilda.
1 A time-honoured precaution before Channel crossings!
2 Unbelievably, the bent implement has once been identified as a boomerang (hopefully in fun!). Surely, in the context of the drawing, it was the tiller - kinked so that when pushed into the hole in the steer-board it did not go right through and fall in the water. There is a similarly bent object (evidently much smaller and probably a file) photographed in Ancient Boats in N. W. Europe(1987), Sean McGrail, among some woodworking tools in the Mästermyr find (Statens Historika Museum, Stockholm)
3 Entering the Seine estuary in the dark without the benefit of modern navigation lights would have been hazardous indeed. The currents are fierce and are not easy to negotiate under sail.
4 Channel Pilot, 1971, diagram 7.
5 Although the two estuaries are about 130 miles apart, the straight-line course from the eastern tip of the Isle of Wight to St Valéry is only some 40 miles further than the course for Le Havre.
6 About ten miles from Montreuil, up the river Canche.
7 Institut Technique des Céréales et des Fourrages, Paris: il existe 2 périodes de labour: à l'automne (septembre octobre) ou au printemps (mars). Dans les 2 cas, la durée entre le labour et la levée de la culture est d'environ 3 semaines. The Institute did not commit itself to saying whether both winter and spring sowing was practised in Normandy in the XI century but the plough in the Tapestry illustration looks light enough to be merely breaking up the surface of the soil before sowing.
8 Speculum (1980) vol 55; pp659-668, J. Bard McNulty of Trinity College, Massachusetts, USA.
9 The UBI in the caption UBI: UNUS: CLERICUS: ET: ÆLFGYVA does suggest this.
10 The Saxon Statement: Code in the Bayeux Tapestry (Annuale Mediaevale, vol 19, 1979, pp. 69-97) Richard David Wissolik. He identifies Ælfgyva as Harold's sister, betrothed to a Norman, and accounts for the oath as being an oath, made under duress, to support William. As an unrelated matter of interest, among the lands of Robert d'Oilly, in Ixhill hundred, there was Aelfgyth the maid who was evidently an embroiderer as she originally held the land on condition of teaching the sheriff's daughter gold embroidery work.
11 Historia Novorum in Anglia.
12 Edward the Confessor (1979), Appx B, p.305
13 Annales de Normandie, vol 34, no. 2 (June 1984) pp 127-145, Miles W Campbell: Ælfgyva is identified with Eadgifu, former Abbess of Leominster and possible mother of Hakon. The suggestion is that she went to Normandy with her young son when he was sent as one of the hostages nominated by earl Godwin. (In this case, the fondling of the face of an ex-Abbess by UNUS CLERICUS would offer an interesting kind of scandal - ML)
14 In 1051, perhaps.
15 Eadmer mentions this.