Sunday 22 September 2013

Embroidery in the 11th Century

This month, September, sees the anniversary of the first two battles of the Norman Invasion of 1066, Fulford Gate and Stamford Bridge. The Battle of Hastings occurred three weeks later, on October 14th, 1066. The story of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings and the battle itself are famously recorded by 11th century English embroiderers on the Bayeux Tapestry, thought to be commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half brother, for his church at Bayeux in Normandy. Some Tapestry scholars think that the Tapestry was designed in Canterbury but that its panels were embroidered in both Wilton Abbey and in Canterbury workshops. One reason for this thought is that if you study the wide angle pictures and the small vignettes, you realise that the first half of this work tells the Godwin story and the second the events around the actual Norman Invasion. The death of Edward the Confessor divides the two sides of the story as it falls right in the Tapestry's centre section. Structurally this event links both as well as being the crucial factor that heralded The Norman Conquest.

Above: The Death of King Edward from The Bayeux Tapestry

 Edith Godwin, King Harold's sister Edward the Confessor's widow, was one of the most famous English embroiderers of the time. She was patron of Wilton Abbey where there was a school for young noblewomen and embroidery workshops. It is very likely that Dowager Queen Edith wanted to tell her family's story and she may have been involved in the overall plan for the Tapestry's dialogue. She was pragmatic and after Conquest she is one of the few English landowners recorded in The Doomsday Book who retained all of their pre-Conquest property. When she died in 1075 King William gave her a state funeral in Westminster where she was honoured and buried beside her saintly husband. She was not ignored by the Norman nobility and retired after The Conquest to Wilton Abbey.

Edith z Wessexu.gif
Queen Edith
English textiles had a reputation for quality on the continent. Fibres used in the production of these textiles were wool, silk which was imported, and linen. Flax was the best known plant fibre used in the Anglo-Saxon period. The plants were harvested by pulling up whole plants, which were then dried. The seed pods were removed by using a wooden toothed rippler and stems were placed in water for some weeks, a process known as retting. Once the stems had partly decomposed fibres could be removed from the tough outer surface. They were pounded with wooden mallets and using a scutching knife the Anglo-Saxon flax worker would move up and down the flax stems against a vertical wooden board to remove the fibres. They were heckled using long iron teeth to clean and separate them ready for spinning. Quite a process! Linen was the background material used for The Tapestry. The embroidery on The Bayeux Tapestry depictions is of wool, not silk.

Scutching knives

Only three great embroideries survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. The Bayeux Tapestry is the largest at 70m. The Durham embroideries were designed during the early 10th century and were discovered in the tomb of St Cuthbert. The collection has an embroidered stole, maniple and a girdle, which are closely related in design and are embroidered with gold and silk threads on silk fabric. They are thought to be Southern English work and the first two items have inscriptions to show when they were commissioned between 909 and 916. The third embroidery from this period comprises of gold thread and silk on linen. The pieces that survive are thought to have been commissioned for an altar frontal decoration. This embroidery is influenced by Anglo-Saxon art from The Book of Cerne and the Brunswick Casket. However, scholars think that they may have a Rhine-Meuse origin that is, in fact, influenced by Anglo-Saxon art.
From the Book of Cerne

Research suggests that England was pre-eminent amongst European Nations for embroidery during the Middle Ages, not just the early Middle Ages. It was a great art never since equalled in design, technique or the quality of the materials employed. It was much sought after. St Aldhelm Bishop of Sherbourne referred to the skill of Anglo-Saxon women saying

'The shuttles, not filled with purple only but with various colours are pushed here and there amongst the thick spreading threads, and then with the art of embroidery they adorn all woven work with groups of figures.'

William of Poitiers, 11th C, wrote, 'The women of England are very skilled with the needle and in the matter of tissues of gold.'

File:Harold bayeux tapestry.png
King Harold from The Bayeux Tapestry

Finally, in the Domesday Book, two specialist English embroiderers are mentioned by name, Alwid and Leviet who worked on textiles for the king and queen. Interestingly, too, Dowager Queen Edith, Edward the Confessor's wife, was reputed as skilled in d'or argent work and she is said to have dispensed beautiful works from her own workrooms and to have embroidered robes for the king. It is, I suggest, very likely that this talented aging queen had a hand in the execution of the beautiful Bayeux Tapestry.  


English Medieval Embroidery by AG Christie, Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
Anglo-Saxon Crafts by Kevin Leahy, Gloustershire: Tempus.
The Blackwell Encyclopaedia Of Anglo-Saxon England, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing ltd.

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, the story of Edith-Swan-Neck, King Harold II's Handfasted wife, an historical fiction, published by Accent Press.


Friday 6 September 2013

The Anglo-Saxon Heiress and The Norman Conquest

Anglo-Saxon women played an important role in the years following The Conquest by providing the opportunity for intermarriage into the landowning class of Saxon society. This intermarriage gave legitimacy that cloaks the conquerors with respectability. Oderic Vitalis writing in the early 1130s speaks of rich English magnates who were Normans already settled in England before 1066 and also those who were Normans from mixed parentage and raised in England. Normans and French men who settled in England before 1066 were regarded as Anglici suggesting that to an extent integration had begun before Conquest.

convent or marriage?

In the immediate post-conquest period there is evidence that William gave confirmation of lands and rights to the Anglici. However, according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, William did not grant such favours for nothing. In fact the loyal English and Anglici bought their lands off the king. Queen Edith, Harold's sister and Edward the Confessor's wife, was confirmed in her lands after 1066. Similar provision may have been made for Harold's mother, Gytha, at least until she refused to pay the king's tax in Exeter and as a result brought William's wrath down on her dower town with a siege that lasted for three mid-winter weeks. On the other hand, manors belonging to the male members of the Godwin family e.g. the brothers and family of Harold II were divided amongst royal followers such as William Fitz Osbern (the central shires) and Odo of Bayeux (Kent and the south-east).

Eventually wealthy Anglo-Normans might build up such a manor, maybe after a few centuries 

An obvious way to secure land was to marry an heiress. The Breton Geoffery de la Guerche apparently acquired the lands of Leofine, Harold's brother who died at Hastings through marriage with Leofwine's daughter Aelfgifu. Sometimes the enforced marriage policy was not welcome and the ladies took refuge in nunneries 'not for love of religious life but from fear of the French', according to Oderic Vitalis. William also had been concerned to restore land to the English nobility who accepted Norman rule. Just after Hastings penances due from William's men for destruction were lessened if they married into the enemy. And this penance for Norman knights could be costly.

Medieval Wedding
The Romantic Anglo-Norman marriage! She wed the knight! ( it is a very romantic pre-Raphaelite image rather than a faithful one)

The bulk of male English survivors were royal servants and officials of varying kinds. For example Edward of Salisbury, the sheriff of Wiltshire, an official appointed by Edward the Confessor, survived Conquest and held onto his office. According to The Domesday Book he had an estate of 300 hides in 1086. Widows holding lands in alms were also able to acquire or recover something of the pre-conquest wealth and status. Thus, although the royal court was dominated by foreigners much of local business was in the hands of Englishmen.
A Sheriff such as Edward of Salisbury

The integration of both peoples after The Conquest did draw on similarities of both peoples and was possible because of similarities as much as the imposition of one set of customs on another such as castle and cathedral building. Oderic Vitalis describes markets of villages and towns as 'filled with displays of French wares and merchandise'. William of Poitiers speaks of how the women of the English race excelled in embroidery and cloth of gold.

The most famous embroidery of the 11thC
Marriage between incoming Normans and native English families was commoner than surviving sources indicate. There was inter-marriage at all levels of society. One evidence is that women's names changed less rapidly than men's names suggesting that newcomers sought English women as wives. Marriage with an English heiress might help secure possession of her family's lands. William was concerned immediately after the take-over to keep loyal Saxon/English magnates loyal. Though it must be said that the greatest Norman lords still sought their wives from France. It was those who made their fortune in England who found English wives an advantage. Here is an example of a 'lesser' heiress's marriage and how within this family the tradition continued through several generations.

Robert d'Oilly and Ealdgyth, daughter of Wigot of Wallingford
Matilda their daughter married Miles Crispin
Robert d'Oilley II married Edith, daughter of Farne, son of Sigulf and she, interestingly, had a son by Henry I called Robert. It is likely that Henry I, William the Conqueror's youngest son, married off his Saxon mistress to Robert d'Oilley.

Henry 1, of course, married the greatest English heiress of them all Maud /Matilda of Scotland who was the niece of Edgar Aetheling often regarded as the true and rightful heir to the English throne after Edward the Confessor's death.

Henry 1 who married the most prestigious heiress of all,  Matilda

Then, as well, there is the scandal concerning Gunnhild the youngest daughter of King Harold and Edith Swan-neck who eloped with Breton Alan of Richmond, (a cousin of King William) from Wilton Abbey. She is the subject of my new book in progress, The Swan-Daughter.

King William recorded land in the Domesday Book 1086

As a consequence inter marriage produced families that spoke English and Norman French. By the end of the 12th century an aristocracy that described itself as English indicates how English became the language of most Anglo-Normans. Sadly though, English wives and mistresses did face a twofold imbalance in power because with the Conquest Norman society gave them less influence than they previously held before 1066. Also, often, the dispossession of male English aristocrats meant that many aristocratic English women who married into the first generation of Normans, French and Bretons, lost what family backing they once had. Equally, they were a factor in the assimilation of two peoples and, by the end of the 12th century, marriage with the Anglo-Saxon heiress contributed to the triumph of an English identity

The Handfasted Wife is the story of Edith Swan-Neck and can be purchased from Amazon as kindle e book, for all e readers, paperback and also from Accent Press