Today marks the nine hundred and forty-fifth aniversary of the Battle of Hastings, a fact that might have got past me had I not spent last Friday morning visiting the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry with my Small Child.
We got there early, and, thankfully, being thoroughly out of Season now, we almost had the place to ourselves (a welcome, far cry from our trip to Versailles in mid-September when as well as experiencing the magnificence of Louis XIV’s palace, we also got to find out what sardines feel like when still in the tin).
As I eavesdropped on Small Child’s audiophone (much more entertainting than the grown-up version), “October 14″ seeded itself in my brain, and what better way to commemorate both the battle and our very pleasant trip to Bayeux than by featuring some of the names which appear on the iconic tapestry?
Aelfgyva. The only woman mentioned by name on the tapestry, and one of only three women depicted (the others being Edward’s wife Edith and an unnamed woman fleeing a burning house with a little boy). A medieval spelling of a name which survived into the Early Modern period as Aileve and Latinized as Elgiva, the most correct Anglo-Saxon form is Ælfgifu “elf-gift.” She was Harold’s daughter.
Conan. Not the barbarian, but the Duke of Brittany. William’s war against him, in which Harold fought on William’s side, features in the early part of the tapestry. Also spelled Cunan on the tapestry, it is a diminutive of the Old Celtic for “dog” or “high.”
Edward. Occurs as Aedward and Edwardus on the tapestry, the name of the two-in-one king and saint. His death without an heir of his own body led, inexorably, to the battle. A classic English name — possibly the classic English name — meaning “rich guardian.”
Eustace. Found as Eustasius on the tapestry. A popular medieval name, from the Greek eustakhês “rich in corn” – i.e. “blooming” and “fruitful.” A Count of Bolougne and companion of William.
Gyrd. Now usually called Gyrth, Gyrth was one of the brothers of Harold. He also died at Hastings. From the Old English gyrdan “to gird (with a sword).” Related to the Old Norse gjǫrð “girdle,” cognate with the Scandinavian girl’s name of Gerda.
Halley. Halley’s Comet. Not actually mentioned by name (it would have been difficult, since it has borne this name only since the seventeenth century), but a famous appearance nonetheless. A variant spelling of Hailey, i.e. “hay meadow,” etc.
Harold. The ill-fated last true English king, whose name is a combination of elements meaning “army” and “power”. Also occurs on the tapestry as Horold.
Lweine. How Leofwine, the name of another of Harold’s brother, appears on the tapestry — when he dies in the battle. A good solid Anglo-Saxon name meaning “dear friend.”
Odo. William’s half-brother, and bishop of Bayeux. He is thought to be responsible for commissioning the tapestry. From the Old German uod “wealth” and “riches.”
Rotbert. The form of Robert — “bright-fame” — which is found on the tapestry. William’s other half-brother, a soldier.
Stigant. A name of Viking origins. The Old Norse form was Stígandr, meaning “wanderer.” The name of an Archbishop of Canterbury of Anglo-Norse birth. He crowned Harold.
Turold. A proper Viking name, betraying the Frenchified Normans’ real roots. Its Old Norse form was þóraldr, combining the name of the God Thor with vald “power”. Turold was one of William’s spies.
Vital. From the Latin vitalis “of life,” “belonging to life,” and “vital.” A scout of William’s.
Wadard. A curious name. Wadard seems to have been a cleric and vassal of Odo’s at Bayeux. The second element is probably hardu “hardy,” but the first is uncertain. Possibly the Norse theonym Vadi, cognate with the English Wade, a name deriving from a Germanic root meaning “water.”
Wido. Better known to history as Guy, Count of Ponthieu, who supposedly captured Harold when he accidentally landed in his territory en route to Normandy. The Old German name Wido derives either witu ‘wood’ or wît ‘wide’.
William. The big (French) cheese himself, responsible for making William — “will-helmet” — one of the top three boys’ names in the English-speaking world of the last 1000 years. It is mildly entertaining to note that on the tapestry, he is not called “William” once — the forms found are Willem, Wilgelm and Willelm.
After the tapestry, we visited the war cemetry at Bayeux, where many British soldiers who died in the D-day landings are buried, and where the following inscription features on the memorial: NOS A GULIELMO VICTI VICTORIS PATRIAM LIBERAVIMUS “We who were conquered by William have freed the homeland of the Conqueror.”
All things turn full circle eventually. Always.