Thanks to Alan Mason for sending us this article for our featured artworks collection. Click here for a full picture of the Bayeux Tapestry.
This artwork is probably the largest one that “deskarati” is ever likely to feature. It is 230 feet long and 20 inches high, (7O m by 0.5 m), and although it is thought of, principally, as an historical document, here it is presented as a work of art in its own right.
Tapestry or Embroidery?
It is, despite its familiar name, not a tapestry at all. The correct meaning of the word “tapestry” is a textile in which the design and images are created by the actual weaving process (2). The Bayeux Tapestry is actually a gigantic piece of embroidery, in this case nine large lengths of linen cloth covered in coloured woollen stitches to create the designs.
At a domestic level, tapestry is difficult to make in the home, because it requires a loom and a complex working process. It can produce incredibly detailed designs (2) in the hands of expert weavers such those who created a large arras, or tapestry on “The Coronation of the Doge”, the elected leader of the Venetian Republic. Knitting in wool is the closest domestic parallel, because the design is made by the knitting process itself.
Across the centuries, embroidery was a common occupation of women in their leisure, or quieter moments, because it could readily be picked up or put down, depending on circumstances. Also, the only equipment needed by the embroiderer was a cotton or linen base, a light wooden frame, coloured wools and suitable needles.
Embroidery has always been rather disparaged or ignored as an art form, perhaps because most of its exponents were women, so it is exhilarating to be able to praise and commend a splendid piece of embroidery like the Bayeux Tapestry. The detail (3) shows the linen ground, with red, yellow, green and black crewels (wool yarns), to depict Harold Godwinson. Outline or stem stitch is used for the Latin lettering, and the outline of figures, but couching or laid work is used to fill in the main body of figures or objects.
Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, is shown in civilian dress, but carrying a spear. He wears a red tunic and a heavy green cloak, secured by a large brooch on his right shoulder. As he stands behind the lion-head prow of his ship, it runs up the beach, to land on the French coast during a visit to Normandy, where he is promptly arrested by the local Count, Wido or Guy.
Selecting Elements of the Design
One of the problems in choosing the Bayeux Tapestry as a featured artwork, is that it is not realistic to try to show the whole thing. Only selected details can be given, and this reduces the impact of the work in its entirety. One of its features is a sense of movement. It is telling a story, (4) and it moves along at a cracking pace, but, of course it is the battle scenes which show the most animation.
Looking at the quiet and apparently undramatic incident (4) above, it can appear to be a rather simplistic or even näive form of art, but the designer had a great deal of ground to cover and work to do. He needed to flesh out his characters and tell the details of each incident as sparely as possible. Here, clearly, King Edward was an old man, but talking to Harold with the full authority of his position as sovereign. It was a private interview and there were no observers. He wanted Harold and his Lieutenant to listen carefully to his instructions, but their hand gestures suggest that they also had opinions of their own, or protests to make.
Eric MacLagan, (References A), explains, “There is nothing to show which of three alternative stories, is here followed; Harold’s mission may be to tell Duke William that Edward has chosen William as his successor, or to reclaim hostages held in Normandy, or it may just be a pleasure trip.”
The Historical Narrative
Although most people imagine that the Bayeux Tapestry is about the Battle of Hastings in 1066, it tells a much longer story, as MacLagan, (References A), points out, “It is described as a very long and narrow strip or hanging (tente) of linen with embroidery of figures and inscriptions representing the Conquest of England. But the story of that Conquest occupies little more than half its length. The first part tells in detail of the journey made by Harold, Earl of Wessex, of his imprisonment and deliverance, of his share in the campaign against Brittany, his oath to William the Bastard, his return to his own country and his coronation after St Edward’s death. Much stress has been laid on the fact that the tale is told from the Norman point of view, that it is indeed the record of Harold’s perjury and so the justification of William’s invasion; and in a sense this is true.
But it is impossible to study the long succession of scenes without being impressed by the objectivity of the narrator. Harold the King (5) (his title is given to him again and again) has almost as much claim as William the Duke — in their day the two foremost men of Western Europe — to be the hero of the Tapestry. It is not as a Judas that he fills the stage, though perhaps as a Macbeth; a brave man led by ambition into disloyalty.”
The “star” described in the Bayeux Tapestry was one of the periodic appearances of Halley’s Comet, with its 76 year cycle. In Figure 5, it just appears in the top left-hand border, but Figure 6 shows the whole comet with its tail, and the incredulity of the Saxon onlookers. The Latin inscription “ISTI MIRANTI STELLA” translates as “This is the wonderful star”. The 1984 appearance of the comet was rather disappointing in Britain, but it seems that the 1066 manifestation was much more spectacular and temporarily visible by day and night. Readers can judge the quality of the Bayeux Tapestry representation of the comet by comparing it with the 1910 photograph (7).
Comets were traditionally the harbingers of great events, but not surprisingly, in retrospect, it is often difficult for commentators to tell what those great events might have been. However, the 1066 comet was certainly the harbinger of one of the greatest events in English history. Put briefly, the Anglo-Saxon people were placed in subservience, to a French-speaking military elite, for several centuries. The class system of the succeeding centuries was a continuation of this subservience. Even today, most of the titled, ancient “noble” families trace their descent from the Norman conquerors. The Norman invasion, and the Battle of Hastings, forms the last part of the Bayeux Tapestry.
The backbone of the Norman military machine was the mounted chain-mailed knight, and the success of the invasion depended on them. Consequently it was vital to transport (8) the highly-trained destriers, or war horses, across the English Channel. Horses do not like sea transport, they frighten easily, and the motion of the ship upsets them, so there is always a risk of them falling heavily. As the Bayeux Tapestry shows, the ships were open to the elements, and there was no large hold below decks, so the horses were with the men, amidships.
The Norman knights wore standardised equipment, as shown in the opening illustration. Even the messengers, (9) wore swords, carried long lances, and kite-shaped shields. As they were not in combat, they were bare-headed, and without the steel helmet with its characteristic nasal or nose-guard. This is shown clearly in the portrait (10) of Odo, half-brother of Duke William, and Bishop of Bayeux.
Bishop Odo is shown wearing mail armour, with steel helmet, and he carries a club or mace. Modern readers may find it surprising that a senior cleric should engage in combat in a battle. He was not permitted to carry a sword, because, as a bishop, he was not supposed to shed blood. He was permitted to use a mace, but sceptics may well wonder if the Bishop’s adversaries found it was really a bloodless weapon.
To cut to the chase, the end of the Battle of Hastings came with a last stand of the Saxon housecarls, or King’s bodyguard, forming a shield wall around him. Unlike the mounted Norman knights, the Saxon nobility fought on foot, armed with heavy battle-axes (11). The detail below shows the Saxons wearing chain mail and nasal helmets, and carrying kite-shaped shields, just like the Normans. They bear a battle standard, and the leader has a battle-axe. The Norman knights are using their spears like javelins, rather than lances.
The scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, in which King Harold is killed, (12) has led to one of the most popular misconceptions about the Battle of Hastings. A Saxon warrior is shown trying to pull an arrow from his eye, and his head is between “HARO” and “LD REX”, so this man was identified as King Harold. To the right, a Norman knight, riding a stallion, bends forward, swinging his heavy sword on to the thighs of a Saxon warrior, who is already collapsing, with head bowed, and hands forward, having let go of his battle-axe.
This figure is believed to be the king, with the words “INTERFEC TVS: EST” (is killed) above the scene. Curiously, the Norman does not seem to be delivering a killing stroke, but only causing some minor injury to an already seriously wounded man.
The Probable Commissioner
The identity of the designer/ draughtsman and the embroiderers remain unknown, and a subject of controversy to the present day. The standard view is that the work was commissioned by Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, and Bishop of Bayeux, who is portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry himself (10) as an heroic figure.
Apart from the prominence of Odo in the Tapestry, other evidence for his commissioning role is the inclusion of three of his followers in the design. The Tapestry was lost to history for centuries, until it was rediscovered in Bayeux Cathedral (13) during the 18 C by French antiquarians. It was Odo who commissioned the building of this Cathedral during the 1070s, and it is possible that the Tapestry was commissioned at the same time, for display during the Dedication, once the building had been completed.
As the commissioner, Odo probably dictated the overall pattern of the story to be told, but left the actual design and draughtsmanship to a professional. It was probably designed and made in England, rather than Normandy, because at that time, Opus Anglicanum or English needlework, and embroidery had an international reputation. The actual work of embroidery was probably done by professional seamstresses rather than nuns as is often suggested.
Also, after the Conquest in 1066, Odo had been given the Earldom of Kent, just across the English Channel from Normandy. He spent quite a lot of time in England, because when King William was absent, he acted as Regent. The newly conquered land was restless, and William needed someone he could trust, in his stead.
Another reason for thinking that the work was made in England was, “an Anglo-Saxon flavour”, to the Latin inscriptions across the top of the Tapestry. Although, at that time, Latin was the international language of the Church, and European diplomacy, individual nations had their own styles of Latin reflecting their own languages. This was particularly true of towns or other geographical names rendered into Latin.
The village of Bosham, in Sussex, (pronounced boz um) is an example of this idea. Harold Godwinson held the manor of Bosham, and its little church (14) is illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry, when he stops there with his followers. He is out hunting with his hawk on his gloved wrist, and a pack of hounds. The village name is clearly spelled in the Tapestry in the same way that it appears today. The present church building at Bosham (15) contains parts which date back to the building shown in the Tapestry.
This is a remarkable little cameo, because most English place-names have changed greatly from their Anglo-Saxon versions; for example, Hastings appears as “Hestanga”. Bosham was “Bosanhamm” in the year 730 AD, but by the time of the Tapestry it had reached the form in which it remained for the next nine hundred years. The name means “Boda’s hamm”, a personal name, Boda, attached to a village. (See References D)
Unknown Designer and Embroiderers
There is little evidence for the identity of the designer, but it has been suggested by Prof Howard Clarke (See References F) that he was Abbot Scolland of St Augustine’s Abbey, in Canterbury, Kent. The evidence is partly based on Scolland’s residence in Bishop Odo’s territory, the Earldom of Kent, and the fact that Odo was Patron of Scolland’s Abbey.
In addition, Scolland had been head of the famous scriptorium of the Abbey of Mont St-Michel in Brittany, the province adjoining Normandy. The scriptorium (16) was the workshop where illustrated manuscripts were prepared, and Scolland’s position suggests that he was also a skilled artist and designer.
A further argument is the curious inclusion, in the early scenes of the Tapestry, of the Norman military campaign against Brittany. These are wholly irrelevant to the story of the conquest of Saxon England, but Clarke thinks the reason was that the Brittany campaign had profoundly affected the monks of Mont St-Michel, of whom Scolland was one. Clarke also notes that two characters, Wadard and Vital, who are depicted in the Tapestry, were associates of Scolland.
The Perilous History of the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is relatively well-known nowadays, but this was not always the case. The evidence suggests that, following the Dedication of Bayeux Cathedral, in the 1070s, the Tapestry was stored in the building and only brought out for display annually, for the week of the Feast of St John the Baptist, on the 24 June. It was normally stored in a chest and had consequently disappeared from the knowledge of French historians, except those who knew Bayeux Cathedral. It is first recorded in an inventory of 1476.
During the Wars of Religion, between Protestants and Catholics, in the sixteenth century, Bayeux was sacked by the Protestant Huguenots in 1562, but the Tapestry survived. Ten years later, in the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve, (17) on 23-24 August 1572 about 15, 000 Protestants were killed.
The Tapestry was re-discovered by French scholars in the early eighteenth century, and was finally given a full description with drawings, in two volumes of “Les Monuments de la Monarchie française” written by Bernard de Montfaucon, with drawings by Antoine Benoit. It was first briefly mentioned in English, by the antiquarian William Stukeley in 1743, and a more detailed account was published in 1767.
During the French Revolution (18), which began in 1789, there was much vandalism and needless destruction of anything that to the ignorant, smacked of royalty and nobility. Incredibly, the Tapestry was seized in preparation for being used to cover military wagons, for which it would have been totally ineffective. It was rescued by a local lawyer who stored it in his own house, and eventually handed it over to the Bayeux authorities for safe-keeping.
Eventually, out of the conflicting power struggles, Napoleon Buonaparte came to prominence as leader of the French Republic. When sense finally prevailed, concerning French cultural treasures, a Fine Arts Commission was set up to safeguard them. In 1803 Napoleon ordered the Bayeux authorities to send the Tapestry to Paris for exhibition there, as part of the propaganda effort for his projected invasion of England. This plan was fraught with difficulties for the French, and was temporarily abandoned, but finally ruled out by the British naval victory of Trafalgar (19) in 1805.
As the Tapestry no longer had propaganda value it was returned to the Bayeux civic authorities, but they refused to hand it back to the Cathedral. To protect the now-damaged Tapestry from further wear it was displayed in a special room in the Public Library of Bayeux from 1842 onwards. It was taken into special storage when France was invaded during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, but in the German invasion and occupation of France in 1940 it fell into the hands of the German forces, and it was sent to the Louvre museum in Paris. In 1944, when the German forces withdrew from Paris, the Tapestry was again in French hands and it was put on display in the Louvre, before being returned to Bayeux the following year.
The city now has a special custom-built Museum (20) solely for the display, conservation and promotion of the Tapestry as a cultural treasure.
A Campaign to Return the Tapestry to England
The Bayeux Tapestry continues to create waves in the relationship between the French Republic and the Kingdom of Great Britain. A campaign has been launched to bring the Tapestry back to England, for display in Canterbury Cathedral. Textile experts and historians disagree on whether this would be good idea or not.
There have been two requests to the French Government for the temporary loan of the Tapestry. The first one was in 1953, at the time of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and the second one was in 1966, for the 900 anniversary commemorations of the Battle of Hastings. Both requests were turned down.
The present Curator of the Tapestry, Sylvette Lemagnen, explained that, “It would require high level permission for such a loan today. You have to ask the Ministry of Culture if it will authorise this,” she said. “It’s not my responsibility, nor the responsibility of the town of Bayeux, to answer such a question because the tapestry belongs to the French state. It is exhibited in Bayeux but it does not belong to Bayeux town.”
There was a recent request to include the Tapestry in an exhibition at the Paris Louvre on French Romanesque Art, but it was turned down because the Tapestry is so large, and so frail. Any major movement would inevitably cause some damage.
I must conclude by saying that the best solution, in my opinion, would be to leave the Bayeux Tapestry where it is. Here it is safe and well-protected. It is about 940 years old and will inevitably be harmed by being moved. Anyone who wants to see the real thing should go to Bayeux. The small children (21) are able to view this historic comic strip at just the right level for them. The added advantage is to visit the beautiful old Norman town (22) at the same time.
In the electronic future, I suspect that we shall be able to view the whole work at very close quarters, much nearer than at Bayeux, just by going to the internet.
REFERENCES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
I have made use of a number of reference works to check facts and as a source of illustrations, but the opinions expressed in the essay are my own.
Bayeux Tapestry” by Eric MacLagan, Penguin Books, 1943
B. “Arts and Crafts in Venice” by Doretta Davanzo Poli, Könemann, 1999
C. “Introduction to Astronomy” by Cecilia Payne – Gaposchkin, Methuen, 1956
D. “The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names”, by Eilert Ekwall, Oxford, 1991
E. “Medieval Life” by Andrew Langley, Dorling Kindersley, 1996
F. Wikipedia article (“Bayeux Tapestry” – Discusses various theories of the origins of the work)
G. “Kings and Queens of France” by the Duc de Castries, Book Club, 1979
H. “Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern History”, Larousse, 1964
I. “The Life and Times of Napoleon”, editor Enzo Orlandi, Hamlyn, 1965
1. The Bayeux Tapestry (google image)
2. Head of a Venetian Doge (Poli, op. cit)
3. Detail of Earl Harold Godwinson aboard ship (google image)
4. Harold and his friend receive orders from King Edward the Confessor (MacLagan, op. cit)
5. King Harold on his throne is told of the Great Comet in the sky (MacLagan, op. cit)
6. Halley’s Comet of 1066 (MacLagan, op. cit)
7. Halley’s Comet of 1910 as photographed at the Mount Wilson Observatory (Gaposchkin, op. cit)
8. Transporting horses in ships from Normandy to the coast of England (google image)
9. Duke William’s messengers (google image)
10. “HIC ODO EPISCOPUS BACULU” Here Bishop Odo wields his mace (google image)
11. Saxon housecarls attacked by Norman mounted knights (MacLagan, op. cit)
12. “HAROLD REX INTERFECTVS EST” (King Harold is killed) (google image)
13. The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Bayeux (google image)
14. “MILITES EQVITANT AS BOSHAM ECCLESIA” The soldiers ride to Bosham church (t j inman)
15. Bosham church as it is today (google image)
16. The work of a medieval monk in the scriptorium (Langley, op. cit)
17. The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (de Castries, op. cit)
18. Storming the Bastille prison starts the French Revolution in 1789 (Larousse, op. cit)
19. Nelson’s flagship “Victory” at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (Orlandi, op. cit)
20. The Bayeux Tapestry on display in the new Museum in Bayeux
21. Schoolchildren at the Tapestry Museum (google image)
22. The centre of old Bayeux, its houses and waterways (google image)