Dan Jones

English embroidery: the forgotten wonder of the medieval world

Think of an art at which the English have excelled and I doubt you would come up with the word ‘embroidery’. As I muttered when my agent asked whether I should like to make a film for BBC4 about the golden age of this forgotten but brilliant native art form: ‘Embroidery? What, like sewing?’ But no, not like sewing. Or, actually, only a little bit. During the ‘high’ Middle Ages, English embroidery was one of the most desired and costly art forms in Europe. It was known as opus anglicanum or ‘the work of the English’ — a generic name that instantly conjured notions of craftsmanship, beauty, luxury and expense in the minds of those who heard it. English embroidery was an art that combined extraordinary design, painstaking manual dexterity and some of the most costly raw materials (gold, silks and precious jewels) on earth. To lay hands on a really splendid piece would set you back as much as it would to commission Giotto. Opus anglicanum was celebrated and coveted all over Christendom. Today it is largely forgotten, which is odd since the most famous piece of English medieval art is, of course, an embroidery. It’s called the Bayeux Tapestry: a misnomer, because, while tapestry is woven on a loom, embroidery is stitched by hand with a needle and thread.

Christ carrying the cross

To see the 230ft Bayeux Embroidery (feel free to earn pedant points by calling it this from now on) you have to go to Normandy, but it was probably made in Kent, where it took about seven years to produce and cost its commissioner, William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, a small fortune. Ironically, given that the Bayeux Embroidery celebrates the conquest and subjection of the English people, the work itself marks the beginning of an age in which they would become artistic geniuses.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.


Unlock more articles



Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in