Ed West

The Bayeux Tapestry is coming home at last

The Bayeux Tapestry is coming home at last
Text settings

The Entente Cordiale is alive and well, it seems. It was announced today that, thanks to the benevolence of Emmanuel Macron, the Bayeux Tapestry will leave France for the first time in nine centuries, and be loaned to Britain. Strictly speaking, though, you could say the tapestry was coming home, since it was almost certainly made in Kent, by English women toiling under the Norman patriarchy.

It tells the story of the most famous battle in English history, an event that helped to define not just Anglo-French relations but also England’s ingrained class differences. I was being facetious when I made the comparison in 2016 between Anglo-Saxon Leavers and Norman Remainers, but our relationship with France in particular has always defined us as a nation (much more than any ‘British values’).

The tapestry – which, pedants will inform you, is actually an embroidery – tells the story of Duke William’s conquest of England in that famous year of 1066, an event that has characterised Anglo-French relations ever since. In truth it was more of a French conquest, since William’s army contained a large number of French troops and the Normans themselves were barely Viking at all, despite all the PR.

The tapestry is strange in many ways. Running above and below the main narrative are a series of figures, including strange beasts and high medieval pornography. In the scene where William takes Harold to the hall in Rouen, where the English earl is made to swear an oath to him, there is a naked man below wielding a tool and working on a wooden object which could be a coffin. It also features some characters we know nothing about, including a dwarf called Turold and a woman, Elfgifu, who is depicted alongside a priest who is placing a veil over her; beneath them is a naked man with an erection mimicking the priest’s action. It’s some sort of in-joke.

There are very few primary sources for the Battle of Hastings. The Tapestry makes the events even more confusing. For centuries, the people in charge of it cut off bits and gave them away as souvenirs, and so no one is entirely sure how accurate the tapestry is now. It is still not clear which figure is the king under the words ‘Harold is killed’. It may in fact be some other poor fellow who is shown being hit in the eye, or this part may have been added to the tapestry at a later date. 

Although the tapestry was made on the instructions of a Norman baron, it is not explicitly favourable to William or his countrymen. It shows Harold swearing to uphold William's claim, but the Normans are also presented burning down a village. The tapestry also refers to Harold as ‘king’, something the Normans refused to recognise. This was possibly a subtle dig at the new rulers.

We’re lucky to still have the tapestry at all. It was hidden in Bayeux cathedral until the 1720s and it was almost destroyed later that century when some revolutionaries planned to rip it to pieces and use it as confetti as part of some demented ‘festival of reason’. The tapestry became famous soon after this when Napoleon became interested in it, because it portrayed a successful conquest of England. He had it brought to Paris and a play appeared around that time about William’s wife making it (in France it is known as ‘The Tapestry of Queen Matilda’, after a mistaken belief she was behind it).

Interest in the tapestry continued to grow and in 1816 Charles Stothard, a draughtsman for the Society of Antiquaries in London, was commissioned to make drawings and write a commentary over two years. This he did; he also stole a bit and took it home, this chunk ending up with the Victoria and Albert Museum who handed it back in 1871 (however by that stage the bit he’d stolen had been replaced so it was never sewn back in). Another part was stolen by a vicar, the Rev Thomas Frognall Dibdin, in 1842. Considering this record, it’s good of the French to let us have it.

Meanwhile some Victorian ladies, led by one Mrs Elizabeth Wardle, wanted England to have a version of the Tapestry so they got together and made an almost exact replica. However because sexual mores had changed somewhat in eight centuries, one of the naked men had his genitals removed in the new version, and the other had some underpants helpfully put on. The otherwise-perfect replica is still on display in Reading; perhaps we could loan the more wholesome English version to France in the meantime. 

(I should at this point mention my own young adult history book on the subject in a desperate attempt to sell some copies, although the Victorian anecdotes come originally from Andrew Bridgeford’s book on the subject. However I imagine he should get plenty of opportunities to plug it over the next few months.)