The Bayeux Tapestry

The most extraordinary memorial of that eventful period of transition, which saw the descendants of the old Saxon conquerors of Britain swept from their power and their possessions, and their places usurped by a swarm of adventurers from the shores of Normandy, is a work not of stone or brass, not of writing and illumination more durable than stone or brass, but a roll of needlework, which records the principal events which preceded and accompanied the Conquest, with a minuteness and fidelity which leave no reasonable doubt of its being a contemporary production. This is the celebrated Bayeux Tapestry. When Napoleon contemplated the invasion of England in 1803, he caused this invaluable record to be removed from Bayeux, and to be exhibited in the National Museum at Paris; and then the French players, always ready to seize upon a popular subject, produced a little drama in which they exhibited Matilda, the wife of the Conqueror, sitting in her lonely tower in Normandy whilst her husband was fighting in England, and thus recording, with the aid of her needlewomen, the mighty acts of her hero, portrayed to the life in this immortal worsted-work. But there is a more affecting theory of the accomplishment of this labour than that told in the French vaudeville. The women of England were celebrated all over Europe for their work in embroidery; and when the husband of Matilda ascended the throne of England, it is reasonably concluded that the skilful daughters of the land were retained around the person of the queen. They were thus employed to celebrate their own calamities. But there was nothing in this tapestry which told a tale of degradation. There is no delineation of cowardly flight or abject submission. The colours of the threads might have been dimmed with the tears of the workers, but they would not have had the deep pain of believing that their homes were not gallantly defended. In this great invasion and conquest, as an old historian has poetically said, “was tried by the great assise of God’s judgment in battle the right of power between the English and Norman nations—a battle the most memorable of all others; and, howsoever miserably lost, yet most nobly fought on the part of England.” There was nothing in this tapestry to encourage another invasion eight centuries later. In one of the compartments of the tapestry were represented men gazing at a meteor or comet, which was held to presage the defeat of the Saxon Harold. A meteor had appeared in the south of France, at the time of the exhibition of the tapestry in 1803; and the mountebank Napoleon proclaimed that the circumstances were identical. The tapestry, having served its purpose of popular delusion, was returned to its original obscurity. It had previously been known to Lancelot and Montfaucon, French antiquaries; and Dr. Ducarel, in 1767, printed a description of it, in which he stated that it was annually hung up round the nave of the church of Bayeux on St. John’s day. During the last thirty years this ancient work has been fully described, and its date and origin discussed. Above all, the Society of Antiquaries have rendered a most valuable service to the world, by causing a complete set of coloured fac-simile drawings to be made by an accomplished artist, Mr. Charles Stothard, which have since been published in the ‘Vetusta Monumenta.’ The more remarkable scenes of the seventy-two compartments of the tapestry are engraved in our pages; and we may fitly close our account of the antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon period with a brief notice of this most interesting historical record.

In the Hôtel of the Prefecture at Bayeux is now preserved this famous tapestry. In 1814, so little was known of it in the town where it had remained for so many centuries, that Mr. Hudson Gurney was coming away without discovering it, not being aware that it went by the name of the “Toile de St. Jean.” It was coiled round a windlass; and drawing it out at leisure over a table, he found that it consisted of “a very long piece of brownish linen cloth, worked with woollen thread of different colours, which are as bright and distinct, and the letters of the superscriptions as legible, as if of yesterday.” The roll is twenty inches broad, and two hundred and fourteen feet in length. Mr. Gurney has some sensible remarks upon the internal evidence of the work being contemporaneous with the Conquest. In the buildings portrayed there is not the trace of a pointed arch; there is not an indication of armorial bearings, properly so called, which would certainly have been given to the fighting knights had the needlework belonged to a later age; and the Norman banner is invariably Argent, a cross Or in a bordure Azure, and not the latter invention of the Norman leopards. Mr. Gurney adds, “It may be remarked, that the whole is worked with a strong outline; that the clearness and relief are given to it by the variety of the colours.” The likenesses of individuals are preserved throughout. The Saxons invariably wear moustaches; and William, from his erect figure and manner, could be recognised were there no superscriptions. Mr. Charles Stothard, who made the drawings of the tapestry which have been engraved by the Society of Antiquaries, communicates some interesting particulars in a letter written in 1819. He adds to Mr. Gurney’s account of its character as a work of art, that “there is no attempt at light and shade, or perspective, the want of which is substituted by the use of different coloured worsteds. We observe this in the off legs of the horses, which are distinguished alone from the near legs by being of different colours. The horses, the hair, and mustachios, as well as the eyes and features of the characters, are depicted with all the various colours of green, blue, red, &c., according to the taste or caprice of the artist. This may be easily accounted for, when we consider how few colours composed their materials.

The first of the seventy-two compartments into which the roll of needlework is divided, is inscribed “Edwardus Rex” (Fig. 318). We omit the inscriptions which occur in each compartment, except in two instances. The crowned king seated on a chair of state, with a sceptre, is giving audience to two persons in attendance; and this is held to represent Harold departing for Normandy. The second shows Harold, and his attendants with hounds, on a journey. He bears the hawk on his hand, the distinguishing mark of nobility. The inscription purports that the figures represent Harold, Duke of the English, and his soldiers, journeying to Bosham (Fig. 320). The third is inscribed “Ecclesia,” and exhibits a Saxon church, with two bending figures about to enter. This we have given in another place as an architectural illustration (Fig. 216). The fourth compartment represents Harold embarking; and the fifth shows him on his voyage. We give the sixth (Fig. 324), which is his coming to anchor previous to disembarking on the coast of Normandy. The seventh and eighth compartments exhibit the seizure of Harold by the Count of Ponthieu. The ninth (Fig. 325) shows Harold remonstrating with Guy, the Count, upon his unjust seizure.

We pass over the compartments from ten to twenty-five, inclusive, which exhibit various circumstances connected with the sojourn of Harold at the court of William. Mr. Stothard has justly observed, “That whoever designed this historical record was intimately acquainted with whatever was passing on the Norman side, is evidently proved by that minute attention to familiar and local circumstances evinced in introducing, solely in the Norman party, characters certainly not essential to the great events connected with the story of the work.” The twenty-sixth compartment (Fig. 326) represents Harold swearing fidelity to William, with each hand on a shrine of relics. All the historians appear to be agreed that Harold did take an oath to William to support his claims to the crown of England, whatever might have been the circumstances under which that oath was extorted from him. The twenty-seventh compartment exhibits Harold’s return to England; and the twenty-eighth shows him on his journey after landing. For the convenience of referring to those parts of the tapestry which are connected with King Edward the Confessor, we have grouped them in one page (80), not following their order in the tapestry. The twenty-ninth compartment (Fig. 319) has an inscription purporting that Harold comes to Edward the King. The thirtieth shows the funeral procession of the deceased Edward to Westminster Abbey, a hand out of heaven pointing to that building as a monument of his piety (Fig. 321). The inscription says, “Here the body of Edward the King is borne to the church of St. Peter the Apostle.” The thirty-first and thirty-second compartments exhibit the sickness and death of the Confessor (Fig. 317). The thirty-third shows the crown offered to Harold (Fig. 322). The thirty-fourth presents us Harold on the throne, with Stigant the Archbishop (Fig. 323). Then comes the compartment representing the comet already mentioned; and that is followed by one showing William giving orders for the building of ships for the invasion of England (Fig. 327). We have then compartments, in which men are cutting down trees, building ships, dragging along vessels, and bearing arms and armour. The forty-third has an inscription, “Here they draw a car with wine and arms” (Fig. 329). After a compartment with William on horseback, we have the fleet on its voyage. The inscription to this recounts that he passes the sea with a great fleet, and comes to Pevensey. Three other compartments show the disembarkation of horses, the hasty march of cavalry, and the seizure and slaughter of animals for the hungry invaders. The forty-ninth compartment bears the inscription “This is Wadard.” Who this personage on horseback, thus honoured, could be, was a great puzzle, till the name was found in Domesday-Book as a holder of land in six English counties, under Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the Conqueror’s half-brother. This is one of the circumstances exhibiting the minute knowledge of the designers of this needlework. The fiftieth and fifty-first compartments present us the cooking and the feasting of the Norman army (Fig. 335). We have then the dining of the chiefs; the Duke about to dine, whilst Odo blesses the food; and the Duke sitting under a canopy. The fifty-fifth shows him holding a banner, and giving orders for the construction of a camp at Hastings (Fig. 334).

Figure spread at pages 84 and 85:

Figure 345
Decorative initial I, Coloured

Six other compartments show us the burning of a house with firebrands, the march out of Hastings, the advance to the battle, and the anxious questioning by William of his spies and scouts as to the approach of the army of Harold. The sixty-third presents a messenger announcing to Harold that the army of William is near at hand. The sixty-fourth bears the inscription, that Duke William addresses his soldiers that they should prepare themselves boldly and skilfully for the battle. We have then six compartments, each exhibiting some scene of the terrible conflict (Figs. 337, 338). The seventy-first shows the death of Harold (Fig. 339). The tapestry abruptly ends with the figures of flying soldiers.

We have probably been somewhat too minute in the description of this remarkable performance. If any apology be necessary, it may be best offered in the words of Mr. Amyot, in his ‘Defence of the Early Antiquity of the Bayeux Tapestry,’ which is almost conclusive as to the fact of its being executed under the direction of Matilda, the wife of the Conqueror (’Archæologia,’ vol. xix.). “If the Bayeux Tapestry be not history of the first class, it is perhaps something better. It exhibits genuine traits, elsewhere sought in vain, of the costume and manners of that age which of all others, if we except the period of the Reformation, ought to be the most interesting to us; that age which gave us a new race of monarchs, bringing with them new landholders, new laws, and almost a new language. As in the magic pages of Froissart, we here behold our ancestors of each race in most of the occupations of life—in courts and camps—in pastime and in battle—at feasts, and on the bed of sickness. These are characteristics which of themselves would call forth a lively interest; but their value is greatly enhanced by their connection with one of the most important events in history, the main subject of the whole design.