Post-classical history

References to scene numbers in the book refer to scenes in the first plate section. References to plates correspond to images in the second plate section.


In Search of the Bayeux Tapestry

Five miles from the coast at Arromanches, in the gently shelving valley of the River Aure, lies the historic Norman town of Bayeux. From a distance the medieval cathedral emerges first into view, a faint impression of towers and spires, which gradually falls into sharper perspective as you approach the fringes of the town. War has touched Bayeux, but not scarred it. A ring road circumscribes the old centre, like a protective wall, and within its confines lies a network of shadowy streets and old stone buildings; and here and there the late-medieval frontage of a half-timbered house protrudes into the sunlight, as if it had emerged unwittingly out of the past into the present. At the centre of the town rises the enormous cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece built upon a Romanesque shell, its stark western towers, completed in the days of William the Conqueror, still soaring above the family of little houses gathered closely around its base. But it is not the cathedral, remarkable as it is, that every year draws half a million visitors to Bayeux. They come to see one of the most famous, intricate and mysterious works of art that has ever been made. Signs directing you to this masterpiece are dotted around the centre of the town. They are marked with a single descriptive word, in French and in English:'Tapisserie.Tapestry'. Here, in Bayeux, anything else would be redundant.

The route marked 'Tapestry' takes you along these narrow streets, under the eves of ancient houses and beneath the angular shadows of the cathedral. It passes by shops selling every item that can possibly be embossed with images of the Bayeux Tapestry, from mugs to mouse pads, tea towels to T-shirts. You may pause to recall the conquering exploits of Duke William of Normandy under the pale green awning of the Restaurant Le Guillaume or remember his wife, Queen Matilda, at the Hotel de la Reine Mathilde. Not far away a crepe may be consumed at the somewhat more alarmingly branded Creperie Le Domesday. The journey takes you past these establishments and along the Rue de Nesmond until you reach a sizeable seventeenth-century building that was turned into a museum in the early 1980s. During the course of its long and dangerous history, the Bayeux Tapestry has been kept, and sometimes concealed, in several places in and around the town of Bayeux. This building is its modern home. Your eyes narrow at the museum's gate. Rain puddles scattered around the courtyard reflect the sun's fresh glare like so many broken panes of glass. A party of English schoolchildren has gathered in front of the door, a posse of noisy chatter, scuffed heels and clipboard assignments gripped with an innocent disregard. Two hundred yards away, Bayeux Cathedral is a silent witness to your journey, a stone silhouette imposed on a bright and changing sky.

You open the museum door, blinking as you enter. Inside it is quiet. You must buy a ticket. You follow a broad flight of stairs and then you emerge into a series of introductory rooms, like antechambers taking you step by step into the inner sanctum of a medieval mystery. At length you arrive in the longest of all the rooms, a long, windowless, narrow corridor with an unexpected bend in the middle. It is here that the Bayeux Tapestry is displayed, carefully illuminated in the darkness behind a thick glass case. It is stretched out in front of you like an enormous strip of film, a great colourful frieze of the Middle Ages, bright and lively, receding narrower and narrower into a dim and uncertain distance. Although barely half a metre wide, the work is astonishingly long, incredibly long for something that is so old and that ought to be so fragile that if you picked it up it might collapse into shreds. It runs for as far as can be seen along the wall of this narrow gallery, and then it rounds a bend and continues for as long again. It is, in total, about seventy metres in length; and it would have been perhaps ten metres longer had the final scenes not been lost at some distant point in the past. Even as it is, the surviving tapestry would outstretch Nelson's Column by more than a third of its height.

The dramatic story of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 is set out in these threads, stitched by contemporaries and preserved and displayed here, in the very heart of victorious Normandy. Despite its great age and fragility, the work is uniquely well preserved. Most of what we see today is entirely original, and in those places where it has been repaired, the marks left by the original stitches seem, with certain exceptions, to have been followed with care, and such restorations as have been made to the tapestry do not generally interfere with the thrust of its interpretation.1Embroidered on to a plain linen background in wools of red, yellow, grey, two greens and three shades of blue, the tapestry remains, against all expectation, as bright and captivating as if it had been made yesterday rather than nearly a thousand years ago. As you step along the dimly lit gallery, the extraordinary story unfolds. The linen stage fills up quickly with busy figures, in castles and halls, on ships and on horseback, urgently looking here, pointing there, full of meaning, their voices straining through the centuries to tell us something secret and important. This is a medieval tale of intrigue, danger and war. It begins with the mysterious events that occurred a year or two before 1066 - the crucial background to what followed before building to a climax with the events that made 1066 the most decisive year in English history. Amidst all the high drama, everyday details, recorded incidentally and without pretension by the artist, vividly bring his world to life: here some men are feasting on spitted birds; there they are drinking wine from ivory horns; others hunt, sow or go to church; men wade through the shallow water with their tunics hitched high or struggle, bent forward, to load heavy provisions on to a waiting ship. Each time you look, it seems that some further beguiling detail, previously missed, becomes apparent. The work is at once accessible and straightforward and yet at the same time deeply mysterious and arcane. A Latin commentary running along the top of the main frieze by turns illuminates and then infuriates us by its very terseness and ambiguity. Above and below the main frieze, two narrow borders are filled with strange designs: creatures, real and mythical, ancient fables drawn from Classical authors, astrological symbols, scenes of everyday life, the odd erotic incident.

Despite all the signs saying 'Tapestry' the Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry at all. It is, to be more accurate, an embroidery, for the images are stitched on to the fabric, rather than woven in the true manner of tapestry-making. That said, the work is probably the most famous 'tapestry' in the world and it would be unnecessarily pedantic to insist on calling it anything else. It stands alone. We have no equivalent wall hanging from its time to hold up for comparison, nor do we have any document which describes when, why and by whom it was made. What can be known about the Bayeux Tapestry can only be deduced by historical detective work. Likewise, how it came to be in Bayeux, where it only appears in the surviving records in 1476, must be surmised, if at all, from evidence.

Even after you have seen the Bayeux Tapestry many times, the detail, length and complexity of the work remain astonishing and beguiling. Depicted along its length are 626 human figures, 202 horses, 55 dogs, 505 other animals, 49 trees, 37 buildings and 41 ships. It is a man's tale: of 626 human figures only three in the main frieze, and two in the borders, are female. There are a few intriguing instances where the identity of a person, although not named, can be deciphered; but to identify individuals we are generally reliant on the running Latin inscription.

The inscription singles out by name a mere fifteen of the woollen actors; clearly, these are the key players in any quest to understand the true origin and meaning of the work. The named characters belong, for the most part, to the higher echelons of medieval society and they include famous men who would appear in any account of 1066; men such as Edward the Confessor, the old English king, and the two main rivals for his throne, Earl Harold of Wessex and Duke William of Normandy. In addition, however, four very obscure characters are also identified: a dwarf called Turold, depicted in the role of a groom [plate 1]; an English lady identified as Ælfgyva, seemingly embroiled in illicit liaison with a priest [plate 3];and two minor Norman knights of no obvious significance, Wadard and Vital [plates 8 and 9]. The little dwarf, the elegant but scandalous lady and the two lesser-ranking Norman knights share the limelight with kings, dukes, counts, earls and bishops, teasing us to rediscover from other sources who they were and what strange significance they had in the artist'svision of 1066. We must attempt to turn these curious characters into more rounded individuals. Amongst those who are better known is Bishop Odo of Bayeux [plate 10]. Odo was William's greedy and ambitious half-brother. A key supporter of Duke William, he became, thanks to the Conquest, one of the richest men ever to have lived in England. Compared to other contemporary accounts, the Bayeux Tapestry gives Odo a surprising degree of prominence in the story of 1066. Studies of the tapestry have devoted much attention to the flattering way in which Bishop Odo is portrayed, but the focus on Odo has eclipsed the emphasis which is more subtly placed on others and it has obscured some of the more astonishing layers of hidden meaning in the work.

The popular conception of the Bayeux Tapestry is that it is a work of Norman triumphalism, of immense historical interest, no doubt, but ultimately a straightforward work produced by the Normans in order to celebrate and justify the conquest of England. Read any one of the many popular accounts and you will be told a similar story. It is said that we can see, in these threads, the childless English king, Edward the Confessor, near the end of his life, sending his foremost earl, Harold of Wessex, on a mission to Normandy; that Harold'smission is to confirm to Edward's distant cousin, Duke William of Normandy, that the old king has chosen him to be his heir; that after a misadventure in another part of France, from which Duke William obligingly rescues him, Earl Harold duly swears a solemn oath to be William's man. Back in England, however, when Edward dies in January 1066, Harold treacherously seizes the throne for himself. Duke William has been cruelly wronged by the greedy Englishman and so he assembles a large Norman army and invades England in order to claim his rightful inheritance; and in the end, of course, he defeats the perfidious English at the Battle of Hastings (though not without a little help from his half-brother Odo) and Harold gets his come-uppance thanks to the famous arrow in the eye. The story is told 'strictly from the Norman point of view.' 'It is all presented from a Norman perspective.' 'The story told in the tapestry is told from the Norman point of view.' Such is the view of the Bayeux Tapestry reiterated time and time again in travel guides, brochures and popular history books.

The truth is very different, and it is much more extraordinary. It has emerged only slowly over the last fifty years half-hidden in the dry journals and dusty tomes of academia. Much remains mysterious, and not all specialists are in agreement, but there are very good reasons to believe that the Bayeux Tapestry was not made in Normandy at all but in conquered England, probably within about a decade of 1066, and that the ingenious master artist, who drew the designs for a team of English embroiderers, produced a dangerously many-layered masterpiece. The result is brilliantly conceived, and full of hidden meaning. Only superficially does it support the Norman story. It is a testament to the ingenuity of the artist that so many ensuing generations have failed to notice that his agenda was in reality subversive. Working under the domination of the Normans, he designed the embroidery in a way that, superficially, would not displease the conquerors; however, at the deeper level he tells us a very different story. At a time when it was not possible to record the English view in writing the artist did so pictorially. What could not be said could at least be shown, subtly and ingeniously; and a work of art that the Normans could accept and admire was in reality a Trojan horse within which the English viewpoint was ingeniously preserved. There is thus another story stitched in these pictures, a story that we must rediscover. It is a subversive account in which the Norman claim to the English throne, and much of the propaganda that the Normans were circulating, is systematically contradicted.2 Far from being Norman propaganda, the Bayeux Tapestry is more like a long-lost version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. At last we can begin to unravel this hidden story and in the process astonishing new light can be shed on the dark background to Duke William's pretension to the English throne in 1066.

In the same vein, it is often assumed that since the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Norman victory, it must be a Norman work. Mention la Tapisserie de Bayeux to a French person and you will often encounter a look of complete bewilderment. Mention la Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde (Queen Matilda's Tapestry) and you are much more likely to be greeted with a smile of recognition. Old legends can be very enduring. There was once a romantic notion, first recorded in the eighteenth century, that the Bayeux Tapestry owes its origin to William'sproud and admiring wife, Queen Matilda. She and her busy handmaidens, so it was said, embroidered the work in order to celebrate William's recent achievement in conquering the English. This notion has long been abandoned by historians (in France as much as anywhere else) but the old name has proved uncommonly difficult to displace in the popular French mind. A plaque bearing the words La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde is still fixed to the wall outside the museum in Bayeux where the tapestry is kept, presumably because numerous French visitors continue to arrive at its gates in the full expectation of seeing Queen Matilda's handiwork.

It is undeniable that the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Norman victory; the victory itself could not be denied. We shall see how the master artist set about subtly recording the English version of events that led up to the Norman Conquest, but more than that he sought to understand the Conquest in terms of the deeply held religious and metaphysical beliefs of his time. It was a tenet of eleventh-century Christianity that all great events were caused by the will of God. Thus, in seeking to explain how England came to be conquered by the Normans, the artist looked for guidance to the Old Testament scriptures and in the final analysis he sought to rationalise the subjugation of England as a divine punishment for sin. This was how the helpless, conquered people attempted to understand what had happened to them; the Normans, too, claimed God on their side. Yet there is a twist to all this; and the full implications of this twist have never truly been grasped. The artist appears to have been a supporter of Count Eustace II of Boulogne, a French count who, though he joined Duke William's invasion in 1066, was in other respects a rival to the Normans in the power games of northern France. He may even have had his own claim to the English throne. Generally misunderstood and wrongly called a 'Norman' in almost all popular accounts, Count Eustace of Boulogne was merely a lukewarm ally of Normandy and he was on the whole deeply distrusted by Duke William. Yet in the tapestry only three persons, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Duke William of Normandy and Count Eustace of Boulogne, are named on the Norman side as being present at Hastings, and of these three Count Eustace, of all people, seems to be given the starring role [plate 11]. Particularly close attention must be paid to the career of this ambitious and powerful Frenchman. The perspective of Boulogne, too long forgotten, ignored or misunderstood, holds some of the Bayeux Tapestry's most beguiling secrets. The quest of this book is to attempt to unravel these and other millennial mysteries of the work.

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