Post-classical history


English Art and Embroidery

We have seen that the Bayeux Tapestry is a many-layered masterpiece, how cleverly it seems to be shot through with the English viewpoint and how its account of the Battle of Hastings subtly and unexpectedly puts the emphasis on the controversial Count Eustace II of Boulogne and his Frenchmen rather than the Normans. Is there any further evidence of this?What can be known of the true origin and meaning of this extraordinary work?

When Bernard de Montfaucon found the Bayeux Tapestry in the late 1720s he reported that 'the common opinion in Bayeux is that Queen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, had the tapestry made'. 'This opinion,' he wrote, 'passes for a tradition in the region. It seems highly probable.'1 In this way one of the most enduring myths about the Bayeux Tapestry was propagated. To eighteenth-century observers, the most obvious thing about the tapestry was that it told the story of Duke William's famous conquest of England. How natural it must have been to assume that Queen Matilda and her ladies-in-waiting spent their idle hours, with needle in hand, embroidering the Conqueror's famous triumph over Harold while the man himself was busy reducing the English to final and complete submission. Despite the lack of evidence this story was for a long time accepted as true. In the nineteenth century a debate did occur between those who attributed Ha tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde' (Queen Matilda's Tapestry) to William's wife and those who thought, for various reasons, that it must be a later work and that it was, therefore, to be ascribed to another Matilda, the Empress Matilda who was the Conqueror's granddaughter. No one, however, seemed to doubt that it was the work of some Queen Matilda or other. The only problem was choosing the right one.

Study of the Bayeux Tapestry has always been hampered by the fact that there is not a single reference to it in any surviving contemporary document. Step by step, however, close examination of the tapestry itself and ingenious detective work have enabled these early assumptions to be discarded. Early observers assumed that this heroic frieze, which at first glance seemed to be a straightforward celebration of the Norman triumph, must itself be of Norman origin. Several distinct clues quite apart from its subversive content have overturned this belief.2

The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered wall hanging, and herein lies the first clue which suggests an English origin. From surviving texts it is known that Anglo-Saxon women, in particular, were renowned for their skill at embroidery. No tradition comparable in either quality or quantity seems to have existed on the other side of the Channel. The Normans excelled at building, the English at the smaller arts. Pious Anglo-Saxon nuns and wealthy noblewomen alike occupied their hands making exquisite vestments and decorative wall hangings.3 The skill, in particular, of Harold's sister Edith, the Con fessor's queen, is attested by contemporary sources. In The Life of King Edward there is fulsome praise for Edith's needlework. The anonymous author tells us that Queen Edith was 'another Minerva' in this art and according to William of Malmesbury she herself embroidered the costly robes which King Edward wore on festive occasions.4 It cannot be without interest that Edith appears unnamed, almost inconspicuously, at Edward's deathbed in the Bayeux Tapestry. It could even be that her hands, not Matilda's, were among those that stitched this famous work - making it the tragic record of a brother's death rather than the triumphant account of a husband's victory.

Edith aside, there were certainly many female embroiderers in England. Even William of Poitiers, no friend of the English, noted that 'the women are very skilled at needlework and weaving gold thread'.5 Similar remarks were made by another foreigner, an expatriate Fleming named Goscelin, who became English by adoption (and who may possibly be the author of The Life of King Edward).6 Written sources attest to Anglo-Saxon embroideries being frequently embellished with gold thread and fine jewels, although the Bayeux Tapestry, being so vast, has no such rare adornment, a fact that may have helped its survival intact through so many centuries. In addition to fine garments, wall hangings which commemorated Anglo-Saxon heroism on the field of battle were certainly not unknown. The lost work presented to the church at Ely by Æfflaed in memory of her late husband's heroic death at the Battle of Maldon in 991 is evidence of this.7

Although the conquerors generally despised the language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons, scoffing at English saints with their uncouth names like Egwin and Aldhelm, and pulling down unstylish English churches, they seem to have made an exception in the case of English embroidery. This was what the natives were good at. Some items the Normans purloined for sending home, some they commissioned anew. The Domesday survey of 1086, the great landholding record in England commissioned by William towards the end of his reign, intriguingly mentions some English needleworkers who were still esteemed for their art and in possession of land. One, AEflgyd, held land at Oakley in Buckinghamshire 'which Godric the sheriff granted her . . . on condition of her teaching his daughter gold embroidery work'. Another, Leofgyd, held a moderate estate at Knook in Wiltshire, because 'she made and makes the gold fringe of the king and queen'.8 There is further evidence for Queen Matilda's taste for English embroidery. When she died in 1083, her will reveals that she bequeathed two exquisite items of English embroidery to her favoured church of Holy Trinity in Caen. The will specifically mentions that one of these items, a chasuble, was as yet in the course of being embroidered and it names the embroiderer as 'Aderet's wife' at Winchester.9 This is not to say that there was no embroidery in Normandy or France; but the evidence for the quantity and quality of English work is much more abundant. The accumulated evidence thus strongly suggests that the Bayeux Tapestry was not made by triumphant stitchers. It was made by Englishwomen and they would have had sadness in their eyes, as their needles picked like crows over the corpses of their mutilated menfolk.

The next, and most vital, clue came from a close examination of the artwork of the tapestry. It is important to distinguish the designer of the work from the embroiderers who carried out the task of stitching. There is no similar surviving embroidery and historians of art have thus been obliged to draw parallels with manuscript illumination and drawings. In the 1950s the art historian Francis Wormald turned his attention to the Bayeux Tapestry.10 He found that he was able to identify a number of stylistic affinities, narrative analogies and visual quotations which strongly suggested, as many now suspected, that the tapestry's master artist was working within the Anglo-Saxon world, and not in Normandy at all. In particular, the designer seems to have drawn inspiration from a number of illuminated manuscripts which were produced at, or possessed by, the monasteries at one specific place - Canterbury. There were two monasteries at Canterbury: Christ Church Abbey and St Augustine's Abbey. The closest connections have been found to be with St Augustine's Abbey, the oldest and most prestigious abbey in England, founded by St Augustine himself in the sixth century as part of his mission to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons.

Since the 1950s, Wormald's pioneering observations have been built on by other art historians.11 Once again, those who have assumed that nothing new awaits to be discovered about the Bayeux Tapestry have been proved to be very wrong; much of the most exciting and intriguing art historical work was done in the 1990s, and it is entirely possible that more remains to be discovered. The artist of the tapestry seems to have made much use of the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch (a copy of the first six books of the Bible produced at St Augustine's Abbey in the mid-eleventh century). He also drew from a collection of texts known as the Canterbury Miscellany and a sixth-century work known as The St Augustine's Gospels.In the eleventh century The St Augustine's Gospelswere kept on the high altar of the abbey church at St Augustine's Abbey. The Gospels aresaid to have been brought to Canterbury in 597 by St Augustine; they are still used in the ceremony for the enthronement of archbishops of Canterbury. So impressive is the range of parallels that, in the words of one recent historian, 'the art historical evidence for the design and manufacture of the Tapestry at St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury is now so extensive and formidable that it should be taken as an established fact'.12

These parallels are drawn with artwork produced at male monasteries and the master artist of the tapestry was probably (as has often been assumed) a man, although it is also likely that the embroiderers were women. The tapestry's unity of style suggests that there was a single master designer, though he may have worked with one or more assistant. The designer could have been a monk at St Augustine's or a layman with a close connection with the abbey. Not all those who lived and worked in monastic communities had taken the vows of monks or were fully accepted as monks. The artist may have transferred his parchment designs on to the linen surface with a charcoal marker, although no trace of the outline has been found. Embroiderers would have then set to work with needle and thread. How long it took can only be guessed. The fact that it took two years for the Leek embroiderers to complete their nineteenth-century facsimile is of little help, for it is not known how many embroiderers were employed to stitch the original. Intriguingly there was a small nunnery in Canterbury on part of the estate owned by St Augustine's Abbey, though no positive evidence has been found indicating that this is where the tapestry was made. The linen could, of course, have been taken anywhere for this purpose. The surviving tapestry has been found to consist of eight joined-together sections; it is thus conceivable that a number of different workshops were engaged on the task.

In sum, it now seems well established that the artist of the Bayeux Tapestry was someone with a very close connection with St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury and that the tapestry was made by English embroiderers, probably at or near Canterbury. This is entirely consistent with our analysis of the tapestry's story. Covertly the work tells the same story about Harold as the one later told, around forty or fifty years afterwards, by Eadmer, a monk of the other great Canterbury monastery, Christ Church. It does not seem unreasonable to conclude that this was a story known to and preserved by the monks of Canterbury.

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