Post-classical history


Count Eustace and the Death of King Harold

Eustace in the Bayeux Tapestry is a striking figure, swinging around on his horse and pointing out the duke, and above him in the upper border the inscription spells out his name in prominent letters, or at least it used to, and herein lies a very curious anomaly [plate 11]. At some point before the rediscovery of the tapestry in the eighteenth century a semicircular tear in the border obliterated most of Eustace's name. The tear is large; it seems deliberately centred around the name and may well have been an act of deliberate censorship.

Whether deliberate or not, it left observers in ignorance who the pointing figure was. The first person in modern times to identify the figure as Eustace was the English artist Charles Stothard. Stothard spent many hours poring over the Bayeux Tapestry during the years 1816 to 1818. When he first examined this scene, all that could be made out were the letters VS, evidently at the end of the name. The torn and ragged edges around the inscription had been doubled under and sewn down. Stothard carefully unpicked the stitching and was able to discover three more letters. The first letter, at the beginning, was an E; the other two, TI, came just before the letters at the end, VS. Stothard then noted that the letters of the name appeared to alternate between green and buff colours (this is not now the case, presumably as a result of subsequent restoration). From this, and the size of the space in the middle, Stothard deduced that there were four letters missing, giving him E—TIVS. 'V in Latin is equivalent to either a 'u' or a V in our own script. 'I therefore conjecture,' he wrote, 'that the letters as they now stand may be read Eustatius, and that the person bearing the standard beneath is intended for Eustace, earl of Boulogne, who I believe was a principal commander in the army of William.'1

The very few doubts that have since been voiced about this identification appear to be misplaced.2 That the figure is Eustace is confirmed by a remarkable further detail, apparently missed by Stothard. Eustace's nickname in Old French was Eustace 'als gernons', a sobriquet which meant 'Eustace the Moustachioed' or 'Eustace the Whiskered': for he was apparently well known for his flowing moustachios.3 At the time of the Battle of Hastings it was the fashion for the Normans and other northern Frenchmen to wear their hair closely cropped at the back and their faces clean-shaven. It was the English, not the French, who typically wore moustaches. Count Eustace stood out as a grand and exceptional figure, a Frenchman with a magnificent set of whiskers; and there on the tapestry we can clearly see them, a full moustache and whiskers, drooping in an elegant blond curve from beside his ears to under his nose. There is, moreover, no doubt that Eustace's facial hair is an authentic part of the embroidery, for the wool has every appearance of being original, rather than subsequent repair work. The whiskers also appear in the earliest unpublished drawing by Antoine Benoît around 1730.4 Interestingly, after the Norman Conquest the French nickname 'als gernons'became more widely used in England and over the course of subsequent centuries it evolved into the English first name Algernon - a name whose aristocratic resonance provides another faint echo of the seismic social impact of the Norman Conquest.

In the Norman account of William of Poitiers Eustace is a coward who advises Duke William to retreat before suffering a blow in the back and being carried off the battlefield 'more dead than alive'. In the slightly earlier account of the battle, the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, written by Eustace's kinsman Bishop Guy of Amiens, the story is very different. In the thick of battle, Eustace, the 'scion of a noble dynasty', is singled out for special praise for rescuing the duke, who had been unhorsed during an intense bout of fighting. Eustace valiantly gives up his own warhorse for William's use. One of Eustace's knights then gives Eustace his horse and together Eustace and William remount and return to fight 'where the weapons gleamed the most'. 'By their two swords,' the Carmencontinues, 'they clear the battlefield of English troops. A good number desert, hesitate and are destroyed. Just as a wood, when the axe is applied, is chopped to pieces, so the English forest was reduced to nothing.'5 The Carmen makes no mention of Eustace receiving any injury; indeed in its account Eustace continues fighting to the end.

In putting the emphasis on Eustace the tapestry is following the tenor (though not the detail) of the Carmen's story. We have seen how the word FRANCI in the tapestry is also a subtle indication where the artist's sympathies lie, for pictorially it appears to designate the French fighting under Count Eustace rather than the Normans. There is further intriguing evidence of this. Few things are more obscure than the origins of heraldry, the system of inherited family devices, painted on shields, that has traditionally been taken as first appearing only in the twelfth century. Clues as to the life and customs of Count Eustace II of Boulogne are few and far between, but in her groundbreaking book published in 1980, Origins of Heraldry, Beryl Platts ingeniously argued that heraldry has its origin in the practices of the counts of Boulogne and their kinsmen, men who shared a common inheritance from Charlemagne. According to Platts, following the Norman Conquest it was Count Eustace II of Boulogne, and not the Normans or the Angevins, who first brought heraldry to the British Isles.

The Bayeux Tapestry is usually thought to belong to a pre-heraldic age and the emblems on its banners and shields have generally not been considered as heraldic or even proto-heraldic symbols. Eustace's own banner in the tapestry has, frustratingly, defied conclusive identification.6 However, Platts pointed out that in the great depiction of the advancing knights at Hastings, the leading horseman - the one who bears down on the line of upright English axe men - carries a banner on his lance-tip that seems to bear the three roundels or balls (boules) arranged in a triangle that to this day are part of the heraldry of Boulogne [scene 49].7 This is an extraordinary discovery, not only for the history of heraldry but for that of the Bayeux Tapestry as well. It would be hard to over emphasise the iconographic significance of this particular banner. The depiction of the charge at Hastings is one of the most vivid and exciting scenes in the whole of the work. The moment when the first charging knight reaches the first standing English housecarl and plunges his bannered lance into the Englishman's shield marks the true commencement of the historic battle. It is as if everything else has been leading up to this point and the tapestry shows Boulogne, not Normandy, leading the way. Once more the argument that the tapestry is covertly pro-Boulogne seems to find dramatic support. Platts has also identified (albeit very tentatively) other lance-tip banners borne by the invaders as being emblems of Senlis, Alost and St-Pol or Hesdin-all subsidiary or allied territories of Boulogne.

In the Carmen, the high point of Eustace's role at the Battle of Hastings comes with the death of Harold, for he is said to be one of the four men who delivers a mortal blow to the last Anglo-Saxon king. It is not hard to imagine that, justly or unjustly, Eustace looked upon Harold as the representative of his old adversary Godwin and sought at Hastings to gain revenge for the bloody crimes of 1036 and the humiliations of 1051. It might seem at first sight that the tapestry leaves us guessing, or is simply non-committal, as to the identity of the knight who cuts Harold to the ground [plate 12]. There is, however, an astonishing clue that has lain unnoticed for centuries. As the knight leans over, ready to strike Harold on the thigh, the top of his helmet points horizontally at the disjointed letters TUS: EST, which have been separated out of the words INTERFECTUS EST (was killed). There is no reason why these six letters should have been separated and placed on a lower line in the way that they are, for there would have been ample room for the lettering to have continued on the same line. Are we being told something else? It takes little imagination to reverse the two triplets TUS:EST so that they become EST:TUS, which gives us, in the correct order, six of the nine letters of Eustace's name, as it is spelt in Latin (EUSTATIUS). This raises the extraordinary possibility that the so-called 'Norman knight' who delivers the killer blow to Harold is not an anonymous figurine but a coded portrait of Count Eustace II of Boulogne and thus that in its secret treatment of Harold's death the tapestry is once again following the tenor of the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio. An open mouthed bird in the upper border even points to the vacant space with its wing, as if to draw our attention to the unnecessary gap. A hand grasping a golden sword appears almost out of nowhere, from the back of an Englishman, pointing also at these same letters, TUS:EST, from the other side. Can it, therefore, be that this is a coded way of identifying Count Eustace of Boulogne as the man who struck the killer blow to Harold and that TUS:EST should be read EST:TUS, an abbreviation for EUSTATIUS?

The fact that the figure in question does not have whiskers and that he bears no obvious resemblance to the named Count Eustace II of Boulogne is not particularly relevant. The tapestry's artist was following the conventions of his day. Realism was not a priority; what mattered was to tell his many-layered tale, cleverly and subtly within the artistic conventions he was familiar with, and to draw the moral. The crown that Harold wears when seated on his throne, for example, looks different from the one that is handed to him just before; and Harold sometimes loses and regains his moustache. Moreover, had the figure who strikes Harold been shown with whiskers, the secrecy of the message that this is Eustace would have been destroyed. Of greater relevance is to compare this image with what we read in the Carmen, for in the Carmen Eustace is explicitly mentioned as one of those who killed Harold.

In the Carmen's account, Duke William calls upon Eustace to join him in an attack on Harold, whom he had spotted fighting fiercely on top of the ridge. With them go Hugh, who was the brother of Count Guy of Ponthieu, and Robert Gilfard, a French baron.8Each of these four delivers a mortal blow to Harold, although the poet admits that others were there as well. In the words of the Carmen: 'The first of the four, piercing the king's shield and chest with his lance, drenched the ground with a gushing stream of blood. The second with his sword cut off his head below the protection of his helm. The third liquefied his entrails with his spear. And the fourth cut off his thigh and carried it some distance away.'9 If we are to take the order in which these actions are described as reflecting the order with which the actors are first mentioned, William is the one who pierces Harold's chest with his lance; Eustace cuts off his head with a blow of his sword; Hugh pierces him in the stomach; and the fourth, Robert Gilfard, strikes him on the thigh. The figure shown on the tapestry striking Harold on the thigh might, therefore, seem to be Robert Gilfard rather than Eustace, with Eustace, Duke William and Hugh nowhere in sight.

Nevertheless, the letters TUS:EST adjacent to the figure and the pictorial clues are teasingly suggestive. The fact that the Carmen has Eustace strike a fatal blow of any sort makes the case for the coded message more than just arguable. It is quite possible that the artist of the tapestry, like the author of the Carmen, is giving us a set-piece scene, a scene that is designed to show up the contribution of one man in particular, Count Eustace, rather than portray an accurate depiction of what happened. In other respects, in highlighting Count Eustace'srole at Hastings, the tapestry follows the tenor of the Boulonnais story told in the Carmen, rather than the specific details (such as Eustace giving up his horse for William), and there is, in fact, no proof that the artist knew the Carmen or if he did that he properly understood it. The artist may be simply giving us his own impression of Eustace's involvement in the killing of Harold, of a story that was circulating at the time amongst the followers of Count Eustace II of Boulogne. If this is so, the artist is merely paying lip service to the story that Harold was killed by an arrow in or near the eye; the telling blow is struck by Count Eustace with his sword.

It is even possible that the next eight Englishmen (including two in the lower border) are also meant to stand as symbolic representations of Harold, for they are all framed by an H shape, formed by an oddly flying lance and two swords [scene 58]. One lance pierces an Englishman's shield and then enters his chest, echoing one of the ways that Harold is said to have been killed (apparently by Duke William) in the Carmen.Another lance enters an Englishman's mouth, the mouth of a perjurer if we take this man as another symbolic representation of Harold. One of these figures falls over, pierced by a lance. Another, as he falls, is trampled underfoot by a horse. Two bodies lie in the lower border; one has a lance still planted in his chest and the other apparently is the one struck in the mouth. The conjecture that all of these figures are meant as symbolic representations of Harold is strengthened by the fact that the lances which attack them are not directed by any human hand. Close observation shows that the hand of the knight that appears at first sight to hold one or other of them is, in fact, completely empty. The three lances have already been directed on their course by the paws of two great lions (without wings) in the upper border, presumably illustrating the contemporary belief that the outcome of the battle was directed by the hand of the God.

Count Eustace II of Boulogne, who in orthodox studies of the Bayeux Tapestry has been typically brushed aside in a sentence or two, may, in fact, be the central and most important person in the work. Perhaps, for the first time in almost a thousand years, we are beginning to understand some of its deepest and most beguiling secrets. The anomaly of Eustace's appearance with Bishop Odo in the battle scenes is all the more remarkable if we remember (though it has long been overlooked) that Eustace took up arms and joined English rebels in an attack on Dover Castle in the autumn of 1067 and that when he did so he was attacking the English castle which now belonged to one man in particular: Bishop Odo of Bayeux.

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