Post-classical history


Bayeux Cathedral and the Mystery of Survival

The early history of the Bayeux Tapestry remains obscure. It is possible that the tapestry came into Odo's possession not long after it was made and that it was taken by him to Bayeux. This cannot be proven; but it is certainly not implausible. His early possession of the work is understandable if he were its patron and it is consistent, too, with the alternative theory that it was produced under the patronage of someone else, someone who wished to flatter Odo, like Eustace of Boulogne, and who presented it to him as a gift. When first recorded by history in 1476 we find that the tapestry is a possession of Bayeux Cathedral and that it was displayed on occasions around the nave. But was the work originally intended for an ecclesiastical setting?

The widespread notion that the tapestry was specifically made to be hung around the nave of Bayeux Cathedral is unlikely to be right. It was certainly the practice to do so in the late fifteenth century, but its original purpose was probably quite different. It was pointed out by the art historian Charles Dodwell as long ago as 1966 that the tapestry's tale is secular in tone, having much in common with the epic genre of chansons de geste in general and the Chanson de Roland in particular.1 Although designed by someone connected with St Augustine's Abbey in England, the artist was not necessarily a life-long monk or even a monk at all; he could have been a layman attached to the abbey, of which there were often many. The tapestry's religious overtones are no more than would be expected in a secular work of its day intended to decorate the hall of some great lord. Had it been intended to be hung in an ecclesiastical setting the emphasis of the tale would probably have been quite different. Odo, for example, would surely have been depicted in his episcopal role, and in his episcopal robes, and Bayeux Cathedral itself would have been represented.

The last point is a telling one. Bayeux is shown on the embroidery but it is symbolised by a castle. Nowhere is the cathedral in sight. Bayeux cathedral could easily have been illustrated: William's army passes through Bayeux on its way back from the Breton campaign, and a passing glance at the cathedral could have been made, just as a glance is made in an earlier scene towards Mont-Saint-Michel. It seems that the artist simply did not conceive of Bayeux as a place with a cathedral. For this reason alone the idea that the tapestry was specifically made to be hung around the nave of Bayeux Cathedral on the occasion of its completion and rededication on 14 July 1077 is highly implausible. A great new church is shown in the tapestry in the course of completion; it is the largest building depicted in the whole of the work; and the hand of God even descends from the heavens in order to bless the new building. But this is not Bayeux Cathedral. It is Edward the Confessor's magnificent church at Westminster Abbey. The only other church depicted is the English church at Bosham. If the Bayeux Tapestry was conceived and made to celebrate the completion of Bayeux Cathedral, it does so in a remarkably strange way. It is true that at the top of one of the pillars in the nave of the cathedral is a little stone rendering of Harold's oath scene. This, perhaps, confuses the issue in the minds of some visitors; but the little frieze in the cathedral is a nineteenth-century addition and it is of no relevance to medieval history.2 It is not even certain that the tapestry shows the oath scene as taking place at Bayeux, let alone that the relics over which Harold swore were those of Bayeux Cathedral. The most that can be deduced from what we see in the tapestry is that the oath (so far as the tapestry's story goes) took place on open ground either at or near Bayeux.

It is much more likely that the tapestry was made to be hung around the walls of a large baronial hall, where it would have provided the backdrop to feasting, drinking and the telling of epic tales. Odo could well have possessed such a hall; perhaps he had more than one at his various abodes in Normandy and England. In this setting one can even imagine a jongleur (a visiting Turold?) singing the tale of 1066 to a large assembled company of knights and barons, while the story itself lay illustrated for all to see along the interior walls. It seems plausible to suggest that the tapestry (whether it was the gift of others or a commission for himself) was made while Odo was still in power, before his disgrace and imprisonment in 1082. So much is generally agreed by specialists; but beyond that the tapestry is difficult to date. William's army suffered a humiliating defeat at Dol in Brittany during the autumn of 1076. The tapestry shows a Norman success at Dol in alliance with Harold in 1064 or 1065. The depiction of this victory would have been less appropriate in the eyes of the Normans after their defeat at Dol in 1076. On the basis of this one can tentatively propose that the Bayeux Tapestry was made to be hung in a baronial hall at some time before the autumn of 1076. How, then, did it come into the possession of Bayeux Cathedral? And how did it survive for so long through the obscure Middle Ages before resurfacing in the written records of the cathedral in 1476? There is no certain answer to these questions. The following, though based on evidence, is a speculative reconstruction of what might have happened.

In November 1095 Bishop Odo of Bayeux journeyed to the centre of France in order to attend the Council of Clermont, the great gathering of the Church at which Pope Urban II pronounced the First Crusade. Perhaps the Bayeux Tapestry had not really been to Odo's taste; he might well have suspected it of anti-Norman bias from the start. Some historians have suggested that, even in its earliest days, the tapestry was not widely exposed. By 1095, however, almost thirty years had passed since the great events of 1066 and Odo had perhaps warmed again to the flattering way in which he is depicted in the embroidery - Odo, the second Archbishop Turpin, the indispensable right-hand man of William the Conqueror, Odo, the architect of the Norman victory. Did the old man perhaps cart the tapestry across France, with his sizeable baggage train, all the way to Clermont in order to display it to some of his more like-minded fellow ecclesiastics?

At some point before 1102 the poet Baudri of Bourgeuil saw the Bayeux Tapestry; his poem addressed to Countess Adela of Blois certainly bears the mark of its imprint, but quite when, or where, he saw the work is unknown. There is no record of his having ever visited Bayeux, nor that he ever met Bishop Odo. Their paths, however, crossed at least once for Baudri seems to have been present at the Council of Clermont as well. He later wrote a history of the Crusade - Hieros-lymitae Historiae - in the course of which he gave a famous description of Urban's speech in such terms that it can hardly be doubted that he was reporting what he had heard with his own ears. Was it, perhaps, on this occasion that Baudri had a chance to see the Bayeux Tapestry? This is not inconceivable, for Baudri wrote his own poem only a few years later, some time between 1099 and 1102. There is something rather pleasing in supposing that Odo, the old rascal, decided to show off the exploits of his younger years as retold in the stitches of the English; and to that end he brought along the tapestry to display before the assembled grandees at Clermont on the eve of the First Crusade.

The poet Wace was born on the island of Jersey broadly around the time that Baudri wrote his poem Adelae Comitis-sae. He became a learned cleric at Caen, a few miles from Bayeux, and by the mid-1160s had been granted a prebend or stipend at Bayeux Cathedral by King Henry II. It was during this period that he devoted himself to writing one of his major works, a long history of the dukes of Normandy in rhymed French (or more specifically western Norman) verse called the Roman de Rou. A large section of the poem covers the events of the Norman Conquest of England. Wace researched assiduously; he travelled widely, trawled through documents and interviewed contemporaries. One might presume that he would have known of and used the evidence of the Bayeux Tapestry, especially if it was being held at Bayeux at the time. Strangely, however, there is no unequivocal evidence that he knew of the tapestry at all. There are, it is true, three striking points of similarity that are shared with no other surviving source: only Wace and the tapestry tell us where Harold was taken after he was captured by Count Guy of Ponthieu - the castle of Beaurain; only Wace and the tapestry site Harold's oath at (or at least near) Bayeux; and only Wace and the tapestry recount the story of Bishop Odo riding into the confusion of battle at Hastings, waving his baton to encourage the more faint-hearted knights. But the poem contains more points of divergence than it does of striking similarity.

Thus Wace makes no mention of the existence of the Bayeux Tapestry itself. Nor does he make any mention of Turold, Ælfgyva, Wadard, Stigand, Vital and Count Eustace of Boul­ogne. There are striking differences as regards Harold's oath scene. In the tapestry Harold swears the oath standing upright, touching two reliquary boxes with tremulously outstretched fingers [plate 5]; but Wace has Harold kneeling, not standing, and he swears the oath only upon one reliquary box.3 The copper figurehead on Duke William's ship, on which he made the crossing to England in 1066, is described by Wace in the following terms:

On the head of the ship at the front,
Which sailors call the prow,
He had a child made out of copper
Carrying a strung bow and arrow.
The child had his face turned towards England
And looked as if he were firing in that direction
So that, wherever the ship sailed,
He looked as if he were firing in front of him.4

In the tapestry, however, the image is quite different; here the embroidered figurehead is situated at the back of the ship, not at the prow, and the child statue holds a horn to his lips rather than a bow in his hand [scene 35].5 Moreover, although Wace has Odo riding in the battle encouraging the others with his baton, he describes him as riding a white horse and wearing chain-mail; Odo in the tapestry rides a blue horse and (more pertinently) does not wear chain mail.6 Such differences are striking. They have led a number of historians to conclude that Wace probably did not see the tapestry, although at the same time he must have been living and working at Bayeux, or at least in nearby Caen, and he held a position at Bayeux Cathedral. How could he have not known of the tapestry when he trawled for his source material so widely? And if he did not see it, where could the tapestry have been during the time that Wace wrote?

A clue to the answer, or at least a possible answer, lies in Bayeux Cathedral itself.7 In the central part of the nave lie some steps leading down to an old crypt that dates from the time of Bishop Odo. On the south side there is a window to the crypt and on the lintel of this window, facing out to the nave, there is a piece of french doggerel that was engraved in the fifteenth century. It tells us that on 3 April 1412 the then Bishop of Bayeux, Jean de Boissay, died and that as they were digging a grave for him in a prominent part of the church they made a surprising discovery.

As this place was being dug
In front of the great altar
The lower chapel [the crypt] was discovered
Which had previously been unknown.
It was there that he was buried.
May God care for his soul. Amen.8

It appears, therefore, that the old eleventh-century crypt had been blocked up and forgotten about and that it was unknown in the early fifteenth century until rediscovered in 1412. Exactly when it became blocked cannot be stated for certain. A document in the thirteenth century implies that the crypt was inaccessible then, but nevertheless known about.9 It does not seem impossible that the crypt was damaged and became inaccessible in 1105 when Henry I, at war with his brother Robert Curthose, attacked Bayeux Cathedral. Writers linked to Bayeux described this attack as devastating; Wace himself tells us that 'the church was entirely destroyed'.10 That is a poetic exaggeration, since the building was not quite so badly affected as that; but there is no doubt that damage was done.

Just prior to his departure on Crusade, in September 1096, Odo might well have had the tapestry spread out before him for one last time and then placed it for safe custody in the safest place that there was, which was in the crypt of his cathedral at Bayeux. Less than ten years later, if this conjecture is right, the crypt would have become inaccessible and it was not opened up until 1412. If this is what happened we can now understand how in the 1160s Wace was unable to inspect the tapestry: for it lay concealed, presumably tightly-wound in a large chest, in the blocked-up crypt beneath his feet. Those points in his poem which are notably similar to the tapestry may be the result of written or oral traditions at Bayeux itself, traditions which, perhaps, recorded the distant memories of those who had seen the tapestry. Thus Bishop Odo was remembered riding in to the battle and waving his baton; but the details of the scene were not known to Wace and he described them quite differently.

As the grave was being dug for Bishop Jean in 1412, the crypt was rediscovered. Was it perhaps on this occasion that the Bayeux Tapestry itself came to light? The first time that the tapestry is mentioned in any surviving written document is in 1476, when it is recorded as among the possessions of the cathedral. An earlier note in the cathedral records states that repairs were effected to a certain tapestry in 1463, which may possibly be our embroidery. If anything like this is correct, we can understand how the Bayeux Tapestry survived through the long period between the 1070s and the fifteenth century, when so much else was lost. There is moreover no unequivocal evidence that any other writer of the twelfth century saw the Bayeux Tapestry; the speculation that it lay quiet and undisturbed for over 300 years in the collapsed crypt of Bayeux Cathedral would account for that as well.11

One further piece of intriguing evidence should be mentioned, though its import is unclear. There is a curious reference to a 'large high-loom tapestry without gold, the story of William of Normandy, how he conquered England' in an inventory dating from 1420 of the tapestries of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (1419-67).12 In the context it seems unlikely that this 'tapestry', of which we have no other description, is the Bayeux Tapestry. But could the conjectured recent discovery of the Bayeux embroidery in 1412 have inspired a tapestry, in the strict sense, to be commissioned on the same theme by Duke Philip's immediate predecessor, Duke John the Fearless? Both dukes were noted as collectors of many and various tapestries of their day; news of the Bayeux discovery may have quickly been brought to Burgundy. Moreover, the 'William the Conqueror' tapestry does not appear in an earlier Burgundian inventory of 1404, and so it is not impossible that it was made in the years between 1412 and 1420. Clearly however, we are at the very limit of what is knowable. Sufficient evidence is simply not available to give anything like a definitive answer to these questions.

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