Post-classical history


The Patronage of the Bayeux Tapestry

The view that Bishop Odo of Bayeux was the patron of the Bayeux Tapestry - because it flatters him and at least two of his knights - has remained unquestioned in over 100 years of study. It has, in short, become the settled orthodoxy on the matter. We have seen, however, how subtly and cleverly the work is shot through with an astonishing English undercurrent, undermining the Norman claim to the English throne at every turn. We have seen, too, that the tapestry highlights Odo's former adversary, the enigmatic Count Eustace II of Boulogne, and implicitly favours the French (and in particular Boulogne) over and above the Normans at the Battle of Hastings. This suggests, on the contrary, that Odo was not the patron. It is, of course, always possible that Odo commissioned a work which was, unbeknownst to him, secretly designed in a way that undermined and subverted Norman interests. While this theory cannot be disproved, it is surely likely that, if Odo commissioned the embroidery, he and his associates would have taken great interest in the work as it progressed and overseen the labours of the artist and embroiderers so as to ensure that no such mixed messages were promulgated.

The alternative hypothesis we have proposed that the forgotten Count Eustace of Boulogne was the patron, has several advantages. Eustace must have made considerable efforts to achieve his reconciliation with the Normans in the early 1070s. The idea that the tapestry was a peace offering to Odo accounts for the highlighting of both Odo and Eustace on either side of Duke William. It accounts, too, for what we have identified as a pro-French, rather than Norman, portrayal of the Battle of Hastings, for Eustace might well have wished this to be subtly recorded. We have seen that the appearances of Turold, Æligyva, Wadard and Vital can be understood in ways that are consistent with Eustace's patronage. The English undercurrent can also be understood. Eustace, as a non Norman, would have been open to alternative views on the matter of Duke William's claim to the throne, such as may have been preserved at St Augustine's Abbey, and he did, in any event, form a mysterious alliance with the men of Kent in the autumn of 1067. Ultimately, however, the patronage of the Bayeux Tapestry is simply a matter which lies beyond the available evidence. The tapestry certainly flatters Odo but there could be several explanations for that aside from the idea that Odo commissioned the work. The desire of Eustace to reach a reconciliation with him is one such explanation. Might there not be others too?

We could even suggest a hypothesis which does away with the whole idea of an outside patron. The monks of St Augustine's could have themselves decided to commission the Bayeux Tapestry, as a gift, secular in tone, to Bishop Odo of Bayeux, Earl of Kent, in order to cultivate him as an ally. St Augustine's was certainly wealthy enough to cause such a work to be produced. Its income of £635 in 1086 made it one of the richest abbeys in England. As the oldest Abbey in England, dating from the time of St Augustine himself, it claimed freedom from the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The monks of St Augustine's even produced a series of forged charters in the 1070s in an attempt to retain this privileged position.1 Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury was not disposed to tolerate such an independently-minded monastery in his own back yard. Ill feeling between the monks of St Augustine's and the rival Christ Church Abbey over which Lanfranc presided, was already evident in the 1070s and this was to boil over into outright violence on the streets of Canterbury in the late 1080s.2 Odo, too, had poor relations with Lanfranc and thus he may well have been perceived by the monks as a valuable potential ally able and willing to stand up for the Archbishop. If anything like this is right, the appearance of Wadard and Vital, both knights of Odo having strong ties to the abbey, is unremarkable. Furthermore, the monks may have also desired to flatter Eustace, whose stone from Marquise was helping rebuild their abbey, presumably around this same time. On the other hand, the more subtle and hidden ways that the Tapestry promotes Eustace and his Frenchmen suggest that the designer was already favourable to Eustace, perhaps being of Boulonnais origin himself, and that the Count of Boulogne was involved in some more direct capacity from the start, if not as patron, then at least as a supporter in some sense. Either way, he is a very much more central figure than has traditionally been believed.

If the question of patronage is less certain than it has previously been thought, it has become clear that the tapestry's content is far removed from the 'Norman propaganda' of con ventional myth. Whoever was the patron and whatever the genesis of the idea, it is clear that the artist was playing a delicious and thoroughly dangerous game. The picture of the Bayeux Tapestry that has emerged in this book is one of an artistic masterpiece of intellectual brilliance, shot through with multiple layers of meaning. The purpose of Harold's voyage, the significance of Ælfgyva, Harold's oath, the meaning of the word 'French' in the battle scenes and the death of Harold are all treated by the artist in a way that deliberately teases the audience with ambiguity. At one level all of these scenes can be read as consistent with the Norman story. Ultimately, however, the artist's underlying meaning is revealed by subtle and persistent pictorial clues. He flattered Bishop Odo, but at the same time stitched ingeniously into the embroidered story are veiled statements of the English point of view and coded clues as to the role of Count Eustace and his men in the downfall of Harold, even an indication that Eustace himself struck the fatal blow that brought the last Anglo-Saxon king to his knees. The tapestry tells us that the Norman claim to the throne was built upon a lie. It was the lie that near the end of his reign King Edward sent Harold to Normandy in order to confirm William's status as the next king. In fact, Harold had journeyed to the continent on his own account but foolishly he swore an oath in William's favour in order to extract himself from his prolonged and dangerous stay in Normandy. When Harold himself ascended the throne in January 1066, in breach of this oath, God's judgement was not long in falling upon him and his country alike. Instrumental in the enforcement of God's will were not the Normans but rather Count Eustace II of Boulogne and his Frenchmen, Eus­tace the noble heir of Charlemagne whose merits were perhaps being regularly sung and vaunted by the dwarf jongleur Turold in the baronial halls of northern France. Elsewhere the English viewpoint was being silenced and censored, and the role of the non-Norman Frenchmen minimised, but Odo would be taking back to Normandy a work of art that, unbeknownst to him, subtly undermined Norman propaganda in almost every respect. The Bayeux Tapestry emerges from all this not as a Norman work or even a purely English one but as a truly Anglo-French production, foreshadowing the age that dawned with the Norman Conquest, but in ways quite unexpected.

It was at St Augustine's Abbey that one of the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was kept up, nowadays called the E version. The E version of the Chronicle tends to be the most favourable towards Earl Godwin and his family, but it, like the other versions of the Chronicle, passes over in silence the whole matter of Harold Godwinson's fateful journey to the continent that was the catalyst of all that followed. The truth behind Harold's mission, and with it King Edward's crucial wishes towards the end of his reign, was recorded at St Augustine's not, on this occasion, in ink scratched upon parchment but with colourful stitches pierced through white linen cloth. In this sense, the Bayeux Tapestry can truly be described as the lost Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as well as the secret Chronicle of the House of Boulogne, a generation before the blood of Charlemagne achieved a new pinnacle of success in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

As long ago as 1935 the French historian Henri Prentout wondered whether there was anything new that could be written about the Bayeux Tapestry, whether, in fact, everything that could be said had already been said.3 The same sentiment is not infrequently expressed today. Such pessimistic notes have often quickly been followed by some fresh insight or intriguing argument. The secrets of this extraordinary work of genius continue to fascinate and beguile us. It is by no means impossible that further astonishing discoveries await to be made.

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