How is it that so fragile an object has survived for so many centuries? What accident of fate decreed that it should endure, when so much else that is inherently more durable has perished? This, in itself, is a remarkable story.1 The earliest evidence of the tapestry's existence appears at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Some time between 1099 and 1102 a French poet named Baudri, abbot of the monastery of Bourgeuil, composed a poem for Countess Adela of Blois, a daughter of William the Conqueror.2 Part of this poem describes, in elaborate and flowing detail, a brilliant tapestry that was apparently draped around the walls of Countess Adela's bedchamber. This tapestry, so Baudri tells us, was made out of gold, silver and silk, and among other things it depicted the famous conquest of England by Adela's late father. The poet proceeds to describe the work, scene by scene, and it slowly becomes apparent that what he is describing mirrors closely a large part of what we now know as the Bayeux Tapestry. Yet it cannot possibly be the Bayeux Tapestry. The work that Baudri describes is much smaller in scale; the technique is different and the materials are altogether richer. Did Countess Adela's tapestry - a sort of exquisite, miniature version of the real thing - really exist on the walls of her luxuriant bedchamber? If it did, it has long been lost. Or was her tapestry, as Baudri seems to imply and as most scholars believe, purely imaginary, a literary conceit based upon his having seen the real embroidery at some unknown time and place before 1102? For he says that:
This hanging contains ships and leaders and names of leaders,
if, however, this hanging ever existed
. . .
If you could believe that this weaving really existed you would read true things on it.
This glimpse of the Bayeux Tapestry, through the mirror of a poet's imagination, is all that we have in any surviving record until well into the fifteenth century. Only in 1476 - over 400 years after the events depicted - do we find the first unequivocal mention of the work. This is also the earliest time that the tapestry can be proved to have been situated in Bayeux. An inventory of Bayeux Cathedral in the year 1476 tells us that the cathedral possessed 'a very long and narrow hanging of linen, on which are embroidered figures and inscriptions comprising a representation of the Conquest of England'.3 Each summer, the document informs us, this old embroidery was hung around the nave of the Cathedral for a few days in the religious calendar.
How so fragile an artwork had survived since the 1070s, through the long and dangerous medieval age, has never been discovered. Even for a long time after 1476 the tapestry remains unrecorded in any surviving document. Always vulnerable to fire and vermin, and to the whims of changing fashion, it was especially at risk in times of war. It might easily have been destroyed during the bloody religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, for in 1562 Bayeux Cathedral was broken into and sacked by Huguenots. They went on a rampage through the building, burning letters and charters and destroying most of the items listed in the inventory of 1476. These included a great gilded crown that had been a gift of William the Conqueror and at least one extremely valuable, though unnamed, tapestry. The local clergy had warning of the attack and they had managed to transfer some of their most precious possessions to the care of the municipal authorities. Perhaps the Bayeux Tapestry was amongst the items secreted away; perhaps it was just overlooked by the frenzied attackers;somehow, at any rate, it escaped this near-disaster.
Other vicissitudes came and went; more peaceable times returned. The practice of exhibiting the work around the cathedral for a few days each year seems to have continued. We can, therefore, imagine the good citizens of Bayeux filing along the nave of their cathedral with the rhythm of each passing summer, admiring this antique embroidery on those few days when it was displayed to them. Apart from the changing fashions from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, from flowing robes and pointed hats to tight breeches and coiffured wigs, the scene would have remained much the same - men and women, young and old, shuffling quietly along the smooth grey flagstones of their cathedral, peering intently at the work, some of their faces filled with pride at what seemed to be a simple chronicle of Norman achievement, others furrowing with perplexity at one of its more curious details. It was only in the eighteenth century that the Bayeux Tapestry came to the attention of the outside scholarly world. From this point its perilous journey down to the present day can be traced with greater certainty.
The chain of events that led to the 'discovery' of the Bayeux Tapestry is known in broad outline. The story begins with Nicolas-Joseph Foucault, who had been intendant of Normandy from 1689 to 1694. He was a learned man who spent much of his spare time in study. When he died in 1721 he bequeathed his collection of papers to the Bibliotheque du Roi in Paris. Among those papers was a skilful, if rather stylised, drawing of the first part of the Bayeux Tapestry. The antiquaries of Paris were intrigued by this mysterious drawing. Nothing in the drawing indicated where the original was, or indeed what it was. Nor was there any indication who the artist of the reproduction had been. The identity of the artist remains a mystery although it is possible that it was Foucault'sown daughter Anne, who is known to have had a talent for drawing. In 1724 a scholar named Antoine Lancelot (16751740) brought the curious drawing to the attention of the Academie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. The Foucault sketch was reproduced in an article Lancelot wrote in the Academie's journal. This was the first time that any image of the Bayeux Tapestry would appear in print, but as yet nobody had the slightest idea what the thing was. Lancelot realised that the drawing was of an important work of art but in other respects he confessed his bewilderment. He had, he said, 'been unable to discover whether this sketch represents a bas-relief or the sculpture round the choir of a church or a tomb; whether it is a fresco or a painting on the glass of several windows or' (and here he hazarded a last guess) 'possibly a tapestry'.4 He could see that the Foucault sketch only represented part of some larger work. He concluded that 'there must be a continuation'; though he can hardly have imagined how extraordinarily far the continuation ran.
The credit for tracking down the original goes to the Benedictine historian Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741). Having been alerted to the matter by Lancelot, he commenced his own quest to find the mysterious and intriguing artwork. By October 1728 his network of contacts had put him in touch with the prior of the abbey of Saint-Vigor in Bayeux. The prior was a local and he was able to tell Montfaucon that what was depicted in the Foucault drawing was an old band of embroidery which was exhibited in Bayeux Cathedral on certain days of the year. At last the enigma of the Foucault drawing had been solved and the Bayeux Tapestry became known to the outside world.
There is no surviving evidence that Montfaucon himself visited the embroidery, although it is difficult to imagine that he did not, having taken such pains to track it down. In 1729 he published the Foucault drawing on a slightly reduced scale in the first volume of his Monuments de la monarchie française. He then sent Antoine Benoît, one of the foremost draftsmen of the period, orders to produce an accurate sketch of the rest of the tapestry and to change nothing. In 1732 Benoît's sketch of the remainder of the tapestry was reproduced in the second volume of Montfaucon'sMonuments. The whole of the surviving tapestry had now appeared in print. The early drawings are important: they provide evidence of the condition of the tapestry in the first half of the eighteenth century. Already the last section must have been missing for the work peters out in Benoît's drawing much as it does now. In his commentary Montfaucon reported that there was a local tradition that ascribed the tapestry to William's wife, Queen Matilda. Montfaucon thought that this theory was entirely reasonable. So began the unfortunate and pervasive myth of 'Queen Matilda's Tapestry'.5
A trickle of visitors arrived from England. One early English visitor was a learned antiquary called Andrew Ducarel (1713-85), who visited the tapestry in 1752.6 He found that gaining access to it was surprisingly difficult. Ducarel had heard of the Bayeux embroidery and he was keen to see it at first hand but when he arrived he found that the priests at the cathedral resolutely denied all knowledge of it. Surely this could not be right, he insisted. He had read about the tapestry. He had travelled from England in order to see it. It depicted the conquest of England by William the Conqueror and they must know about it. No, they replied, he was mistaken. They had never heard of such a thing. Ducarel was not one to give up easily. He reiterated what he knew and then added the further information that the embroidery was displayed yearly around the nave of the very cathedral in which they were standing. At last, this appeared to jog the memories of the priests. It seems strange, but it was not the content of the tapestry but rather the circumstances of its exhibition that were familiar to them; but perhaps they were simply unwilling to unroll it for some passing traveller. At any rate, Ducarel'spersistence paid off and he was at last led to one of the small lateral chapels on the south side of the cathedral, one dedicated to Thomas Becket. It was here that the Bayeux Tapestry was kept, rolled up in a strong wainscot press. Inch by inch it was unravelled for him in all its vivid colourful detail. Ducarel must have been one of the first Englishmen to see the Bayeux Tapestry since the eleventh century. He later wrote of his great satisfaction at seeing this 'immensely valuable' work; though he lamented its 'barbarous needlework'. The general difficulty in locating the tapestry was not helped when no less a thinker than the great philosopher David Hume incorrectly reported that 'this very curious and authentic monument' had been lately discovered in 'Rouen'.7 At any rate, the celebrity of the Bayeux Tapestry on both sides of the Channel was slowly increasing; but dangerous times were ahead. Having survived seven centuries of obscurity in astonishingly good condition, the fragile embroidery was now to embark on some of its most perilous adventures.
The storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789 ushered in the overthrow of the monarchy and the violent upheavals of the French Revolution. The old world of religion, aristocracy and monarchy stood for everything that the revolutionaries were against. In 1792 the revolutionary government of France declared that everything that reflected the history or 'vanity' of the monarchy was to be destroyed. In a frenzy of iconoclasm, buildings were damaged, sculptures were torn down and the priceless stained-glass windows of many French cathedrals were smashed to pieces. In 1793 a bonfire took place in Paris in which 347 volumes and 39 chests of historical documents were summarily consigned to the flames. Other precious historical papers were used to make cannon cartridges. The atmosphere of destructive paranoia soon reached Bayeux. In 1792 a local contingent was called up to fight in the French Revolutionary Wars. In all the haste, it was forgotten that one of the equipment wagons needed a protective covering. As soon as this was realised, someone helpfully suggested that there was an old stretch of vainglorious embroidery made by Queen Matilda and kept in the cathedral. It seemed that this would suffice admirably for the purpose. The agreement of the local administration was obtained and a motley crowd of soldiers marched into the cathedral. They perfunctorily seized the tapestry and placed it on their wagon. The local commissary of police, a Bayeux lawyer called Lambert Leonard-Leforestier, was informed of the matter only at the last moment. Knowing all too well the incredible artistic and historical value of the town's tapestry, he immediately issued an order for its return. Then, showing remarkable courage, Leonard-Leforestier rushed to where the tapestry was being held and personally harangued the crowd until they agreed to hand it over in return for a stout piece of canvas. It was a close escape. Evidently, however, there were still some revolutionaries who nursed an ongoing desire to destroy the Bayeux Tapestry. In 1794 there was a proposal to cut the tapestry into shreds in order to decorate a carnival float in honour of the 'Goddess of Reason'. By this time, however, the tapestry was in the hands of a local art commission and they were fortunately able to take steps to prevent its destruction.
From Baudri onwards, no one seems to have guessed that there was an English viewpoint ingeniously stitched into this ostensibly Norman work. No one even dreamt that the Norman story was being subtly undermined at every turn. On the contrary, it seemed to Frenchmen and Englishmen alike that the Bayeux Tapestry was a primitive celebration of the defeat of Anglo-Saxon England, happily embroidered by the wife of the victorious conqueror. Predictably Napoleon Bonaparte looked upon the tapestry as useful propaganda. In 1803 he was planning his own invasion of England and in order to drum up further enthusiasm for this enterprise he issued an order that the Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde should be brought to Paris for public exhibition at the Louvre (or Musee Napoléon as it was then called). The tapestry had been kept at Bayeux Cathedral for as far back as written records could attest. Grave concerns were expressed by the townspeople at the prospect of seeing the work depart, perhaps never toreturn. In spite of their misgivings, the local authorities felt constrained to comply with First Consul's directive and so it was that for the first time in hundreds of years the Bayeux Tapestry left the small town of Bayeux and was taken to Paris.
The Paris exhibition was a great success. Crowds flocked to see this curious exhibit and it quickly became a topic of conversation in fashionable society. A play was even written about the tapestry, during the course of which the eponymous Queen Matilda is seen busy at work and a fictitious boy called Raymond complains to her that he, too, wants become a soldier-hero and to be depicted in embroidery.8 Whether Napoleon saw this play is not recorded, but the First Consul is said to have brooded over the embroidery itself for some time. Like William the Conqueror, he was making vast and detailed preparations to invade England. His forces were formidable. At this moment Britain stood more gravely exposed to invasion from northern France than at any time since 1066. Napoleon's fleet of 2,000 ships lay assembled between Brest and Antwerp and his grande armée of between 150,000 and 200,000 soldiers was encamped at Boulogne. The historical parallels became even more apposite when, in late November 1803, a comet-like object was seen passing across the skies of northern France and southern England; the parallel with the ominous appearance of Halley's Comet in April 1066, itself vividly depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry [scene 29], did not pass without mention. Was this another portent of the defeat of England? A description of the 1803 'comet' was hastily printed and inserted into the brochure of the Paris exhibition. Yet despite the nicely timed appearance of another passing celestial body, Napoleon Bonaparte was not to repeat the success of William the Conqueror. This time Britain stood prepared; the invasion never came. Napoleon could not risk the Channel crossing without control of the sea, and an indomitable navy stood guarding the southern coast. Napoleon's invasion plans were in due course abandoned in 1805. By this time the tapestry was once more back in Bayeux. Contrary to the fears of many townspeople, the work was duly returned to Bayeux in early 1804, but this time it was passed into the hands of the town's secular, rather than religious, authorities. Never again has it been displayed in the great edifice of Bayeux Cathedral.
With peace restored between Britain and France by 1815, the Bayeux Tapestry ceased to be of interest to propagandists and it returned to the more genial province of international scholars and artists. As people began to appreciate just how narrowly it had escaped destruction, attention turned to the question of the tapestry's continued preservation. There was concern that the contemporary method of exhibition - which involved repeatedly coiling and uncoiling the tapestry with a machine - was itself causing damage, though the authorities were lamentably slow to respond to this concern. It was in this context that the Society of Antiquaries of London commissioned Charles Stothard, an eminent draughtsman, to produce a set of drawings in order to record the complete embroidery. Stothard worked on the project for the two years between 1816 and 1818. His drawings in particular, as well as those of previous artists, have been immensely valuable to researchers in tracking the appearance of the tapestry down the years. Stothard was not only a fine artist. He wrote a short commentary on the tapestry that was learned and perceptive, one of the best that had yet been written.9 Moreover, by closely examining the surviving evidence where the tapestry had deteriorated, Stothard was able, here and there, to reproduce in art what he believed to have been the tapestry's original appearance. In due course his work helped to guide the hands of subsequent restorers. To his great credit, Stothard realised the urgency of making such a record. 'Within a few years,' he noted, 'the means of accomplishing it will no longer exist.'
And yet the endnote of Charles Stothard's involvement with the Bayeux Tapestry turns out to be one of human frailty. Working for long periods alone with this unique work of art, so vividly redolent of the greatest event of his nation's past, Stothard succumbed to the temptation to remove a small piece of the upper border for himself, approximately 2½ by 3 inches in size. In December 1816 he managed to return to England with his souvenir undiscovered. Five years later, before it had become known what he had done, Stothard tragically fell from a scaffold at the church of Bere Ferrers in Devon and was killed. Through Stothard's heirs, the little fragment found its way to what is now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it was exhibited, quite openly, as 'A Piece of the Bayeux Tapestry'. In 1871 the museum decided that it ought, in all propriety, to return the stray piece to Bayeux. The missing fragment was gratefully received but by then the damage had been done and repairs effected. It was decided that Stothard's souvenir should remain in the little glass case in which it had arrived from London, complete with its English description, but that it should be displayed adjacent to the place where the fragment had originally been cut away. This was all well and fine, except that hardly a day would pass without a visitor accosting the keeper and asking him about the fragment and its curious English label. Eventually the keeper became so exasperated that Stothard's piece was removed from display and it was placed for safe keeping in the municipal archives, where it still remains.10 A story also circulated that Mrs Stothard had been the culprit - on account, some said, of 'the weakness of the feminine character'; but no one now doubts that Charles Stothard himself had been the thief. He was not alone in wanting to depart with a memento. A thief on a lesser scale was the Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin - and it would be naive to assume that there were no others. Dibdin visited the tapestry shortly after Stothard departed in 1818. In a book of his travels he reported, with an air of perfect normality, that having gained access to the tapestry with some difficulty, he managed to obtain for himself 'a few straggling shreds of the worsted with which it is worked'.11 What became of these scraps is unknown. In 1842, when the tapestry was removed to a new home in the town, it was finally placed beyond the reach of souvenir hunters on permanent display in a long glass case.
The fame of the tapestry continued to spread, aided no doubt by the photographic reproductions that became possible in the second half of the nineteenth century. To Mrs Elizabeth Wardle, however, this was not enough. The wife of a wealthy silk merchant, she decided that England ought to have a record of the Bayeux Tapestry that was more tangible and enduring than a mere coloured photograph. In the mid-1880s she gathered a group of Victorian ladies of like mind and together they set to the task of embroidering a life-sized replica. So it was that the whole of the Bayeux Tapestry was made again, once more in England, 800 years after the original embroiderers had laboured over the selfsame task. The Victorian copy took two years to complete; the result was in most respects a brilliant and accurate likeness. Half close your eyes and walk around this replica today and you can easily believe that you are standing in front of the original itself. There were, however, limits to what these ladies could bring themselves to portray. When it came to depicting the male genitalia, which appear, on occasion, with noticeable prominence in the original, a strictly accurate rendering had to be forsaken in order to spare the blushes of all concerned. In their copy, the Victorian embroideresses decided to deprive one naked male character of his manhood entirely; another, they thoughtfully provided with a pair of underpants. Perversely, what they modestly sought to censor now draws attention to itself by its concealment. Completed in 1886, the facsimile was taken on a triumphant tour of England and thence on visits to the United States and Germany. In 1895 the replica was donated to the town of Reading by Arthur Hill, a former mayor. Britain's own version of the Bayeux Tapestry now has pride of place in Reading Museum.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the First World War passed without mishap to the Bayeux Tapestry. It was during the Second World War that it was to undergo some of its greatest adventures.12 On 1 September 1939, just as German troops were attacking Poland in a manoeuvre that was to plunge the continent into five and a half years of war, the tapestry was carefully removed from its exhibition case, rolled on to the spool, sprayed with insecticide powder and locked for safe keeping in a concrete shelter within the basement of the bishop's palace at Bayeux. There it remained for a year, except for the odd occasion when it was checked and the insecticide renewed. In June 1940 France fell. It was not long before the tapestry came to the attention of the occupying forces. Between September 1940 and June 1941 the tapestry had to be retrieved and exhibited to eager German visitors at least a dozen times. Like Napoleon before them, the Nazis were hoping to repeat William the Conqueror's invasion of England. They, too, regarded the tapestry as a potent source of propaganda and inspiration, never suspecting for the slightest moment the subversive undercurrent that runs through the work. The German invasion, like that of Napoleon, was postponed in 1940. Churchill's Britain was also better prepared than Harold's England. Britain narrowly won the battle of the skies and, though the bombing of its people continued, Hitler's thoughts turned to the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Even so, German interest in the tapestry was not to be assuaged and a more sinister group soon began to take an abiding interest in the work. This was the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage), the research and teaching branch of Heinrich Himmler's SS which had been set up to provide 'scientific'evidence of the superiority of the Aryan race. The Ahnenerbe attracted a significant number of German historians and scientists who enthusiastically moulded their scholarly careers to the advancement of Nazi ideology. As an organisation, it remains notorious for its role in the inhuman medical experiments that were perpetrated on concentration camp victims, but history and archaeology continued to be a focus of its attentions. Even at the height of war, the SS devoted considerable resources to the study of Germanic history and archaeology, to Himmler's occult interests, and to the plundering of art and artefacts of Aryan origin from occupied territories.
What commended the Bayeux Tapestry to the Ahnenerbe was not only its depiction of a successful invasion of England. It was a work of art that seemed to celebrate the fighting prowess of Nordic peoples - the Normans, descendants of the Vikings, and the Anglo-Saxons, descendants of the Angles and Saxons. Amid the terrible conflagration of world war, amid the seismic clash of army with army, the 'intellectuals' of the SS devised an ambitious project of study of the Bayeux Tapestry, including its complete photography, with an artist copying the images and publishing of the results. The French authorities had little choice but to comply. The most that could be done was to make representations concerning the safety of the work and to ensure that no one could say that it had passed into ownership of the occupying forces.
For the purposes of study, the tapestry was transferred under military guard to the nearby abbey of Juaye-Mondaye in June 1941. The head of the study team was Dr Herbert Jankuhn. Professor of archaeology at Kiel, he was an active and enthusiastic member of the Ahnenerbe. Jankuhn gave a lecture on the Bayeux Tapestry to Himmler's Circle of Friends on 14 April 1941 and he talked on the same subject to a regional meeting of the German Academy at Stettin in August 1943. After the war, Jankuhn, although implicated in the Nazi plundering of artwork from occupied territories, resumed his academic career. He published widely on Dark Age history; many students and scholars must have read and quoted his works without ever knowing of his more dubious past. In due course Jankuhn became an emeritus professor at Gottingen. He died in 1990. His papers on the Bayeux Tapestry have recently been donated by his son to the Bayeux Tapestry museum, where they will form an important part of its archives.
At length, at the suggestion of the French authorities, the Germans agreed that the tapestry should be moved for safe keeping to the art depot that had been created at the Château de Sourches, near Le Mans. This was a sensible idea, as the Château, a vast eighteenth-century mansion set in 200 hectares of parkland, was situated at a safe distance from any vulnerable conurbation. Unfortunately, however, no facilities were provided to assist the French make the journey, and this, there and back, was a good 220 miles. The mayor of Bayeux, Monsieur Dodeman, a distinguished-looking old man with a pointy beard as white as Edward the Confessor's, did his best to find some suitable form of transport for the famous embroidery. Despite much searching, the only vehicle that he was able to obtain was a singularly unreliable and potentially dangerous lorry which ran on charcoal, a Delahaye 10horsepower camionnette á gazogène. So it was, early in the morning of 19 August 1941, that the Bayeux Tapestry began one of its most improbable journeys. The great work, together with its unrolling mechanism and twelve bags of charcoal, was loaded on board. The prefect of police, Monsieur Cervotti, and the keeper of the tapestry, Monsieur Falue, followed their driver on to the vehicle, and the splutteringcamionnette departed with its priceless cargo in the direction of Sourches. The journey had already begun two hours late, on account of difficulties in starting the engine, but it was with earnest hearts and eager minds that the three gentlemen entrusted with the Bayeux Tapestry set off on a route that was to take them through the undulating countryside known as 'Swiss' Normandy.
At first things appeared to be going rather well. Not having eaten since early morning, the custodians of the tapestry stopped for lunch in the small town of Flers; the driver tuned off the ignition and the engine came to a halt with a shudder. The repast was presumably enjoyed; but when it came to recommencing the journey the engine refused to start. For twenty minutes the driver poked and twisted and shoved with his tools, and when at last the motor spluttered into life he re-emerged from a puff of smoke with his face black with soot and his features glistening with sweat. Cervotti and Falue hastily regained their places, but any further optimism was again misplaced. The engine faltered on the very first incline, just outside the town. Fearing that the motor would give out completely, the middle-aged keeper of the tapestry and the prefect of police jumped off the lorry and by dint of their considerable efforts managed to push the vehicle and its precious cargo to the brow of the hill. At this point, however, it proceeded to get away from the men pushing it and only came to rest when it reached level ground, the breathless Cervotti and Falue running behind as fast as they could in order to catch up with the runaway tapestry. The exercise of pushing the lorry uphill had to be repeated many times. It took ten hours, in all, to accomplish the distance of little more than 100 miles which separates Bayeux from Sourches.
Once at their destination, our exhausted heroes had no time to rest, or even eat. As soon as the Bayeux Tapestry and its mechanism were unloaded, the return journey had to be commenced, for the Germans enforced a strict curfew at 10 p.m. and it was hoped to regain Bayeux that night. Although the camionnette was now considerably lighter, it proved no more adept at surmounting the rolling hills of Normandy. Cervotti and Falue were obliged to dismount and push many more times. By 9 p.m. they had only reached Alencon, not even halfway back to Bayeux. It was getting dark and drizzling coldly; they had no choice but to break the journey. The Germans, however, had recently evacuated the coastal regions and Alencon was overflowing with refugees. Our heroes began a quest of biblical proportion to find somewhere to stay. There was absolutely no room at any hostelry, nor could any restaurant or cafe provide them with the slightest sustenance. Eventually the concierge at the town hall, having heard of their plight, took pity and offered them an attic room, which doubled as a prison cell for black marketeers. All that he had in the way of food was eggs and cheese, but this modest meal was accepted and consumed with relish. The next day, by dint of another four and a half hours of sweaty toil, the three gentlemen arrived back at Bayeux. Cervotti and Falue immediately reported to the mayor, who had been anxiously waiting for news ever since the previous evening. Despite all the vicissitudes of the journey, they were able to report that the Bayeux Tapestry had been transported across occupied Normandy, safe and intact, and that it was now in storage at the art depot at the Château de Sourches.
The tapestry remained practically undisturbed at Sourches for another three years. It was not until 1944 that it faced renewed danger. On 6 June 1944 the great seaborne Allied landings on the coast of Normandy, years in preparation, finally took place. It was as if history had held up a great mirror to the events of 1066: a vast fleet of ships, packed with warriors, was crossing the Channel but this time in the opposite direction, from England to France, and it was intent upon a mission of liberation rather than conquest. Despite intense fighting, the Allies found it difficult to break free of their initial bridgehead. Sourches was over 100 miles inland, but evidently it was still too close for comfort, for on 18 June 1944 orders were given by the German authorities, with the agreement of the French minister of education, for the Tapestry to be taken for its own safety to Paris. It appears that the leader of the SS himself, Heinrich Himmler, was the impetus behind this latest move. Alone among the priceless artworks which were deposited at Château de Sourches, it was the Bayeux Tapestry that he insisted should be taken to Paris.13 On 27 June 1944 it duly arrived, this time under SS guard, and it was placed in a dry cellar at the Louvre.
Ironically, long before the tapestry arrived in Paris, Bayeux had already been liberated. It was taken by the 56th British infantry division on 7 June 1944, the day after the Allied landings. Bayeux was the first town in mainland France to be freed from the Nazi yoke and, unlike so many other old towns in Normandy, its historic houses and monumental cathedral emerged unscathed from the war. The British War Cemetery, just outside the town, now bears a fitting Latin inscription recording that those whom William conquered returned to liberate the land of the conqueror. Had the famous tapestry depicting William the Conqueror's invasion remained at Bayeux it would have fallen into the safety of the liberators'hands sooner than it eventually did. Now in Paris, however, it was to suffer another knife-edge encounter with disaster.
By August 1944 the Allies had at last advanced to the outskirts of Paris. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces, had been keen to bypass the city and push on towards Germany, but the leader of the Free French, General de Gaulle, feared that Paris would fall into the hands of the Communist resistance and insisted that the French capital be liberated as a priority. Eisenhower eventually agreed and the Allies were now moving in on the city. Sporadic street fighting was already taking place between the Germans and disparate resistance groups. General von Choltitz, the overall German commander of the city, had received orders from Hitler that if Paris were not defended it was to be utterly razed to the ground, an act of wanton vandalism that would, if carried out, have been unsurpassed by any in history. To this end, the principal bridges and buildings of Paris had been mined, and a tunnel under the city had been filled with U-boat torpedoes capable of causing tremendous explosions. Von Choltitz came from an old Prussian military family. To disobey orders ran against every fibre of his being, but he now realised that Hitler was a madman, or at least that Germany was going to lose the war, and he sought, during those tense August days, to play for as much time as possible in order to find a way to surrender Paris to the advancing Allies without either wanton destruction or loss of face.14 Under these circumstances, on Monday, 21 August 1944, two SS men suddenly presented themselves at his office at the palatial Hotel Meurice.
The two men, elegantly attired in smart new SS uniforms, gave the customary 'Heil Hitler' salute. Von Choltitz may well have thought that his time was up, that they had come to arrest him for disobeying Hitler's orders, but what they actually wanted was rather more bizarre. They said that they had orders from Himmler to seize the Bayeux Tapestry and to take it to Berlin. In the curious logic of the Nazis, the city of Paris with all its monuments was to be destroyed but the Bayeux Tapestry was to be saved. What was to become of it in Berlin is not known. It would be naive to assume that it would have ever found its way back to Bayeux. The ultimate intention may have been to house it, along with other Nordic relics, at some quasi-religious shrine for the scrutiny and instruction of the elite of the SS.
Von Choltitz took the two SS officers to his balcony and gesturing towards the Louvre told them that the tapestry was being kept in a basement there. Events were moving fast. It was clear that the Louvre was by now in the hands of the street fighters of the French Resistance. At that very moment stuttering machine-gun fire could be heard emanating from the portals of the museum. Von Choltitz suggested that five or six of his own men could provide covering fire, so as to enable the SS officers to storm the Louvre and seize the precious tapestry. The two SS officers withdrew for a moment to consider their position. One of them thought that he had found an honourable way out. Surely, he said, the French authorities must have evacuated the tapestry long ago and the assault would turn out to be pointless. Von Choltitz replied that he believed the tapestry to be still there. He asked for his artistic adviser to come into his office; the adviser duly confirmed that the tapestry remained at the Louvre. The two SS men reflected for a further moment before deciding that it would be better to depart empty-handed, for, as von Choltitz later remarked, the courage of their hearts did not quite live up to the brilliance of their uniforms. According to von Choltitz, the SS men had two lorries at their disposal and enough petrol for the return trip to Berlin. At a time when large amounts of fuel were almost impossible to come by, and the resources of the German army were in every way stretched, the length to which Heinrich Himmler was prepared to go in order to safeguard the Bayeux Tapestry for his own nefarious purposes is quite remarkable. Four days after this incident, on 25 August 1944, Hitler, holed up in his headquarters in the forests of east Prussia, finally lost his patience and snarled at his generals, 'Is Paris burning?'15Fortunately, on that very day von Choltitz surrendered, Paris was safe in Allied hands and the wartime dangers faced by the Bayeux Tapestry were effectively over.
The old mayor of Bayeux, Monsieur Dodeman, had received not a breath of news about the tapestry's fate since November 1943. He assumed, as did many, that the embroidery was still at the Château de Sourches, well out of harm's way; and he had no idea just how narrowly it had escaped the threatened destruction of Paris and the clutches of Himmler's SS. Likewise the first 'monuments' officer of the Allied force to arrive on Norman soil, a New York architect named Bancel LaFarge, notwithstanding that he was based in Bayeux, was at first unaware of the tapestry's precise location. It was only at the end of August 1944 that LaFarge was able to inform the mayor that the tapestry was not at Sourches at all, but in liberated Paris. Overjoyed to learn that the precious treasure was still intact, Monsieur Dodeman at once requested the authorities in Paris to return the tapestry to Bayeux, where, no doubt, British troops and Norman civilians alike would appreciate viewing a relic so redolent of their shared past. The roads of northern France were still vulnerable to air attack, and the Parisian public had not had the opportunity of seeing the tapestry in their own city since the days of Napoleon. The mayor was therefore persuaded to allow it to be placed on public exhibition for a few months at the end of 1944 at the Louvre, a repeat in rather different circumstances of the exhibition of 1803.
Finally, in March 1945, on the eve of peace in Europe, and following a successful showing in Paris, the Bayeux Tapestry was returned to Bayeux after an absence of almost four years - the longest known period that it has ever been absent from the town. The Tapestry was at last able to resume a more tranquil existence. The post-war years saw an enormous increase in tourism, and with the number of visitors increasing each year, it became evident in the 1970s that the building it then occupied in Bayeux was no longer adequate. A Bayeux seminary, built in 1653, was chosen as the tapestry's new museum. In 1983 the conversion of the building - renamed as the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant - was completed and Bayeux's great embroidery is now fittingly displayed there. Visitors of every nationality arrive each year in their thousands at the gates of this fine museum. Few know of the tapestry'sown eventful past. They come to admire this precious and unique survivor of the distant age of the eleventh century and to recall the deadly rivalry of Earl Harold of Wessex and Duke William of Normandy - a rivalry that shook their world, and still, in some ways, affects ours.