There appears in the tapestry's lower border, at the point where Harold and his men were embarking aboard their ship at Bosham, a seemingly irrelevant illustration of a fox, a crow and a piece of cheese. This is an old fable. Sitting on a branch, there was once a foolish crow with some cheese in his mouth, which he had just carried off from a window. The crow was about to eat the tasty morsel when a fox, fancying it for himself, looked up and spoke the following artful words: 'My dear crow, how shiny and beautiful your feathers are! And your face and figure, how graceful they are too! If only you had a voice, you would be the finest of all birds.' Pleased by this flattery but taken aback by the insinuation that he could not sing, the crow opened his mouth to prove otherwise. The cheese, of course, dropped to the ground and was promptly snapped up by the cunning fox. The moral of the tale: he who takes delight in treacherous flattery will usually end up paying a hefty price.
The fable of the fox and the crow is as old as Aesop, the celebrated teller of animal tales in ancient Greece; it was known in classical Latin times through adaptations by Phaedrus and Babrius; and in Anglo-Saxon England the Aesop fables had become popular through translations from the Latin made, so it was said, by King Alfred the Great. The artist of the tapestry included several animal fables in the borders, touching on themes of deceit, dishonesty and possession, but this one he seems to have considered particularly apt, for he included it three times.1 There is surely art in this. It is hard to believe that the fable of the fox and the crow was not deliberately included as an ironic commentary on the unfolding drama, but the crucial question is this: who is the fox and who the crow? Once more the artist courts danger by teasing his public with double meaning. Norman observers, in the aftermath of the Conquest, would immediately see Harold as the fox, scheming with cunning words to take the crown of England from under the nose of its rightful heir, Duke William of Normandy. Yet if the threaded drama is more closely observed it becomes increasingly possible to interpret the fable in exactly the opposite way, with Harold the cheated one and the treacherous and deceitful fox William of Normandy. It is in the crafty guise of a rescuer, a knight, in brightly stitched chain mail, that William of Normandy will make a dramatic entrance on to the linen stage.
Harold is a prisoner on that strand of Ponthieu, but his nerves must shortly have begun to calm. It has become clear that Count Guy will treat him honourably. 'By the ancient law of my land, you are now my captive, Earl Harold, but rest assured - I will not treat you badly.' Some such words were presumably spoken to the Englishman, for they are implied by the tapestry's pictures. In this, once more, the woven story differs markedly from the written account of William of Poitiers. It seems that the latter's evocation of the dire imprisonment that awaited Harold in Ponthieu was an exaggeration, designed, no doubt, to cast Duke William'simpending intervention in the most favourable light. For its part the tapestry ennobles Guy with a certain nascent chivalry. He is intent on getting what he can from Harold, but this is an honourable captivity. Harold is neither shackled nor bound;he sits proudly on his horse as together he and Guy ride along the country paths of Picardy to one of Guy's castles [scene 7]. At the rear of the party two hunting dogs, dodging the gnarled tree which separates this scene from the last, run after their English lord, panting with canine enthusiasm, and both Harold and Guy ride with hawks at hand. Were it not for the armed guard, which discreetly follows, one might think this the picture of a friendly day's chase. There can be no doubt, however, that Harold is effectively a prisoner. The inescapable truth is underlined by a prosaic inscription. HIC APPREHENDIT WIDO HAROLDUM ET DUXIT EUM AD BELREM ET IBI EUM TENUIT (Here Guy seized Harold and led him to Beaurain and held him there).
Beaurain lies by the mellow, slow-flowing River Canche, nine miles from the Channel coast. Today it is an inconspicuous hamlet, lost amidst the fields of Picardy half way between Montreuil and Hesdin, but in those days Guy's castle at Beaurain must have been an impressive fortress. It is represented three times in the tapestry (which is more than any other structure) and if we pause to observe closely, and not ignore what is often taken to be another child-like or conventional representation, we can see how cleverly its essentials were tricked out of the threads [scene 13].2 They must have taken Harold first to an outer stone wall, with battlements and towers, and then through a great arched gate to the large enclosure (the bailey) within. Dominating the enclosure, at the back, was a steeply-sided earthen mound (the motte), rising perhaps seventy feet into the air. Now within the bailey Harold would have creaked up his neck at the impregnable centrepiece, a gleaming stone keep standing proudly on top of the mound and itself crowned by a remarkable domed roof. Today a little village still bears the name Château-Beaurain; but nothing is left of the eponymous motte-and-bailey castle or even of any later stronghold on the same site. The last of its stones were whistled away by masons in 1822 in order to be recycled in the construction of a new watercourse. Only an overgrown hillock, obscured by trees, stands where the motte once stood. There is now nothing in this windswept place that we can touch, nothing tangible to remind us of the clank of armour, the rustle of hoofs, the shouts of men or the squeaky pulling of gates as Harold and Guy arrived that day. Only their woollen counterparts live on to re-enact the tale.
Now Harold is taken to the door of Guy's hall; he is surrounded by no less than six guards, one of whom holds his confiscated sword [scene 7]. Harold enters, slowly, and with trepidation. A fellow Englishman from his party encourages him forward with a push in the back. Under the domed roof, captive and captor now converse, man to man, eye to eye, noble to noble, sizing each other up with sly glances, but just as in the tapestry's opening scene, when Harold met Edward, we do not know exactly what passes between them. UBI HAROLD ET WIDO PARABOLANT (Where Harold and Guy confer) is all that the inscription says. Do the discussions range over Harold's wealth? Are they talking of how much gold Harold is willing to hand over for his freedom?For the moment (for the picture, as it were) Harold has been handed back his unbelted sword. He stands throughout the meeting, whereas Guy makes a point of sitting on his comital throne, raised higher than Harold; the seated position is always indicative of authority in the tapestry. It is a dapper, ambitious young Frenchman, still in his twenties, whom Harold can see before him, now with his arm raised, pointing directly at his captive - 'I have you under my complete custody and control,' he seems to be saying. Guy's sword is held upright by the blade, like a sceptre, and his feet are resting on a cushioned footstool. His face is clean-shaven and his hair is worn in the northern French style, which is to say shorn very short at the back. This contrasts with the English who, like Harold, are in the habit of wearing their fair locks thick and long around the nape of the neck and a little stitch of a moustache underlining the nose. The count's dark cape lies over his shoulders like the wings of a mantling hawk; it is neatly buttoned in front with a large brooch. Guy's tunic is something like a long, unbelted dress, with folds and creases forming around his waist and uplifted knees; he wears a fine hose that has been carefully embroidered in horizontal black and brown stripes. His throne, scarcely less noble than a king's, has carved claw feet and its arms are made into sculptured animal heads. This is a man with a taste for luxury, but clearly someone who must be taken seriously within the boundaries of his own county. A contemporary monk at the monastery of Saint Riquier, the chief monastic centre in Ponthieu, described him as pitiless, haughty and corrupted by greed: 'only gold would satisfy him', he said.3 In the next century William of Malmes-bury wrote that Count Guy was effeminate.4
If Guy seemed vaguely familiar to Harold, it was because he had met him, or at least seen him, once before. Harold had not often travelled to the continent but during a visit to Flanders, some eight years earlier, he had been called upon by Count Baldwin of Flanders to lend his name as a witness to a local charter.5 It was the practice for nobles and officials to attest legal transactions in order to give them greater authority, and Harold duly obliged. The young Guy was presumably visiting Baldwin's court too, for the two names 'Duke Harold'and 'Count Guy' appear side by side in the same document, among twenty-eight other witnesses. The surviving diploma, subscribed at the Flemish town of St-Omer, bears the date 13 November 1056. To what extent they conversed in 1056 is unknown, but there was presumably ample opportunity for the assembled nobles gathered at Baldwin's court to mingle and to indulge in feasting and entertainment. Under the late autumnal skies Harold and Guy would have been able to partake in their shared passion for falconry.
To those who were there at that noble Flemish gathering in 1056, Count Guy probably seemed a bitter and resentful youth. He had himself only recently emerged from two years'imprisonment and his jailer was none other than his powerful enemy Duke William of Normandy. Guy knew what it was like to be a helpless prisoner; and he had personal experience of the wrath of the Norman duke. It is one of the ironies of history that nowadays Guy of Ponthieu, like his cousin Count Eustace II of Boulogne, is often erroneously referred to as a 'Norman'. Ponthieu (still less Boulogne) had never been part of the lands ceded to the Vikings in 911 and it had never been part of Normandy. Its culture, history and ruling class were all quite separate from the much larger land of Normandy, lying just to the south and west. The people of Ponthieu were proud of their past. They sang heroic tales of how they had once resisted the pagans and they would have considered themselves as belonging to an older Gallic culture, one which was Christian hundreds of years before any Norseman had abandoned the religion of Odin and Thor.6 Guy of Ponthieu and Eustace of Boulogne were French, but on no account were they Normans.7
These were not merely matters of abstract nuance; they reflected a real hostility on the ground. The smaller territories of northern France had much to fear from the growing power of Normandy under its indomitable and headstrong duke. William had inherited the duchy of Normandy in 1035 while only a boy, but he outlived those who had idly scoffed at him and he had grown into a powerful and violent man. In Norman accounts 'France' is often distinguished from Normandy and the 'French' are portrayed as the natural enemies of the Normans. Together with lands such as Boulogne and Mantes, great Anjou to the south, and for much of the 1050s the French king himself, Ponthieu formed a block of powers hostile to Normandy. Duke William was a strong and fearless opponent;he also had luck on his side. He survived all attempts to depose him, both from within and without his duchy, and emerged with his authority not only intact but enhanced. In October 1053 Guy's elder brother, Count Enguerrand of Ponthieu, famous for his nobility and beauty, was killed fighting the Normans at Saint-Aubin-sur-Scie. Guy, as yet still in his teens, inherited the county but was himself captured by Normans in February 1054 when engaged in a similar venture at the town of Mortemer. It was in these circumstances that Count Guy of Ponthieu became Duke William's prisoner.
William did not kill Count Guy: instead he wanted to teach him a lesson, and in the process reduce Ponthieu to the status of a client state. For two years he held Guy in captivity at Bayeux.8 At long last he was released, in 1056, but only after he had sworn a humiliating oath of loyalty to his Norman enemy and in particular to provide the annual service of 100 knights. This did not make Guy a Norman; but it certainly curtailed his freedom of action. The oath was a primary bond in the society in which these men lived. It bound the swearer both in sanctity and honour. To break such an oath was to incur the wrath of God and, which was no less certain, though possibly more immediate, the wrath of William. Now more than eight years had passed, eight years during which Guy had kept out of harm's way and had been able once again to enjoy the kind of luxury that befitted the ruler of a small but prosperous French county. He stood to gain much from capturing Earl Harold, but if there was one person in the world that he feared, one person that he did not want to see flexing his muscles just now, one person that he would rather not pay him a visit at his castle at this particular, rather delicate juncture, it was Duke William of Normandy.
Guy feels a little tap at his elbow. One of his soldiers, standing by his throne, alerts him to the fact that two Norman knights have just arrived at the castle gate and wish to speak to him as a matter of urgency in the next scene. What can they know? What on earth do they want? What has brought them in such haste to the northerly castle of Beaurain, which is just about as far from Normandy as Guy could have taken Harold within his own territory? In an obscure corner of the hall, hiding behind a pillar, a sly fellow in a jagged-edged tunic has been watching the proceedings all along - a jester perhaps, or a spy, or both.
The meeting with Harold is over. Guy has moved outside his castle in order to speak with the two Norman knights [scene 9]. They have dismounted their horses and are standing upright. Tall, lanky, aggressive men, each is armed with a lance and sword. What they lack in number is more than compensated by their unquestioned authority as the emissaries of the Duke of Normandy. UBI NUNTII WILLELMI DUCIS VENERUNT AD WIDONE[M], says the inscription (Where Duke William's messengers came to Guy). 'It is no use trying to be clever,' they seem to be saying. 'Our lord William knows very well that you are holding the Englishman Harold here. He requires you to hand him over forthwith and without question.' As this tense scene unfolds, Guy's dwarf 'TUROLD' grips the reins of the Normans' horses, an incongruous little figure holding the two hot animals, freshly ridden across the border from Normandy and through the forests of Ponthieu to the riverside castle [scene 10; plate 1]. A mere fifteen people are named in the tapestry; most of them are more or less familiar players on the stage of history. Turold the dwarf is the first of four highly obscure figures whose names have been stitched in for us. Although the dwarf is often passed over without comment, his identity and significance will be of the highest interest.
Guy hears what William's henchmen are saying. His dark hair, though shaved at the back, is combed across his forehead so that it almost flops into his eyes. On this occasion he wears an extravagant knee-length tunic, represented in embroidery in a manner that suggests overlapping leaves of leather; his over-cloak is long and buttoned at the side. His right hand rests quaintly on his hip, while gripped firmly in his left is an upright axe, a great English-style fighting axe with a handle almost as tall as himself. This last gesture is nicely symbolic of the fact that he currently holds in his custody England's foremost earl. But for how much longer? This is an uncomfortable encounter, more confrontation than meeting. Guy does not sit authoritatively on his throne; he cannot lean back comfortably on the seat of his power while those who speak with him are lorded over and left shuffling foot to foot in embarrassment. These Normans are the emissaries of Duke William, the man to whom he had been forced to swear his allegiance, so Guy must meet them standing upright, on his own two feet.
Perhaps Guy is thinking now, biting his lip, wondering whether he might just be able to defy Duke William and get away with it. He remembers his long captivity at Bayeux. He remembers the oath of allegiance he has sworn. He remembers that God is his witness and that William has a fiery temper, which no one in their right mind would wish to rekindle. If he disobeyed now, the Norman duke might invade Ponthieu and have him killed, and then take over the whole of the county, as he had done only recently in Maine. Other accounts (though not the tapestry) reveal that William sweetened the pill with promises. In particular, it is said that William offered Guy a stretch of land by the River Aulne if he would cooperate in handing over Harold.9 Threatened and bribed, the choice turns out to be surprisingly easy. It is agreed. Harold is to be passed, like a football, from one to the other, from Ponthieu to Normandy - from a covetous jailer to a duplicitous rescuer.
At this moment in the story the Bayeux Tapestry clarifies (up to a point) how Duke William discovered so quickly that Harold had been taken prisoner in Ponthieu. This intriguing sub-plot unfolds like a flashback, in a right-to-left direction;the thread of history is momentarily reversed. The two Norman knights, whom we have already seen at Beaurain, are now riding towards there [scene 11]. Their mission, as we suspected, was urgent for the horses gallop at full tilt. Hoofs rumble past us at great speed; the hair of the riders flows like streamers in the wind. Each carries his couched lance in the latest military style and a wing-shaped shield embroidered with a dragon motif. Evidently there was no time to be lost;William desperately wanted to ensnare Harold before he escaped. It is a strange thought, but had these two knights been riding slower, and Earl Harold been able to negotiate his release, the whole history of England might have been different. But there are many such moments in the Bayeux Tapestry, such is the pivotal nature of each passing episode in its story. Now we venture further back in time. We are shown where the two Normans have come from. This must be outside William's ducal palace at Rouen [scene 12]. Here, in flashback, we catch our first glimpse of the majestic Duke of Normandy, a large, imposing figure, sword in hand, seated on his carved throne. It has been estimated, on the basis of the surviving bones found in his grave at Caen, that William was about 5 feet 10 inches tall, which would have made him impressively tall for the eleventh century.10 Here he is being pleaded with by an Englishman who is on the point of falling to his knees. The giveaway is the thick mop of hair and the pencil-thin moustache: this man is certainly English. Somehow a member of Harold's party must have escaped or evaded capture in Ponthieu, secretly crossed into Normandy and hurried to Duke William in order to plead for his help in rescuing Harold. The tapestry does not tell us how. The reverse order of these scenes distracts us from pondering the question too long. Perhaps the furtive fellow whom, a little while ago, we saw hiding behind a pillar at Guy's castle had some clandestine hand in the plot.
Harold has evidently turned to Duke William of Normandy for help. This might seem to support the Norman case - that Harold had been sent to the continent specifically to give William news that he would be the next king of England. It is certainly consistent with the Norman story, but the Canterbury monk Eadmer, like the tapestry, tells us that Harold implored William's help in a bid to evade further detention in Ponthieu. Eadmer, it will be recalled, reported that Harold'spurpose in crossing the Channel had nothing to do with the English succession but rather it was to secure the release of his nephew and brother from Duke William's custody. In Eadmer's version it was one of the common folk of Ponthieu (not an Englishman) who, having been bribed by Earl Harold, carried the secret call for help to William.11 Whether the messenger was English or French, Harold must have weighed matters in the balance and concluded that incurring a debt of honour to William was preferable to remaining shamefully in the custody of Count Guy. This was not a wise move. In fact, it was one of the gravest political miscalculations ever made. Earl Harold, it seems, was still blissfully unaware quite how seriously the Norman duke took his claim to the English throne.
The flashback over, we pick up again the thread of the embroidered story. We are shown the formal handover of Harold as it takes place on open ground at a prearranged spot [scene 14]. HIC WIDO ADDUXIT HAROLDUM AD WILGELMUM NORRMANORUM DUCEM (Here Guy brought Harold to William, Duke of the Normans); this is all that the tapestry says on the matter, but the place of rendezvous is independently identified in the chronicle of William of Poitiers as the Norman border castle at Eu. Guy approaches from the left. He is riding a smaller, prick-eared mount rather than a warhorse, this in order, presumably, to symbolise his submission to Duke William. He is closely followed by Harold who is seated on a more worthy steed; each of them still has a hawk on his wrist. Behind them we see a group of Guy's knights. Now the Norman side rides in from the right. The duke appears first, wearing a great red cloak, two tassels trailing from his neck; behind him follows a handful of his own mounted knights. These Normans are aggressive, bent-forward soldiers, much more eager than Guy's, but at least they hold their lances pointing backwards in an effort to offset the impression of immediate hostility. One of them carries a shield threaded with the same dragon motif that we saw borne by the knights who rode to Ponthieu. The Norman at the back of the party points to the next embroidered scene, into the heart of Normandy, where Harold must be taken.
Harold now accompanies Duke William into Norman territory. They are heading for William's great ducal palace HIC DUX WILGELM CUM HAROLDO VENIT AD PALATIU[M] SUU[M] (Here Duke William comes to his palace with Harold). The English earl rides at the head of the party; he has no weapon and the Normans at his back keep him under constant watch. Evidently he is told to ride first so that he cannot turn tail and escape. His hawk has gone too;William has it on his wrist. The party arrives at what is probably Duke William's palace at Rouen, where a guard manning the watchtower greeets them with a smile. We are now inside the hall, a long and impressive stone building, with an arcaded upper level, like the clerestory of a church, consisting of eighteen embroidered arches [plate 2; scene 16]. William and Harold are deep in animated conversation. It is the first formal meeting of the two men and if, as we hear so often, the Bayeux Tapestry tells the story 'strictly from the Norman point of view', it is surely here that we would expect the inscription to make clear, beyond any measure of doubt, that Harold is fulfilling the supposed purpose of his journey - that he is confirming to Duke William his status as the next king of England. Instead the meeting is depicted in total silence; there is no inscription at all. It thus behoves us to look closely at what the embroidered picture itself reveals, what it covertly tells us of that distant meeting of the two men who, within as many years, would be the most famous of mortal enemies on the battlefield of Hastings. Each detail at this meeting is potentially telling. There are secrets here.
William, as we would expect, is seated authoritatively on his throne, with its dragon-headed arms, fine cushion and attendant blue footstool; for he is the Duke of Normandy and this is his palace. Harold stands, but unlike each previous encounter with a figure of authority, where the standing person is drawn artificially small, Harold is depicted as sufficiently large to look William straight in the eye [scene 16]. The artist, it seems, wishes to portray these two men as equals; there is no sense in which Harold is belittled, as he is so often by William of Poitiers. Observe, now, how Harold, while busy talking to William, points at the armed and bearded man standing to his left, and how this man reciprocates the gesture. Evidently this man is the subject of Harold's conversation with William. Behind him are three Norman knights. Each listens eagerly to the proceedings; each is also armed with a lance and shield; but closer inspection reveals two curious and unexplained anomalies: the three Norman knights have four shields between them and only five legs. Whatever the reason for that, it is clear that the mysterious man to whom Harold is pointing is different from the three Normans. Crucially, his hair is long at the back; he also has a thick growth of beard;12 his posture and bearing are quite distinct, too. In the iconography of the tapestry, long or facial hair is the trademark of the English. The man's shield also bears a design that is very similar to the one later borne by Harold at Hastings. The bearded man in William's hall is clearly English, but who can he be? Why does he bear arms in the incongruous company of these Norman knights within the close confines of William's ducal palace?
There is only one obvious answer. He is one of Harold's kinsmen who had been detained in Normandy since the early 1050s and whose return to England, according to Eadmer's later story, Harold had come specifically to secure.13 In the circumstances the artist has probably chosen to depict the more senior of the two, Harold's brother Wulfnoth. This would carry a certain poignancy, for Wulfnoth remained a hostage even when the tapestry was made, indeed he was never freed, and the woollen Harold would thus still be pleading for his brother's release long after Harold himself had died. Since William and Harold are not yet at war the hostage has evidently been allowed a measure of freedom and serves as a soldier in the Norman army. The implication of the tapestry's imagery is profound. At the first opportunity, Harold is portrayed seeking Wulfnoth's and Hakon's release, not conveying any supposed message about the English succession at all. Edward, it seems, had not sent Harold to Normandy as his ambassador; and he had changed his mind about William succeeding him. If this mysterious Englishman is Wulfnoth, he is not the only brother of Harold to be seen in the Tapestry. Later we will see his named brothers Gyrth and Leofwine fighting loyally by his side at Hastings. Harold's sister Queen Edith, though unnamed, also appears in the work.
This deftly drawn, wordless meeting of William and Harold is usually passed over with little comment, and the bearded Englishman is unnoticed or forgotten, but the silent allusion in these threads to the Canterbury tale later told by Eadmer, far from supporting the Norman case, substantially undermines it. It is an allusion which the artist must have made at considerable risk to himself, perhaps to his life, certainly to his career, and we should pause and listen to his brave witness, at a time when all others were drowned out by the noise of Norman propaganda.
Immediately after this meeting, there occurs an even more intriguing scene, one of the most curious in the whole tapestry, for it seems to bear no relation to what comes before or after. There is this mysterious lady called ÆLFGYVA, which is an aristocratic Anglo-Saxon name; she is the only named woman in the whole work [scene 17; plate 3]. Æfgyva is standing in an ornate wooden doorway, elaborately carved in apparently Norse style; the doorposts are topped by dragons' heads that sprout long, flicking tongues. Into this scene intrudes a tonsured priest wearing a green cloak; he leans across from an adjacent tower, thrusts his hand into the doorway and touches or caresses Ælfgyva on the cheek. The meaning of this gesture is obscure. It is certainly not elucidated by the inscription, which is teasingly short, omits any verb and leaves us still wondering exactly what the lady and the priest are up to. UBI UNUS CLERICUS ET AELFGYVA (Where a priest and Ælfgyva) is all that it says. Many have read a hint of sexual scandal into the mock coyness of this brief and abruptly curtailed sentence. The tower and the doorway are themselves erotically suggestive, at least in our post-Freudian age. So, too, is the appearance of the naked man in the lower border; he seems lewdly to be mimicking the priest and gesturing up Æfgyva's skirt. Was there, perhaps, a scandalous liaison between a lady and a priest, well known at the time, and that had some bearing on what we see in the tapestry? Does this scene reflect an aspect of William and Harold's discussions at Rouen? Like Turold the dwarf, the Lady Ælfgyva is one of the four mysterious figures named in the Bayeux Tapestry. We must return later to the enigma of Ælfgyva.
Harold's attempt to secure the release of his kinsmen is not going well. This is hardly surprising for in truth the whole idea had been unwise from the start. King Edward, in his dotage, had much the clearer picture of William. Cunning, implacable, supremely ambitious, with a cruel edge, he was the last person to bow down and release such valuable hostages without gaining something extraordinarily important in return. William knows that Earl Harold holds the keys to England; he can hardly believe how foolish the Earl of Wessex has been in allowing himself to fall uninvited into his grasp. For the moment, however, the Duke of Normandy is keeping his plans to himself. According to the written sources, he received Harold in Normandy as an honoured guest.14 The English party were fed and clothed and given every Norman hospitality; we can imagine them hunting by day and passing torch-lit evenings entertained by the likes of musicians, dancers, jugglers and acrobats in a lively ducal household. Harold should simply be grateful, the Norman sources imply, that William has taken such pains to rescue him from Ponthieu. By now, of course, he may realise that William's display of friendship is entirely false and that he has merely exchanged one kind of imprisonment for another, but he must wait and see what fate William has in store for him. There is no question that he can return to England yet. The coastline of Normandy might as well be enclosed behind iron bars.
It so happens, at this time, that there is trouble brewing in Brittany. We learn from William of Poitiers that Duke Conan of Brittany had presumptuously announced a date on which he intended to invade Normandy and it seems he was already threatening to attack one of William's Breton allies, Rivallon of Dol. In response to this provocation, William decided to take his army into Brittany and to subdue Conan once and for all. He has asked Earl Harold to accompany him, an offer that Harold, of course, could hardly refuse, for a warrior such as he has his honour at stake. For William it meant something more; a war in Brittany would incidentally provide a chance to test Harold's mettle, to kit him out in the best of Norman arms and armour and then see if he is half the warrior men say he is. Slyly he could observe the Englishman, and overawe him with a display of Norman fighting prowess.
So it is that we leave behind the strange enigma of Ædfgyva and see Duke William and his army passing into Breton territory at the mouth of the River Couesnon [scene 18; plate 4]. There they are: men and horses making steady progress across the open-mouthed estuary at low tide. In the distance, a mile offshore, the island abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel rises dreamily into an empty sky. In these parts the tidal range is vast, and each day the sea draws itself like a great curtain across the bay, sweeping across miles of hazardous sand, curling and swirling its way around the island-hill on which the famous abbey stands. William and his men are crossing here, within sight of the semi-diurnal island; now they are wading towards Brittany through limpid shallows, shields lifted above heads in order to protect the metal from the salty water. Today the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel is famous for its pyramidal shape;each level rises taller and narrower than the last, until it reaches its apex with a skyward spire surmounted by a golden statue of St Michael himself. It is almost as if the whole assemblage of buildings was once entirely flat but was then pulled up by the spire and stretched reluctantly out of the sand. In the 1060s Mont-Saint-Michel had a different aspect, one which gives the lie to any such fantasy. Stripped of its Gothic and later accretions, the church that Harold can make out in the hazy distance is a long, cruciform, roof-tiled building, poised upon the rocky island 75 yards above the visiting sea, stranded there, at the very top of the mount, as if it were some great ship that had been left behind by an exceptionally high tide.
It must have been an awesome sight. It must have drawn the gaze from far across the sands just as magnetically as it does today. Only the point where the nave crosses the transept actually touches the summit; the sloping shoulders of the mount were built up in order to support the rest of the church, a structural feat which is clearly symbolised in the tapestry. The abbey of the Archangel Michael, whose legend is often associated with the highest promontories, had been founded on the island in 708 by one Aubert, in response to his strange thoughts and dreams. In 966 Duke Richard I of Normandy established a colony of Benedictine monks at the place. A new spate of building began in 1023 under the patronage Duke Richard II, William's uncle; it was now continuing apace under the direction of Abbot Ranulphe, a former monk from Bayeux. Nothing in the tapestry, or any other source, indicates that William and Harold halted their travels that day, crossed by ferry or foot to the island and ascended the rocky mount in order to pray at the church of St Michael, although it would not be surprising if they did. It was a popular place of pilgrimage and St Michael himself had become a favoured saint among the Normans. In 1066 Duke William's half-brother, Robert of Mortain, fought at Hastings (and no doubt shed much blood) while dutifully holding aloft a banner embroidered with an emblem of the saintly Michael.15
In the upper border adjacent to Mont-Saint-Michel there appears quite unexpectedly, out of thin air as it were, a small, seated man pointing at the abbey. Over the years many guesses have been made as to who he is, this mysterious 'Norman'gesturing at the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel. The visionary Aubert, perhaps, Duke Richard I, Duke Richard II, Abbot Ranulphe from Bayeux, or Abbot Scollandus, a former monk here, promoted by William to be the head of St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury after the Conquest.16None of these guesses has found universal favour. There is another more intriguing possibility; and it is one which accentuates the growing sense of Englishness about the tapestry. As we have seen, the seated position always represents high rank and authority;thus far, the seats in the tapestry have been reserved for a king, a count and a duke. Clearly observable, too, though rarely noticed, is the fact that the seated figure has long hair at the back of his neck, a hallmark of the English. Evidently, this is a high-rankingEnglishman, not a Frenchman. From the picture he is not an old man; he is probably an adult in the prime of his life. Equally it should not be overlooked how cleverly (and uniquely) the abbey is drawn. It is both a picture in the main frieze and simultaneously a device in the upper border; the floor of the church is identical to the line which separates the main frieze from the border. Moreover, the seated figure's connection with Mont-Saint-Michel must truly be a remarkable one for he has the privilege of sharing the same border compartment as the fabulous abbey itself.
It so happens that one man, a secular figure, fits all these clues rather well. In the early 1030s Edward the Confessor, while still exiled in Normandy, appears to have made a formal gift of certain English lands to Mont-Saint-Michel.17 The gift included the eerily similar island off the Cornish coast known as St Michael's Mount where Edward hoped would be established a subordinate house of Benedictine monks. Intriguingly, Prince Edward describes himself in this charter as 'I, Edward, by the grace of God King of the English . . .' King he was not;it was the best part of another ten years before the exiled prince returned to England and became king. The gift was made more in hope than reality; but it shows that, even then, at the height of Canute's power, Edward's hopes of returning to rule over his native land had not entirely died - and neither were they discouraged by his Norman hosts. In due course (by the grace of God and St Michael, it would have seemed) he did return and peaceably ascend the English throne. Could it be that his munificence towards the abbey of Mont-Saint Michel was now being remembered by the artist of the tapestry?
Suddenly two men, their backs turned to the distant abbey, have become mired in quicksand and they are in danger of sinking within minutes to a wet death [scene 18; plate 4]. A horse has also stumbled into a gully. Did they not tell Harold that this is a dangerous place? The exposed bay is awash with hidden pools of quicksand, quicksand that will open up like a toothless mouth and suck a man up with pursed lips into a terrible, slippery grave. What is more, when the tide rises it bears down on the unwary (so men say) with all the speed and venom of a charging horse. Cries of alarm must have shot into the air. Arms must have waved in panic and fear. Harold has leant down and grabbed one of the men by the wrist; the second has managed to climb on to his back. The first is Norman, the second English. Still holding his shield, Harold drags both of them to safety using all his remarkable strength. HIC HAROLD DUX TRAHEBAT EOS DE ARENA (Here Duke Harold pulled them out of the sand). This episode, recorded in the tapestry though omitted in every other source, does Harold much credit. Not only is he brave and strong, he has also shown himself to be selfless and noble towards Norman and Englishman alike.
William's army has now penetrated deep into the coastal plains of eastern Brittany. Intelligence has apparently been received that Duke Conan is holed up within the wooden fortress at the town of Dol. There is little time to prepare. As quickly as possible a group of mounted Norman knights launches a surprise attack [scene 19]. It has caught the Normans, as much as the Bretons, unawares, for none of the attackers has had the time to put on his chain mail and only one has a helmet. As they attack one side of the castle, Conan makes a hurried escape - he is slipping down a rope at the back in order to disappear out of sight. Now the Norman knights have advanced deeper into Breton territory. For some reason they have reached the hilltop castle at Rennes [scene 20]. There is no sign of Conan here; so they backtrack northwards, 35 miles to Dinan. Conan has already reached Dinan. He is determined to hold out, but William's knights have prepared themselves for a full-scale assault. They have put on their chain mail and conical helmets. They have placed silvery swords in hilts. They have mounted their warhorses and kicked them with spurs. They are charging the castle at speed. Fingers of the left hand tightly grip the strap of a kite-shaped shield as well as the horse's reins, fingers of the right are curled around a vicious lance held at the ready.
The Bretons have gathered at the highest point of the castle. Protected by similar armour, they defend the place on foot as vigorously as it is attacked and they return as many spears as arrive. It is a hard-fought battle. What they do not know is that two Normans, bearing flaming torches, have scurried to the base of the wooden structure [scene 21]. At this very moment they are setting it ablaze with dancing, menacing flames. Smoke must have risen around Conan's eyes and curled into his throat, and choked his desire to continue; for he has signalled his surrender. From the top of the motte he proffers the keys to Dinan at the end of a long lance. He holds the lance outstretched with both hands. The Normans proffer one of their own lances and now the great iron keys to the town are slipping from one lance to the other. Evidently the two sides are still keeping a safe distance, but evidently, too, the victory is William's.
The noise of action has abated. Away from any residual smoke, Duke William has strutted over to Harold [scene 22]. The Earl of Wessex is standing there; he is clothed in full Norman armour and the great lance he has planted in the ground is topped with a fluttering Norman banner, or gonfanon. The slithery iron rings of chain mail that he can feel against his body were forged in Normandy and he can smell Norman leather on the inside of his helmet.18 Although his armour is much the same as English armour, there is still something incongruous about this little picture of Harold, the most famous of Anglo-Saxon kings, standing there in Norman garb, dressed like a little schoolboy in the wrong uniform. He is an awkward, out-of-place figure, this Harold, as his eyes look downwards in an attempt to avoid William's gaze.
Harold may have thought that William had strutted up to him in order to offer his congratulations at the end of the Battle of Dinan. But the Duke of Normandy is now placing one hand on Harold's helmet and with the other he is fixing something symbolic to his chest. HIC WILLELM DEDIT HAROLDO ARMA (Here William gave arms to Harold). The giving of arms, a sort of knighthood, was a redolent gesture. It carried with it heavy, if indefinite, overtones of vassalage and loyalty. In Anglo-Saxon England there were bonds, too, that bound the warrior to his lord. This was another of William's cunning plans. It must have been clear to Harold, by now at least, that he was being stitched up. But what was he to do? If he backed off and refused the honour of a Norman knighthood, a poisoned chalice if ever there was one, what were his chances of ever persuading William to release his brother and nephew? What were his own chances of ever returning to England alive?
It is time to pause and look back at what may have been missed since that distant appearance of Mont-Saint-Michel. The Breton war is over. It has proceeded in the tapestry's threads with its own internal logic; but there is much that merits a second look. From the beginning it is attended by strange and redolent border imagery. Beneath the shallows at Mont-Saint-Michel there were two fishes swimming in opposite directions but joined at the mouth by a cord. This is clearly an image of the astrological sign of Pisces, an indication, perhaps, of the time of year - 19 February to 20 March - when the crossing into Brittany was made (but whether the year in question is 1064 or 1065 is not known). There follows a school of wriggling eels and then, beneath the passage from Mont-Saint-Michel to Dol, yet more astrological signs; in fact, a strange series of joined-up constellations that have been identified by various authors as Serpens, Perseus (or Orion or Bootes), Ursa Major (or Canis Major), Aquila, Lupus and Centaurus [scene 18].19 The meaning of this has never been deciphered. The campaign itself is distinctly odd. Our only other source of information comes from the work of William of Poitiers.20 In his account, Conan was besieging Dol, not holed up in it. He immediately retreated when he heard that William was advancing to Dol, fled quickly and was never subdued by the Normans. Poitiers mentions no sliding down a rope, and no circular movement by William's men, southwards from Dol to Rennes, then northwards from Rennes to Dinan; indeed he mentions no action at Rennes or Dinan at all. The reason why the tapestry's tale should differ so much is obscure. We are left to wonder how much of the truth has been embroidered and whether there is rather more to this strange vision of Duke William's Breton campaign than at first meets the eye?
Now William's men have returned to Normandy and they have made their way to Bayeux. HIC WILLELM VENIT BAGIAS (Here William came to Bayeux). The town of Bayeux is represented by an elaborate castle standing on a tall mound. This, no doubt, is the castle of William's older half-brother Odo, the bishop of Bayeux, but its exact location in the modern town can only be guessed at. Strangely, Bayeux Cathedral, which was then being built under Odo's direction, is nowhere to be seen. Nor is Odo himself, although he will later become an important figure as the story progresses. We have moved outside, or beyond, Bayeux on to a patch of open ground. If Harold's purpose was to convey a message from King Edward that William should expect to be the next king, the tapestry has still not illustrated him doing so. Instead, it is William who takes the initiative. Once more we are reminded of the story told by Eadmer rather than the Norman sources.
According to Eadmer, Duke William at last took Harold aside and told him what was on his mind. William said that when King Edward was an exile in Normandy, and both of them were much younger, he had once 'promised him and pledged his faith that if he should ever be king of England he would make over to William the right to succeed him as his heir'. William looked at Harold and, in the words reported by Eadmer, made the following astonishing proposal:
If you, for your part, undertake that you will support me in this project; that you will make a stronghold at Dover for my use, which should include a well of water; that you will, at a future time agreed between us, send your sister to me so that I can give her in marriage to one of my nobles;and that you will take my daughter to be your wife; if you undertake to do all these things, then you can have your nephew straight away and your brother will be delivered to you safe and sound when I come to England to be king. And if I am ever, with your support, established there as king, I promise that you shall have everything you ask of me, provided that it can reasonably be granted.21
Eadmer tells us that this elaborate proposal was the first indication Harold had that William seriously intended to be king of England. There was danger in this, whichever way Harold turned. It was bad enough being vaguely bound by the grant of Norman arms. Now he was being asked to give his support, in the clearest possible terms, to the Norman claim to the English throne, a pretension which hitherto he had discounted in his own mind - and which he knew would have no support in the country. But what was he to do? To refuse would be to throw himself, and his men, at the mercy of Duke William. Eadmer tells us that Harold could see no way of avoiding that fate without at least feigning to agree what William asked. He would keep up (we may imagine him thinking) this silly pretence of friendship between the two of them and then make his excuses later. An agreement extracted under such circumstances could hardly be considered binding and, besides, Harold could argue that in reality the decision was the king's. He had no authority to overrule the king's latest wish, which, almost certainly, was that young Edgar should succeed. What was William going to do about it?Invade England?
But William wanted more than a mere agreement: he was about to raise the stakes even higher. He and his advisers were busy weaving an intricate web around Harold, a web of obligation, both secular and religious, from which the Englishman would find it impossible ever to disentangle himself. At this very spot, visible to all upon the open ground, William has had gathered together the bones of some of the holiest saints in Normandy [scene 23; plate 5]. They have been placed in two great reliquary chests. One of the chests is surmounted by a precious crystal known as the Bull's Eye.22 The design of the other brings to mind the holiest chest of all, the portable Ark of the Convenant in which the Ten Commandments were once placed by Moses.23 What possible objection can Harold have to taking the next step? He must swear an oath upon the bones of these holy saints. He must swear before God what he has already agreed before William. What he has already agreed by the law of man will become the law of God.
William's throne has been carried to the place so that he can witness the event. Now the duke is sitting there, smug and haughty. He is holding his ceremonial sword in one hand and with the other he is pointing at Harold. His whole posture smacks of command rather than gratitude. Harold is standing with his arms outstretched, fingers touching the two holy boxes placed on either side of him. His brow is furrowed; his eyes, narrowed to the width of a stitch, are fixed upon the first reliquary chest in fear. This is turning into a dreadful moment. The very atmosphere seems to have been pulled taut. William is pointing to Harold, commanding that he swear the oath. Like all men of his day Harold must surely believe, with all the conviction of his heart, that those who break a sacred oath will have to answer before God. On the awful Day of Judgement, or quite possibly sooner, the guilty will be mocked by monsters; they will be poked and prodded by an army of hideous devils; their lying tongues will be wrenched from their throats; or their eyes will be taken out by divine writ, which will sear like a blazing arrow from the angry heavens; and then they will be thrown for all eternity into the flames of Hell. Harold hears William commanding him to make the oath. Surely he has no other choice. How else will he and his nephew, let alone the rest of his men, ever return to their waiting homes and long-forsaken loved ones? Once he is back in England, he can probably do what he likes. Harold's fingers are touching the two holy boxes. He will take his chance;the words are uttered. UBI HAROLD SACRAMENTUM FECIT WILLELMO DUCI (Where Harold swore a sacred oath to William). This was how Harold of Wessex gambled the kingdom of England for his freedom.
The oath is made and Harold and his men are immediately shown aboard their embroidered ship as it departs towards England [scene 23]. A pair of Englishmen provide the link between the two scenes. They are looking back at Harold's oath and at the same moment they are moving impatiently towards the ship; one of them has his foot already in the water. This link, temporal and narrative, is another clue. In the written Norman accounts, Harold's oath is described in detail and it is supposed to have been given 'clearly and of his own free will'.24 The oath is a key part of the Norman claim, but it takes place much earlier, before the Breton war (though the accounts differ as to the precise location). By reversing the order and placing Harold's oath after the Breton war and immediately before he departs for home, the tapestry's artist has accentuated the impression of duress. With pictures rather than words, he is telling us that Harold was a helpless prisoner and that he was permitted to return only because he swore the oath demanded of him.
At last Harold's ship threads a homeward course through the lapping linen waves. There are eight men to be seen on board, unnamed men, hopeful men, busy men, testing the wind, pulling up the sail, tending the rudder, longing for home. One of them must be Hakon, Harold's nephew, for even William of Poitiers confirms that Hakon was released by Duke William and allowed to return home with his uncle after more than ten years as a hostage in Normandy. Perhaps Hakon is the smallest figure; he can be seen barely above the line of shields that are laid out along the side of the boat; now he is looking up wistfully at the billowing curve of worsted rail that has caught the homeward breeze. Harold's brother Wulfnoth is not on board; he did not fare so well. It is known that he remained a prisoner of the Normans. Even after King William's death in 1087, when his son William Rufus became king, it was still considered expedient to keep Harold's last surviving brother in custody. Rufus did take Wulfnoth to Winchester, where he probably treated him reasonably well; but Wulfnoth Godwinson remained a captive until he died around 1094. By then he had been a prisoner for more than forty years. Geoffrey of Cambrai, prior of Winchester Cathedral, composed a moving epitaph for him:
Exile, prison, darkness, inclosure, chains Receive the boy and forsake the old man. Caught up in human bonds he bore them patiently Bound even more closely in service to God.25
On the southern coast, the English are eagerly looking out for Harold's ship. Four men peer from the windows of a coastal watchtower, necks craned in anticipation. A fifth is standing on a raised platform; his hand is cupped over his eyes as he looks out towards Harold's vessel looming ever nearer across the wavy sea. HIC HAROLD DUX REVER-SUS EST AD ANGLICAM TERRAM (Here Earl Harold returned to English soil). Now Harold is riding a horse along the bumpy road that is taking him back to King Edward. The first thing he must do is give the king an account of all that has happened. ET VENIT AD EDWARDUM REGEM (and came to King Edward). These five, simple words tell us very little, but the picture of the new encounter between the two men speaks a thousand more [scene 24]. Harold, here, is the epitome of apology. His posture alone shows that he is utterly crestfallen and subdued. Clothed under the myriad folds of a great green cape, he is standing with his arms outstretched in Edward's direction, as if begging forgiveness from the king;his head is not so much lowered, his whole neck has been bent over and stretched forward so that it is almost horizontal to the body. 'I have done a terrible thing,' he seems to be saying. Edward, seated on his throne, is pointing at Harold and he is clearly admonishing him with his long index finger. We do not know how long Earl Harold has been away, but in the embroidered interim the king has aged notably. His face is haggard; his fingers are gnarled and spindly; and across his lap rests the long stick he now uses to help him walk. The moment when he will die is surely nearer.
If the Norman account of the purpose of Harold's mission is true, why is Harold so apologetic on his return? Why is Edward admonishing him in this manner? By promising his support to William, Harold has surely done no more than fulfil his supposed mission. He should be congratulated, not criticised. Again we are reminded of the Canterbury tale told by Eadmer. 'On being questioned by the King,' says Eadmer, 'Harold told him what had happened and what he had done. The King exclaimed: "Did I not tell you that I knew William well and that your going there might bring untold calamity upon this kingdom?'"26
These words could almost be an English subtitle to the tapestry's silent scene. Once more, close observation of the Bayeux Tapestry reveals that it is not the work of Norman propaganda that popular myth would have us believe, but a covert, subtle and substantial record of the English version of events, one whose true meaning has been largely lost for well-nigh a thousand years. It is nevertheless so cleverly designed that observers who expect to see a perfidious Harold have always seen what they expect to see. Many Normans would probably have seen little to quarrel with. They might have breezed up and down the length of the work, smirking here, laughing there, glowing everywhere with the haughty satisfaction of conquerors. They would have seen what they wanted to see: but the pictorial clues tell a different story. The subtle subtext lies silently within the pictures rather than the words. Drawing on a similar or identical source, it tells much the same story that Eadmer was to record more explicitly in writing forty or fifty years later. In the process the tapestry adds considerable weight to Eadmer's already plausible story. The tapestry is much earlier than Eadmer, being almost contemporary with the events themselves, but unlike William of Poitiers, who wrote his Norman biography of Duke William at around the same time, the tapestry's artist had no motive to dissemble the facts, if he could get away with recording them, and he had no reason to spread propaganda. What we see in these threads is, therefore, very likely true.
Thus it appears that by the early 1060s King Edward no longer supported Duke William's claim. Harold, however, had been foolish enough to travel to Normandy on his own business and had fallen into a trap. He had been caught in a tragic dilemma from which he could only extricate himself by swearing a sacred oath to support the Norman claim. It is unlikely, even then, that Earl Harold had any intention of fulfilling that undertaking. He had escaped from Count Guy into the hands of Duke William and he had escaped from Duke William only by placing himself in the hands and at the mercy of his God. His journey back to Edward is accompanied by yet another border image of the ancient fable of the fox and the crow. Can there be any doubt that William is the greedy fox and that Harold is the naive and foolish crow?King Edward is frail and old; his time will soon be over and the moment when his successor must be chosen will surely arrive before the cornfields are golden again. The Bayeux Tapestry is appearing less and less as a triumphal monument. It is more with the rhythm and pathos of a Greek tragedy that the story is moving, stitch by stitch, towards its deadly climax.