Recent important publications and a new theory

At the time of going to press, the most recent work published on the subject was Lucien Musset’s The Bayeux Tapestry (2005). This followed the commercial release in 2002 of The Bayeux Tapestry Digital Edition, devised by Martin Foys, and The Bayeux Tapestry: Embroidering the Facts of History (2004), edited by Pierre Bouet, Brian Levy and François Neveux, while in the summer of 2005 George Beech, emeritus professor of medieval history at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, published Was the Bayeux Tapestry Made in France? The Case for St Florent of Saumur.

Anyone who has walked along the Bayeux Tapestry in its display case in Bayeux will know the vigour and violence of the scenes, the tension and drama of the unfolding narrative, and the sense of frustration as it breaks off before the end of the story. We have seen Edward, king of the English, on his throne; Harold, king of the English, on his throne and how he arrived at it; Duke William of Normandy receiving Harold at his court; a long and mysterious episode showing them on campaign in Brittany; then we have followed the historic battle between the two: surely, after his death, which we have just seen, the pictures will lead us up to William, the new king of the English, on his throne with all the action accompanying such a climax. We do not know how much of the fabric is missing; also we cannot be certain as to the authenticity of all the surviving images. What we see today differs in some details from the way it looked when it was put on public display at Bayeux in the early 1700s. The most famous episode of all, the standing figure with an arrow apparently in his eye (supposedly King Harold at the moment of death), has been the subject of much controversy. The stitches and stitch holes that today represent the ‘arrow’ are probably later additions. And then perhaps it was a spear: it has even been suggested that King Harold is in fact the adjacent figure being felled by a swordsman.

There is no direct evidence of any kind as to the location of the workshop where it was made, as to who may have been the person who commissioned the work or the person or persons who planned and devised this masterpiece of design, or even to the date of its execution. At one extreme we have the suggestion that, because the work is generally sympathetic to the English, it was commissioned and made between October 1066 and the English rebellion of 1068–9: that is a maximum of two years for the discussion, planning, designing and actual manufacture of the artefact.

The existence of the work was first attested in the 1470s, when it was being hung in the nave at Bayeux Cathedral during the annual celebration of the Feast of Relics. This led to the supposition that it had been commissioned by Duke William’s half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux, for the consecration of the new cathedral there in 1077. For the last five years of William’s reign (1082–7) Odo was in disgrace, having been imprisoned by William for raising an army without permission.

In France it was long known as the Tapiserie de la reine Mathilde (Queen Mathilda’s Tapestry, that is the Conqueror’s wife) and presumed to have been the work of French craftswomen. Then the general opinion came round to the view that it was done by a team of Englishwomen, presumably nuns, at either Canterbury or Winchester, though there is no trace of workshops at either place. However, the English were renowned throughout the Middle Ages for this craft and skill, particularly for their work in gold and silken threads, and such hangings are quite often mentioned in tenth- and eleventh-century England. Wills of the period commonly bequeath such items as ‘a set of bed clothing with tapestry and curtain’, ‘a hall tapestry to Ælfwine’ or ‘a tapestry for a hall and tapestry for a chamber’, while the twelfth-century chronicle of the abbey of Ely records a piece donated by the widow of Earl Byrthnoth of the Battle of Maldon, in the form of a hanging that depicted the heroic deeds of her husband.

Then, in July 2005, Professor Beech argued the case for the manufacture of the tapestry at an embroidery workshop operating from the late tenth century at the abbey of St Florent at Saumur on the River Loire. The workshop has long since disappeared and there are indeed few remains of the abbey itself. A fire devastated the workshop in the 1020s, but it seems to have been restored and was again in production some years later. The historian of the abbey, writing in the later twelfth century, makes no mention of the manufacture of the famous tapestry; this is explained by supposing that, once finished, the great work would have been sent to the commissioning patron, presumed to be William the Conqueror, for display ‘somewhere in Normandy or England’; thus it need never have featured in the holdings of Saumur. Unfortunately, the abbey’s chronicler makes no mention of any textile production of any kind at the workshop during the 1070s and 1080s, the very period when, Professor Beech believes, it must have been created. The twelfth-century chronicler offers a tantalizing hint of possible English connections when he speaks of une reine d’outremer (‘a queen from overseas’), who apparently commissioned work at St Florent in the 1010s. This lady, argues Beech, must have been Emma of Normandy, queen to both Æthelred and Cnut and, coincidentally, the aunt of Duke William. But if St Florent’s chronicler saw fit to mention, allusively, a commission from William’s aunt 160 years in the past, why would he not mention a commission only 70 years before his time made by her nephew, the most famous figure in northern France during that period?

Professor Beech points to the close links between William of Normandy and the family of William, the abbot of St Florent. Rivallon, the abbot’s father, was lord of Dol, the fortified town in Brittany that stood close to the duchy’s frontier with Normandy. He allied himself with Duke William against his natural overlord, Duke Conan of Brittany, whose capital was at Rennes, when William raided into the duchy. That campaign occupies about 10 per cent of the length of the surviving tapestry and the siege of Dol features among its scenes. The lord of Dol and his family became favourites with the duke of Normandy.

Thanks to Duke William’s lavish endowments of priories, churches and church land the abbey of St Florent was a major presence in the Norman church. Perhaps these were in payment for the great embroidery commissioned, Beech proposes, from the abbey workshops; he suggests that the extensive Breton sequence was included at the prompting of Abbot William. Certainly the tapestry displays intimate local knowledge of Brittany and Breton personalities.

There are similarities between figures, motifs and design elements to be found in the tapestry and in sculptures in churches and illuminated illustrations scriptoria in the districts of Poitou, Anjou and the Loire, in particular carvings of lions’ tails in churches near Saumur. But there is no proof positive to support the thesis and there are numerous details that do not fit, as well as more general counterarguments. The design gives the impression that cavalry had been important on the assault on Dinant during the campaign in Brittany, but a French designer would know that castles rarely, if ever, surrendered as a result of horsemen charging their walls. In one scene the Anglo-Saxon name ‘Gyrth’ is spelled with the Anglo-Saxon barred ‘Ð’; in the lettering of another there is a tell-tale slip where the text speaks of CASTELLUM AT HESTENGA, using the English ‘at’ in place of the Latin ‘ad’; elsewhere we find the use of the Anglo-Saxon ampersand ‘7’; and the general letterforms strongly suggest an English hand behind the design and workmanship. In terms of artistic influence as such, while there may be design elements that find echoes in the Loire valley, there are many more similarities with English art and design: Norman illumination of the time has been seen as a somewhat provincial version of the English art.

The tapestry was presumably commissioned to be hung in the great hall of a castle, possibly in England, and if the warrior bishop Odo was the patron then perhaps one of his. However, there exists what at first sight seems to be an early description of the tapestry that may cast doubt on such a suggestion. It is to be found in a long poem by Baudri, the abbot of Bourgeuil near Tours, dedicated to Adela, wife of Count Stephen of Blois and daughter of William the Conqueror, and known as Adelae Comitissae (‘To Adela the Countess’). It was written some time between 1096 and 1102 and contains a detailed description of the great chamber of the castle at Blois along with its decorations, specifically the series of wall hangings on various topics with subtitled scenes, presumably in the manner of the famous ‘tapestry’. These are enriched with pearls and jewels and worked in richly coloured silks with gold and silver thread, says Baudri. Around the bed of the countess, he tells us, such a hanging depicts the life of her father, the duke-king William, from his birth, through his early struggles in Normandy to a speech in which he announces his claim to the English throne and his determination to make it good. A battle, clearly Hastings, is recounted with scenes described that are found on the Bayeux Tapestry. But the ‘Adela’ hanging continues the story after the death of Harold: the following morning William exhorts his army to leave the quest for booty until the war is won, and this too the ‘Blois’ wall hanging apparently depicts. Nothing is said about a coronation scene.

Could this be a description of the tapestry at Bayeux as we know it? That has nothing about his childhood or youth and nothing about his early struggles within Normandy against rivals for the duchy. It has no richly coloured silks or gold and silver thread – such luxury materials could no doubt have been robbed over the centuries but it hardly seems plausible that a piece of work more than 230 feet (70 m) long in its finished state would have been worked in gold thread. (Or maybe there was a second, luxury, version that is the subject of Baudri’s poem.) And could a piece of such dimension be accommodated around the bed of the countess?

Lawson suggests that the entire description of the chamber, let alone the hanging, might be a fiction. The details of the battle could have been taken from contemporary written sources or from oral tradition – one of which has Harold hit by an arrow. In this case Baudri’s poem can be seen in a tradition, stretching back to late antiquity, of poetic depictions of buildings and works of art, both real and imaginary.

For Professor Beech, Baudri’s description of the ‘Blois’ hanging is potent evidence to support his contention that the Bayeux Tapestry was made at the workshops in the monastery at Saumur. It is to be explained not by the reason that Baudri gives, namely that he saw it in the chamber of Countess Adela, but that being resident at Bourgeuil he was able to see the piece as a work in progress at St Florent, across the river. It is indeed rather unfortunate that, if he did see the tapestry there, he did not see fit to mention the fact.

Quite a lot of the tapestry’s existing stitchwork is not original. In part this is because there was a time when those in charge allowed visitors to remove small pieces as souvenirs (rather as the owner of Stonehenge hired out hammers to visitors so that they might take chippings). The artefact has been subjected to exhaustive study and laboratory analysis. But we shall presumably never know who designed the masterly narrative sequence or the composition of the individual scenes, whether man or woman, nor how the selection of the episodes came about.

The Battle of Hastings was an engagement that lasted an entire day and involved thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of men. Besides the tapestry we have the piecemeal evidence of scattered chronicle accounts and poems that may or may not have been available to the designer. He or she may, of course, have had access to other sources of information, now lost – and surely eyewitness accounts or veterans’ reminiscences, whether skewed or reliable. No doubt what its patrons required was a decorative hanging that would justify the conquest of a Christian kingdom and show them in their hour of glory. Possibly the great work would form a backdrop or diorama to epic recitations of the battle by professional minstrels.

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