A scene depicted on the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Last week, it was announced by French president Emmanuel Macron that the Bayeux Tapestry, an 11th-century artwork which depicts the Norman Conquest of England, would be loaned to the UK. Not expected to be transferred before 2020, it hasn’t yet been announced where the tapestry might be displayed.
According to the Times, the loan is subject to tests which will show if the tapestry is able to be moved without damage and, as BBC History Magazine’s David Musgrove told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the age, fragility and size of the tapestry are obvious concerns. However, there might also be opportunities to carry out some historical tests with the new technology available since the tapestry was last investigated.
In a 2008 article for BBC History Magazine, David Musgrove considered where the Bayeux Tapestry was made and by whom, and asked historians whether it should be displayed in England. Elsewhere, Gale R Owen-Crocker unravelled the stories behind some of the tapestry’s key scenes for our Story of the Normans special edition, here.
Meanwhile, we asked four historians for their reactions to the news and the significance of the loan…
Shirley Ann Brown: “If the exhibition comes about, this would reverse precedent”
The news is out that the French and British governments have brokered a deal which would make possible an exhibition of the Bayeux Tapestry in the UK, in about five years’ time. The embroidery is a unique work of medieval art which illustrates the Norman invasion of England in 1066, an event central to Britain’s history. The fact that it has survived, having undergone hundreds of repairs over the centuries, is nothing short of a miracle. It is immensely “readable”, bringing the historical narrative to life with identifiable characters, places and events, much like a modern graphic novel. It is now a component of the cultural and historical consciousness of both England and Normandy, omnipresent in history books, and a major tourist attraction in Bayeux, attracting thousands of British visitors annually. Bringing it temporarily to Britain would create a wonderful opportunity for people unable to travel to Bayeux to see it first-hand.
If the exhibition comes about, this would reverse precedent. Ensconced in Bayeux in the 15th century, the tapestry was never moved further afield than Paris. Earlier attempts to “borrow” the Embroidery – by Britain in 1931 and 1953, possibly in 1966, and by the Americans in 1947 – ultimately came to nothing. The extreme fragility of the more than 900-year-old fabric has been the main concern, along with worries over the method of transportation, conditions of display, cost of insurance and loss of tourist income in Bayeux. In each negotiation, there was bickering between the local Bayeux authorities and the government in Paris, each exercising a veto at the last moment. These concerns still exist today and will have to be resolved. In five years, though the political exigencies currently at work behind the announcement will most likely have dissipated, the Bayeux Tapestry could be shared and viewed as the important cultural monument that it truly is.
Shirley Ann Brown is a professor of visual art and cultural expression at York University, Toronto.
George Garnett: “Whoever the designer was, she or he knew the English language, was well read, had a better grasp of architecture than battle”
The tapestry will, following an announcement from the French president, return briefly to the land where it was created, probably in the 1070s. Many of its images bear such a striking resemblance to the distinctive style of contemporary manuscripts from St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, that the designer of the tapestry must have had access to them. I say designer, rather than designers, because the whole is so consistent that it is difficult to imagine more than one mind behind it. Perhaps the designer was one of the Kentish needlewomen (or men) who executed the design, perhaps not. Whoever she or he was, she or he knew the English language, was well read, had a better grasp of architecture than battle, and a (crude) sense of humour.
The tapestry is not a tapestry, but an embroidery. It embroiders the history of the Norman Conquest. In most respects, it appears to follow the standard account of the Conquest told in the immediately post-Conquest Norman narratives. But in some respects, it does not. King Edward the Confessor’s alleged designation of Duke William as his successor is, for instance, entirely missing. This is not because the beginning of the tapestry has been lost, as the end has – almost certainly, William’s consecration as king. The closer one looks at the tapestry, the less faithfully it follows the Norman account. Pictures are ambiguous, and the commentary running along the top of the action often seems studiedly to avoid specifying the point of the images below.
The tapestry is unique in being not only a masterpiece of visual art, on an epic scale, but also a major narrative source for the most significant event in English history, which it postdates by only a decade or so.
George Garnett is a professor of medieval history at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford.
Marc Morris: “The real wonder of the Bayeux Tapestry is that, almost a millennium after its manufacture, it is still with us at all”
When news of Monsieur Macron’s suggestion of lending the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain broke, headline writers announced that this would be its first crossing of the Channel in 950 years. That’s probably true enough, and tolerable as a rough estimate, but the fact is nothing certain is known about the tapestry’s whereabouts until 1476, when it appears in an inventory of Bayeux Cathedral. Before that, its history has to be inferred.
Comparison with contemporary manuscript illustrations indicate that it was made in the late 11th century, almost certainly in Canterbury. It is also as good as certain that it was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who features prominently in several key scenes. Odo was made earl of Kent by William, so he provides the most obvious explanation of how it first crossed the Channel from Canterbury to Bayeux, which makes it likely this occurred before his death in 1097.
The tapestry’s survival since that time is nothing short of miraculous. It survived all the perils of the Middle Ages, fire and warfare, mice and moths. It came within a whisker of being chopped up and used for bunting during the French Revolution. It subsequently became famous, and was transported to Paris on the orders of Napoleon, to be exhibited at the Louvre. Back in Bayeux, it was for a time stored indifferently on a giant spindle in the Hôtel de Ville. In the 1940s, it was taken back to Paris by the Nazis, and managed to dodge every shell and explosion when the city was liberated by the Allies. The real wonder of the Bayeux tapestry is that, almost a millennium after its manufacture, it is still with us at all.
Dr Marc Morris is the author of William I: England’s Conqueror (Penguin, 2016) and The Norman Conquest (Windmill, 2013)
Nicholas Vincent: “It is entirely appropriate that the tapestry be employed to encourage Anglo-French entente”
For those who have not seen it face to face, the first thing to strike anybody viewing the tapestry will be its sheer size. This is something of truly epic scale. Not only is it a wonderful thing to behold, but it is entirely appropriate that the tapestry visit England.
Despite the claims of Normandy or the Loire valley, there seems little doubt that it was originally designed and manufactured in Kent, most likely at Canterbury. The patron was almost certainly William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Odo of Bayeux. Odo carried it off to his cathedral city where, in the later middle ages, it survived as a result of beneficent neglect.
Its rediscovery at Bayeux in the early 18th century was first properly broadcast in 1752, by the Eton and Oxford-educated Andrew Ducarel, a ‘Huguenot’ Protestant whose mother had fled to London from persecution in France. It was another Englishman, Charles Stothard, in the aftermath of Waterloo, who made the first accurate illustrations of the tapestry. Published in the 1820s, Stothard’s drawings remain essential for our understanding of what survived before ‘repairs’ and changes later in the 19th century. As a result, it is entirely appropriate that the tapestry be employed to encourage Anglo-French entente.
Too often in the past, first by Napoleon, and thereafter by the Nazis, it has been enlisted as propaganda for European ‘conquests’ of England. In reality, and for all the violence it depicts, it proves that, within a few decades of 1066, the Normans were dependent on English artistry and story-telling to commemorate the greatest of their victories. There can be no greater symbol of the extent to which English and French history have been intertwined, both in rivalry and in fruitful cooperation, for more than a thousand years.
Nicholas Vincent is a professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia