Will the Bayeux Tapestry actually come to Britain?

Following French president Emmanuel Macron’s recent announcement that the Bayeux Tapestry is to go on display in the UK, six experts offer their opinions as to whether the proposed loan will ever become a reality…

Norman cavalry charge the enemy in this detail from the Bayeux Tapestry. Debate rages over the pros and cons of the tapestry leaving France for the first time in more than 900 years. (Photo by Photo 12/Getty Images)

“The chances are good”

I think there’s every chance that the Bayeux Tapestry will come to the UK in 2022/23, hopefully to the British Museum. In 2013, I was asked by Bayeux Museum to join its advisory committee, tasked with advising on the re-display and interpretation of the tapestry. Straight away I advocated its loan to the British Museum.

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If Bayeux Museum is going to be closed and refurbished (as has been proposed) then the embroidery will have to be moved, so there is a genuine opportunity for a loan, subject to a conservation assessment. An exhibition at the British Museum in London would enable the greatest number of people to see what is the most famous illustrated document of English history.

Michael Lewis is author of The Real World of the Bayeux Tapestry

“Sadly, it won’t be coming”

Although it would be exciting to see the Bayeux Tapestry alongside some of the manuscripts that perhaps influenced it, my instinct is that it won’t come to the UK. The conservators at the museum in Bayeux have expressed reservations about its fragile state and, of course, the preservation of this unique artefact has to be the primary consideration in any decisions.

It is fantastic, however, that the proposed loan has generated so much interest and got people talking about the tapestry, the Normans, and the wider debate surrounding the loan of historical artefacts.

Leonie Hicks is author of A Short History of the Normans

“Much needs to be done first”

It is a daunting and incredibly expensive proposition. All previous loan requests were stymied and I am sceptical this one will succeed. Bayeux’s mayor and the museum’s director have stipulated that any loan is conditional upon conservation studies indicating the embroidery is stable enough for the move. An institutional partnership must also be formed and a financing agreement negotiated.

The loan date has to be short, between Bayeux Museum’s proposed closure in 2022 and its reopening in spring 2024, and a climate-controlled exhibition case at least 225ft long has to be built. It boils down to politics vs conservation concerns.

Local opposition is mounting, but the loan could materialise as it is encouraged by the central government in France.

Shirley Ann Brown is a member of the Bayeux Tapestry Advisory Committee and author of The Bayeux Tapestry: A Sourcebook

“There are too many obstacles”

The Bayeux Tapestry cannot come to Britain before 2022, when the Tapestry Museum in Bayeux is scheduled to be closed for restoration, by which time post-Brexit relations between France and Britain may have deteriorated to a point where such a goodwill gesture is inconceivable. Other potential obstacles for the tapestry making it across the Channel include insurmountable technical problems encountered in its packing, transport or display.

The tapestry hasn’t left France in more than 900 years, and all previous attempts to bring it to Britain have failed. I don’t think that this time will be any different. Having said that, I really do hope it comes.

Trevor Rowley is author of An Archaeological Study of the Bayeux Tapestry

“The experts will decide”

Looking at the question from a textile perspective, I can’t give a definitive yes or no because there are so many variables. The tapestry is approximately 940 years old. It is constructed from natural fibres, wool and linen, which are fragile, even more so because of their age.

The curators and conservationists who look after the hanging will explore how robust it is, and whether it is safe to be transported and re-displayed. They will then make the best decision for the hanging itself. If it can come, it should.

Alexandra Lester-Makin has a PhD in early medieval embroidery from the University of Manchester

“Bayeux will comply”

When President Macron simply announced that the tapestry would be lent to Britain, he did so on the hoof and apparently without any consultation.

This reveals a degree of centralised control that would have been familiar to William the Conqueror, the hero of the tapestry. But he first secured this in England as a result of the events depicted in the tapestry – he did not enjoy it in Normandy, a principality of the French kingdom. That such control exists in modern France is a result of more recent events, specifically the consummation of the revolution in Napoleon’s empire.

The mayor of Bayeux has quibbled, but he will eventually comply.

George Garnett is author of The Norman Conquest: A Very Short Introduction

Click here to read 5 Bayeux Tapestry facts.

Join us for a day of talks and discussion with five experts on the Bayeux Tapestry at St Anne’s College, Oxford on Sunday 17 June 2018. Our speakers will explore the tapestry and the era that created it, and share the latest ideas and research about the monumental embroidery. The talks will be followed by audience Q&As and book signings and the ticket price also includes refreshments and a buffet lunch. Tickets are on sale now and BBC History Magazine subscribers can enjoy a discount – click here to buy.

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This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine