© Michael Leete 2005
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The Bayeux Tapestry is housed in the former Grande Seminaire at Bayeux and the notice outside, Musée de la Reine Mathilde, proclaims it obliquely as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. When I first saw the Tapestry, I found the length of it absolutely breath-taking. The pamphlet that I picked up told me that it had been made shortly after 1066 and was listed in the Inventory of Bayeux cathedral in 1476. As I absorbed the wonder of the pictures, I began to think of the sheer bulk of the Tapestry, even rolled up. How did such a huge bundle of cloth escape the records for 400 years?
A few years ago, there were some 140 books, written in English, about the Tapestry1. Since then, there must have been published many more and as the anniversary of 2066 approaches, many more may be expected. In these books (I have not read anything like all of them!) the consensus seems to be that Odo, bishop of Bayeux and half-brother to king William the Conqueror, was the patron of the Tapestry. Over the years, I have become less and less happy with this view and now think that even if queen Matilda were not the patron, she has a stronger claim to it than Odo. I also believe that Baudri, abbot of Bourgeuil, saw the Tapestry. He may not have seen it in the apartments of queen Matilda or in those of her daughter Adèla, countess of Blois but he probably did not see it in Bayeux either. He let his imagination run away with him but I think he does describe, as accurately as a poet may be expected to confine himself to reality in describing an imaginary artefact, what is now known as the Bayeux Tapestry.
In other words, there is a very good chance that we have all been looking in the wrong place for evidence of the Tapestry's early presence.
I cannot say either that the Tapestry ever belonged to Adèla or, if it did, where the Tapestry might have gone after Adèla's death in 1137 but it certainly turned up in Bayeux cathedral eventually and, perhaps, this is no more mysterious than that the wonderful facsimile made in Leek, Staffordshire, should now be in Reading, Berkshire.
At the same time, I offer a speculative reason for the Ælfgyva illustration and a theory that the house being burnt by the Normans was Harold's Crowhurst manor, the home at this critical time of Edith Swan Neck and their son Ulf. Proving the theory is probably impossible because all that now remains of the manor is the skeleton of the two-storey porch and an outline of the later manor. The rest has disappeared, some of it in a land-slip. In my view, this one theory explains Ulf's captivity, Edith's presence near Battle to identify Harold's body and Harold's precipitate rush down into Sussex from London.
Lastly, I believe that the graphics of the Tapestry show that William did not leave Hastings in full darkness in order to arrive at Battle before nine in the morning. He had left Hastings the day before the battle thinking that Harold's troops were about to attack.
Historians of the Tapestry have largely copied each other. And sniped at each other! Inevitably, most of my references come from the works of others and I hope I have given credit where credit is due. I now believe that it is time to look again at the Tapestry and to assess again the diversity and weight of the evidence it provides. I have tried to read the Tapestry simply as graphics, before seeing how the written history corresponds. I don't believe that this approach has been attempted before by other historians who are, understandably, influenced primarily by their knowledge of the more definitive written word.
I do not have the facilities either to hunt up and down the Loire for references to the Tapestry or to attempt an archaeological dig at Crowhurst but I do hope that this book may help to persuade historians to keep an open mind until the cast-iron questions have cast-iron answers.
I should also add that one direct consequence of the establishment of a Norman power-base in England was that France was torn with strife for about seven centuries, commencing with Anglo-Norman raiding, during the Conqueror's lifetime, that reached as far as the devastation of Nantes. The civil population of Britain, in contrast, were not much troubled by foreign aggressors until the attentions of the Luftwaffe in 1940. That second 'War to end all Wars' was concluded successfully for England but visitors to the Tapestry should not miss the beautifully kept war cemetery at Bayeux and note the very moving inscription: Nos a Gulielmo victi victoris patriam liberavimus.
1 The Bayeux Tapestry: History and Bibliography (1988), Shirley Ann Brown: Lists 523 books on the Tapestry and related subjects. The book does not include itself, so that is 524 titles up to 1988.