THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY

INTRODUCTION

The Bayeux Tapestry was made within a few years of the events it portrays. At worst, it was made within living memory and at best, as we shall see, it may have been started as early as 1068. The detail in the Tapestry, in clothing, armour and horse trappings, accords accurately with what is now known of them1. Shortly after 1066, fashions changed rapidly and medieval artists displayed no sense of history in their pictures. Hundreds of early religious paintings, for example, contain glaring anachronisms of Roman soldiers wearing some kind of European armour of a date approximating more to that of the artist than to the epoch being painted. If, as is widely assumed, Odo, bishop of Bayeux, commissioned the Tapestry he possibly ordered it in time for display at the consecration of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077. Alternatively, the usual view is that at the latest, he commissioned it before his arrest and imprisonment in 1082. As it happens, there is no suggestion that Odo was kept in chains in a deep dungeon so, given that he had a certain freedom to receive visitors and that he was not destitute, it is not impossible that promoting the Tapestry was conceived in prison as a means of passing the time. He might, perhaps, have planned the Tapestry while in prison and had it made after his release in 1087. In other words, being certain that Odo was the patron of the Tapestry does not necessarily confer the assumed certainty on the limits of its date of manufacture.

In the context of pictorial anachronisms, the tomb of William the Conqueror was opened in 1522 by order of the Pope2. It seems that the body in its original stone coffin was sufficiently well preserved for a painting to be made of how the Conqueror may have looked in life in spite of the repulsive story in Orderic Vitalis that the body was broken when the attendants were trying to force it into the coffin. The painting was hung over the sepulchre but both were subsequently destroyed. The Calvinists devastated the tomb in 1562 leaving only a single thigh bone. This was re-buried in 1642 and a new monument was erected. This was later embellished but was again destroyed in the revolutionary fervour of 1793. However, a portrait of William, now in St Stephen's, Caen (Figure 1), was made early in the eighteenth century and it is probable that it was a copy of the original sixteenth century portrait since it shows William both bearded and in sixteenth century dress. It would be nice to believe that the chunky, russet-haired individual fairly represents the appearance of the Conqueror in spite of the pose and clothing so reminiscent of Henry VIII, who was, himself, in France to meet king Francis I at the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold in 15203. The only point of contention might be the beard painted on the portrait. William is not generally thought to have had a beard. It is therefore possible, macabre though the thought is, that the original sixteenth century artist saw hair that had grown posthumously on the corpse and painted a full beard on the portrait. This alone, in perpetuating the same mistake, would tend to authenticate the surviving eighteenth century portrait as a true copy of the 1522 version. However, a coin in the British Museum (Figure 2), struck for William shows him with what appears to be a broken nose and either a great cleft chin or a short beard. The coin is too worn to be certain. A similar chin, or a similar beard, may be seen in the illuminated initial P of Orderic Vitalis' autograph copy of Gesta Normannorum Ducum by William of Jumièges (Figures 3 & 4). Also, an illustration in a thirteenth century manuscript showing Alain of Roux offering his allegiance, shows William with exactly the same straggling beard as the eighteenth century portrait.

Whenever the Tapestry was made, it is first identified with certainty in a written record in 1476, when it was included in the inventory at the cathedral of Notre-Dame, Bayeux4. It was noted that it was displayed at least once a year towards the end of June, at the Feast of Relics5. The mere mention of the annual display implies that in 1476 it had been at Bayeux for some time. Nevertheless, it really entered the public domain shortly after 1729/30 when Dom Bernard de Montfaucon, a Benedictine from Saint-Maur, published details of it in Monuments de la Monarchie Française complete with careful drawings by Antoine Benoît. He also mentioned a local tradition that associated the Tapestry with Matilda, wife and queen of William the Conqueror. This oral tradition was rapidly magnified and distorted out of all proportion6 so that, in effect, it destroyed itself and Odo, bishop of Bayeux became the generally approved choice as the Tapestry's patron. The tradition does, however, merit re-evaluation. Dom Bernard de Montfaucon wrote, 'L'opinion commune à Bayeux est, que ce fut la Reine Mathilde femme de Guillaume le Conquérant, qui a fit faire (savoir, la Tapisserie). Cette opinion qui passe pour une tradition dans le payis, n'a rien qui de fort vraisemblable.' In other words, it was merely an oral tradition. The amplification by Sir Joseph Aylosse made the tradition seem ridiculous. He wrote, 'The Conquest of England by William the Norman, … was, by command of Queen Matilda, represented in painting, and afterwards, by her own hands and the assistance of the ladies of her court, worked in arras, and presented to the cathedral at Bajuex (sic).' His comment contained, in the words of Professor David Bernstein, six unsupportable assertions about the Tapestry in one sentence. In fact, it is not as bad as all that! Like all historians, the professor is indoctrinated with the notion that Odo of Bayeux was the patron so the suggestion that the patron might possibly have been Matilda becomes unsupportable in his mind. If we were to accept the oral tradition that Queen Matilda was the patron then she did, indeed, command its manufacture. What would she do once she conceived the idea? Obviously, she would find a suitable workshop or designer or both at the same time. Probably the designer came first if the project was started soon after Matilda's coronation since, as her interface with the workshop, he was surely a native of Normandy to the extent of speaking Norman French as his mother-tongue. Then, as Matilda outlined her plan for the Tapestry the designer is sure to have made sketches for her general approval. Not all at once, probably, but scene by scene as the layout crystallised in their minds. Therefore, the Tapestry may not have been 'represented in painting' as such but a great deal of it must have been represented in 'drawing' and some of the sketches may even have been coloured to be certain that the designer had fully appreciated Matilda's directions. Once work was begun, Matilda will have been in and out of the workshop as often as her State and domestic duties allowed. We know she was an expert embroiderer. Why should she not have set a few stitches while she was there? Could some of her attendants have resisted doing the same? This is not the same thing as making the Tapestry with her own hands but the later misconception might easily have arisen from some such tradition. The fifth unsupportable assertion is, 'worked in arras'. This is true up to a point but we are considering a Tapestry, which, strictly speaking, should be woven to be properly called a tapestry, but is not woven. This does not seem to be the moment to split hairs about an unwoven arras. Lastly, Matilda could not present the Tapestry to Bayeux cathedral and Professor Bernstein is correct in denying the sixth assertion, but for the wrong reason, because, in his eyes, it was presented by the bishop. Our thesis here is that Matilda passed the Tapestry on to her daughter, which leaves quite unanswered the question of who eventually did present it to the cathedral.

There is a dubious but alluring logic in selecting Odo as the patron of the Tapestry. In the first place, he was in it and, secondly, it was found to be, albeit after a gap of around four hundred years since its manufacture, within what had been his cathedral. In addition, three of the four named minor characters in the Tapestry appear to have been tenants of Odo in England. Wadard (Panel 107), whose identification as the bishop's tenant is certain, and Turold do not have any obviously significant part to play in the Tapestry's story. Turold (Panel 23), having a more common name, may be identified as a tenant but without absolute certainty7. Vital (Panel 128) who led the scouts that found the true position of the English troops, is fairly identified as a tenant in Kent. Finally, by a slightly circular argument, the Tapestry has been judged to have been made in Canterbury where there was a school of artists who must have seen illustrations there8 that resemble some Panels in the Tapestry. Canterbury fell within the English earldom of Odo. Of course, if a school of artists is meant literally it presupposes students from elsewhere so that a graduate of the school will have taken his memories of the Canterbury pictures to wherever he may have then chosen to work. Otherwise, followers of the Canterbury style might equally have worked elsewhere. Furthermore, during the tenth and eleventh centuries Winchester, then the capital city of the realm, was a great centre of art production9. Bishop Odo would demand nothing but the best. If the best embroidery was made at Winchester then that is where he, or any other patron connected with the Court of William, would have had the Tapestry made.

In spite of informed opinion holding that Odo commissioned the Tapestry for display in his cathedral it really does not make a lot of sense. To appreciate the scenes properly, the Tapestry should be displayed at eye level. If this were done around the centre of the cathedral, the side aisles would be effectively cut off from the nave. Similarly, it is obvious that the middle of the Tapestry would not cross in front of the altar but would pass across the west end of the nave, thereby creating another obstacle10. Had the Tapestry been custom-made for the nave of the cathedral it would have been sensible to make it in two halves for fixing to the main pillars without obstructing either end. At the same time, visitors entering from the west could start at the beginning of the story if the Tapestry were hung in two pieces. If the Tapestry were hung in a single length, visitors would not only come to it in the middle but would see firstly the reverse side. When the Tapestry came to be displayed in the cathedral, as it undoubtedly was from some years before 1729, it must have been hung above head height. At the same time, the depth of the Tapestry, a mere fifty centimetres, is puny compared with the lofty nave of the cathedral. The flamboyance and love of display attributed to Odo would surely have demanded something much wider! All the same, Odo must still come high on the list of possible patrons even though parts of the Tapestry have been held to be indelicate and unsuitable for display in a church! A scholar named H F Delauney11 was probably the first to propose Odo as a candidate for the patronage saying that the Tapestry had evidently been donated by a cleric whose morals were not immaculate and Odo was clearly not disqualified on that score12. Right from the start of public recognition of the Tapestry, therefore, two assumptions for which there is absolutely no evidence, were slipped unobtrusively into the 'history'. Nowhere is it claimed as a fact that the Tapestry was donated by a cleric. Nowhere is it claimed as a fact that the patron was the donor.

Odo was not fanatically religious but a tapestry made to his order, with or without a donation to Bayeux cathedral in mind, could be expected to pick out and emphasise the holier aspects of the story and to play down the more blatantly secular parts. It has been observed, for instance, that at no point in the Tapestry is William portrayed at prayer. Could a churchman, however indifferently committed to his profession, have omitted such a scene since William was known to have been reasonably diligent in observing the forms of religion?13 Furthermore, William is supposed to have held a special commission from the Pope when he invaded England. The scene that follows the building of the castle at Hastings shows William receiving news of Harold's activities (Panel 120). William is holding a lance and the cross displayed upon its gonfanon14 has been identified by some as the papal device given by Pope Alexander. Odo, more than any other participant in the Tapestry's story including William himself, would have wanted there to be no doubt at all about the papal blessing if, of course, such a benison had been given. Odo, as the patron, would instinctively have insisted upon an inscription that left no doubt whatsoever about the moral significance of the Pope's banner. Above all, Odo is known to have been vain and would surely not have tolerated a scene (Panel 112) in which he is saying grace before a meal but nobody, excepting the diner on his right is listening. Odo would have insisted that everyone at the table should be drawn giving him rapt attention like the disciples in St Augustine's Gospels (Figure 5) that the scene partly resembles.

Lastly, if, as is supposed, the Tapestry had been commissioned for presentation to the cathedral at the time of its dedication in 1077 some mention of it might be expected to have survived. Odo was the last person on earth to have slipped the Tapestry into his new church and said nothing about it. Add to that, it would not have been displayed for the day of the dedication and then rolled up and put away! It must have been on view for some time and it must have been seen by most of the influential people of Normandy, both clerical and secular. To have seen the Tapestry without noticing all the detail might have been widely possible as there is too much of it to take in at one visit, but within just eleven years of the main event, many spectators will have had vivid memories of 1066. They could not have helped themselves from looking for incidents that they still remembered. In the bar of the George Hotel in Battle, there used to be a cartoon of two old Anglo-Saxon soldiers looking at the Tapestry and one saying something to the effect that the artist had caught the sergeant's likeness exactly! A personal identification with one scene or another must have been inevitable for large numbers of the Tapestry's viewers because they had been there, or had friends, relatives or tenants who had been involved in building the boats, making the arrows and weapons or supplying the vast quantities of food, wine and equipment15 even if they had not actually fought at Hastings. For all that, not a single mention has been found to have survived in Bayeux.

Perhaps we should not read too much into this idea. The pictures in the Tapestry may not have conveyed very much to the medieval mind. The interpretation of two-dimensional images has to be learnt. It is not an automatic function of human consciousness and a picture of a horse, for instance, could not possibly represent a horse to the untrained mind because you cannot walk round it16. Thanks to the camera, we are swamped today with two-dimensional images, both still and moving. In 1066 the average person might only have seen one or two devotional pictures in church, if that; the monks and clergy had illuminated manuscripts, embroidered robes and altar cloths and, perhaps, some paintings in the churches. The magnates might have had much the same visual experience as the clergy and might, in addition, have owned or seen some decorative wall-hangings of subjects from nature. In no case can the exposure to pictorial images have been very broad and, of course, the odds against the survival of any medieval document have always been incalculably high!