What the French President's loan of the Bayeux Tapestry means for Britain
10th October 2020 by Loren Robertson
Probably the most famous piece of medieval embroidery in the world, a ribbon of scrolling tapestry approximately 70 meters long that tells in pictures the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, an epic tale of gore and glory.
There is no embroidery or tapestry quite like the Bayeux Tapestry, a near-cinematic work of narrative genius. French President Emmanuel Macron's announcement that his government will allow the invaluable treasure to leave France for the first time in almost 1,000 years to be exhibited in Britain is a sensational stroke of cultural diplomacy.
The statement came at the close of a bilateral summit with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Thanking Macron, May said, "I am honoured at the loan of such a precious piece of our shared history, which yet again underscores the closeness of our relationship." She said the work would come to Britain in 2022.
For the British people, the Bayeux Tapestry holds a powerful allure, since the Norman Conquest represented not just a tragedy and a defeat but a pivot point that essentially transformed Anglo-Saxon society into the Britain of today (and gave us the language of Shakespeare).
The 50 cm high, intricately stitched work is a history and morality play — unfolding chronologically from left to right, with a couple of flashbacks — about how the heroic but flawed Harold, Earl of Wessex, briefly took the throne after the death of the heirless Edward the Confessor, only to be defeated just months into his reign by the righteous William, Duke of Normandy, at the climactic Battle of Hastings. As William Faulkner wrote: "'The past is never dead. It's not even past." A descendant of William the Conqueror sits on the British throne today, 94 year old Queen Elizabeth II.
Britain has formally requested a loan of the tapestry ahead of The Queen’s coronation in 1953. The Bayeux Museum declined. Another entreaty in 1966 for a loan to mark the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings was also rebuffed. The fragile tapestry is currently on display in its own specially designed conservatory at the Bayeux Museum, which is in northern France not far from the Normandy beaches of the D-Day invasion. British visitors make up the largest contingent of pilgrims wanting to see it.
In a statement, the Bayeux Museum appeared a little reluctant to let the tapestry go, stressing that the needlework masterpiece may need to be stabilized before it is moved, which would take years, and should be allowed to stay in England for no more than a year.
Either way, fans of the Bayeux embroidery were giddy at the prospect of its appearance in Britain, with various museums and their political patrons already competing to host the show.
"This is a work that can only be spoken of in superlatives," said Andrew Bridgeford, a lawyer, historian and the author of "1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry." Bridgeford noted the work's enormous scale, the richness and detail of the story it tells — "these simple drawings in yarn that seem very naive but are not" — and the lingering mysteries surrounding its creation. "There's really nothing like it," he said. Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, called the loan "probably the most significant ever from France to the U.K."
Not everyone in Britain was as thrilled about the second coming of the tapestry — not least because it chronicles a crushing defeat. John Redwood, a Conservative Party lawmaker and hard-line advocate of Britain's exit from the European Union, blasted out a volley of tweets. "While I'm sure the offer is well meant, I will pass over the unfortunate truth that it depicts an invading French army killing England's King & many in his army before taking over," he wrote. He then alluded to Brexit, warning the French leader that the Battle of Hastings "was the last time England was defeated in war by a hostile continental invasion, though many more attempts were made at enforced political union with the continent." Redwood suggested that Macron is dangling the loan of a priceless work of art while pressing Britain to pay more money to assist the French with cross-channel border patrol, the main subject of a bilateral meeting at the time.
Philippe Plagnieux, a professor and specialist in medieval art history at the Sorbonne in Paris, said of the tapestry loan: "Without doubt, it has tremendous political significance, but I think for many it's a fascinating object, a grand succession. The details alone — the elements of daily life, the concrete things it shows — that's incredibly rare for the period, and it's absolutely unique."
Not only is the tapestry extraordinary, so is its mere survival: The wool yarn embroidered on linen has bested both moths and Nazis. During the French Revolution, the panels were to be confiscated to cover military wagons, but they were rescued by a local lawyer.
Napoleon took the tapestry to Paris and paraded before it as he contemplated an invasion of England. Because of its depiction of the conquest — by the descendants of Norsemen or Vikings — the Nazis coveted the tapestry as Aryan propaganda. Before the Allied invasion of France in World War II, the Germans moved the tapestry to occupied Paris to safeguard it along with their other loot in the ¬Louvre. The SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, wanted it to decorate his medieval castle in Germany. Then just hours before the Allies swept into Paris, British code-breakers intercepted a signal from Himmler ordering his troops to snatch the tapestry — but they were repelled by French resistance fighters who took up positions at the Louvre.
The panels read as a kind of medieval page-turner, a cartoon of treachery, revenge, honour, guts and glory. There are scenes of feasts (chickens on spits) and an ominous apparition (Halley's comet). There are depictions of shipbuilding, dangerous voyages, falconry and funerals, quicksands, looting and pillaging. The battle that raged at Hastings is the centrepiece. It shows a field littered with headless torsos and strewn corpses, where a king falls not with an aristocratic sigh but an arrow through the eye. The flat-bottomed sea vessels are built of overlapping planks. They resemble the Viking ships they were modelled upon. The men — nobles, cavalry and foot soldiers — are dressed in knee-length tunics. The English are hairier than the Normans. Normans and Anglo-Saxons sport haircuts that resemble today's mullet, long on top, short on the sides. There are 626 human figures, 190 horses and 35 dogs, alongside 506 short inscriptions in Latin. Three women are shown. In one scene, they are fleeing a burning building.
Who sponsored the work? The consensus view, said Richard Gameson, professor of early medieval art and manuscripts at Durham University, is that the tapestry was most likely created not in France but in England, just a few years after the 1066 Battle of Hastings.
Most scholars suspect that William the Conqueror's half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, commissioned the piece, although no one knows and there are other intriguing possibilities. Indeed, William's Norman lords, and the Anglo-Saxons who backed him, became landed millionaires, even billionaires, by today's standards. The designer's identity is also lost to history. Although Gameson said it could have been a monk, as some argue, he suspects it was someone more worldly wise and well-travelled who was familiar with the look of contemporary ships, weapons, horse tack, architecture and court life.
Who stitched the nine panels? Many hands. But it is unknown whether the embroiderers were men or women or both. At the time, Gameson said, embroidery was "a high-status occupation" pursued by experts both men and women. One notable element of the Bayeux Tapestry narrative is how even-handed it is. It was clearly created by the victors to represent the Norman side of things. But it also portrays the vanquished Harold as noble and brave. "The tapestry shows Harold as a worthy foe and the English as ferocious fighters," Gameson said. "And so the victory is hard-won. It is earned. The signs are subtle to us," Gameson said. But to its 11th-century audience, the message would have been clear: The right guy won.