The Authority of the Bayeux Tapestry

From History of the Norman Conquest - Appendix
by Edward Augustus Freeman

It will be seen that, throughout this volume, I accept the witness of the Bayeux Tapestry as one of my highest authorities. I do not hesitate to say that I look on it as holding the first place among the authorities on the Norman side. That it is a contemporary work I entertain no doubt whatever, and I entertain just as little doubt as to its being a work fully entitled to our general confidence. I believe the Tapestry to have been made for Bishop Odo, and to have been most probably designed by him as an ornament for his newly rebuilt cathedral church of Bayeux. In coming to these conclusions I have been guided by what seems to me the unanswerable internal evidence of the Tapestry itself. Of that internal evidence I shall presently state the more important points, but, as the age and antiquity of the Tapestry have been made the subjects of a good deal of controversy, I think it right to begin by giving a summary of the literature of that controversy.
The earliest notice of the Tapestry is to be found in a communication made by M. Lancelot in 1724 to the French Academy, which was printed in the sixth volume of their Memoirs, p. 739 (Paris, 1729), and which, in some sort, entitles him to the honour of being looked on as its discoverer. Among the papers of M. Foucault, who had been intendant in Normandy, was found what Lancelot calls "un Monument de Guillaume le Conqueraut." This was no other than a copy of the earlier scenes of the Tapestry, as far down as the coming of William's messengers to Guy. The real nature of the monument was quite unknown; that it might be tapestry was simply one conjecture out of many which Lancelot made before the truth was found out. And he not unnaturally connected his discovery with Caen rather than with Bayeux. But the description which he gave of that part of the Tapestry which he had then seen, and the historical disquisition which he added, showed a very creditable knowledge of the original writers both English and Norman. His conclusion was as follows ;

" Plus j'ay examine le monument qui a servi de sujet a ces remarques, et plus je me suis persuade qu'il estoit du temps a peu pres ou s'est passe 1'evenement qu'il represente ; habits, armes, caracteres de lettres, ornements, gout dans les figures representees, tout sent le siecle de Guillaume le Conquerant, ou celuy de ses enfants." (p. 755)

Lancelot then was the first to call attention to the Tapestry, but without knowing that it was tapestry or where it was to be seen. This discovery was owing to the diligence of Montfaucon, who first conjectured, and afterwards found his conjecture to be right, that the fragment published by Lancelot was a copy of part of a roll of tapestry which used to be exhibited on certain feast-days in Bayeux Cathedral. Montfaucon gave two accounts of it in his Monuments de la Monarchie Francoise, at vol. i. p. 37 i, and at the beginning of vol. ii. He decides (ii. 2), on the evidence of the style of the work, the form of the armour, *&c., that the work is a contemporary one, and he accepts as probable, what he says was the common opinion at Bayeux, that it was wrought by Queen Matilda. He thought that the Tapestry was designed to go on to the coronation of William, and that its imperfect state was owing to the Queen's death in 1083.
The first volume of Montfaucon was published in 1729, the second in 1730. In the latter year Lancelot communicated to the Academy a second paper, which appeared in the eighth volume of the Memoirs (Paris, 1733), p. 602. He had by that time found out another fact with regard to the monument. The Tapestry, known as "la Toilette du Due Guillaume," was thus mentioned in an inventory of the goods of the Church of Bayeux of the date of 1476 ;

" Item. Une tente tres longue et etroite de telle a broderie de images et eserpteaulx [lescripteaulx] faisans representation du Conquest d'Angleterre, laquelle est tendue environ la nef de l'Eglise le jour et par les octaves des Reliques."

A short notice of the Tapestry in Beziers' History of Bayeux (Caen, 1773) is wholly founded on Lancelot and Montfaucon.

The first English mention of the Tapestry, as far as I can make out, is to be found in Stukeley's Palaeographia Britannica, ii. 2. An abridgment of Montfaucon's account, by Smart Lethicullier, F.R.S. and F.S.A., is added as an Appendix to Ducarel's Anglo-Norman Antiquities, No. I. But the earliest actual writers of English history who dealt with the age and authority of the Tapestry were two authors who hold such different places in the estimation of the scholar as Lord Lyttelton and David Hume. Lyttelton (Hist. Henry II. i. 353, ed. 1769) came to a conclusion unfavourable to the authority of the Tapestry ; but he did not come to it without really reading and thinking about the matter. His main point of objection was the supposed discrepancy between the Tapestry and the narrative of William of Poitiers with regard to the details of the Breton war, an objection perfectly reasonable as far as it goes, and the grounds of which I shall examine elsewhere (see Note T). Assuming, I suppose, that the tradition which ascribed the work to a Matilda must have some groundwork, Lyttelton "judged" that it was made by the orders, not of William's Queen Matilda, but of her granddaughter the Empress.
This "judgment," it should be noticed, was simply Lyttelton's own conjecture, thrown out on his own responsibility. It is curious to mark the fate of this conjecture in the hands of Hume. It is due to Hume to say that he seems to have had a clearer notion of the real value of the Tapestry than Lyttelton. Yet in 1762, when he published the first edition of his early history, he knew the Tapestry only as "a very curious and authentic monument lately discovered. It is a tapestry, preserved in the ducal palace at Rouen, and supposed to have been wrought by orders of Matilda, wife to the Emperor. At least it is of very great antiquity." (i. 128.)
When this was written, the first discovery of the Tapestry, at least of the part of which Hume was speaking, was thirty-eight years old. Still it was in Hume's eyes "lately discovered," because he had most likely never before heard of it. The cathedral at Bayeux and the ducal palace at Rouen were all one to him, just as Milan and Pavia, Guelf and Ghibelin, were all one to him, when (p. 183) he turned Lanfranc into " a Milanese monk." The tradition of Bayeux and the conjecture of Lyttelton are seemingly rolled together in the word "supposed," and one might almost guess that Hume, while writing the reign of Eadward, had not yet learned to distinguish one Matilda from another; it clearly was quite indifferent to him which Emperor it was that either of them married.
But the beginning of any really serious and critical enquiry into the age and authority of the Tapestry was reserved for the present century. Attention began to be called to it during the time of the French Republic. Some curious letters on the subject are printed in Pluquet's "Essai Historique sur la ville de Bayeux," pp. 76-81. It appears that the Tapestry at one time narrowly escaped being cut into shreds to adorn a civic car. It afterwards actually underwent a fate almost as degrading. The elder Buonaparte, then "First Consul," carried it off to Paris, and showed it at the Louvre, to stir up his subjects- "citizens" they are still called in the official letters- to another conquest of England ! But this kind of folly had at least the advantage of fixing the thoughts of learned men on the Tapestry. The first fruits of their studies appeared in 1812, in the form of a paper by the Abbe de la Rue, Professor at Caen and Canon of Bayeux, of which an English translation by Mr. Douce is printed in the Archaeologia, vol. xvii. P. 85. M. de la Rue followed Lyttelton in attributing the Tapestry to the time and the orders of the Empress Matilda. Against the tradition which attributed it to the wife of the Conqueror he brings several arguments. It is nowhere mentioned in the will of Queen Matilda or in any other wills or charters of her age or that of her sons. If it had been placed in Bayeux Cathedral in Queen Matilda's time, it must have perished in the fire by which that church was destroyed in 1106. Some relics were saved, but no one would have taken the trouble to save the Tapestry. Some points of nonagreement between the accounts in the Tapestry and the Roman de Rou show that Wace had never seen the Tapestry. But, as a Canon of Bayeux, he could not fail to have seen it, if it had been there in his time. The work again must be later than Queen Matilda's time, because the border contains references to fables of Aesop, which were not known in the West till the time of the Crusades. It is shown moreover to be of English work, from the occurrence of the mysterious AElfgyva. This name he takes to be an English way of describing the Duchess, afterwards Queen, Matilda. Wadard again, whose name he takes to be English, and the word " Ceastra" are brought as proofs of English workmanship. Another point on which he strongly insists is that the Normans are called Franci in the Tapestry, which he argues would not have been done by Norman artists. He concludes therefore that the Tapestry was made in England by order of the Empress, at some time between 1162, about which time Wace wrote, and 1167, the year of her own death.
This communication led to several other papers on the subject in the Archaeologia, and to what was more valuable than all, to the publication of the beautiful and accurate representation of the Tapestry itself, made for the Society of Antiquaries by Stothard. At vol. xviii. p. 359 of the Archaeologia is a letter written in 1816 by Mr. Hudson Gurney, who had seen the Tapestry for himself. He argues in favour of the antiquity attributed to the work by the local tradition. He insists on various points of costume, and on the evident attempt at preserving a likeness in the figures, especially in that of William. He concludes that it was made for Queen Matilda by English workwomen. The nineteenth volume of the Archaeologia contains three papers on the Tapestry or on subjects connected with it. The first by Mr. Amyot, at p. 88, does not deal with the question of the age of the Tapestry itself, but only with the evidence which it gives as to the cause of Harold's voyage to Normandy. The second, at p. 184, is a powerful argument by Stothard in favour of the antiquity of the Tapestry, but in which he does not commit himself to any connexion with Queen Matilda. Stothard was the first to see that the one proposition did not involve the other. He enlarges on the costume as belonging to the eleventh century and not to the twelfth, and on the utter improbability that any medieval artist of a later age should attend to antiquarian accuracy in these matters. He remarks also on the obscure persons represented on the Norman side, Turold, Vital, and Wadard, as distinct proof that the Tapestry was a contemporary Norman work.
In the hands of Stothard the subject had for the first time fallen into hands really capable of dealing with it as it deserved. But Stothard is well followed up in a second paper by Mr. Amyot in p. 192 of the same volume, in which he disposes of most of the arguments of M. de la Rue against the antiquity of the Tapestry. He still however seems to think that, if it were a contemporary monument, it must have been the work of Queen Matilda, or wrought by her order. Mr. Amyot also points out that Wadard is not only, as Stothard had seen, a proper name, but that it is the name of a real man who appears in Domesday, and also that Wadard, Turold, and Vital were all tenants of Odo. Mr. Amyot very appositely observes that "Franci" was the only name which could properly express the whole of William's mingled army, and that "Franci" and "Francigenae" are the words constantly opposed to "Angli" in documents of the age of the Conqueror and much later.
In 1824 M. de la Rue republished at Caen his essay in the Archaeologia, with an Appendix containing all attempt at a refutation of Stothard and Amyot. He was again briefly answered by another Norman antiquary, M. Pluquet, in his Essai Historique sur la ville de Bayeux (Caen, 1829). Pluquet was the first distinctly to assert that the work had nothing to do with either Matilda, but that it was made by order of Bishop Odo (p. 81). In 1840 Mr. Bolton Corney put forth a tract, in which he attempted to show that the Tapestry was made by the Chapter of Bayeux after the French Conquest of Normandy. He argues that, during the union of England and Normandy, the conquest of England, which William took such pains to disguise under the semblance of legal right, would not be thus ostentatiously set forth in Normandy. Some learned person, he holds, was employed to keep the costume right, a degree of antiquarian care for which it would be hard to find a parallel in the middle ages.
Thierry reprinted Lancelot's account as a note at the end of his first volume (p. 353, ed. 1840), adding two notes of his own. In the first he accepts the Tapestry as a contemporary work, designed for the ornament of the church of Bayeux, and quotes M. de la Rue as attributing the work to the Empress Matilda. In the second he quotes him as attributing it neither to William's Queen Matilda nor to Matilda the Empress, but to Eadgyth-Matilda, the wife of Henry the First. I do not know whether this was a confusion of Thierry's, or whether De la Rue ever came to change his opinion. At any rate Thierry successively accepts these two distinct theories as highly probable, and sees in one or other of them the explanation of the alleged English words and forms which are found in several places of the Tapestry.
Dr. Lingard (Hist. of England, i. 547, ed. 1849) gives a note to the subject, for the substance of which he professes to be indebted to Mr. Bolton Corney. But he does not commit himself to the more grotesque parts of Mr. Corney's theory. He altogether rejects the supposed connexion between the Tapestry and any of the Matildas. He holds that it was originally made as a decoration for the church of Bayeux, and that it was designed to commemorate the share which the men of Bayeux bore in the Conquest of England. This he infers from the prominence given to Odo, and from the appearance of his retainers, Turold, Vital and Wadard. Rather than attribute the work to Matilda, he inclines to believe that the Tapestry originated in the personal vanity of some of these men, or of their descendants.
I suppose I am not expected to take any serious notice of some amusing remarks on the Tapestry made by Miss Agnes Strickland (Queens of England, i. 65, 66), who recommends "the lords of the creation" "to leave the question of the Bayeux Tapestry to the decision of the ladies, to whose province it belongs." According to Miss Strickland, the Tapestry was "in part at least designed for Matilda by Turold, a dwarf artist." Miss Strickland speaks of a Norman tradition to that effect, but perhaps even a "lord of the creation " may venture to ask where that Norman tradition is to be found.
I return into the everyday world in company with Dr. Collingwood Bruce, who read a paper on the Tapestry before the Archaeological Institute at Chichester in 1853, which afterwards grew into a volume called " The Bayeux Tapestry Elucidated" (London, 1856). Dr. Bruce follows Stothard in the argument for the early date of the Tapestry, drawn from the correctness of the costume. He argues further on the same side from the manifest object of the Tapestry, to set forth the right of William to the English Crown. He cleaves in a somewhat unreasoning way to the tradition which attributes the work to the first Matilda, but he fully grasps the manifest connexion of the Tapestry with Bayeux and its church. He even goes so far as to attribute the two or three apparently English forms which appear in the legends of the Tapestry to the common use of the Teutonic language in the Bessin, which he supposes, without any authority that I know of, to have lasted as late as the reign of William. Dr. Bruce however thinks that the designer of the Tapestry, as distinguished from those who wrought it in the stitch-work, was an Italian.
Sir Francis Palgrave, in the posthumous part of his work (iii. 254), has an incidental reference to the Tapestry, in which he takes for granted that it is the work of Queen Matilda, without any hint that any question has ever been raised about the matter.
Lastly, Mr. Planche published a paper "On the Bayeux Tapestry" in the Journal of the British Archeological Association for June, 1867 (p. 134). Mr. Planche follows M. Pluquet, and gives a good summary of his arguments ; he goes minutely through the Tapestry, giving his views at each stage, to some of which I shall have to refer again. "The report," he says, "mentioned by Montfaucon that it was the work of Queen Matilda and her handmaids, originated probably in the suggestion of some antiquary of the sixteenth or seventeenth century repeated till it assumed the consistency of a fact."

I now go on to give my reasons for accepting the early date of the Tapestry. The arguments of Stothard drawn from the accurate representation of the costume of the eleventh century seem to me unanswerable. Dr. Bruce adds a good instance of his own in a comparison of the Tapestry with a passage in the Roman de Rou. Wace (v. 12628) speaks of the horse of William Fitz-Osbern as "all covered with iron," (see above, p. 455, and Taylor's note, p. 162), whereas in the Tapestry " not a single horse is equipped in steel armour; and if we refer to the authors who lived at that period we shall find that not one of them mentions any defensive covering for the horse."
Mr. Amyot's arguments with regard to Wadard, Vital, and Turold seem to me distinctly to prove that the work was a contemporary one, and one made for Bishop Odo and the church of Bayeux. As Dr. Lingard says, it is quite inconceivable that these persons, who are of no importance in the general history, whose reputation must have been purely local, should have received such prominence in any but a purely local work. The only persons on the Norman side who appear by name in the representation of the landing and of the battle are the Duke and his two brothers, Count Eustace of Boulogne, and these three obscure retainers of Bishop Odo. We see them here in the Tapestry, and the industry of Mr. Amyot and Dr. Lingard has traced them out in Domesday, but no other mention survives of them. Ralph, the son of Turold, Vital, Wadard " homo episcopi," all occur in Domesday, 1, 6, 7, 8, 8 a, 9, 10, 32, 77, 155 b, 238 b, 342 b, and in every case their land is held of Bishop Odo. It is plain that, in the mind of the designer of the Tapestry, the Bishop of Bayeux and his favourite followers came next after Duke William himself. This fact seems to me to be equally decisive in favour of its being a contemporary work and against its being a work of Matilda.
Here, I think, is abundant evidence both to establish the contemporary date, and to show the object of the work. It was plainly a gift from Odo to his own newly-built cathedral. But it is quite possible that the work was done in England. The evidence is certainly very slight. I believe it is wholly contained in the words "at Hastingaceastra" (pl. ii). I cannot think that "at" for "ad" proves anything, but the form "Ceastra" goes a good way to prove that the work was English. The notion of Dr. Bruce and Mr. Planche that these forms are not English but Saxon of Bayeux, seems very fanciful. Besides, the form "ceaster" is one which is not Nether-Dutch in a wide sense, but distinctly and locally English. I know of no instance of its occurrence in the Bessin, or indeed anywhere out of England.
Most of the objections made to the early date of the Tapestry are well disposed of by M. Pluquet and Mr. Planche ; but to one of their arguments I must demur. M. de la Rue (see above, p. 566) objected that the borders contain scenes from Aesop's Fables, which he says were not known in the West till afterwards. Mr. Planche, oddly enough, quotes (p. 136) Freculf, Bishop of Lisieux, who, he tells us, "lived in the eleventh century," as saying that Eadward caused the Fables of Aesop to be translated into English. He goes on with a reference to the false Ingulf, which I need not discuss. As for Freculf, who died somewhere about the year 853, if he said anything at all about our Eadward, he must have enjoyed a prophetic power rivalling that of the saint himself. But it is well known that Mary of France, the poetess of the thirteenth century, professes to have made her French version of the Fables from an English version made by an English King. Mary's knowledge of English will be a point of some importance in the last stage of this work; at present I am concerned only with the words (ii. 401, ed. Roquefort. See Palgrave, iv. 225),

Les rois Henris qui moult l'ama
Le translata puis en Engleiz."

Other manuscripts however read Auvert, Auvres, &c., names which of course mean AElfred. The whole matter is discussed by M. de la Rue in Roquefort's Preface (ii, 34). If AElfred be the right reading, there is no doubt of the early knowledge of the Fables in England. If Henry be the right reading, I certainly think that the King meant is Henry the First, whose probable English education I shall have to discuss hereafter. I think we may guess that, if Henry translated anything into English, it was early in life that he did it, and Henry was born about the time when the Tapestry must have been making.
For my own part I should reverse the argument. I have that confidence in the Tapestry that I accept the figures wrought in its border as proof that the Fables were known in Normandy and England in the eleventh century.

The external evidence then seems to be complete. The work must be a contemporary one; there is no evidence to connect it with Matilda ; there is every evidence to connect it with Odo. It was probably, but I cannot say certainly, made in England. I now turn to that branch of the question which to me is yet more interesting, the internal evidence for looking on the Tapestry as I look on it, as a primary authority for the subject of the present volume, as in fact the highest authority on the Norman side.
I ground this belief on the way in which the story is told. It is told from the Norman point of view, but it is told with hardly any of the inventions, exaggerations, and insinuations of the other Norman authorities. In fact the material has a certain advantage. Stitchwork must tell its tale simply and straightforwardly ; it cannot lose itself in the rhetoric of Eadward's Biographer or in the invective of William of Poitiers. And the tale which the Tapestry tells us comes infinitely nearer to the genuine English story than it does even to the narrative of the Conqueror's laureate. To the later romances, the tales for instance of Eadward's French Biographer, it gives no countenance whatever. With regard to the great controversial points, those which I shall go through in detail in future, the Tapestry nearly always agrees with the authentic account. There is not a word or a stitch which at all countenances any of the calumnious tales which were afterwards current. In the Tapestry the bequest of Eadward to Harold, his orderly acceptance of the Crown, his ecclesiastical coronation, all appear as plainly as they do in the narrative of Florence. The only point of diversity is that the Tapestry seems to represent Stigand, and not Ealdred, as the consecrator. Now there was no absolute necessity for a partisan of William to deny the facts of the case. William's claim rested rather on the invalidity of the bequest, the election, and the coronation, than on any denial that the ceremonies themselves bad taken place. And accordingly, in the earlier Norman writers, most of the facts are admitted in a kind of way. It is not till long afterwards that we find the full development of those strange fables which, in so many modern histories, have supplanted the truth. Had the Tapestry been a work of later date, it is hardly possible that it could have given the simple and accurate account of these matters which it does give. A work of the twelfth or thirteenth century would have brought in, as even honest Wace does in some degree, the notions of the twelfth or the thirteenth century. One cannot conceive an artist of the time of Henry the Second, still less an artist later than the French Conquest of Normandy, agreeing so remarkably with the authentic writings of the eleventh century. The truth was in those days almost wholly forgotten, and no one would have been likely to represent the story with any accuracy.
But though the Tapestry perverts the story less than any other Norman account, it is still essentially a Norman account. One main object of the work is plainly to set forth the right of William to the English Crown. This was of course the great object of William himself and of his contemporary partisans. But it was not an object which greatly occupied men's minds in the days of Henry the Second or later. The writers of that time, as I shall presently show, are as bitter, perhaps more bitter, against Harold than the Norman writers of his own time ; but their bitterness comes from a different
source. Under the Angevin dynasty, descended, as it was, in a roundabout way from Old-English royalty, men were beginning to look on Harold and William as alike usurpers. We begin to hear of strict hereditary right and of the exclusion of the lawful heir. Henry the Second encouraged his panegyrists to set forth his lawful descent from ancient English Kings, without any reference whatever to his descent from the Norman invader. It was only in the female line that Henry was either Norman or English ; in his real ancestry, in his real feelings and character, he was as little one as the other. It is most unlikely that any one should have wrought, in the days of Henry or for Henry's mother, a work which throughout breathes the spirit of the earliest days of the Conquest.
In like manner, the representation of William's landing and of the great battle could have come only from the hand of a contemporary. The mere fullness of detail, the evident delight with which the artist dwells on all the little incidents of the campaign, point it out as the work of one in whose memory they were all vividly retained. The notices of insignificant people, like Turold, Wadard, and Vital, while they point to the place for which the Tapestry was designed, point also to a time when these retainers of Bishop Odo were still living. In the days of the Empress Matilda their fame is not likely to have been great, even at Bayeux. So again every antiquarian detail is accurate; the nose-pieces, the lack of armour on the horses, the care taken to represent every man bearded, moustached, or close-shaven, according to his age and nation (see vol. ii. p. 27), all bespeak the work of a contemporary artist. The idea of Mr. Corney that the Chapter of Bayeux in the thirteenth century would specially order its artists to attend to such points is ludicrous beyond measure, and it had been disposed of beforehand in the masterly argument of Stothard. But the Tapestry is equally accurate in greater matters. The English army is an English army of the eleventh century and nothing else. The two classes of warriors, the here and the fyrd, the Housecarls in their coats of mail with their great axes, the peasantry armed almost anyhow, are nowhere more clearly marked. The utter absence of horses, except as a means, as in the days of Brihtnoth (see vol. i. PP. 299, 301), for reaching or leaving the field-the King himself fighting on foot-the ensign of the West-Saxon Dragon-all these are touches from a contemporary hand, which it is utterly inconceivable that an artist working it hundred or a hundred and fifty years later could have preserved. It is worth while to mark the remarkable contrast between the Battle of Senlac as represented in the Tapestry, and the Battle of Stamfordbridge as described by Snorro. The contemporary artist represented things as he saw them; the writer of the thirteenth century described things as he saw them also ; but then they did not see the same things. The Bayeux Tapestry represents Harold's army at Senlac as Harold's army really was. The narrative in the Heimskringla describes Harold's army at Stamfordbridge after the pattern of an army of the thirteenth century.

This precious monument is now well preserved and cared for. After its ridiculous journey to Paris, it came back safe to its Norman home, but it was kept for a while in a way which did not tend much to its preservation. It was wound round a sort of windlass, and was unwound and handled whenever anybody looked at it. It is now in a much better position. It is kept under glass in the public Library at Bayeux, where it is stretched out round the room at a convenient height, where it may be studied with the greatest ease. I have there examined it three times, once in 1861, and twice in 1867, and I may say that, fully to realize its value and importance, it should be seen. Stothard's reduction is admirable in every way, and serves for every ordinary purpose of study, but I doubt whether any one thoroughly takes in what the Tapestry is till he has seen it with his own eyes. I had myself learned to value the Tapestry long before I saw it, but my examination of it certainly made my confidence in it far stronger and clearer. It is no small matter to spell over the details of the story in the picture itself, and the process reaches its height at the last stage. I think no one can see the end of the battle, the Housecarls every one lying dead in his harness, while the light-armed are taking to flight, some of them on the horses of the fallen, and not feel that he is in the presence of a work traced out by one who had himself seen the scenes which he thus handed down to later ages. -- Edward Augustus Freeman.

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