IV. Translation of a Memoir on the celebrated Tapestry of Bayeux, by
the Abbe de la Rue.
Communicated by the Translator, Francis Douce, Esq. F. A. S, with a Letter to the Secretary, Nicholas Carlisle, Esq.
Read. 12th November, 1812.
Charlotte Street, 20th Oct. 1812;
Our learned and worthy member, the Abbe de la Rue, Professor of History in the Academy of Caen, having transmitted to me an interesting Memoir on the celebrated Tapestry of Bayeux, which represents the Conquest of England by the Normans, I have sent you a Translation of it to lay before the Society; and have taken the liberty of adding a few Notes, which I hope will be found appropriate.
I am, dear Sir,
Very faithfully yours,
Nicholas Carlisle, Esq.
Sec. A. S. &c. &c.
It is now a considerable time since the Republic of Letters became acquainted with an ancient monument of Embroidery, representing the Conquest of England by the Normans, which had been for many ages preserved in the Cathedral of Bayeux, and is at present deposited in the Mayor's house of that city. Montfaucon, in his Monuments of the French Monarchy, Lancelot, in his Memoirs published among those of the Academy of Inscriptions, and Ducarel, in his Anglo-Norman Antiquities, have commented more or less on this piece of Tapestry, a work at once precious with respect to our civil history and the fine arts.
A new degree of publicity has of late been given to this curious monument,
by exposing it for some months to the inhabitants of the French capital; and
in the course of this exhibition it has been examined by the antiquaries with
considerable attention. Some of these, adopting the opinions of Lancelot and
Montfaucon, have ascribed it to Matilda the queen of William I.; whilst others
have regarded it as a monument of a posterior time. It remains, therefore, to
ascertain which of these opinions is the most probable; and it appears to me
that the discussion of this question more particularly belongs to the natives
of Normandy; for, if the Tapestry be really interesting, who ought to be better
acquainted with it than its present proprietors? And, inasmuch as their ancestors
have achieved the memorable actions which it records, is it not more immediately
from them that the literati of Europe have a claim to expect every kind of information
that may conduce to throw light on it? Under this impression, therefore, it
is, that I have taken upon me to make some researches concerning the works of
art that were given by Duke William and his wife to the principal churches in
the diocese of Bayeux, that is to say, to the Cathedral and to the two Abbies
which they founded at Caen. It will be for the Society of Antiquaries to appreciate
the merit of these enquiries. If they should perchance invalidate the authority
of two such celebrated antiquaries as Montfaucon and Lancelot, it will be because
no authority whatever can prevail against truth. Men too often indulge in conjecture,
and consequently bewilder themselves; whilst truth, the daughter of time, remains
in the shade: but when she is developed to mankind, opinions vanish, authorities
fall to the ground, and truth, bursting forth in all her brilliancy, remains
immovably fixed upon the ruins of various systems.
Most of the Norman historians, that is to say, Ordericus Vitalis, William of Jumieges, William of Poitiers, and Robert Du Mont, attest the foundation of the two abbies at Caen by William I. and his wife: they speak of the rich inheritances and the precious donations conferred on these monasteries; but they have not been sufficiently explicit to enable us to form any judgment of the nature or value of these gifts: and yet, without the aid of the Norman writers whose works have been printed, we may perhaps be enabled to acquire more information from those authors who still remain unpublished.
In a manuscript copy of the History of Normandy by William of Jumieges, preserved in the Harleian collection in the British Museum,[a] there is, at the end of this historian, a pretty circumstantial account of the death of William the Conqueror in 1087. The author is not named; but, to judge from the age of the MS. he may have lived in the twelfth century. He exhibits the Duke on his death-bed, surrounded by his brother Robert, the Archbishop of Rouen, with several of his suffragans, his chancellor, and his physician. The historian states, that Duke William, being greatly attached to his brother, and having the utmost confidence in him, commanded him to assemble his chamberlains, and direct them to lay before him an account of the precious contents of his treasury, which consisted, says he, of crowns, armour, vases, books, and sacerdotal ornaments. After this account had been taken, the dying prince particularized what he intended should be given to the church and to the poor, and what he bequeathed to his children.
But in the course of the above narration we find no details concerning what was to be bestowed on the church or on the poor: the author particularizes nothing: he simply states that the testator bequeathed a crown, a sword, and a sceptre of gold enriched with precious stones to his second son William, who succeeded him on the throne of England.
We have no reason, however, to regret that the historian has been so brief concerning the above legacies: and first, because, in the view that he has given of the prince's treasures, the Tapestry, which is the object of our notice, does not occur: and again, because the legacies that he has specified are not accurately stated.
He has affirmed, for example, that the Conqueror bequeathed to his second son his sceptre, sword, and crown; but, on consulting the Neustria Pia, I find a deed of exchange between William Rufus and the monastery of Caen,[b] from which it appears,
1. that Duke William, when on his death-bed, bequeathed to the abbey of Saint Stephen the crown which he wore at church on solemn festivals, his sceptre, his royal staff, a cup made of some precious stone, candelabra of gold, and all the royal ornaments appertaining to the crown.
2. That King William II. negotiated concerning all these articles with the
monks of Saint Stephen, and that he gave them in exchange the lordship of Coker,
in the county of Somerset. Now, although the King has put his signature to this
deed, which is witnessed by the bishop and barons of his court, a severe critic
might be disposed to regard it as a suspicious instrument, because the death
of the Conqueror is dated in 1088, whereas it happened in 1087; but surely we
ought not to cavil with respect to an error which necessarily belongs either
to the copyist or the printer; for who could be better acquainted with the precise
time of the Conqueror's death than they who had been the witnesses of it; and
how therefore could they have been mistaken on this occasion?
It will perhaps be imagined that the above exchange was completed, and that we are about to pursue the royal ornaments of William thus deposited in the hands of his second son; but this is not the case. The prince last named died in 1100, and the crown and royal ornaments were still in the possession of the monks of Caen under the reign of his brother, Henry I. We have several charters of this King, which attest that it was he who made the exchange with the monks. He refused to give them the lordship of Coker promised by his brother, but he confirmed to them that of Brideton, in the county of Dorset; "and this," as he said, "because the monks have restored to me the crown and royal ornaments, which my father bequeathed to them on his death-bed;" pro corona caeterisque ornamentis eidem coronae adjacentibus, qaae pater meus moriens praedicto dimisit Sancto Stephanos.[c]
Let me be permitted to observe in this place, that the deed of exchange of William Rufus, and the charters of Henry I. his brother, are not at variance with each other. The first is signed by the King, and a great many English Bishops and Barons. It was therefore executed in England; but as one of the objects exchanged was in Normandy, the exchange was agreed on and signed, but never consummated. In the interval necessary for delivery of the royal ornaments, the King died. Every one knows that he was slain when hunting, by the carelessness of one of his courtiers:[d] afterwards, Henry I. his successor completed the exchange; and this very simple explanation, founded upon history, ought to remove every doubt that might be raised concerning the diplomatic instruments prepared by the two princes for the same purpose. Besides this, Duke Richard Coeur de Lion, in a charter concerning the priory of Frampton, a cell belonging to the Abbey of Saint Stephen at Caen, recites the deed of exchange made by his grandfather Henry I. and confirms it. Every doubt, therefore, on this head is thus dissipated.[e]
We now clearly perceive that the royal ornaments reverted to the crown of England by an authentic convention between the Conqueror's children and the monks of Caen to whom he had bequeathed them: but we no where find that the Tapestry of the church of Bayeux made any part of the agreement. The deed of exchange of William Rufus specifies all the articles, and that which we are in quest of is not to be found among them. The charters of Henry I. only mention the crown, and the royal ornaments belonging to it, pro corona, &c. and it is not easy to perceive how a piece of Tapestry, more than two hundred feet in length, could form part of the ornaments of the prince's person. Besides, even though we should suppose that it did make a part of them, which is not to be admitted, it would still remain to be proved that Henry I. afterwards gave it to the church of Bayeux, which has not been done. In such a case it would be necessary to argue that out of pure caprice he redeemed it from one church to bestow it on anotherthat, in opposition to his father's testament, which had directed that this representation of his victories should decorate the spot where his ashes were to lie, the son had thought fit to snatch away, as one may term it, this monument so peculiarly adapted to ornament his tomb. All these suppositions, therefore, instead of being natural, are clashing and offensive: they are, moreover, injurious to the memory of Henry I. who expended great sums of money in erecting over the Conqueror's body a monument that was worthy of him.
Let us now take an historical view of the Cathedral of Bayeux. Duke William
and his court assisted at the dedication of it in 1077. If the Tapestry had
been then finished, here was a singular opportunity to have made a donation
of it: but it no where appears to have been done at this time. Two MSS. of the
thirteenth century, entitled, Leges et Consuetudines Sanctae Baiocensis Ecclesiae,
which are in my own library, have given many important details concerning the
history of this Cathedral: but when they mention the right of the Bishop and
Canons in the forest of Ele, the author, who was himself one of the dignitaries
of the church, says that this forest was bestowed on them by the Conqueror on
the day of its dedication; and that, as a token of delivery of seizin, he placed
and left upon the altar the helmet that he then wore, surmounted with a crown
Nothing, therefore, has yet occurred relating to the Tapestry.
The majestic Cathedral of Bayeux, erected at a vast expense, and consecrated with so much pomp, did not long exist. In the year 1106, after a tedious siege, Henry I. took the city by assault from Duke Robert his brother. He had in his pay a great number of foreigners, whom the length of the siege had much irritated: he stood in need of their assistance to subjugate Caen and the rest of Normandy; and to attach these persons to him, he promised them the pillage of Bayeux; and he kept his word. But the soldiers were not contented with the plunder; they set fire to the city, and what had escaped their ravages, perished in the flames.
If the Tapestry had then existed in the treasury of the Cathedral, it would, in all probability, have been consumed in the general conflagration. Our Norman historians have preserved no details of this historical event; but nearly all of them wrote under the reign of the author of the calamity: they might, therefore, have thought fit to exculpate his memory on this occasion; and it has often happened that a sovereign prince has checked the pen of the historians whom he governed.
But, although despotism may, generally speaking, arrest the progress of the graving-tool of history, it is equally true that there is oftentimes to be found some unfortunate victim of its influence, who fears nothing, and risks every thing. A Canon of Bayeux, named Serlon Parisy, whose goods had been pillaged, and his house set on fire, mocking the victor's hatred, and sitting, as one might say, upon the very ashes of the city, composed a poem of four hundred lines on its misfortunes. This work, in Latin rhyme, according to the taste of the time, is preserved among the Cotton MSS. in the British Museum.[f] Let us then consult this eye-witness. It would be needless to state what he has said concerning the beauty of the bishop's palace, constructed by Odor the Conqueror's brother; or concerning the houses of the canons, and the various hotels of opulent individuals. All was pillaged or burned; even the ducal palace, which was placed within the citadel, was committed to the flames. But, what is worthy to be mentioned, and what the poet has recorded, the Cathedral itself, and ten other churches, were also destroyed by fire.
Hac fuit usta die sacra virginis aula Mariae,
Templaque bis quina simili periere ruina.
That these temples were pillaged before they were burned is also an incontestable
fact. Dr. Stukeley has published some account of an ancient silver plate or
basin, found in the year 1729 in Risley Park, in the county of Derby.[g] Round
a basso relievo, that ornaments the bottom of it, is this inscription, in uncial
letters, Esuperius episcopus dedit ecclesiae Bagiensi. I set aside the conjectures
of the above antiquary, who has confounded Saint Exuperius of Toulouse with
Exuperius bishop of Bayeux; and substituted the church of Bouge in Touraine
for that of Bayeux in Normandy. It seems clear to me, that this antique vessel
had been taken from the latter church at the sacking of Bayeux in 1106.[h]
It may probably be objected, that the testimony of Serlon Parisy is that of an interested person, soured by adversity, consequently writing ab irato, and to whom one might very justly apply the facit indignatio versum of Horace. Let us therefore listen to another historian of a calmer nature, who lived in the same century, and was likewise a Canon of Bayeux. On this account he was likely to be well informed, and wrote besides at the command of Henry II. the grandson of Henry I. who had directed the city to be pillaged. Far from suspecting that he may have overcharged the picture, we ought rather to suppose that he has confined himself within the limits of the strictest veracity. It is, in short, Robert Wace to whom I allude. He tells us, that the army of Helie, Count of Maine, being arrived for the purpose of reinforcing that of Henry I. then before Bayeux,
Le bore firent tot alumer,
Donc veissiez flambe voler,
Chapeles ardeir et mostiers,
Maisons trebucher et celliers,
Et liglise de levesquie
Ou moult aveit riche clergie
Tote fut liglise destruite
Et la richesse fors conduite,
So that, according to Wace, the Cathedral was burned, and its treasury pillaged and dispersed. How, therefore, amidst the devouring flames, and an army occupied in plunder, could the Tapestry of Bayeux, had it then existed, have escaped destruction?
I shall perhaps be answered, that many other monuments, and even of greater antiquity, have been preserved to this day in the Cathedral of Bayeux; such as the chasuble of Bishop Saint Regnobert, and the chest of ivory, covered with Arabic inscriptions, that contains it. But this does not invalidate my objection. I conceive that, at the burning of the church, many persons would instantly fly to save a monument revered by the faithful; that the soldier himself would retire before this relic. Such a mode of conduct was in the spirit of the times. But where would be the soldier in this army, that would pay respect to a piece of Tapestry whereon were depicted the achievements of those very Normans against whom he was fighting? I know not if I mistake, but hitherto nothing seems to have occurred which demonstrates that the Tapestry in question was the workmanship of Queen Matilda, as has been so positively affirmed. On the contrary, (here is good reason for asserting, that if the Tapestry actually was at Bayeux in 1106, the preservation of it, after the ravages that have just been enumerated, might be deemed almost miraculous.
But let us pursue our researches. Queen Matilda died in 1083. Her will, hitherto
unpublished, is in the Imperial library of Paris, in the register of the Abbey
of the Holy Trinity at Caen, founded by herself. We shall see whether this document
will afford us any useful information. "I give," says the testatrix,
"to the Abbey of the Holy Trinity, my tunic, worked at Winchester by Alderet's
wife, and the mantle embroidered with gold, which is in my chamber, to make
a cope. Of my two golden girdles, I give that which is ornamented with emblems
for the purpose of suspending the lamp before the great altar. I give my large
candelabra, made at Saint Lo, my crown, my sceptre, my cups in their cases,
another cup made in England, with all my horse-trappings, and all my vessels
except those which I may have already disposed of in my life-time; and lastly,
I give the lands of Quetchou in Cotentin,[i] with two dwellings in England.
And I have made all these bequests with the consent of my husband."[k]
This Will must have been made in 1083, the year of Matilda's death, for her husband's charter of 1082, which recites all the donations made by himself and his wife to the above abbey, makes no mention of the lands of Quetchou given by the will; so that the Queen gave all to her abbey, except such vessels as she reserved the disposal of during her life. Nothing is said about any Tapestry; and the silence of the will on this subject is sufficient to prove that it never was in her possession: it must otherwise be maintained, that she had already disposed of it, which cannot be done with any semblance of probability. The Tapestry is, in fact, an unfinished work. One may perceive, towards the extremity of it, marks or traces for the last events of the battle of Hastings; men flying; knights pursuing them; &c. The sequel would have represented the victors marching to London, and their chieftain crowned at Westminster. All these details, therefore, being wanting in the Tapestry, how can we suppose that Matilda would have abandoned it, when so little remained for its completion: and more especially, when it was necessary to depict the circumstances of the moment most interesting to her, that is to say, her own coronation, and that of her husband? In short, how are we to credit that she would have deposited in the great church, as an historical monument, a work that did not represent the whole of the events?
Thus, then, does the evidence of history, and even probability itself, rise up against the supposed donation of the Tapestry to the Cathedral of Bayeux by Queen Matilda. Let us, in the next place, examine the Tapestry itself, and endeavour to ascertain whether it may not supply us with positive evidence against this pretended work of that princess.
Lancelot, in two learned dissertations, has pretty well explained the several
circumstances of the expedition which it exhibits: but it is to be observed,
that he has generally accomplished this by means of the poems of Robert Wace.
For this purpose he had transcribed all the works of that writer, with the several
variations in the MSS. and, as Wace has taken upwards of two thousand lines
to describe the conquest of England, entering into the minutest and most circumstantial
details of that event, it was impossible that Lancelot could have chosen a better
guide. It must nevertheless be conceded, that he has not been extremely grateful
to him: he has even depreciated his merit, by asserting that he had taken his
historical descriptions from the Tapestry alone. It is true that Robert Wace
was a Canon of the Cathedral of Bayeux, and that, during the last half of the
twelfth century, he wrote a poetical history of the Dukes of Normandy. But when
he treats ex prefeese of the conquest of England by the Normans, in which case
he had the very best opportunity of mentioning the Tapestry, strange to tell!
he says not a single word about it. He nevertheless cites his authorities; he
even names the witnesses whom he had consulted. What an authority then, what
a witness would this Tapestry have been, had it been the performance of Matilda?
Of what importance should it not have been in the eyes of a Canon of the Church
to which she had given it? What an occasion for an historian to celebrate at
once the hero of the conquest and the wife who had perpetuated its remembrance
in a monument, the workmanship of her own hands? In a word, for a poet who has
suffered no motive for indulging adulation to escape him, and who was writing
at the command of the great grandson of Matilda, what moment could be so favourable
for enhancing the merit of the work, the patience of its fair author, and the
glory of the church that possessed it? I may perhaps be mistaken; but when the
historian is silent; when the poet forgets that painting and poetry are sister
arts; when the Canon loses sight of the honour of his church; and when man,
who delights in flattery, remains mute, every thing appears to me imperiously
to demonstrate, that the Tapestry was not existing at that time in the Cathedral
of Bayeux. But what enables me to convert into a positive argument the negative
proof that I have been endeavouring to maintain, is, that the historian, so
far from being indebted to the Tapestry for th« events which he relates,
is frequently at variance with those which it represents.
The Tapestry, for example, exhibits in the middle of the fleet the ship on which Duke William is aboard. On its prow is the head of a lion, and its stern is decorated with the figure of a genius who holds a trumpet to his mouth with his left hand. Lord Lyttelton, in the Appendix to the first book of his History of Henry II. has given an extract from an ancient manuscript in the British Museum, the author of which says, that Matilda had caused the vessel to be built which carried her husband, and that its prow was ornamented with the figure of a little boy in gold, pointing with his right forefinger towards England, and holding to his mouth with his left hand an ivory trumpet. Thus the Tapestry agrees in part with the historian.
Wace, on the contrary, says that the above figure was placed at the prow; and, instead of giving him a trumpet, he arms him with a bow, from which an arrow is directed towards the English shore.[l] This remark may indeed be of small importance, and yet the difference between the description of the Tapestry and that of the poet incontestably proves, that the designer has not copied the poet, nor the poet the Tapestry: that Wace had not seen the Tapestry; and, consequently, that it did not exist in his time; or, if it did exist, that the design was not regarded by him as exact. It follows, therefore, that it was not the work of Matilda; for if it had been so, who should have been better able than herself to depict a ship that she had caused to be constructed, or for what reason would the poet have rejected her authority? Lancelot was in general too good a critic not to have availed himself of this difficulty; but he had adopted, without examination, the tradition which ascribes the Tapestry to Matilda; and whenever Wace's authority is adverse to his own opinion, instead of weighing and discussing this authority, he silently rejects it.
Another circumstance, which completes the proof that the poet was unacquainted with the Tapestry, is, that the latter exhibits events of which the former makes no mention; facts that have escaped nearly all our historians, and for which reason Lancelot, and all who have written concerning this monument, have left them unexplained. As for example: When the two armies are confronted, the Tapestry represents the minstrel Taillefer throwing up his sword, and chanting the exploits of Charlemagne and Roland, whilst to his song he adds the juggling tricks of his profession. He catches the sword with so much address that the astonished English regard his efforts as a prodigy, and the effect of enchantment, as is related by Geoffrey Gaimar, in his History of England.[m] Here then is a fact unknown to Wace,[n] and yet depicted On the Tapestry. It follows, therefore, that the former had not consulted the latter; and can we conceive that this Would have happened, if the Tapestry had then existed in the Cathedral of Bayeux?
We should greatly deceive ourselves, were we to suppose that the poet could
have looked upon monuments in which the arts were concerned with indifference.
In the first place, the Tapestry was an historical work, and, in this point
of view, it could not but excite the historian's curiosity. Again, its details
were so much the more calculated to interest the historian, as it was his object
to describe the same events: and, finally, monuments of art not only did attract
his. attention, but he never failed to speak of them, when they conduced to
exalt the glory of the Normans. He is thus the sole historian who has informed
us that during the first crusade Duke Robert Courthose [o] had, in a battle
with the-Saracens, taken the superb standard of their general, and placed it
in the Abbey of the Holy Trinity founded by his mother. Ought, therefore, the
poet to have been silent with respect to a monument which would be the glory
of this mother, had she, in imitation of her son, deposited it in the temple
of the God of victories?
We will next examine the Tapestry itself, but without stopping to consider the form of the letters used in its inscriptions; for, at the time of its construction, the arts being in a barbarous state, characters were not executed with.a needle as with a pen or a pencil. Let us rather attend to the style of the inscription; and it will then be seen that the Tapestry will shew itself to be of English manufacture, but not by the hand of Queen Matilda. When Duke William had delivered Harold from the prison of the Earl of Ponthieu, and conducted him to his own? palace, the Tapestry shews that during their conference together a woman is engaged in conversation with an ecclesiastic. In the inscription this lady is called AElfgiva, a name purely Saxon; it belonged to the Queens of the Anglo-Saxon dynasty. With this signification it is found in the register of Canterbury Cathedral, in the Saxon Chronicle, in William of Malmesbury, Ralph de Diceto, Florence of Worcester, &c. But in these several writers nothing is found to indicate what connexion with history this conference between AElfgiva and the clerk might have had. Lancelot has conjectured that the lady is Matilda, to whom a clerk, on the part of the Duke, brings the news of Harold's arrival, and of the arrangements made with him for assuring the crown of England to her husband. There is indeed some probability in this opinion: but, on the other hand, the appellation of Queen is thereby given to Matilda before the conquest. Let us for a moment suppose this to be by anticipation, and lay the blame upon the artists: yet they could not be English workmen, who in a Latin inscription would make use of a word purely Saxon; and in this case Matilda cannot be placed among them. It is not probable that she would assume the title of Queen before her coronation, and still less so that she would take it from the Saxon language. She well knew her husband's orders for the abolition of that tongue, and his strict prohibition to make use of it in public acts. In vain has Lancelot maintained that it was through modesty that Matilda assumed this name of AElfgiva, whilst, on the other hand, he has admitted that this title belongs only to Queens of the Anglo-Saxon race: there is a manifest, contradiction in these opinions. In vain does he contend that Matilda declined putting her name to a work of her own hands, and that it is out of modesty that she designated herself under the appellation of AElfgiva. Has that artist ever been accused of pride who has put his name to his own work; and especially a female, who had embroidered a piece of tapestry, the ordinary occupation of women? Besides, what could, she suppose we were to understand by such a name as AElfgiva in the history of the Conquest? Could we expect to see any other woman than the Conqueror's wife, when no female had been introduced in the expedition? Let us then reject this mysterious: and contradictory opinion. It is evident that Norman artists would not have called their Duchess AElfgiva: not would she have used that name previously to her coronation, when she never took it after, as may be seen in the charters which occur in the Monasticon Anglicanum, in the Neustria Pia, and in the Gallia Christiana.[p]
Another word employed in the inscription is that of Wadard. It refers to a man armed from head to foot, and placed as a centinel near three houses or magazines near the spot where Duke William is making his first repast after the descent. This name is neither Latin nor French. Lancelot supposes it to signify a steward, or maitre d'hotel It seems rather to mean a ward or centinel: but, whatever be its signification, it certainly belongs to the language of the Anglo-Saxons, and is a further proof that they are the authors of the Tapestry.[q]
The same observation will apply to the word Ceastra, which means the castle erected at Hastings by the Conqueror. Lancelot discovers it to be castra in bad orthography; but it is never written otherwise in the Saxon Chronicle, and this circumstance contributes to the further development of the Tapestry's origin.
Two other inscriptions conclude the proof that this is not a work of the Normans, nor more especially that of Matilda. The first of these is where Duke William causes his soldiers to make a feigned retreat, in order to compel the enemy the more to expose himself: we perceive the disorder occasioned by this movement, and also a ditch that is encountered by the Norman army.[r] The inscription is, hic Franci et Angli ceciderunt. The second is where the Tapestry exhibits the moment of the victory, and describes it in these words, hie Franci vicerunt et Angli terga dederunt.
It is necessary to be well acquainted with the English historians, and with the charters of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in order to know that, whenever they design to speak of the Normans they call them Frenchmen: but who will believe that the Normans should have called themselves Frenchmen on this Tapestry, when it is notorious that at this time they bore an open hatred to the French nation; and when such aversion, imported with them into England, became from thence the principal cause of that rivalry which has ever since existed between France and Great Britain? Who will believe that Normans, meaning to imprint on this Tapestry one of the most glorious pages of their history, would have sacrificed the honour of their name by transferring it to their enemies? In short, who will believe that Matilda, who knew better than any one the animosity that existed between the Normans and the French; who so well knew that the King of France, so far from encouraging this conquest, was desirous of frustrating it; who will, I say, believe that this Princess would, with her own hand, have introduced the name of the French instead of that of the Normans; that she would have ascribed to the former all the glory which the others had acquired under the command of her husband, and have entirely forgotten that she was herself a Duchess of Normandy, and at a time when her husband felt himself so proud of being its Duke, that he placed this title on his seal before that of King of the English? We must therefore either acknowledge all these inconsistencies, or rather devour all these absurdities, if we persist in maintaining that the Tapestry is of Norman workmanship, and especially that of Queen Matilda.
But let us pursue our examination of this monument. It is edged in its upper
as well as its lower part by a border, which, like the rest, is worked with
a needle. The artist had begun the lower border with a series of fables, which
are to be found in the AEsopian collections: but after having worked ten or
a dozen of these, they ceased all on a sudden, and continued this border, like
that on the upper part, by representing quadrupeds, birds, sphinxes, minotaurs,
and other monsters of the kind.
Whence then had the artists procured these fables, or from whom had they obtained precise information concerning them, when the works of AEsop were only made known to us in the fourteenth century, by means of the translation ascribed to the monk Planudes?
This objection, added to the foregoing difficulties, appears to me to warrant the entire rejection of that tradition which attributes the Tapestry to Queen Matilda. Not that I mean to say that the Normans were absolute strangers to the fables of AEsop before the time of Planudes. I have already proved that, in the beginning of the twelfth century, Henry I. Duke of Normandy, translated into English a collection of AEsopian fables; and that, from this work he acquired the surname of Beauclerc.[s] This translation was afterwards, in the course of the thirteenth century, made public by Marie de France in French verse. The fables were therefore known above two centuries before the time of Planudes; but the Norman Duke, who made the first translation of them, performed Ids work, no doubt, by means of copies which had been imported from the East in the first crusade, which took place in 1096. At that time, however, Queen Matilda had been dead at least eighteen or twenty years: and this seems to me to shew, not only that the Tapestry was not made by her, but that it cannot be, at most, older than the twelfth century.
This was Mr. Hume's opinion; and in a point of history his authority is of
a certain weight. He ascribed the Tapestry to Matilda, daughter of King Henry
I. and the last shoot of the first family of the Dukes of Normandy. This Princess
had married Henry V. Emperor of Germany. After the death of her husband, which
happened in 1125, she returned to Normandy and became the wife of Geoffrey Earl
of Anjou. From this alliance sprang the branch of Plantagenets, who reigned
in England and in Normandy. Matilda should herself have reigned at her father's
decease, but she was deprived of her right by the faction of Stephen, Earl of
Boulogne, her nephew; and it was only re-assumed by her son, Henry II. who reigned
in her stead, whilst she herself is only known in the annals of our history
by the name and title of the Empress Matilda.
Mr. Hume, in ascribing to her the Bayeux Tapestry, contents himself with stating this opinion, without entering into any detail as to the circumstances that might support it. Let us see then whether, after having protested against the tradition in favour of the first Matilda, we shall be able to defend the opinion which has been pronounced in favour of the second.
In the first place, to have undertaken this Tapestry would have required a considerable degree of interest in the subject of it, and to have possessed the necessary powers for its execution. Now who was more interested on this occasion than the Empress Matilda? Granddaughter of the Conqueror, and the last shoot of his family, she saw that the race of so many heroes, whose glory rested upon her head alone, would perish with herself; and in this case it was natural that she should endeavour to perpetuate the remembrance of the most signal of all their exploits. As to the means of effecting this purpose; daughter and mother of a King of England and Duke of Normandy; widow of an Emperor of Germany; and wife of an Earl of Anjou; who was more competent than herself to form such an enterprise, and carry it into execution?
It became necessary then to find artists; and England would supply them in abundance. The natives of that island were so renowned for the sort of work in question, that at this time, to express a piece of embroidery, they called it an English work. She could therefore insure it in a country where the Saxon language was still in use; for it is in vain for kings to command; their power vanishes before impossibilities; and there are no means of depriving a people of its maternal language. Hence then we may account for the Saxon terms in the inscriptions on the Tapestry. The artists might have introduced some of the AEsopian fables at the commencement of the lower border, as they were already become familiar to them, by means of the translation made by the Empress's father. The historian Wace would not have mentioned the Tapestry, because Matilda died in 1167, and he had begun his work about the year 1162; but the Empress dying before the Tapestry was finished, and no one afterwards feeling any interest in the work, it continued in its imperfect state, and might have been thus presented to the church of Bayeux, either by Henry II. the Empress's son, or by Richard Coeur de Lion, or John sans Terre, her grandsons. Wace might decline speaking of the sword which is seen in the air between the two armies: like other historians, he might choose to pass over these juggling tricks: but the English artists would by no means neglect a circumstance that had made such an impression on the minds of their ancestors, and of which, being so often related to them in their infancy as a kind of prodigy, they were likely to have preserved the most indelible remembrance: the common people very seldom forget the wonderful parts of a story.
With that assistance too, we may easily explain why, in the inscriptions, the term Frenchmen should occur, rather than that of Normans. As these words are synonymous among all the English historians of that age, why should we not expect them to be so among artists and the common people? The writers of a nation usually determine the meaning of words belonging to its language. It would also require a well-informed person to furnish the designer of the Tapestry with the outline of the historical facts, and to dictate the Latin inscriptions relating to each event; and such a one would use the language of the learned of his country.
The opinion, therefore, which ascribes the Tapestry to the Empress Matilda, has no incongruity whatever; it has every probability in its favour, and is perfectly reconcilable with history, with language, and with the usages of those who would be employed in its manufacture.
There arises, and there can only arise, a single objection against the above opinion. This is the joint authority of Lancelot and Montfaucon: but inasmuch as their sentiments are founded on that tradition alone, which deposes in favour of the Conqueror's Queen, it remains only to examine how far this tradition is worthy of belief.
But, that I may not be accused of criticising too severely, I shall beg leave to borrow from an author, who in the last century best knew the means of penetrating into the mazes of antiquity, some of those rules that serve to distinguish a true from a false tradition.
"In order that a tradition may acquire a due degree of authority," says Freret, "it is requisite that the fact which it refers to should have been public and conspicuous." Now if it be sufficiently notorious that the Tapestry in question has, for several centuries, been deposited in the Cathedral of Bayeux, it is not equally so that it was given by Queen Matilda; for that is a matter on which the learned of the .present time are not agreed.
"It is likewise necessary," continues Freret, "that the tradition should ascend to the time of the events themselves; or at least that it be not possible to shew its beginning." Now that which we are examining wants much of reaching the eleventh century. Lancelot himself has supplied us with proof that it did not even exist at the commencement of the fifteenth. He had indeed made much inquiry at Bayeux, and sought after evidences. His correspondent informed him that nothing was to be found in the registry of the chapter-house of the Cathedral at Bayeux, except an inventory of the precious effects deposited in the treasury of the church, drawn up in 1476. Before I undertook the present memoir, I consulted the original of this inventory. It notices a mantle garnished with jewels, .with which, as it is said, Duke William was invested on his wedding-day; and another mantle, with which, as they say likewise, the Duchess Matilda was clothed on her marriage with Duke William: and lastly, the helmet of Duke William, which has been mentioned towards the beginning of this memoir.
We have here then an authentic instrument concerning the preceding three articles, and witnesses who certify as to the tradition in their behalf; for it is subscribed by the first dignitaries of the Cathedral.
The same instrument has mentioned the Tapestry; but only as a very long piece of cloth embroidered with figures and writing, representing the conquest of England, It is not stated, as for the preceding articles, that it belonged to Duke William and his wife; nor that it was worked by Queen Matilda; nor that it was given to the church of Bayeux. This silence on the part of the compilers of the inventory evidently proves that there was then no tradition whatever concerning the Tapestry, since they have taken care to mention, and, in so doing, to preserve that which relates to the other preceding articles.
"It is necessary," adds Freret, "that the tradition be uniform and general:" but we see that instead of its possessing these qualities, there existed in fact no tradition whatever at Bayeux concerning the Tapestry, in favour of Queen Matilda, in the year 1476.
And, in the last place, "it is necessary that the tradition should agree with the positive testimonies of history;" and it has been seen that it can neither be reconciled with the Will of Queen Matilda, nor with the evidence of Robert Wace, nor even with the manners, usages, and language of the Normans.
It may indeed be answered, that historic tradition is nothing more than a sort of feeling which induces a people or a city to assent to the truth of a fact, without any other proof than its own persuasion, or that of preceding generations. I am not unwilling to assent to this definition. I will even believe, should it be required, that there does exist a tradition in favour of Matilda, which has all the requisites to render it credible; but I shall still contend, that a mistake has been committed in the selection of this Matilda. I shall insist that the people have erroneously confounded the grandmother with the granddaughter; that this confusion has more easily happened, inasmuch as it was perfectly natural that they should fix their ideas on the Conqueror's wife, when they beheld for the first time the monument which represents the most remarkable actions of her husband. I say for the first time, because the practice of publickly exposing the Tapestry every year in the Cathedral on the octaves of the feast of the relics still existed in 1790, but certainly was not known at Bayeux in the thirteenth century. The compiler of the collection of statutes and usages belonging to the above Cathedral, cited at the beginning of this memoir, has given an exact detail of the rites and ceremonies of each festival in the year; but he is silent with regard to the exhibition of the Tapestry, when treating of the feast of the relics and its octave. This practice, therefore, could not have been introduced earlier than the fourteenth century; and the error that I have been combating must have taken place about the time of its establishment: the people did not perceive, nor indeed could they have had in view any other person than the Princess who had reigned over them: they could not even have thought of the Empress Matilda, who having never ruled over Normandy, could not have left behind her in that country a remembrance of her person or her kindness that would be so durable as the monument in question.
It remains, therefore, for reason and sound criticism to decide, whether the
Tapestry of Bayeux must continue to be regarded as a monument of the French
DE LA RUE,
Professor of History in the Academy of Caen, and Canon of Bayeux.
[a] Harl. MSS. N° 491.
[b] Neustria Pia, p. 638.
[c] Chartular. S. Stephani Cadom. p. 22. et Cartae antiquae turris Londin.
[d] The common story about Walter Tyrrel will admit of some doubt as to its veracity. The Abbot Suger relates that Tyrrel assured him, in the most solemn manner, that he had not seen the King on the fatal day, nor even entered the forest in which he was slain. See Vie de Louis le Gros, tom. xii. p. 12, of the Recueil des Historiens de France. D.
[e] Monast. Angl. vol. i. p, 571.
[f] Vitali. A. XII.
[g] Pilkington's Hist, of Derbyshire.
[h] The learned author of the Memoir has here substituted a most probable opinion for the wild dreams of Dr. Stukeley, who, though he had been set right seven years before he transmitted his account of this piece of antiquity to the Society of Antiquaries, persevered in his mistake. He has read BOGIENSI for BAGIENSI, a word that occurs on the Bayeux Tapestry for that city. The whole inscription yet remains to be accurately read. It certainly denotes that the Bishop of Bayeux gave this ancient vessel to his own church. D.
[i] In Normandy. D.
[k] Chartul. S. Trin. Cadom.
[l] I cannot in this place resist the impulse of suggesting to the Society, what a valuable addition to our antiquarian history would be obtained by an extract, with an English translation and explanatory notes, of that part of Wace's work, which describes the Conqueror's expedition. It is impossible to conceive any thing more curious in all respects. A painter might without difficulty compose a series of interesting pictures from the details; and a fleet similar to William's, in all respects, might again be fitted out from the poet's description. I beg leave to add, that the invaluable MS. of this work is in the British Museum. D.
[m] An extract from this account by Gaimar has been already printed in Archaeol.
vol. XII. p. 312; but as this seems the more proper place for its introduction,
I shall give the passage at large.
Un des Franceis done se hasta,
Devant les altres chevalcha;
Taillefer ert cil apelez,
Joglere estait hardi asez.
Armes aveit e bon cheval,
Si ert hardiz e noble vassal.
Devant les altres cil se mist,
Devant Engleis merveilles fist,
Sa lance prist par e tuet,
Com si co fust un bastunet,
Encontre mont halt le geta,
E par le fer receve la.
Trais fez issi geta sa lance,
La quarte feiz mult pres s'avance,
Entre les Engleis la lanca,
Par mi le cors un en naffra.
Puis treist s'espee, arere vint,
Geta s'espee kil tint,
Encontre mont puis la receit,
L'un dit al altre ki co veit,
Ke co estait enchantement,
Ke cil fessit devant la gent.
Quand treis faiz out gete l'espee,
Le cheval od gule baiee.
Vers les Engleis vint a esleise,
Si sesd alquns, ki quident estre mange
Pur le cheval ki issi baiout,
Le jugleor apris li out.
De l'espee fiert un Engleis,
Le poing li fait voler maneis,
Altre en fiert tant cum il pout,
Mai guerdon le jor en out;
Car les Engleis de totes parz
Li lancent gavelocs e darz,
Lui oscistrent e son destrer.
MS. Bibl. Reg. 13 A. XXI.
The circumstance of the minstrel's horse being taught to open his mouth, and seize on tome of the enemy is infinitely curious, and related with great humour. It may also be regarded as a remarkable instance of the singularity and simplicity of ancient manners. I add, for the credit of the above writer, that be has given a more explicit narration than is to be found in any other ancient chronicle, of the interesting loves of Argentile and Curan, 10 exquisitely put into verse by old Warner in his Albion's England. D.
[n] To prevent any misconception of the Abbe de la Rue's meaning, I beg leave to observe that it was Taillefer's conduct as a juggling minstrel, in throwing up his sword only, that was unknown to Wace, as he has described the singing of the song about Charlemagne and Roland in his lives of the Dukes of Normandy. A few lines from this work have been given by Dufresne in his Latin Glossary, v. Cantilena Rolandi, where he improperly cites it by the title of Roman de Rou. The same extract has been also printed by Bishop Percy in his Reliques, and Mr. Ritson in his Essay on National Song: but as I am persuaded that no one will repent of the trouble of perusing the whole account, I shall here subjoin it from one of the Royal MSS. in the British Museum, 4 C. XI.
Taillefer qui mult bien chantout,
Sor un cheval qui tost alout,
Devant le due alout chantant,
De Karlemaigne et de Rolant,
Et d'Oliver et des vassals,
Qui morurent en Rencevals.
Quant il orent chevalchie tant,
Quas Engleis vindrent aperisment,
Sire dist Taillefer, merci,
Io vos ai longuement servi;
Tot mon servise me devez,
Hui se vos plaist le me rendez,
Por toz guerredon vos requier,
Et si vos voil forment preier,
Otreiez mei que jo ni faille
Le primier colp de la bataille.
Li dus respont, et je lotrei;
Ct Taillefer point a desrei;
Devant toz les altres se mist,
Un Engleis feri, si l'ocist.
Desoz le piez, par mie la pance,
Li fist passer ultre la lance:
A terre estendu l'abati,
Pois traist l'espee, aultre feri:
Pois a crie, venez, venez.
Que faites vos, ferez, ferez.
Donc l'ont Engleis avirone,
Al segont colp qu'il out done.
Bevoit, another Norman poet, who wrote a chronicle of the Dukes of Normandy, at the command of King Henry II. has thus briefly mentioned the exploits of Taillefer:
Uns Taillefer ce dit l'escriz,
I aveit mult grant pris conquis,
Mais il i fu raorz e occis,
Tant esteit grant sis hardemenz,
Quen mi les presses de lor genz
Se colout autre si seur,
Cume s'il i fust clos de mur.
Epuis qu'il out plaies mortex,
Puis i fu il si proz e teus,
Que chevalier de nul parage
Ni fist le jor deus teu damage.
MS. Harl. 1717.
The figure of Taillefer in the Tapestry seems to have been omitted in the prints of it. D.
[o] Various are the epithets bestowed on this person. He is called Courthose, Courtheuse, Courtois, and Couitcuisse. In favour of the nick-name of Court-cuisse, or short-thighs, it may be observed, that there was a French Legate from Charles VI. to Pope Benedict XIII. whose name was Jean Courtcuisse (his Latin appellation being Brevieoxs.) The nick-name of Crook-back, setting aside the disputed one of Crouchback, is long anterior to the time of Richard III. Ordericus Vitalis, under the year 1077, mentions a Knight called Robert de Curva Spina. D.
[p] William had two daughters, whose names were Adela and Adeliza. May it not therefore, alter all, be a mistake for one of these on the part of an English aunt, who would confound the real name with the Saxon one of AElfgiva? The Tapestry should be carefully examined, and the name accurately copied, to enable us to judge fairly. There is no admitting, with Lancelot, that Matilda could have been intended. It is natural to suppose, that one of William's daughters would be found in his palace on this occasion; and that one of his chaplains might announce to her what was going on. The lady in the Tapestry seems, indeed, in the attitude of surprize. D.
[q] The inscription, HIC EST WADARD, seems to mean, "this is the guard." peape, Sax. D.
[r] This fact is thus corroborated by an anonymous writer, at least as old as the Tapestry: "Fecerant autem Angli foveam quandam praegrandem caute et ingeniose, quam ipsi ex obliquo curantes maximam multitudinem Normannorum in ea praecipitaverant. Et plures etiam ex eis insequentes et tracti ab aliis in cadem perierunt." Cotton MS. Cleop. A. XII. D.
[s] Archaeol. Vol. XIII. p. 62.Return to Main Index