The Journal of the British Archaeological Association,
Volume 12 By British Archaeological Association 1856

Bayeux Tapestry.

We hail with satisfaction the appearance of Dr. Bruce's work [1] on the Bayeux tapestry. It is not to be regarded as a perfect treatise on the subject, to effect which combined talents and information of various kinds seem absolutely requisite. It is essential to view this monument of ancient art and industry in a historical point of view, as well as an antiquarian one. As regards the latter, it is of great importance in relation to the costume, weapons, etc., of the eleventh century, representations of which abound throughout the entire roll. As a specimen of Needlework, which it really is rather than a tapestry, it is not only the most ancient, but it is likewise the most extensive specimen known. For familiarity with it, we are chiefly indebted to the Society of Antiquaries, who commissioned that excellent and most accurate antiquarian artist, the late Mr. Charles Stothard, to make drawings from the original, which were afterwards engraved and published, in seventeen folio plates, in the fourth volume of the Vetusta Monumenta. Dr. Bruce states, in his preface, that the society has not hitherto published any explanation of the tapestry. This is scarcely correct, as various articles on the subject have appeared in the Archaeologia; and two years since, Mr. Planche, yielding to the solicitation of the council of the society, wrote a description of the plates. This work has been executed by him with the acuteness and care which distinguish all his antiquarian labours; and although printed, and the proofs corrected by him, it has not yet appeared. It remains to the society to offer some explanation to the fellows of the society, and more particularly to Mr. Planche, for this extraordinary delay. The plates accompanying Dr. Bruce's work are more diminutive than we could wish, being reduced copies of those made for the Society of Antiquaries; and they fail, although cleverly done, of giving a representation of the material and work of the original. A facsimile of a portion, however, forms a frontispiece, which may serve to satisfy such of our readers as are not in possession of the plates of the Vetusta Monumenta.

The Bayeux tapestry must be admitted to be a most extraordinary production, and to exhibit great patience and ability on the part of those to whom the execution belongs; and it is gratifying to learn that great care is now taken as to its preservation. From Dr. Bruce we learn that it is now preserved in the town's library at Bayeux, where it is advantageously exposed to view by being extended in eight lengths from end to end of the room, and is at the same time protected from injury by being covered with glass. The exact measurement is 227 feet in length by about 20 inches in breadth. It is upon rather fine linen, which long ago has acquired a brown tinge, and thus resembles what is known as brown holland. The stitches consist of lines of coloured worsted laid side by side, and bound down at intervals with cross fastenings. The parts representing flesh are untouched by the needle, and left white. At the beginning and at the end it has sustained some injury, but not of great consequence, though the last five yards are considerably defaced. Blue, red, pink, yellow, buff, and green, are the colours employed; and Dr. Bruce bears testimony to the accuracy of the statement of Mr. Hudson Gurney in 1814, that "the colours are as bright and distinct, and the letters of the superscriptions as legible, as if of yesterday." The borders at the top and the bottom of the roll display figures of birds, beasts, etc., which have, however, no reference to the subjects depicted between them. Near the beginning in the lower border are some representations of the fables of Aesop, and there are also illustrations of husbandry, sports of the field, etc. At the end of the work, the representations in the border relate to the subject above, being the bodies of those slain in battle. There are altogether seventy-two compartments, which are distinguished by the embroidering of a tree separating each division.

Tradition has assigned the work to the needle of the queen Matilda, wife of the Conqueror, and the ladies of her court, and it appears almost like heresy to question the correctness of this statement, yet it must be admitted that although there are abundant internal evidences of its antiquity reaching to this period or immediately subsequent to that time, there is yet no satisfactory authority for the assignment, and there are those deservedly held as good antiquaries who have entertained a different opinion. It is a vexata questio, into which we have no desire to enter, but must yet say a few words en passant. Hume[2] and Lyttelton,[3] the historians, and the abbe de la Rue,[4] canon of Bayeux, are the advocates of an opinion that the work is to be attributed to Matilda, daughter of Henry I and wife of Henry V, emperor of Germany, well known as the empress Maud. The observations of the abbe, who was professor of history in the Academy of Caen, are entitled to much regard, but his reasons are at best but negative in the matter. Queen Matilda died in 1083, and her will, which is generally held to have been made in the same year, makes no mention of the tapestry among the bequests made by her to the abbey of the Holy Trinity. Lancelot,[5] the first writer upon the tapestry, explains it by the aid of the poems of Robert Wace, who was a canon of Bayeux in the twelfth century, and he makes no mention of the tapestry, though writing at the command of the great grandson of Matilda. "When (says the abbe) 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."[6] The abbe confidently states the tapestry to be in material and work of English manufacture, and coincides in assigning the execution of it to the empress Matilda, as having every probability in its favour, and as being perfectly reconcileable with history, with language, and with the usages of those who would be employed in its manufacture.[7] The first mention made of the tapestry is in an inventory of the treasures of the church at Bayeux, of the date of 1369, and again in another inventory of 1476, describing the jewels, ornaments, and other valuables, but neither of these make any allusion to Matilda. In the latter of these inventories, preserved in the archives, and referred to by Mr. Lancelot, it is mentioned as a very long piece of cloth, embroidered with figures and writing, representing the conquest of England.[8]

Mr. Bolton Corney,[9] an able writer, a good antiquary, and an acute critic, has put forth another opinion, and assigned the period of the execution of the tapestry as late as 1205; and he asserts it to have been made at the expense of the chapter of the church of Bayeux. This view has been adopted by Mr. Lingard ;[10] but the internal evidence is against all these conjectures, however learned and however ingenious they maybe. Matilda may have been the donor of the tapestry, and it may have been executed by her or by her ladies or others under her superintendence, and yet it does not follow, though the probabilities are in favour of such a circumstance, that the gift should be recorded, and we have instances of the omissions of gifts by Matilda and others by historians which therefore forbid us to decide in the negative, and put aside the claims of the queen to the work.

The earliest account of the Bayeux tapestry is derived from a memoir by M. Lancelot in 1724, in which he describes an illuminated drawing from a portion of it discovered among the manuscripts of M. Foucault, intendant of Normandy. M. Lancelot's memoir excited the curiosity of Pere Montfaucon, who, after much labour in the search, ascertained that the representation belonged to a tapestry in the possession of the canons of Bayeux, and that a tradition was held in regard to its having been the work of Matilda, the wife of the Conqueror,[11] and given by her to the cathedral, of which the Conqueror's half-brother Odo was bishop. Montfaucon contends for its being of the eleventh century.[12] It is also stated to have been upon a public occasion (the festival of the Relics) exhibited in the nave of the church to the inhabitants of the city, and this being on St. John's day (July 1), the tapestry had acquired the title of Toilede St. Jean. Mr. Gurney has acquainted the writer of this notice that it was so known at the time he visited Bayeux in 1814. According to M. Lancelot, it was also called La Toillette de Due Guillaume? Montfaucon engraved the whole of the tapestry in nine large folio plates, having twenty-seven compartments. They were from drawings by Antoine Benoit, but very far from the excellence of those executed by Mr. C. Stothard. He is decidedly in favour of the antiquity of the work,[13] gives the titles in Latin, and a description of all the plates. Lancelot published a second memoir in 1730.[14] The consideration of the subject then appears to have slept for nearly forty years, when Dr. Ducarel called attention to it,[15] and printed an elaborate account drawn up by Smart Lethicullier, esq., a well known English antiquary. It was, however, again doomed to repose until the present century, when Napoleon Buonaparte, contemplating invasion of England in 1803, had it brought to Paris from Bayeux, where it was placed under the charge of M. Denon at the National Museum. Here it underwent the inspection and minute examination of the French antiquaries. The Gentleman's Magazine[16] tells us that the French consul affected to be struck with that part of it which represents Harold on his throne at the moment he was alarmed at the appearance of a meteor which presaged his defeat: affording an opportunity for the inference that the meteor which had then been lately seen in the south of France was the presage of a similar event.[17] An extraordinary degree of popularity appears to have been attached to the exhibition of it in the French capital, for the Thidtre du Vaudeville brought forth a piece called La Tapisserie de la Heine Mathilde, in which the queen, who had retired to her uncle Roger during the contest, is represented as passing her time with her ladies in the exercise of embroidering the exploits of her husband, never leaving this work but to put up prayers for his success. After being exhibited in some French towns, it was at length returned to Bayeux, and placed in the hands of the municipal officers. Here it attracted the inquisitive search of the canon of Bayeux, the abbe de la Rue, who forwarded an account of it and his suggestions regarding its history to the late Francis Douce, esq., who translated it and laid it before the Society of Antiquaries.[18]

The tapestry is a historic roll of vast importance, and may be looked upon as a sort of historical chronicle. It depicts to us the transactions of the Norman invasion and the conquest of England, figured apparently not long subsequent to the events it records. It must not be forgotten that to the acute discernment of Mr. Gurney the real opinion of its nature and value is owing. Mr. Gurney remarks that "it is an apologetical history of the claims of William to the crown of England, and of the breach of faith and fall of Harold; and is a perfect and finished action."[19] He saw it at the hotel of the prefecture in 1814, and describes it as coiled round a machine like that which lets down the buckets to a well, and he had the opportunity of drawing it out at length over a table. The design of the tapestry, as stated by Mr. Gurney, is the best evidence of its date, and proves it to have been executed in the early part of the reign of the Conqueror. At the latter part, it might not be necessary or required. It ends with the battle of Hastings. All internal evidence is in favour of its belonging to the early part of the Conqueror's reign. The architecture, costumes, arms, armour, and furniture, are all of the time of the conquest. Mr. C. Stothard[20] regarded it as a true picture of the time in which it was executed. Dr. Bruce judiciously remarks that such is the general agreement between the verses of Robert Wace and the historical details of the tapestry, that the latter may be looked upon in the light of illustrations of the history of the Norman conquest, and he notices an anachronism of Wace to good purpose. This author, who lived in the reigns of Henry I and II, in allusion to the negotiations which took place before the armies closed at the decisive field of Hastings, says: "As the duke said this, and would have said more, William Fitz Osborn rode up, his horse all covered with iron; Sire, said he to his lord, we tarry too long, let us arm ourselves. Allons! Allons!" There is, as Dr. Bruce remarks, not a single horse in the whole of the tapestry equipped in steel armour, and but for Wace we should really be in ignorance of its having been used so early as the time in which he lived.[21] Dr. Bruce's work has much the character of a lecture, and those who, like some of the members of this Association, have been fortunate enough, to hear him upon subjects of Norman history, can readily comprehend the interest with which he invests his subject. We shall reserve to ourselves the liberty of recurring to the tapestry upon the publication of Mr. Planche's descriptions, which we trust will speedily be laid before the public.


[1] The Bayeux Tapestry Elucidated, by the Rev. John Collingwood Bruce, LL.D., F.S.A. London. J. R. Smith. 1856. 4to.

[2] Archaeologia, vol. xviii, p. 359. In the roll there are no less than 1,512 figures:—623 men, 202 horses, 55 dogs, 505 of various other animals, griffins, centaurs, lion, camel, fox, wolf, lamb, eagle, crane, etc.; 49 trees, 41 ships and boats, and 37 buildings.

[3] History of England. s History of Henry II.

[4] Archaeologia, vol. xvii, pp. 85-109.

[5] Memoires de l'Acad. Roy. des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres, tom, vi, p. 739. This has a plate in four lines, representing the commencement of the tapestry.

[6] Archaeologia, xvii, 95. Mr. Amyot has ably refuted the opinion of the abbe in Archaeologia, vol. xix, pp. 192-208. See also a previous paper by the same, in the same volume, pp. 88-95, to oppose the statement that Harold was sent to Normandy by Edward, for the purpose of offering the succession to William, or rather confirming an offer of it, which had been previously made to him.

[7] lb., p. 106.

[8] The precise words are, " Une tente tres longue et Stroite de telle k broderie de ymages et eserpteaulx (escripteaulx) faisans representation du conquest d'Angleterre, laquelle est tendue environ la nef de l'Eglise le jour et par les octaves des reliques." (Mem. de l'Acad. Roy. des. Inscrip. et des Belles Lettres, tom, viii, p. 604.)

[9] Researches and Conjectures on the Bayeux Tapestry.

[10] History of England. 5th edition. London: 1849. Vol. i. Appendix, note A, p. 547.

[11] "L'opinion commune a- Bayeux est, que ce fut la reine Mathilde, femme de Guillaume le Conquerant, qui la fit faire. Cette opinion qui passe pour une tradition dans le pays n'a rien que de fort vraisemblable." (Monumens de la Monarchic Francoise, tom, ii, p. 2.) For a long time Montfaucon could only learn that it was a long band of tapestry, exposed on certain days of the year in the church of Bayeux. Father Mathurin de l'Archer copied the inscriptions and transmitted them to him.

[12] "Le monument est incontestablement de ce tems la. Le gout, la forme des armes, et tout ce qui s'observe dans cette peinture, ne laissent aucun lieu d'en douter." (lb.)

[13] Mem. de l'Acad., tom, viii, p. 603. 4 Archasologia, vol. xix.

[14] Mem. de l'Acad. Roy. des Inscript., tom, viii, pp. 602-668. To this extended memoir and description of the whole work are appended six plates, in folio, having four lines on each sheet.

[15] Anglo-Norman Antiquities. London: 1767. Folio. See Appendix, p. 1.

[16] Vol. lxxiii.

[17] Gent.'s Mag. for 1803, vol. lxxiii, Part II, p. 1137.

[18] Archaeologia, xvii, pp. 85-109.

[19] Archtoologia, vol. xviii, p. 361.

[20] lb., vol. six, pp. 184-191.

[21] Page 7.

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