The Mirror of literature, amusement, and instruction,
Volume 23 By Reuben Percy 1834

THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY.

Tapestry-working is now almost a neglected art. It formerly employed the fingers of Britain's fair daughters; but all the tapestry now made in Europe furnishes employment for very few manufactories. The ancient work was not unfrequently an affectionate tribute of a maiden to her suitor, a fond wife to her loving husband, or of dutiful children to their parents: the modern art is a well paid craft, and has none of the tender ties we have just mentioned, to endear its productions to our careful keeping. Of the former class, the tapestry at Bayeux is the most curious and interesting specimen extant, inasmuch as it is not merely surprising as a labour of art, but equally to be cherished as an historical picture, and a record of conjugal love.

The date of this ingenious work has been learnedly disputed; some persons considering it of a later period than the Conquest; but tradition gives it to Matilda, the wife of William, the merit of having executed this memorial of her husband's greatest victory. Be this as it may, the antiquity of the work cannot be doubted: it bears its own internal evidence of correctness and authenticity, and gives to the lover of remote research many little circumstances of which history bears no register.

The tapestry is worked with different coloured worsteds, upon white cloth, to which time has given the tinge of brown holland. The drawing of the figures is rude and barbarous; and no attention is paid to correctness of colour in the objects depicted. The horses are blue, green, red, or yellow; this circumstance may arise from the limited number of worsteds employed in the work; they consist of eight colours only—dark and light blue, red, yellow, buff, dark and light green. There is a border at the top and bottom of the tapestry, consisting of some few of the fables of Aesop; birds, animals, and other objects. In that part where the battle of Hastings is represented, the dead bodies supply the border. The whole is 227 feet in length, and about 20 inches in width; and represents, in regular succession, the events which preceded the Conquest, and the prmcipal circumstances connected with it. Mrs. C. Stothard has minutely examined the several scenes, and copied the Latin inscriptions beneath the border on the upper part; and in that lady's really graphic Tour through Normandy, will be found an account of them as they follow in succession.

The work begins with the figure of a king seated upon his throne; the inscription is, "Edward Rex," (the Confessor,) addressing a person, supposed to be Harold, for the puipose of sending him on some mission into France, since the departure of Harold immediately succeeds.

We next see Harold proceeding to Bosham, attended by several of his followers; he carries a hawk upon his fist, at that time the distinguishing mark of nobility; his dogs are running before him. A church is then represented, in front of which are two men, who appear about to enter: above is the word "Ecclesia." The party next appear feasting at a table in a house, previous to their embarkation. Some persons are descending the steps from the apartment where they have been dining; others are embarking in four vessels. Harold enters first, still bearing the hawk, and carrying a dog under his arm. These last-mentioned figures are wading through the water, naked from the waist downwards. The last of the four vessels next appears anchoring in France, Harold standing at the prow. Three figures are then represented upon land, one of them is Harold, in the act of being seized by order of Guy, Earl of Ponthieu, who is on horseback, followed by his people. Harold arid Guy are then seen, mounted upon their horses, and attended both by Saxon and Norman soldiers. The Saxons are distinguished by wearing mustachios; the Normans have none.

Harold and Guy appear in conversation; and messengers arrive from William, Duke of Normandy, to the Earl of Ponthieu;—a tree divides the subject here, and in like manner all the principal events throughout the work. Some historians relate, that when Harold was driven by tempest on the French, coast, he was detained as a prisoner by Guy, and that he sent a messenger to William, with an account of his situation, whose threats and largesses obtained his release. The tapestry seems to confirm this account; for the messenger kneeling at the feet of William is known to be a Saxon, by his unshaven upper lip, and is not therefore a Norman envoy. Guy is seen immediately after, conducting Harold to the Duke: to what town he was carried we are not informed. The tapestry mentions only that he was brought to the palace of the Norman prince. Beneath the words, "Vnus elericus et AElfggva," appears a female figure, and a priest, who is apparently giving a benediction. It has been conjectured that this subject alludes to the betrothing of a daughter of William the Conqueror to Harold.

The next event is William's warfare, with Conan, Earl of Bretagne, in which it is apparent Harold assisted, and rendered essential service to the Norman party. Soldiers, mounted on horseback, arrive at Mount St. Michel, and pass the river Cosno. Harold is depicted assisting some persons who had fallen into the quicksands, whilst they were passing the river. The army arrive at Dol, in Britanuy; some troops are Hying at their approach towards Rennes; Conan escapes from the town, and descends the walls by means of a rope. The Norman soldiers are next employed in attacking Dinant; Conan delivers up to them the keys of the town, which they succeeded in taking. After this event, William rewards the services of Harold by giving him a suit of armour, with which he is represented as investing him. William and his party then arrive at Bayeux.

It is said that William, in order to secure to himself the succession of the Saxon throne, without having Harold for a competitor, caused him to take a solemn vow that he would never attempt the possession of the English crown: this vow he obliged Harold, (then within his power,) to make upon a covered altar, beneath which William had secretly placed the most sacred and precious relics. No sooner had Harrold sworn the injoined oath, than the Norman Duke uncovered the altar, and showing him by what sacred things he had vowed, enforced upon his mind the blasphemy he would commit if he ever attempted the violation of his oath. The tapestry apparently confirms this political trick of the Conqueror; for Harold is represented taking the oath, while standing between two covered altars—(See the engraving). Harold next embarks for England, and arrives at the court of Edward the Confessor: he appears giving an account to the Saxon king, of the event of his mission into Normandy.

The succeeding subject is the death of Edward. He is lying upon a bed, and his wife Editha weeping by his side. Beneath he is represented dead, and laid out. The funeral procession to Westminster Abbey follows immediately after his decease; and chronicles tell us that he was interred the next day. Edward the Confessor had rebuilt the Abbey. It is singular that a figure is portrayed placing a weathercock upon the spire of the church. It has been conjectured, that this is designed as an indication that the building was but just finished, the weathercock bemg the last necessary appendage. A hand from heaven is pointing towards the Abbey, as if marking it for consecration.[1]

The next subject is the crown being offered to Harold by the people. Above are the words, "Hic dederunt Haroldo coronam Regis." From the word dederunt being used in the Norman record, we are induced to believe that the crown was given to Harold, and not seized by him. The tapestry marking the circumstance in these words, appears a strong confirmation of its truth.

Harold next appears seated upon his throne. Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, is standing by his side. The subject that follows is the appearance of a comet, at which the people are gazing with astonishment, as an ominous sign of bloodshed threatening to overwhelm their country. Harold is then seen upon the throne, addressing his conversation to a person who is standing by his side. In the border beneath are several boats. The inscription above is simply the word "Harold." As there is no explanation given to define this subject, it is not improbable that it relates to the embarkation of the forces of Haralld Hadrada, the king of Norway, and Tostig, the brother of Harold, who had joined in the Norwegian expedition against England. The figure speaking to Harold, may probably be intended as a messenger bringing him intelligence. The boats, in the border beneath, are, perhaps, a figurative emblem of the preparation for this naval expedition. I am induced to make these conjectures, from the probability that the subject thus hieroglyphically expressed, related to some event of importance to Harold.

The victory he achieved over the Norwegian king and his brother Tostig, was distinguished by the gallant and brave conduct of the Saxon prince; and it is more likely the tapestry should in some manner notice so memorable an event, as the final overthrow of Hadrada occurred but three days before the landing of William. It may also be remarked, that unless this subject is thus understood, it remains totally obscure and undefined. The battle took place near York. Without leisure for repose, that part of the army of Harold that survived the engagement, marched immediately towards Hastings.

The next subject the tapestry presents, is a ship bringing to William the news of Harold's having assumed the English crown. William and his brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, appear consulting together, and giving orders that ships should be built for the purposed invasion of England. Accordingly, several persons are employed in cutting down trees; carpenters are constructing vessels; and others draw them into the sea. The embarkation of the Normans, forms the succeeding subject; they carry with them on board the ships, wine, arms, and provisions. William then passes the sea, and arrives in Pevensey bay. At the head of the Conqueror's vessel is the figure of a boy, which history records to have been the distinguishing mark of his ship. A lantern is fixed to the mast,—the known signal of William's vessel in the night, around which the fleet was directed to anchor. The troops and horses next appear disembarking; they proceed to Hastings, where they seize provisions. A figure bearing a pennon at the end of his lance, is simply distinguished by the words "Hic est Wadard."[2 The Normans are busied in cooking meats, and regaling themselves at Hastings. The soldiers dine upon their shields. Odo bestows his benediction upon some viands on a table. The manner in which the fowls are brought to the board is certainly of a singular fashion; for they are presented to the guests by the attendants upon small spits, and it seems probable that each person helped himself to a portion as they were handed round. In the print, published by Montfaucon, this circumstance, from incorrect delineation, is unintelligible. Odo and William, with their brother Robert, give orders that the army should encamp at Hastings. The news is then brought to William that Harold is advancing to oppose the Normans. A house on fire, from which a woman and child are escaping, forms the next subject .

The soldiers of William leave Hastings to meet Harold in the field, and the Duke now first appears in armour for the battle, and comes forth to meet his opponent Odo is armed likewise in mail; the bishop bears a mace, as the weapon he is to use in the fray; for ecclesiastics sought, in those days, to evade the admonition of the Scriptures against using a sword, or shedding man's blood in battle. William is seen interrogating Vital, an individual of his army, concerning the state of Harold's defence. Harold also is receiving information relative to his enemies' forces. William then addresses his soldiers to inspire them with boldness, and confidence in their meditated attack upon the Saxon troops. The Normans are on horseback, the Saxons on foot; the shields of the latter are generally distinguished by being round, with a boss in the centre. The battle now ensues; Lewine and Gyrth, the brothers of Harold are slain. The action appears obstinately contested on both sides, and many of either party killed. Some detachments of the Saxon army are next seen intrenched, hurling their javelins at their advancing foes.

The Saxons had formed themselves upon a rising ground; the Normans aimed their weapons with destructive effect; but their opponents, undismayed, supported their position with the greatest valour, and repelled every onset. The allies of William, and many of his own troops, disheartened by their fruitless attack, began to give way; and a report prevailed that the Norman duke was slain. These circumstance conjoined, were nearly fatal to the invader: his forces seemed upon the point of dying. William, ever active in the field, saw the panic that threatened a fatal issue to his hopes; he rushed amongst the flying troops, menacing, and even striking several with his lance; and taking off his helmet, the better to assure them he still existed, vowed that with God's help he would that day conquer his foes. By this conduct, the Duke at length succeeded in rallying the fugitives, and once more led them to the onset; a general slaughter ensued, but the main body of the Saxons was unbroken. William, fearing a renewal of the panic that had so recently threatened destruction, and seeing no probable means to break the phalanx of the Saxon J troops, determined upon hazarding a stratagem. He commanded that a precipitate attack should be made, and followed by a feigned retreat, hoping that the Saxons would fall into the snare and pursue the Nonnans. The firm body of his enemies then being broken by the ardour of pursuit, he directed his party to turn upon them, and, if possible, to surround them on all sides. This manoeuvre succeeded: the Saxons were deceived, but it proved nearly fatal to William; for, in the heat of the design, when feigning a retreat, they came unexpectedly upon an excavation in the ground, which threw the Nonnans into such confusion and disorder, that with the utmost peril and difficulty they again rallied, and several perished from the disaster. William perceiving their danger, came up with the main body, and cut offthe retreat of the pursuers, who vainly attempted to regain the elevation they had abandoned. This was a critical moment for the fortunes of the undaunted Harold. Had the Saxons regained the hill, or their chief survived the conflict, there is little probability William could have achieved more than an uncertain footing in a land, from which he would have been eventually driven, or where he else might have found a grave. But Harold, who united the enthusiasm of determined valour, with the necessary skill and judgment of command, received a fatal arrow in his eye, before the victory was decided; he fell with many a brave adherent. When Harold was slain and fallen to the ground, some base hand plunged a spear into his thigh. History relates, that William afterwards disgraced the man who did it, for having been guilty of so cowardly an act. The Saxon troops, certain of their leader's fate, now felt that panic which had before assailed the Norman party. William seized the moment favourable for success, and rushed down upon them with a furious onset; once more they rallied, exasperated by Harold's death, and made a determined stand. But the fortune of William prevailed, amidst the slaughter of his troops and the flower of his nobility; he gained the triumph of a bloody and dearbought field.

The tapestry agrees entirely with these historical relations; Odo is seen encouraging the troops, who are disheartened by a report of William's being slain. The strong position occupied by the Saxons on the rising ground, is likewise expressed, the Normans appear attacking them, and are repulsed, their cavalry and men being thrown into the greatest confusion. William also is seen taking off his helmet, as an assurance of his still existing. Eustace, £nrl of Boulogne, (who is by the Duke's side,) bears a flag, which, from its remarkable form, is conjectured to be the Norman standard, probably that of the Duke. The engagement between both armies ensues; the followers of Harold are slain; Harold is represented receiving the arrow in his eye, he falls to the ground; a soldier pierces him in the thigh with a sword. In the border of this part, several troops are employed in stripping the dead. The Normans have many archers on their side, and some who throw the javelin. The Saxons are lastly seen flying before their victorious foes. Here the tapestry ends, for the rest is torn off, or more probably destroyed by time.

Mrs. C. Stothard, from whose Tour this description is quoted, notices among the events exclusively recorded in the tapestry, the taking of Dinant, and the war between the Duke of Normandy and Conan, Earl of Bretagne. "Whoever wrought the work, appears to have rendered justice to the character of Harold; for the important services he afforded William during the war in Britanny are not noticed by any other existing history."

"It is fortunate that this curious memorial escaped destruction during the Revolution. Its surrender at that period was demanded for the purpose of covering the guns; a priest, however, succeeded in concealing and preserving it from destruction." It should not be omitted, that when Napoleon projected the invasion of England, he caused the Bayeux tapestry—a memorial of England's early conquest—to be brought to Paris, where it was exhibited to the people. Few of the great men of history have understood this species of stratagem, and its workings, so deeply as did the late Emperor of the French. In this case, his reference to past success had no effect upon future enterprise; and all hopes of a second conquest of England, in tapestry, were blighted in the bud.

The annexed illustration has no other merit than that of being a faithful transcript. The figure it represents is that of a knight with a private banner, issuing to mount a led horse. His beardless countenance denotes him a Norman; and the mail covering to his legs equally proves him to be one of the most distinguished characters.


(Norman Knight; from the Bayeux Tapestry.)

Footnotes.

[1] The church of St. Peter, Westminster, was consecrated hut a few days before the death of Edward the Confessor.

[2] This Wadard had afterwards lands assigned him in Kent. See Domesday, fol. i.

Return to Main Index