A web or roll of linen cloth or canvass, preserved at Bayeux in Normandy, upon
which a continuous representation of the events connected with the invasion
and conquest of England by the Normans is worked in woollen thread of different
colours, in the form of a sampler. It is twenty inches wide, and two hundred
and fourteen feet long; and is divided into seventy-two compartments, each bearing
a superscription in Latin which indicates its subject, or the person or persons
represented. It is edged on its upper, as well as its lower part, by a border
representing chiefly quadrupeds, birds, sphinxes, minotaurs, and other similar
Attention was first directed to this singular monument by M. Lancelot, in a memoir presented to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres, in 1724, in consequence of his discovering an illuminated drawing from a portion of it, among the manuscripts in the library of M. Foucault, who had been Intendant of Normandy. At the time of finding it he did not know what it actually represented; whether the original was a sculpture round the choir of a church, upon a tomb, or on a frieze; whether it was a painting in fresco, or on glass; or, lastly, whether it might not be a tapestry. He saw that it was historical, and that it related to William Duke of Normandy and the conquest of England; and he wrote to Caen respecting it, but got no information.
Pere Montfaucon, upon reading Lancelot's memoir, saw the value of this curious representation, and left no stone unturned till he had discovered the original. He wrote to Caen and Bayeux, and sent a copy of the drawing for inspection, when, at last, the canons of Bayeux recognized it as a portion of the tapestry in their possession, which tradition said had been worked by, or under the superintendence of, Matilda, the Conqueror's queen, which she had herself given to the cathedral, of which Odo, the Conqueror's half-brother, was bishop, and which they, the canons of Bayeux, were accustomed to exhibit to the inhabitants of the city, in the nave of their church, at a particular season of the year. M Lancelot, in a second memoir, says it was at that time traditionally called la Toilette de Due Guillaume. Montfaucon sent an able artist, of the name of Antoine Benoit, to copy it; and at the opening of the second volume of his Monument de la Monarchie Francoise, published in 1730, engraved the whole in a reduced form, accompanied with a commentary upon the Latin inscriptions, which, throughout, explain the intention of the figures represented in the different compartments.
M. Lancelot, upon the publication of the tapestry by Montfaucon, sent a second memoir to the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres (as has been just mentioned), which was read in 1730, and published in the same year, in the eighth volume of their transactions, in which he states that the earliest mention of this tapestry among the archives of the cathedral is in an inventory of jewels and ornaments belonging to the church, taken in 1476, where it is called 'une tente tres longue et etroite de telle a broderie de j mages et eserpteaulx faisans representation du conquest d'Angleterre, laquelle est tendue environ la nef de l'Eglise le jour et par les octaves des reliques.'
Dr. Ducarel is the next who gives us an account of this tapestry, in the appendix to his Anglo-Norman Antiquities (folio, London, 1767), where he has printed an elaborate description of it, which had been drawn up some years before, during a residence in Normandy, by Smart Lethieullier, Esq., an able English antiquary. Ducarel tells us that when he was in Normandy it was annually hung up on St. John's day, and went exactly round the nave of the church, where it continued eight days. At all other time, it was carefully kept locked up in a strong wainscot press in a chapel on the south side of the cathedral.
From this time till the autumn of 1803, it received but little further notice, when Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, contemplating the immediate invasion of England, ordered it to be brought from Bayeux to the National Museum at Paris, where it was deposited during some months for public inspection. The First Consul himself went to see it, and affected to be struck with that particular part which represents Harold on his throne at the moment when 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. (Gentleman's Magazine, 1830, vol. lxiii., pt. ii. p. 1136.) The exhibition was popular: so much so, that a small dramatic piece was got up at the Theatre du Vaudeville, entitled La Patisserie de la reine Mathilde, in which Matilda, who had retired to her uncle Roger during the contest, was represented passing her time with her women in embroidering the exploits of her husband, never leaving their work, except to put up prayers for his success. (Millin, Magazin Encyclopedique. 1803, torn. iv. p. 541.) After having been exhibited in Paris, and in one or two large towns, the tapestry was returned to Bayeux, and lodged with the municipality. Mr. Dawson Turner, in his Tour in Normandy, written in 1818, says, the bishop and chapter of Bayeux had then recently applied to the government for the tapestry to be restored to their cathedral, but without effect. (Tour in Normandy, 8vo. Lond. 1820, vol. ii. p. 242.)
It was most fortunate that this curious monument escaped destruction during the Revolution. Its surrender at that time was demanded for the purpose of covering the guns a priest, however, succeeded in concealing and preserving it from destruction.
The new degree of publicity given to the tapestry by its exposure in the French capital, again made it a subject of discussion; and the Abbe de la Rue, professor of history in the Academy of Caen, endeavoured, in a memoir, afterwards translated by Francis Douce, Esq. and printed in the seventeenth volume of the Archaeologia of the Society of Antiquaries, to show that a mistake had been committed by tradition in the selection of the Matilda, and that its origin ought not to have been ascribed to Matilda the Conqueror's queen, but to Matilda the empress, the daughter of King Henry I.
The next memoir on this curious subject is comprised in a short letter from Mr. Hudson Gurney, printed in the eighteenth volume of the Archaeologia, who saw the tapestry at Bayeux in 1814, where it then went by the appellation of the Toile de St. Jean, which is explained by what Ducarel has said, that it was formerly exhibited upon St. John's day. Lancelot, Montfaucon, Ducarel, and De la Rue, appear all to have considered the tapestry as a monument of the Conquest of England, intended to have been continued to Duke William's coronation, but from some cause or other left unfinished. Mr. Gurney considered it to be an apologetical history of the claims of William to the crown of England, and of the breach of faith and fall of Harold; and that, as it stands, it contains a perfect and finished action.
In the mean time, the Society of Antiquaries in 1816 despatched an excellent and accurate artist, Mr. Charles Stothard, to Bayeux, who in that and the succeeding year brought home a perfect facsimile of the tapestry; the drawings of which have bees since engraved, coloured like the original, and published in the sixth volume of the Vetusta Monumenta, plate i. to xvii.
The appearance of the first portion of Mr. Stothard's drawings gave rise to some Observations from Mr. Amyot, in refutation of an historical fact which the tapestry had been supposed to establish: namely, that of Harold's mission to Normandy by the Confessor to offer the succession to William. (Archaeol. vol. xix. p. 88.) These were followed by C. Stothard's own observations while at Bayeux, pointing out such circumstances as presented themselves to his notice during the minute investigation to which the tapestry was necessarily subjected (Ibid. vol. xix. p. 184), and again followed by a defence of the early antiquity of the Tapestry, by Mr. Amyot (Ibid. p. 192), in which the objections raised by the Abbe de la Rue against the tradition which made the tapestry co-eval with the events it celebrates, are completely invalidated. The last account of this tapestry is in Mrs. Stothard's Letters from Normandy, 4to. Lond. 1820, let. xi. pp. 121-134; except a brief notice of it in Dibdin's Bibliographical Tour, 8vo. Lond. 1821, vol. i. pp. 375-391.
The work begins with the figure of a king seated upon his throne, who is addressing one of two persons standing by his side: the inscription is simply
It appears to be Harold taking leave. We next see Harold proceeding to Boseham attended by several followers; he carries a hawk upon his fist, at that time the distinguishing mark of nobility; his dogs are running before him:
'IBI HAROLD DVX ANGLORVM ET SVI MILITES EQVITANT AD BOSHAM.'
A church is then represented, in front of which are two men who appear about to enter: above is the word
This church is Boseham in Sussex. 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:
'HIC HAROLD MARE NAVIGAVIT ET VELIS VENTO PLENIS VENIT IN TERRAM WIDONIS COMITIS.'
The last of the four vessels next appears anchoring in France, Harold standing at the prow: his name 'Harold' above. 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:
'HIC APPREHENDIT WIDO HAROLDVM ET DVXIT EVM AD BELREM ET IBI EVM TENVIT.'
Harold and Guy are next 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,
'VBI HAROLD ET WIDO PARABOLANT:'
when messengers arrive from William Duke of Normandy to the Earl of Ponthieu
'VBI NVNTII WILIELMI DVCIS VENERVNT AD WIDONEM.'
Between the Earl of Ponthieu who is seated, and his guards who receive the messengers, a tree divides the subject, as other trees, in like manner, divide all the principal events throughout the work. A dwarf, with the name of
above, holds the horses of Duke William's messengers. William's messengers are again represented on horseback, bearing shields;
Next is a Saxon messenger mustached, kneeling to William on his ducal seat:
'HIC TENIT NVNCIVS AD WILGELMVM DVCEM.'
Guy is seen immediately after, conducting Harold to the duke:
'HIC WIDO ADDVXIT HAROLDVX AD WILGELMVM NORMANNORVM DVCEM.'
William meets them, and returns with Harold to his palace :
'HIC DUX WILGELM CVM HAROLDO VENIT AD PALATIUM SVVM.'
We have then a female figure within the door of a church, and a priest, and beneath them the words
'VNVS CLERICVS ET AELFGYVA.'
Mr. Douce says evidently Adeliza, William's daughter, who was affianced 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:
'HIC WILLEM DVX ET EXERCITVS EIVS VENERVNT AD MONTEM MICHAELIS.'
Soldiers, mounted on horseback, arrive at Mount St. Michael and pass the river Cosno:
'ET HIC TRANSIERVNT FLVMEN COSNONIS ET VENERVNT AD DOL.'
Harold is depicted among them, assisting some persons who had fallen into the quicksands while passing the river:
'HIC HAROLD DVX TRAHEBAT EOS DE ARENA.'
We have then the words
'ET CONAN FVGA VERTIT.'
Conan is seen escaping from Dol and descending the walls by a rope. Troops are flying and approach Rennes :
The Norman soldiers are next employed in attacking Dinant:
'HIC MILITES WILLELMI DVCIS PVGNANT CONTRA DINANTES.'
Conan delivers up to them the keys of the town, which they succeed in taking:
'ET CVNAN CLAVES PORREXIT.'
After this event William rewards the services of Harold by giving him a suit of armour:
'HIC WILLELM DEDIT HAROLDO ARMA.'
William and his party then arrive at Bayeux:
'HIC WILLELM VENIT BAGIAS.'
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 placed the most sacred and precious relics. No sooner had Harold sworn the 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 be guilty of, if he ever attempted the violation of his oath. Harold is represented taking the oath, while standing between two covered altars:
'VBI HAROLD SACRAMENTVM FECIT WILLELMO DVCI.'
Harold next embarks for England:
'HIC HAROLD DVX REVERSVS EST AD ANGLICAM TERRAM ET VENIT AD EDWARDVM REGEM ;'
and is immediately after represented as relating the events of his journey to the Saxon king. The next subject is the death and funeral of Edward the Confessor. The funeral procession comes first:
'HIC PORTATVR CORPVS EADWARDI REGIS AD ECCLESIAM PETRI APOSTOLI.'
The king is then represented in his bed, giving his last directions to the officers of his court: his wile Editha weeping by his side:
'HIC EADWARDVS REX ALLOQVIT FIDELES.'
Beneath he is represented dead and laid out:
'ET HIC DEFVNCTVS EST.'
The next subject is the crown offered to Harold by the people:
'HIC DEDERVNT HAROLDO CORONAM REGIS.'
Harold then appears upon his throne, Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, at his side:
'HIC RESIDET HAROLD REX ANGLORVM. STIGANT ARCHIEPISCOPVS.'
The subject that follows is the appearance of a comet, at which the people are gazing:
'ISTI MIRANT STELLAM.'
Harold is seen below it, listening to a person who has approached him: his name above,
Boats are represented in the border beneath. The next subject which the tapestry represents is a ship, bringing to William the news of Harold's having assumed the English crown :
'HIC NAVIS ANGLICA VENIT INTERRAM WILLELMI DVCIS.'
William and his half-brother, Odo bishop of Bayeux (distinguishable by the tonsure), appear consulting together and giving orders that ships should be built for the purposed invasion of England:
'HIC WILLELM DVX IVSSIT NAVES EDIFICARE.'
Accordingly several persons are next represented as employed in cutting down trees; carpenters are constructing vessels, and others draw them into the sea:
'HIC TRAHVNT NAVES AD MARE.'
The embarkation of the Normans forms the succeeding subject; they carry with them on board the ships wine, arms, and provisions:
'ISTI PORTANT ARMAS AD NAVES ET TRAHVNT CARRVM CVM VINO ET ARMIS.'
William going to his own vessel is next represented:
'HIC WILLELM DVX IN MAGNO NAVIGIO.'
Numerous ships are then seen passing the sea, loaded with troops and horses, and William arrives in Pevensey bay (his own vessel known by the figure of a boy holding a pennon at the stern; it bears a lantern at the mast):
'MARE TRANSIVIT ET VENIT AD PEVENESAE.'
The troops and horses next appear disembarking: they proceed to Hastings, where they seize provisions:
'HIC EXEVNT CABALLI DE NAVIBVS ET HIC MILITES FESTINAVERVNT HASTINGA ET CIBVM RAPERENTVR.'
A figure on horseback, bearing a pennon at the end of his lance, is here distinguished by the words
'HIC EST WADARD.'
The Normans are now busied in cooking meats and regaling themselves:
'HIC COQVITVR CARO ET HIC MINISTRAVERVNT MINISTRI. HIC FECERVNT PRANDIVM.'
The soldiers dine upon their shields. Odo seated at a table, with William on his right hand, bestows his benediction on the viands:
'ET HIC EPISCOPVS CIBVM ET POTVM BENEDICIT.'
William, with Odo and Robert Earl of Mortaigne, are seated under a canopy:
'ODO EPISCOPVS. WILLELM. ROTBERTVS.'
A figure carrying a pennon then appears giving orders that the army should
encamp at Hastings:
'ISTE IVSSIT VT FODERETVR CASTELLVM AT HESTENGA.'
The camp forming:
William appears directing the building of a castle. The news is then brought to William that Harold is advancing to oppose the Normans; William on a raised seat:
'HIC NVNTIATVM EST WILLELMO DE HAROLD.'
Two Normans setting fire to a house; a woman and child escaping from it:
'HIC DOMVS INCENDITVR.'
The soldiers of William leave Hastings to meet Harold in the field; and the duke now, for the first time since his arrival, appears in armour: the march of the horsemen:
'HIC MILITES EXIERVNT DE HESTENGA ET VENERVNT AD PRELIVM CONTRA HAROLDVM REGEM.'
Odo is represented bearing a mace, but preceded by William on horseback with a club, who interrogates Vitalis, an individual of his army, also on horseback, whether he has seen Harold's forces:
'WILLELM DVX INTBEROGAT VITAL, SI VIDISSET EXERCITVM HAROLDI.'
Harold also receives information relative to William's force:
'ISTE NVNTIAT HAROLDVM DE EXERCITV WILLELMI DVCIS.'
William then addresses his soldiers, who are proceeding onward to the battle:
HIC WILLELM DVX ALLOQVITVR SVIS MILITIBVS VT PREPARARENT SE VIRILITER ET SAPIENTER AD PRELIVM CONTRA ANGLORVM EXERCITVM.'
The Normans approach, mostly on horseback, but intermixed with archers on foot. The battle now ensues, in which the Saxons are chiefly on foot, their shields distinguished from those of the Normans by being usually round with a boss in the centre. Lewine and Gyrth, the brothers of Harold, are slain:
'HIC CECIDERVNT LEWINE ET GYRTH FRATRES HAROLDI REGIS.'
The obstinacy of the contest is next represented:
'HIC CECIDERVNT SIMVL ANGLI ET FRANCI IN PRELIO.'
Odo is now represented charging full speed and striking at a horseman with a club or mace:
'HIC ODO EPISCOPVS BACVLVM TENENS CONFORTAT PVEROS.'
This probably means that Odo had to encourage the troops, upon a report that William was slain. The battle continues:
'HIC EST WILLELM DVX.'
The duke appears showing himself and giving orders:
'HIC FRANCI PVQNANT ET CECIDERVNT QVI ERANT CVM HAROLDO.'
The death of Harold, the standard carried before whom appears to be a dragon.
We have then the discomfiture and flight of the Saxons. Here the tapestry ends
with figures of persons retreating in great haste; not complete in its ornamental
work, but, in all probability, complete in its history.
This extraordinary piece of needle-work, for such it is, though called tapestry, is now preserved in the hotel of the prefecture at Bayeux, coiled round a machine, like that which lets down the buckets of a well, and is exhibited by being drawn out at leisure over a table. The plates of it, published by the Society of Antiquaries, in the fourth volume of the Vetusta Monumenta, will enable any one to form a very accurate notion of its actual appearance. Plates i. to xvi. represent the whole, one-fourth size of the original. The xviith plate gives a portion of the true size. Dibdin, in his Bibliographical Tour, vol. i. p. 377, has engraved a view of it upon its machine.
It was long since decided by the French antiquaries, that this work is of the age of the Conquest The Abbe de la Rue, alone, still maintains that it was executed in the time of our Henry the First. Those persons, however, among the English antiquaries, whose particular learning and knowledge render them competent judges of the authenticity of this tapestry, unite in the conviction that its own internal evidence corroborates the antient tradition which the French antiquaries adopted. It represents the minutest manners and customs of the earliest Norman times in England; and was evidently designed while the particulars of the contest were known and fresh in recollection. It embraces several events of which no other record now exists: amongst which may be noticed the taking of Dinant, and the war between the Duke of Normandy and Conan Earl of Bretagne. Nor does any other notice exist of the service rendered by Harold to duke William, during his war in Britany. It is not a little remarkable too, that in the compartment which represents the funeral procession of Edward the Confessor, a figure is portrayed placing a weathercock upon the spire of Westminster abbey: indicating that the building was scarcely finished at the time of his decease. Ducarel, as we have already mentioned, says, that this tapestry, when exhibited at Bayeux, went exactly round the nave of the church.
Odo, it is to be remarked, makes the most conspicuous appearance, next to Duke William, of any Norman personage represented in the tapestry; and three figures, Wadard, Turold, and Vital, apparently unimportant personages, were really among the chief of those whom Odo brought into the field. Wadard and Vitalis, with the son of a person named Turold, are recorded, twenty years after the conquest, among the under-tenants of Odo, as persons rewarded with lands, in the Domesday Survey. Wadard held property under the bishop in no fewer than six counties; Vitalis held lands under Odo in Kent; and the son of Turold in Essex. (Ellis's Introduction and Indices to Domesday, vol. ii. p. 403.) These circumstances cannot but appear convincing, not only that the tapestry is of the age assigned to it by tradition, and was worked expressly for the bishop's cathedral; but that, in all probability, it was a present from Matilda the conqueror's queen, as a grateful memorial of the effective service which Odo had rendered in the conquest.