Memoirs, including original journals, letters, papers, and antiquarian ...
By Anna Eliza Kempe Stothard Bray (Mrs. E. A. Bray.) 1823

C. A. Stothard.

In the beginning of the year 1819, Charles laid before the Society of Antiquaries, the complete series of drawings he had made from the Bayeux tapestry, accompanied with a paper on the subject of its antiquity, in which he proved from internal evidence that the tapestry was really a work coeval with the time of the conquest, to which it had been assigned by tradition. This essay was printed in the nineteenth volume of the Archaeologia, and considered a satisfactory refutation of the opinion of the Abbe de la Rue, who had attempted to prove the tapestry to be a work of the time of Henry I.

On the second of the following July, my husband was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, without a single dissentient voice; his name being proposed by Mr. S. Lysons. This was the last act of friendship Charles received from that gentleman. A few weeks after he quitted town on some business relating to the Magna Britannia, never to return. Mr. Lysons was seized with his mortal illness so suddenly, that he expired at an inn in the country, I believe but a few hours after the arrival of his brother and a friend. It is remarkable that Mr. Richard Smirke had also died suddenly at an inn in Cumberland whilst engaged on making drawings for the same work. Charles received the painful news of Mr. Lysons's death with the sincerest regret, and always felt that veneration for his memory he so truly deserved. I shall here insert the paper on the Bayeux tapestry, written by my husband.

Some Observations on the Bayeux Tapestry. Communicated to the Society of Antiquaries by Mr. Charles Stothard, F.S.A. in a letter addressed to Samuel Lysons, Esq. V.P. F.R.S. [From the Archaeologia, vol. xix.]

Dear Sir,

On finishing and delivering to the Society of Antiquaries the drawings which complete the series from the Bayeux Tapestry, I think it necessary to address you on the subject, for the purpose of stating what licences I may have thought proper to take in the discharge of my commission, and at the same time to point out such circumstances as have presented themselves to my notice, during the minute investigation in which I have been necessarily engaged. I shall beg leave to offer with the latter, such comments as I have made, hoping if I have produced nothing that will lead to just conclusions on the age of the tapestry, I shall at least have furnished some useful materials for others. I believe in a former paper I observed that the work in some parts of the tapestry was destroyed, but more particularly where the subject draws towards a conclusion. The traces of the design only existing by means of the holes where the needle had passed. On attentively examining the traces thus left, I found that in many places, minute particles of the different coloured threads were still retained; a circumstance which suggested to me the possibility of making extensive restorations. I accordingly commenced on a small portion, and found it attended with so much practicability as well as certainty, that I believed I should be fully justified in attempting to restore the whole; more especially when I reflected that in the course of a few years, the means of accomplishing it would no longer exist. I have succeeded in restoring nearly all of what was defaced. Such parts as I have left as traced by the needle, either afforded no vestiges of what the colours were, or such as were too vague in their situation to be depended on. On a comparison with the print in Montfaucon's work, (if that be correct) it appears that this part of the tapestry has suffered much injury even since his time. The restorations that I have made, commence on the lower border with the first of the archers. Of these figures I found scarcely one whose colours of any kind remained perfect. In the upper border and historical part, the restorations begin a little after, with the Saxons, under the word, "ceciderunt." From the circumstance of the border being worked down the side, at the commencement of the tapestry, it is evident that no part of the subject is wanting; but the work in many places is defaced, and these parts have been restored in the same manner as at the end; but the last horsemen attendant on Harold in his route to Bosham, have been partly torn away so as to divide them. The two fragments were ignorantly sewed together. This in the drawing has been rectified, and shews the portion wanting. In that part of the battle between William and Harold, where the former is pulling off his helmet, to shew himself to his soldiers, under the words "Hic est Dux Wilelm" there is on his left hand a figure with outstretched arms, bearing a standard; above which, a part of the tapestry has been torn away, and only the two last letters VS of an inscription apparently remaining. On carefully examining the torn and ragged edges, which had been doubled under and sewed down, I discovered three other letters, the first of the inscription an E, and T I, preceding V S, a space remaining in the middle but for four letters, the number being confirmed by the alternations of green and buff, in the colours of the letters remaining. I therefore conjecture that the letters as they now stand may be read Eustatius, and that the person bearing the standard beneath is intended for Eustace Earl of Boulogne, who I believe was a principal commander in the army of William. By a similar examination of the end of the tapestry, which was a mass of rags, I was fortunate in discovering a figure on horseback, with some objects in the lower border. These are additional discoveries not to be found in Montfaucon's print. The figure of the horseman certainly decides the question, that the pursuit of the flying Saxons is not ended where the tapestry so unfortunately breaks off.

Before I proceed to state my remarks, I must urge a point, which cannot sufficiently be insisted upon, that it was the invariable practice, with artists in every country, excepting Italy, during the middle ages, whatever subject they took in hand, to represent it according to the manners and customs of their own time. Thus we may see Alexander the Great, like a good Catholic, interred with all the rites and ceremonies of the Romish Church. All the illuminated transcripts of Froissart, although executed not more than fifty years after the original work was finished, are less valuable on account of the illuminations they contain not being accordant with the text, but representing the customs of the fifteenth century instead of the fourteenth. It is not likely that, in an age far less refined, this practice should be departed from. The tapestry, therefore, must be regarded as a true picture of the time when it was executed.

In the commencement of the tapestry, it is necessary to observe, that the Saxons appear with long mustachios extending on each side the upper lip, which continues with some exceptions (the result perhaps rather of neglect than intention) throughout the whole work. But in no instance but one, I believe, is this distinction to be found on the side of the Normans. This exception occurs in the face of one of the cooks, preparing the dinner for the Norman army after their landing in England. It may be also remarked in various places, that the beard is another peculiarity common to the Saxons; it may be seen in the person of Edward the Confessor, and, several times represented amongst the Saxon warriors. It is rarely to be observed among the Normans, and is then chiefly confined to the lower orders. It does not appear probable that the above noticed distinctions existed after the Conquest among the Saxons.

On coming to that part of the tapestry where Harold is prisoner in the hands of Guy Earl of Ponthieu, a most singular custom first presents itself in the persons of Duke William, Guy, and their people: not only are their upper lips shaven, but nearly the whole of their heads, excepting a portion of hair left in front. It is from the striking contrast which these figures form with the messenger who is crouching before William, that it is evident he is a Saxon, and probably dispatched from Harold.

It is a curious circumstance in favour of the great antiquity of the tapestry, that time has I believe handed down to us, no other representation of this most singular fashion, and it appears to throw a new light on a fact, which has perhaps been misunderstood: the report made by Harold's spies, that the Normans were an army of priests, is well known. I should conjecture, from what appears in the tapestry, that their resemblance to priests did not so much arise from the upper lip being shaven, as from the circumstance of the complete tonsure of the back part of the head.

The following passage seems to confirm this conjecture, and at the same time to prove the truth of the tapestry.

"Un des Engles qui ot veus,
Tos les Normans res et tondus,
Cuida que tot provoire feussent
Et que messes canter puessent."

Le Roman du Rou, fol. 232.

How are we to reconcile these facts with a conjecture that the tapestry might have been executed in the time of Henry the First, when we are well assured that during the reign of that king the hair was worn so long, that it excited the anethemas of the church? There are many examples of sculpture on the continent, which exhibit the extravagant fashions of that time. The men are represented with long hair, falling below their shoulders; the women with two locks, plaited or bound with ribbands, and falling over each shoulder in front, frequently reaching below their knees. The only examples I believe of this kind, that can be cited in England, are the figures of Henry the First and his queen on a portal of Rochester cathedral. It may be asked at what period these fashions arose. From the violent censures which teemed throughout England and France in reprobation of them at the beginning of the twelfth century, it is not probable they had been then long established with the people. — A passage in William of Malmesbury, indicates that these fashions sprung up with some others during the reign of William Rufus. "Tune fluxus crinium, tune luxus vestium, tune usus calceorum cum Arcuatis aculeis inventus. Mollitie corporis, certare cum foeminis, gressum frangere gestu soluto, et latere nudo incedere, Adolescentium specimen erat." [Edit. 1596. fol. 69, b.]

The figures on horseback where Harold is seized on his landing in the territory of Wido, bear on their shields various devices, but none which may properly be termed heraldic. Neither here nor in any other part of the Tapestry is a lion, fess, chevron, or other heraldic figure to be found; they are almost entirely confined to dragons, crosses, and spots. Nor do we find any particular or distinguished person twice bearing the same device. The pennons attached to the lances of the Normans are similarly ornamented, with this exception, that they bear no animals.

It is not easy to fix the time when heraldic bearings assumed a more decided character than in the Tapestry; but there appears to exist some proof that heraldic bearings were used in the time of Henry the First. John, a monk of Marmoustier in Touraine, who was living in the time of Geoffrey Plantagenet, on that prince's marriage with Matilda, the daughter of Henry the First, at Mans, describes him previous to his being knighted as having put on him a hauberk and stockings wrought with double mailles, golden spurs fastened to his feet, a shield emblazoned with little golden lions hung about his neck, and a helmet glittering with precious stones on his head. The only representation of Geoffrey Plantagenet, I believe, known to exist, is upon a beautifully enamelled tablet of copper, which depicts him bearing an immense shield emblazoned with golden lions on a field azure. The number of the lions is not certain, as but one half the shield is seen, yet it seems probable there were six, 3, 2, and 1, as we find his bastard grandson, William Longespee, on his tomb in Salisbury cathedral, bearing on his shield in a field azure six lions Or, or 3, 2, and 1.

The beautiful memorial of Geoffrey Plantagenet here alluded to, (a drawing of which is now exhibited) formerly hung in the church of St. Julien at Mans, but disappeared during the revolution. It has, however, been lately saved from the melting pot, to which the unsparing hands of the revolutionists had consigned it, and is now preserved in the public Museum of that town. Geoffrey Plantagenet died in 1150, and there can be little doubt from the style in which it is executed, that this memorial is of that date. A similar enamelled tablet, representing Ulger Bishop of Angers, who died in 1149, formerly hung over his tomb in the church of St. Maurice at Angers, but was destroyed during the revolution.

Under the words Ubi Harold et Wido parabolant, the figure holding by the column on the left of Wido, from his antic action, and the singularity of his costume, I imagine is intended to represent a fool or jester, attendant on Guy Earl of Ponthieu.

There are only three female figures represented in the whole of the Tapestry, AElfgyva, Editha the queen of Edward the Confessor, who is weeping by the death-bed of the king, and a female flying from a house which is on fire. These females, by the manner in which their hair is invariably concealed, bear a strong resemblance to the delineations of women to be found in our Saxon MSS.

The armour represented is entirely different in its form from all other examples: instead of the hauberk being like a shirt, open at the bottom, it is continued as breeches, reaching to the knees; the sleeves are short. Formed thus, it does not appear how it is to be put on, but it seems probable from some contrivance of rings and straps, which are represented on the breast, in many instances, that there was an opening at the collar sufficiently large for the legs to enter previously to the arms being put into the sleeves. There is an apparent confirmation of this conjecture in that part where William is giving armour to Harold: the former is represented with his left hand putting the helmet on the head of the latter, and with his right hand apparently fastening a strap, which is drawn through the rings on the breast of Harold. The armour of William is fastened in the same manner. In general the legs are bound with bands of different colours, but in some instances they appear covered with mail, and when this is the case it is only found to be so on the legs of the most distinguished characters, as William, Odo, Eustatius, &c.

It is remarkable, that a principal weapon used in the Norman as well as the Saxon army, resembles a lance in its length, but is thrown as a javelin or dart. This is the only manner in which it is used by the Saxon soldiers, and there are two instances of Saxons being armed with three or four of these weapons. The Normans not only appear to use them in this manner, but also as lances, and always so when the pennon or small flag is attached. I believe examples of this sort of weapon are very rarely if at all to be seen long after the Conquest.

The Saxons are invariably represented as fighting on foot, and when not using missiles are generally armed with axes; their shields are many of them round, with a boss in the centre, as in the Saxon MSS., and in no instance do we find a Norman bearing a shield of this form. These three last mentioned circumstances are, I think, strong arguments in favour of the opinion that the Tapestry is of the time of the Conquest.

A single character in some parts of the Tapestry is so often repeated, almost in the same place, and within so small a space, that the subject becomes confused; there is an example of this in the deaths of Lewine and Gyrth, the brothers of Harold; and another instance, better defined, in the death of Harold, who appears first fighting by his standard-bearer, afterwards where he is struck by the arrow in his eye, and lastly where he has fallen, and the soldier is represented wounding him in the thigh.

The supposition that Taillefer is depicted throwing up his sword is a mistake so evident, that the slightest observation of the Tapestry must correct. The weapon in the air is clearly a mace: this may be proved by comparing it with the weapons in the hands of the three last figures at the end of the Tapestry.

In the Tapestry there is no attempt at light and shade, or perspective, the want of which is substituted by the use of different coloured worsteds. We observe this in the off legs of the horses, which are distinguished alone from the near legs by being of different colours. The horses, the hair, and mustachios, as well as the eyes and features of the characters, are depicted with all the various colours of green, blue, red, &c. according to the taste or caprice of the artist. This may be easily accounted for, when we consider how few colours composed their materials.

That whoever designed this historical record was intimately acquainted with what was passing on the Norman side, is evidently proved by that minute attention to familiar and local circumstances evinced in introducing, solely in the Norman party, characters certainly not essential to the great events connected with the story of the work; a circumstance we do not find on the Saxon side. But with the Normans we are informed that Turold, an individual of no historical note, held the horses of William's messengers, by the bare mention of his name. And again, the words, "Here is Wadard" are simply written, without more explanation. Who Wadard might have been, history does not record; we must therefore conclude he was a character too well known to those persons acquainted with what was passing in the army of William to need any amplification to point out his rank, but not of sufficient importance to be recorded in history. The same application may be made in regard to Vital, whom William interrogates concerning the army of Harold.

The interesting subject of these remarks has induced me to extend them beyond my first intention. I trust this will plead my excuse for having so long trespassed upon your time. I have the honour to be,

Dear Sir, very respectfully yours,

C. A. Stothard. To Samuel Lysons, Esq. F. R. S. &c.

Return to Main Index