The Gentleman's Magazine,
Volume 11, 1839

THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY.[1]

MR. CORNEY begins his objections to the received accounts of the antiquity of the Bayeux Tapestry at the fountain head, and cites the first record of its existence in 1476, which occurs in an inventory of the jewels, ornaments, cloths, books, and other goods belonging at that period to the church of our Lady at Bayeux, and which is silent in ascribing the "tente du conquest d'Angleterre" to the needle of the Conqueror's queen Matilda, "dear as the memory of those illustrious personages must have been to the church and people of Normandy. On the other hand, it must be allowed" that this is little more than a negative auxiliary to Mr. Corney's doubts, however particular the inventory may be in describing the articles to which it refers. He next proceeds to show that the first mention of the Bayeux Tapestry in modern times is by Montfaucon about the year 1730, who states that the current opinion at Bayeux was that Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror, had caused it to be made, and adds that this opinion, which passes for a tradition in the country, has nothing but probability for its support. Mr. Lancelot, a contemporary antiquary, says that the tradition which had given to this monument the appellation of the Conqueror's toilette,[2] "toilette du Due Guillaume," will also have it that Matilda or Maud of Flanders, Queen of England, and Duchess of Normandy, wife of that prince, had worked it herself with her ladies. A story never loses in its transmission. Sir Joseph Ayloffe, in 1770, consolidates the above accounts, and gives them the air of authentic history. The conquest of England by William the Norman was by command of Queen Matilda represented in painting and afterwards by her own hands, and the assistance of the ladies of her court, worked in arras, and presented to the Cathedral at Bayeux, where it is still preserved. Mr. Corney, we allow, has fully succeeded in shewing that on tradition alone rests the appropriation of the embroidery of the Tapestry to Queen Matilda and her ladies; indeed the coarse and grotesque character of some of the subjects which adorn the border of the work have always made us doubtful of the literal truth of the assertion; but, although the personal operation of Queen Matilda and her court ladies in embroidering this important relic be given up, we can by no means hastily follow Mr. Corney to the conclusion that it might not be her gift to the church, and above all that it is not of the age contemporary with William the Conqueror. Mr. Corney thus proceeds :—

The rejection of the tradition is no denial of the antiquity of the Tapestry, and we may therefore advert to the question of its internal evidence. Mr. Lancelot pronounced it to be coeval with the conquest, before he was aware of the tradition: 'Habits, armes, caracteres de lettres, ornemens, gout dans les figures representees, tout,' says that experienced antiquary, 'sent le siecle de Guillaume le Conquerant ou celui de ses enfans.'

"Mr. Hudson Gurney, Mr. Stothard, and M. Delauney, have expressed similar opinions. This point requires consideration; propriety of costume it not always decisive of the coeval execution of a monument."

We pause at this axiom of Mr. Corney's, nor suffer ourselves to be influenced by the comprehensive and decisive terms in which it is expressed, because we cannot but be conscious of the fact, that the sculptors, painters, illuminators, embroiderers, enchasers, and all other artists of the chivalric age, adopted throughout their works the habits of the times in which they themselves flourished; following, in short, the practice of our players at a much later date, who dressed Cato in a full bottomed wig and flowered gown, and placed him in a large arm chair; Macbeth wore a cocked hat, scarlet coat, waistcoat and bag wig; and King John figured in a full court suit of green velvet and gold. Just so with the old illuminators: had they to represent Alexander overcoming Darius, David playing on his harp, or the shepherds keeping watch on the eve of the Nativity ; the characters all assumed the costume in common use at the time the delineations were executed. The same rule applies to all the adjuncts of such representations, as architecture, furniture, weapons, armour, decorative ornaments, &c. and these data are so certainly indicative of the period of any particular work of art in the middle age, that we think we safely challenge Mr. Corney to produce a single exception to the contrary. Singular indeed would it be if that exception should be found in a monument so early as the Bayeux Tapestry. Now let any one examine the conical helmets with nasal pieces,—the half Roman costume of the figures,—the lingettes or bandages with which their legs are swathed,—the kite-shaped shields,—the castles on high raised mounts,—the antique, nay almost Roman form of the galleys which convey the troops,—the mode of cookery in the camp-kitchen, &c. and other striking minutiae apparent in that remarkable pictorial record—and he will not, if he have the eye of a practical antiquary, hesitate one moment to pronounce it to be of a period closely connected with the event which it pourtrays. Mr. Corney lays some stress on the alleged circumstance that the letters of the inscription on the Bayeux Tapestry are unlike those in the seals of our Kings of the Norman line; but which perfectly, he says, resemble those on the various Norman seals of the 13th century. Now this assertion should in our opinion be transposed, for not only do the letters on the Tapestry resemble those on the seals of the early Norman period of our monarchy, but they conform in a still more remarkable manner with those of the inscription on the tomb of Queen Matilda herself, the reputed donor of the Tapestry, still extant at Caen in Normandy.[3]

Mr. Corney finds an objection in the circumstance that the Normans are called Franci in the embroidered relic; but we suggest that Nova Franca was a very early appellation of Neustria or Normandy, and that the term Franci was the general appellation of the inhabitants of the Gallic territory after the reign of Charlemagne. Moreover, how has the fact escaped the observation of Mr. Corney, that the Conqueror addressed his Charters relating to English affairs, "tam Francis quam Anglis."

We cannot refrain from pointing out to our author's attentive consideration the remarks of the late Mr. C. Stothard, with us of great authority, on the antiquity of the Bayeux Tapestry; he says in the paper on that subject communicated to the late Samuel Lysons, esq. and printed in the 19th volume of the Archaeologia of the Society of Antiquaries:—

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 he 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 he 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 the whole of their heads, excepting a portion of hair left in front. It is from the striking contrasts 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 peussent.'
Roman de Rou, f. 233."

How are we to reconcile these facts with a conjecture that the Tapestry might have been executed in the time of Henry I. when we are well assured that during the reign of that King the hair was worn go long that it excited the anathemas of the church. There are many examples 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 ribands, 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 I. and his Queen on a portal of Rochester cathedral.[4] 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 12th 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. 'Tunc fluxus crinium, tunc luxus vestium, tunc usus calceorum, cum arcuatis aculeis inventus. Mollitie corporis certare cum foeminis, gressum frangere gestu soluto et latere nudo incedere adolescentium specimen erat.'[5]

There are besides numerous little incidents alluded to in the Bayeux Tapestry which have found no place in the page of history, and which seem to have been derived from the current relation of persons present in Duke William's army, on which Mr. Stothard acutely observes :—

"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 tide, but with the Normans we are informed 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 it 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."

To which we add that Wadard was no fictitious character, is shewn by Domesday book, as he shared in the spoils of the Norman expedition, and had half a plough-land assigned to him by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, at Farningham, in Kent, the manor of Maplescamp, &c.[6] So Wadard was probably well known to the Bajocassians, and his share in the exploit would be remembered when on high festival days the canons of Bayeux displayed the long extended toilette round the choir of their church. The same identity may be also claimed for all other minor actors in this military drama; but surely such minute traits had been entirely lost if the Tapestry had been executed "after the union of Normandy with France in 1204, at the expense of the chapter of Bayeux."[7] These names do not indeed escape the notice of Mr. Corney, although he does not through them arrive at the same obvious conclusion. Elfgiva represented in the Tapestry is considered by Mr. Corney as Adeliza, the daughter of the Conqueror, whom he promised in marriage to Harold, Elfgyva being merely a titular adjunct to her name. But what is the import of "unus clericus cum AElfgyva," which occurs in the inscription in the Tapestry? Here appears to be record of another circumstance lost to general history. Does the clericus or priest attend to receive the plighted troth between Harold and Adeliza Elfgyva, so to term her ? At the time the Tapestry was formed doubtless this obscure allusion needed no commentary.[8]

It would occupy too much space, and is unnecessary for us to take into consideration the statements of the ancient writers, whose names in goodly array are drawn up to make demonstration of support in the margin of Mr. Corney's tract. The slight discrepancies which may be found in the Tapestry, with any of these authorities, serve rather to confirm its pretensions, and to shew that it was at once a coeval and ordinal record. The few Saxonisms which the Tapestry contains, present in our view no difficulty. When the Franci, or French and Norman followers of the Conqueror, for his army was composed of both, obtained by large grants so much local interest in the Anglo-Saxon soil, it appears to us nothing wonderful that Hastings should be denoted in the Tapestry by its Saxon appellation Hastinga Ceastre. Nor is it extraordinary that the Princess betrothed to Harold should have acquired at the time of that transaction the honourable appellation of AElfgyva. Mr. Corney, to account for these circumstances, asserts that the Saxon language prevailed at Bayeux, where traces of it are still discoverable; this we take to be a real "curiosity of literature," greater than any D'Israeli has culled, or our author tracking the compiler through his authorities, illustrated by his critical castigations. The Anglo-Saxon emigrants to Bayeux turned the tables upon the invaders of their soil, if the above assertion be correct, for the latter partly succeeded in substituting the Norman French for the vernacular language of the Saxon realm. The Saxons imposed their tongue on an important city of the country of their victors.[9]

On the whole consideration of the matter, we cannot but express our firm conviction that the Bayeux Tapestry is of a period contemporaneous with the Norman Conqueror; it is the most extraordinary historical monument which the casualties of time have suffered to descend, with so little injury, to our present day; and it redounds greatly to the honour of the Society of Antiquaries of London that they should have procured it to be delineated by the accurate pencil of C. Stothard, and thus secured for it further permanence and extended publicity. In thus recording our dissent from Mr. Corney's opinion we would by no means undervalue the talent and research he has displayed in the essay before us. It is by inquiry, conducted in this way, that important truths are often elicited, errors corrected, or historical relations irrefragably confirmed.

We ourselves are much disposed to think, that Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, (whom our author, with two nice attention to French euphony, constantly styles Odon) superintended the work of the Tapestry, as a glorious record to decorate his Cathedral Church, of that expedition in which he bore a prominent part, and in the spoils of which he largely shared. He might employ some Saxon scribe and illuminator, the professions were usually associated, to design the Tapestry, and arrange under his direction the subjects and inscriptions; a circumstance which would readily account for the Saxonisms to which we have alluded. Matilda, the Queen, might have especially aided and patronised the costly undertaking.

It is no evidence, as Mr. Corney thinks it maybe, against the antiquity of the Tapestry, that there are, in its ornamental border, some allusions to the Fables of Aesop, but on the contrary another confirmation of its age. A capital of the earliest portion of Westminster Hall, constructed in the eleventh century, was discovered during the late repairs, adorned with a subject from one of Aesop's Tales.[10]

Mr. Corney has as much gratified us in the progress of his arguments as a skilful advocate in a doubtful cause might in marshalling his witnesses and summing up their evidence with ingenious deductions; but we cannot for a moment listen to that gentleman's "new conjecture," that the Tapestry was executed after the union of Normandy with France, at the commencement of the thirteenth century, because the internal testimony of the relic itself, at every point, rebuts the proposition. Indeed he recommends the whole of this momentous query to be referred to a jury of antiquaries composed of Messrs. Amyot, Kempe, Sir H. Ellis, Sir F. Madden, Sir S. R. Meyrick, with M. Floquet of Rouen, as "correspondent pour l'ancienne province de Normandie." For the opinion of one individual of this panel we think we can vouch that it will be agreeable to our present decision, and we close our remarks with the converse of the proposition to which we have before alluded, not hesitating to affirm "that propriety of costume is always (in works of the middle age) decisive of the coeval execution of a monument."

Footnotes.

[1] Researches and Conjectures on the Bayeux Tapestry, by Bolton Corney, Esq. F.S.A. 12mo. 1838.

[2] This appellation must be taken in the sense of a diminutive of toile, a cloth or hanging, toilette, a little cloth, &c. the Bayeux Tapestry being a very narrow strip of drapery; its length is 227 feet, but its breadth only 20 inches. See it described in Mrs. Bray's Tour in Normandy, Brittany, &c. p. 122.

[3] See it engraved in the Introduction to Stothard's Monumental Effigies.

[4] These curious figures are engraved in Gent. Mag. for April 1838, from C. Stothard s original drawings, and are accompanied by an interesting dissertation by J. G. Nichols, Esq. F.S.A. on the introduction of figures as columns by the architects of the twelfth century.

[5] probably Eastern customs introduced by the crusaders. The naked side is still we know a Persian peculiarity.

[6] Vide Domesday book, in Chenth, p. 6.

[7] Mr Amyot has very pertinently observed, Archaeologia, vol. XIX. p. 204, that "a tenant named Vitalis, probably the person described under the appellation of Vital, in the Tapestry,appears in Domesday to have held land under Odo, in Kent, and the son of a person named Turold, is found among the under tenants of that prelate in Essex. If these explanations be admitted, Wadard, Vital and Turold, three obscure personages, whose appearance in the tapestry is otherwise accounted for, appear to have owed that distinction to their being followers of Odo, and thus the connexion of the Tapestry with Odo ascertains its age."

[8] It may be convenient to such of our readers as may turn their attention to Mr. Corney's remarks, as a matter of historical reference, to set down the whole of the running inscriptions as they stand in Roman characters over the subjects represented in the Bayeux Tapestry. "Edward Rex—Hic Harold, Dux Anglorum, et sui milites equitant ad Bosham—Ecclesia—Hic Harold mare navigavit et velis vento plenis venit in terra Widonis Comitis—Hic apprehendit Wido Haroldum, et duxit eum ad Belrem et ibi eum tenuit—Ubi Harold et Wido parabolant—Ubi nuntii Willelmi Ducis venerunt ad Widonem—nuntii Willelmi—Turold—Hic venit Nuntius ad Wilgelmum Ducem—Hic Wido adduxit Haroldum ad Wilgelmum Normannorum Ducem—Hic Dux Wilgelm cum Haroldo venit ad palatium suum.—Ubi unus clericus et Alfgyva.—Hic Willelm Dux et exercitus ejus venerunt ad montem Michaelis—Et Hic transierunt flumen Cosnonis— et Conan fuga vertit. Hic Harold Dux trahebat eos de arena—Et venerunt ad Dol Rednes.—Hic milites Willelmi Ducis pugnant contra Dinantes, et Conan claves porrexit.—Hic Willelm dedit Haroldo arma—Hic Willelm venit Bagias—Ubi Harold sacramentum fecit Willelmo Duci—Hic Harold Dux reversus est ad Anglicam terrain et venit ad Edwardum Regem—Hic portatur corpus Edwardi Regis ad ecclesiam Sancti Petri Apostoli—Hic Edwardus Rex in lecto alloquitur fideles et Hic defunctus est.—Hic dederunt Haroldo coronam regis—Hic residet Harold Rex Anglorum—Stigant Archiepiscopus—Isti mirant Stella.—Harold.—Hic navis Anglica venit in terram Willelmi Ducis—Hic Willelm Dux jussit naves edificare—Hic trahunt naves ad mare—Isti portant arma ad naves—et Hic trahunt carrum cum vino et armis—Hic Willelm Dux in magno navigio mare transivit et venit ad Pevensae—Hic exeunt caballi e navibus et Hic milites festinaverunt Hastings ut cibum raperentur—Hic est Wadard Hic coquitur caro. et Hic ministraverunt ministri—Hic fecerunt prandium et Hic Episcopus cibum et potum benedixit. Odo Ep's Willelm. Robert. Iste jussit ut foderetur castellum at Hestenga-ceastre—Hic nuntiatum est Willelm de Harold. Hic domus incenditur—Hic milites exierunt de Hestenga et venerunt ad prelium contra Haroldum Regem—Hic Willelm Dux interrogat Vital si vidisset exercitum Haroldi—Isti nuntiant ad Haroldum Regem de exercitu Willelmi Ducis—Hic Willelm Dux alloquitur suis militibus ut prepararent se viriliter et sapienter ad prelium contra Anglorum exercitu. Hic ceciderunt Lewine et Gyrth fratres Haroldi Regis—Hic ceciderunt simul Angli et Franci in prelio—Hic Odo Episcopus baculum tenens confortat pueros—Hic est Dux Willelm—Eustatius—Hic Franci pugnant et ceciderunt qui erant cum Haroldo. Hic Harold Rex interfectus est et fuga verteruntur Angli."

[9] The sole authority for Mr. Corney's assertion is we believe a writer of the twelfth century, who states that a knowledge of the Danish language, which the Normans had originally spoken, was preserved at Bayeux, and scarcely any where else in Normandy in the eleventh century, now the well-known affinity which the northern dialects have for the Anglo-Saxon, might have led, we think, to a much sounder deduction.

[10] This capital has been engraved by the Society of Antiquaries in a recent volume of the Archaeologia, and is one more proof of the expediency of collecting tangible relics in illustration of history. Where drawings of these are accurately made, they become of the highest importance. Loose and imperfect sketches either convey no information, or tend to mislead.

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