The Gentleman's magazine and historical review
Volume 44, 1856


The Bayeux Tapestry elucidated. By Rev. John Collingwood Bruce, LL.D. F.S.A. &c.
4to. Plates printed in colours.

The Bayeux Tapestry is an art monument of extraordinary value. Regarded as an effort of the needle, it is a work of skill and perseverance such aa probably has seldom been surpassed, and such as was scarcely ever preserved for so long a period of time. As a record of costume and, in a certain degree, of architecture and the arts of life, as well as of the affairs of war, it has the advantages of colour and distinctness of outline, if not of the highest powers of design. But it is also to be esteemed in the light of a pictorial chronicle, affording historical information independent of any that is now extant in written chronicles. Dr. Bruce has taken it up in this light, and reads us the story of the Norman invasion and conquest of England from the roll of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Dr. Bruce remarks: "When the Society of Antiquaries published the beautiful copy of the Bayeux Tapestry made, at their request, by Mr. Charles Stothard, they testified the importance which they attached to the document. As yet they have published no explanation of it. The world still expects it at their hands."

Now this representation is not exactly just. It is true that no letterpress was published to accompany Mr. C. A. Stothard's plates of the Bayeux Tapestry; but we do not see that, under the circumstances, its absence was much to be lamented. The fate of descriptions accompanying portfolios of prints is usually to remain unread. The mere bodily toil of perusing a great and ponderous folio deters the student: and we could name many excellent dissertations and compilations that are in effect lost from that very cause. The contents of the Vetusta Monumenta fall under this prohibition; and, among the rest, one of its last articles, a valuable memoir on the ancient productions of fine art in this country, compiled by Mr. Gage Rokewode in illustration of the remains discovered in the old palace of Westminster, has, we imagine, been little read or appreciated. We are also reminded by association of ideas of some interesting information of like character contained in Sir Jeffrey Wyatville's great folio on Windsor Castle. But to return to the Bayeux Tapestry: we submit that it has been anything but neglected by the Society of Antiquaries of London. It was a Fellow of the Society, Mr. Smart Lethieullier, who wrote the first English memoir upon it, founded upon those by Lancelot and Montfaucon. This was printed by Dr. Ducarel in his Antiquities of Normandy; and describes the whole roll, step by step, in the same way as Dr. Bruce has done in the volume before us. Then, in the 17th volume of their Archaeologia, the Society published the essay on the tapestry written by the Abbe de la Rue. In the 18th they printed the remarks of Mr. Hudson Gurney: to which is appended a catalogue of all the subjects or compartments of the roll, with copies of their inscriptions. In the 19th volume of the Archaeologia follow some historical remarks upon the more difficult parts of the subject, written by the late Mr. Amyot, and the valuable observations of Mr. C. A. Stothard. These papers, and particularly that of Mr. Hudson Gurney, supply to the Fellows of the Society, and to every one who has access to the Archaeologia as well as Stothard's engravings, all the explanations that can be required, except in some few obscure points that are still open to criticism, and upon which it is difficult to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

Dr. Bruce's attention to the Bayeux Tapestry originated, it appears, in a holiday ramble in Normandy, and he was induced to pursue the subject for the amusement and instruction of his pupils and friends in some popular lectures, to a portion of which we remember listening with great pleasure at one of the meetings of the Archaeological Institute. By the present volume we have no doubt that he will also convey much gratification to many who have heretofore been strangers to the wonders of this historic scroll, and that he will help to popularise a subject with which our countrymen and countrywomen ought to be better acquainted than they are. But we cannot think, viewing the book more critically, that it will materially add to the reputation which Dr. Bruce has so deservedly attained as a professor of Roman antiquities. The engravings of the Bayeux Tapestry by C. A. Stothard are remarkable, like everything he did, for their minute fidelity and accuracy. Dr. Bruce's plates (except his frontispiece, which is of the original size) are upon a very reduced scale, and, though they have the advantage of being printed in colours, are in accuracy of drawing inferior to some copies which have been recently published on a still smaller scale in Mr. Murray's Handbook to the Arts of the Middle Ages. We cannot but regret that when it was determined to copy Mr. Stothard's plates, the artist should not have emulated the scrupulous fidelity of that draughtsman:[1] and that the result of his labours is rather a general idea of the whole production than such a fac-simile as could be confidently referred to on every question of costume or design.

Of Dr. Bruce's own portion of the book, we will not say that it is not well done. It is most agreeably and intelligently performed as a resume; but we do not find that it pursues any critical inquiries to new results, or adds materially, if at all, to our former information. His general remarks on the authenticity and value of the embroidered roll are well stated:

1. The fulness and correctness of its historical details prove that it is a contemporaneous chronicle. Wace treats more largely of the Norman invasion than any of the writers of the Norman period; and, such is the general agreement between the views of the one and the delineations of the other, that the Tapestry may be pronounced to be what in these latter days would be called the "illustration," and the narrative of the chronicle the "letter-press," of an elaborate history of the Norman Conquest. And yet the one does not follow the other slavishly. Whilst they agree in all the general facts, they differ in many minute details, as all independent narratives will.

2. Again, the architecture, the dresses, the armour, the furniture of the Tapestry are those which prevailed at the period of the Conquest, and at no other. It is at all times exceedingly difficult, whether by writing or painting, to portray accurately the manners, language, and modes of thought of an anterior period. In medieval times, however, the attempt was seldom made. The draftsmen represented the manners "living as they rose." "It was the invariable practice with artists in every country," says Mr. Charles Stothard, "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 manuscripts 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."

Dr. Bruce points out how completely this holds good in regard to the earlier period which forms the era of his investigations. Even Wace, though supposed to be particularly well-informed in his historical facts, is guilty of an anachronism when he speaks of a war-horse "all covered with iron." he is the first author who has been found mentioning such horse-armour, and it is therefore concluded that, when he wrote in the days of Henry I. or II. that fashion had been introduced; but in the Bayeux Tapestry all the horses are represented without armour. This is one of many minute peculiarities in the Tapestry which confirm its authenticity as a record little subsequent in date to the events which it commemorates.

3. But the design of the Tapestry shows its early date. Its manifest object is to prove the right of William to the throne of England, to exhibit in strong colours the undutifnlness and ingratitude of Harold in attempting the usurpation of the crown, and to record the punishment with which that disloyal and sacrilegious act was visited. In the latter days of the Conqueror such an undertaking would have been valueless. He had planted his foot firmly upon the necks of the native population; the barons, too, by whom he achieved the Conquest, had been brought into subjection. He was King of England by the power of his sword: he cared not then about the will of Edward the Confessor, the oath of Harold, or the election of the nobles—he was king de facto, and let them who durst deny it! .... The Britany campaign would not have been given in such detail excepting it had been quite a recent event. The Tapestry, it will be observed, ends with the Battle of Hastings. It does not even include the subsequent coronation of William.....

It is difficult to conceive that it was designed at any period save that immediately subsequent to the Battle of Hastings.

In all these remarks we entirely agree; and they afford singular proof of the valuable aid which the study of costume and other changes of time and circumstance may confer upon more important historical inquiries. The minute observations of the antiquary, like those of the naturalist, enable him to speak with decision and confidence, and to fix landmarks, where men of greater imagination and more brilliant talents would otherwise wander in an ever-changing ocean of surmise and controversy. Thus we find that Lord Lyttleton would have it that the Tapestry was not the work of Matilda the Conqueror's queen, but of her granddaughter the empress of the same name; and his lordship's opinion was followed by Hume, and also by the Abbe de la Rue. Mr. Bolton Corney, in his "Researches and Conjectures on the Bayeux Tapestry," contends that it was first made, at the expense of the Chapter of Bayeux, in the year 1205; and Dr. Lingard has adopted Mr. Corney's views. All these authors are proved to be clearly in the wrong in respect to date: but as to Queen Matilda, it does not appear that the credit given to her for the Tapestry rests on better authority than a mere popular tradition which, in its readiness to attribute so grand a production of the needle to the most distinguished lady of the age, imagined that the exploits of the Conqueror could be immortalised by no one so fitly as by his royal consort herself. Miss Strickland, the biographer of the Queens, is of course very indignant that any one should presume to dispute Matilda's claims to the work, and indeed she questions the right of any of "the lords of the creation" to express an opinion upon the point. Alarmed by the sharpness of the pen, or the needle, of our great female historian, Dr. Bruce on this point thinks it wisest to beat a hasty retreat; but he ventures modestly to intimate that he has been unable to meet with any authority for the following statement made by the lady:

This pictorial chronicle of her mighty consort's achievements appears to have been, in part at least, designed for Matilda by Turold, a dwarf artist, who, moved by a natural desire of claiming his share in the celebrity which he foresaw would attach to the work, has cunningly introduced his own effigies and name, thus authenticating the Norman tradition, that he was the person who illuminated the canvas with the proper outlines and colours.

This "Norman tradition," like many others of Miss Strickland's authorities, is, we are inclined to believe, perfectly imaginary. Turold is the name of a groom who is holding the horses of the messengers of duke William when they come into the presence of Guy comte of Ponthieu; and his low stature is merely the result of the artist's attempt at perspective, and placing him in the background of the picture. Turold was a common name both in Normandy and in England. Dr. Bruce notices the fact that the author of the Norman chanson de Roland was named Turold;[2] and that a Turold occurs among the under-tenants of Odo bishop of Bayeux, in Essex: it is possible that the latter was the Turold of the roll, who was doubtless a person in estimation with the workers of the Tapestry, but probably in the character in which he is represented, that of an equerry or master of the horses. His presence shows how intimately the designer of the tapestry was acquainted with the incidents of his story and the persons connected with it. So, in a subsequent picture, we meet with an officer named Wadard. It is after William has landed at Pevensey, and his knights have hurried on to Hastings[3] to seize provisions. The Tapestry represents the slaughtering of cattle, sheep, and pigs; and proceeds to exhibit the cooking and serving up of the meat. Between these two incidents occurs a knight on horseback, HI EST WADARD. He is armed in mail, holding a spear and a shield, and giving orders to a footman, who is leading a horse and carrying an axe over his shoulder. Dr. Bruce has passed over this personage; but Mr. Hudson Gurney tells us that he was William's dapifer, through whom alone, according to the Gesta Gulielmi, he would receive or make communications in his parleys with the English.

Wadard occurs in Domesday-book as one of the feudatories of the church of Bayeux;_ as does Vital, which is the name of the person represented in the Tapestry as informing the Conqueror of the approach of Harold to Hastings.

Another and more important difficulty occurs in an earlier part of the needlework. After duke William has released Harold from his captivity with the comte of Ponthieu, he conducts him to his palace—probably at Rouen, though the place is not named, and they are represented holding a conference within its walls. Next occurs an open porch, within which stands a female; she is approached by a man, whose tonsure shows him to be a priest, though his clothing is of various colours, and he appears to be striking the Lady's face with his right hand. Dr. Bruce remarks that "the clerk certainly approaches her in a jocose manner, and undoubtedly has some agreeable intelligence to communicate."The legend is merely ubi umus Clericus Et AElfgiva.—translated by Dr. Bruce, "Where a clerk and AElfgiva (converse)." It is a great question who this AElfgiva was, and what is the incident represented. AElfgiva is supposed to be a title, somewhat equivalent to princess, rather than a personal name. Mr. Hudson Gurney thought the lady was certainly Adeliza, William's daughter, who was promised to Harold: but Dr. Bruce remarks that the descriptive epithet AElfgiva could not with propriety have been applied to her; and moreover at the time of Harold's visit to Normandy she was but a child. He thinks the lady is probably meant for AEgitha, the sister of the earls Edwin and Morcar, whom Harold actually married. Still, this does not account for her introduction between Harold's visit to Rouen and his departure for the campaign in Britany. Is any religious compact implied in the action of the priest?

Dr. Bruce observes upon this occasion—

In the whole course of the Tapestry only three females are presented to our view—Alfgiva; a mourning relative by the dying bed of the Confessor; and a woman forced by the flames from her dwelling at Hastings. This circumstance surely proves the modesty and retiring habits of the Saxon and Norman ladies.

The whole Tapestry contains 623 men, 202 horses, 55 dogs, 505 animals of various kinds not already enumerated, 37 buildings, 41 ships and boats, and 49 trees—in all 1512 figures. It measures 227 feet in length, by about 20 inches in height.

If indeed the Tapestry were the work of Queen Matilda (as Dr. Bruce [4] suggests p. 2), "assisted by English ladies, as well as by those of her own court," it is astonishing that so few incidents connected with the spinster sex should enter into the story. It is said that the Anglo-Saxon ladies were famous for their skill in embroidery, and that such manufacture was known throughout Europe as English work. There are certainly many peculiarities in the inscriptions which appear to show that they were dictated by an English writer. As when William orders a castle to be dug at Hastings—

ISTE JUSSIT UT FODERETUR CASTELLUM AT HESTENGA CEASTRA, the Words at and ceastra both wear a Saxon appearance.[5]

The name of the Confessor is written Eadwardus, and that of Harold's brother Gyrth with the Saxon th, The names of William and of the town of Bayeux also occur with a g, as Wilgelmum and Bagias. From these and other considerations, it was suggested by M. Aug. Thierry, in a letter written in 1843, that the Tapestry was made in England, in pursuance to an order given by the chapter of Bayeux, and upon a plan which proceeded from them.[6] It is, on the whole, most probable that it was purposely made for the church within the walls of which it was preserved for so many centuries: and possibly by the bounty of Odo the bishop of Bayeux, the halfbrother of the conqueror. He is altogether a conspicuous character in it. He blesses the meat and drink at the king's table at Hastings. He sits in council with the king and Robert earl of Montaine; and in the battle he acts a more daring part, Hic Odo episcopus bacalum tenens confortat pueros—brandishing a club or mace, he encourages the retreating soldiers at the time when they had been alarmed by a cry that duke William was dead. The duke himself appears next, and, raising his helmet from his forehead, reassures them by his presence. These are some of the most interesting incidents of the battle-field which are faithfully reproduced by the tapestry.

We have only one further observation to make. It respects the arrangement of some of the subjects. In p. 78 Dr. Bruce remarks —

On proceeding to the next compartment we are surprised at being introduced into the chamber of the dying king (Edward), whose remains we have already seen conducted to the grave. Some writers think that here the artist has been guilty of an oversight, or that the fair ladies who carried out his design have been very inattentive to their instructions. The seeming inconsistency is very easily explained. A new subject is now entered upon, and that subject is the right of succession. One important element in it is the grant of the king. The historian of the Tapestry, in discussing this very important part of his design, found it necessary to revert to the scenes which preceded the death of the Confessor, and to the directions which in his last moments he had given.

Now, the truth is, that the arrangement is not for any other reason than one of pictorial effect. The artist was anxious to avoid the formality of having all his figures moving one way, as in a procession. Therefore, after representing King Edward seated in his palace, upon Harold's return from the continent, he placed the new church of Saint Peter the apostle next to it, as the original stood, and then brought the funeral procession thither, walking from right to left, from a second representation of the palace, where in an upper story the king is shown on his death-bed, and below laid out as a corpse. This was preferable to repeating the palace immediately, and at the same time made an agreeable change in the figures.

A similar arrangement occurs in a earlier part of the roll, where three compartments have to be read as it were backwards. An English messenger (from Harold) comes to duke William. William consequently sends messengers to comte Guy, who ride from right to left. They arrive in the presence of comte Guy. In order to read these compartments too regularly from left to right, Dr. Bruce has recourse to imagine additions to the story—that the duke's first messengers reported their ill success to him, and he immediately sent two others (p. 49); whilst the object of Harold's messenger becomes an unnecessary difficulty (p. 51). On turning over the plates it will be seen that the alternate disposal of the figures from left to right and from right to left is very carefully and cleverly balanced throughout the composition.


[1] Mr. Edgar Taylor, in the woodcuts given from the Tapestry in his translation of Wace's Roman de Rou, made a still greater mittake, for he copied the old and very inaccurate plates of Montfaucon.

[2] Mr. Wright remarks, in his life of the poet, that "the name Thorold, Torold, Turold, was so common in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that it would bo vain with no further evidence, to attempt to trace his family connections."—Biographia Brit. Literaria, i. 120.

[3] Dr. Bruce misunderstands the Tapestry's representation of the town of Hastings, he regards its houses as "some huts erected on the shore" by the invaders.

[4] Dr. Bruce, as we have already intimated, has the fear of Miss Agnes Strickland before his eyes; but a less gallant Frenchman, M. Aug. Thierry, writing in 1843, remarked, "La tradition qui attribuait a la reine Mathilde la piece de tapisserie conservee a Bayeux, tradition, du reste, assez ricente, et que l'abbe de La Rue a refutfe, n'est plus soutenue par personne."

[5] The word Ceastra is probably to be read by itself. It is placed within the castle or fortified camp. Dr. Bruce thinks that where Hastinga occurs shortly before, we ought probably to read Hastingam: but may not Hastinga be employed in both places a nuater plural, answering to the English Hastinges? In page 111 is a lapse of the worthy editor which surprises us. On his landing William comes to Pevensey—VENIT AD FEVENESAE. Overlooking that this represents the place, in its complete Anglo-Saxon form, Pevenes ae, "the isle of Peofu," Dr. Bruce regards it as a Latin genitive, and suggests that "perhaps this is an elipsis for ad litus Pevensae."

[6] In page 14 Dr. Bruce expresses a belief that the designer was an Italian, remarking that "the postures into which many of the figures are thrown are not English or French, but Italian." Whatever may be the extravagant "contortions" of some few of the figures—whether Dr. Bruce alludes to the dying and wounded on the battle-field, or to the grotesque figures of the borders—we do not think that they will justify this hypothesis.

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