The very curious piece of historical needle-work, now generally known by the
name of the Bayeux tapestry, was first brought into public notice in the early
part of the last century, by Father Montfaucon and M. Lancelot, both of whom,
in their respective publications; the Monumens de la Monarchic Francaise,
and a paper inserted in the Memoires de l'Academie des Inscriptions, have
figured and described this celebrated specimen of ancient art. Montfaucon's
plates were afterwards republished by Ducarel, with the addition of a short
dissertation and explanation, by an able antiquary of our own country, Smart
These plates, however, in the original, and still more in the copies, were miserably incorrect, and calculated not to inform, but to mislead the inquirer. When therefore the late war was concluded and France became again accessible to an Englishman, our Society of Antiquaries, justly considering the tapestry as being at least equally connected with English as with French history, and regarding it as a matter of national importance, that so curious a document should be made known by the most faithful representation, employed an artist, fitted above all others for the purpose, by his knowledge of history and his abilities as a draughtsman, to prepare an exact fac-simile of the whole. Under the auspices of the Society, Mr. C. A. Stothard undertook the task; and he has executed it in the course of two successive visits with the greatest accuracy and skill. The engravings from his drawings we may hope shortly to see: meanwhile, to give you some idea of the original, I enclose a sketch, which has no other merit than that of being a faithful transcript. It is reduced one half from a tracing made from the tapestry itself. By referring to Montfaucon, you will find the figure it represents under the fifty-ninth inscription in the original, where "a knight, with a private banner, issues 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.
Within the few last years this tapestry has been the subject of three interesting papers, read before the Society of Antiquaries. The first and most important, from the pen of the Abbe de la Rue, has for its object the refutation of the opinions of Montfaucon and Lancelot, who, following the commonly received tradition, refer the tapestry to the time of the conquest, and represent it as the work of Queen Matilda and her attendant damsels. The Abbe's principal arguments are derived from the silence of contemporary authors, and especially of Wace, who was himself a canon of Bayeux;from its being unnoticed in any charters or deeds of gift connected with the cathedral;from the improbability that so large a roll of such perishable materials would have escaped destruction when the cathedral was burned in 1106;from the unfinished state of the story;from its containing some Saxon names unknown to the Normans;and from representations taken from the fables of Aesop being worked on the borders, whereas the northern parts of Europe were not made acquainted with these fables, till the translation of a portion of them by Henry I., who thence obtained his surname of Beauclerk.These and other considerations, have led the learned Abbé to coincide in opinion with Lord Littleton and Mr. Hume, that the tapestry is the production of the Empress Maud, and that it was in reality wrought by natives of our own island, whose inhabitants were at that time so famous for labors of this description, that the common mode of expressing a piece of embroidery, was by calling it an English work.
The Abbé shortly afterwards found an opponent in another member of the
society, Mr. Hudson Gurney, who, without following his predecessor through the
line of his arguments, contented himself with briefly stating the three following
reasons for ascribing the tapestry to Matilda, wife to the Conqueror.First,
that in the many buildings therein pourtrayed, there is not the least appearance
of a pointed arch, though much pointed work is found in the ornaments of the
running border; whilst, on the contrary, the features of Norman architecture,
the square buttress, flat to the walls, and the square tower surmounted by,
or rather ending in, a low pinnacle, are therein frequently repeated.Secondly,
that all the knights are in ring armour, many of their shields charged with
a species of cross and five dots, and some with dragons, but none with any thing
of the nature of armorial bearings, which, in a lower age, there would have
been; and that all wear a triangular sort of conical helmet, with a nasal, when
represented armed.And, Thirdly, that the Norman banner is, invariably,
Argent, a Cross, Or, in a Bordure Azure; and that this is repeated over and
over again, as it is in the war against Conan, as well as at Pevensey and at
Hastings; but there is neither hint nor trace of the later invention of the
Norman leopards.Mr. Gurney's arguments are ingenious, but they are not,
I fear, likely to be considered conclusive: he however, has been particularly
successful in another observation, that all writers, who had previously treated
of the Bayeux tapestry, had called it a Monument of the Conquest of England;
following, therein, M. Lancelot, and speaking of it as an unfinished work, whereas,
it is in fact an apologetical history of the claims of William to the crown
of England, and of the breach of faith and fall of Harold, in a perfect and
finished action.With this explanation before us, aided by the short indication
that is given of the subjects of the seventy-two compartments of the tapestry,
a new light is thrown upon the story.
The third memoir is from the pen of Mr. Amyot, and concludes with an able metrical translation from Wace. It is confined almost exclusively to the discussion of the single historical fact, how far Harold was really sent by the Confessor to offer the succession to William; but this point, however interesting in itself, is unconnected with my present object: it is sufficient for me to shew you the various sources from which you may derive information upon the subject.
Supposing the Bayeux tapestry to be really from the hands of the Queen, or the Empress, (and that it was so appears to me proved by internal evidence,) it is rather extraordinary that the earliest notice which is to be found of a piece of workmanship, so interesting from its author and its subjects, should be contained in an inventory of the precious effects deposited in the treasury of the church, dated 1476. It is also remarkable that this inventory, in mentioning such an article, should call it simply a very long piece of cloth, embroidered with figures and writing, representing the Conquest of England, without any reference to the royal artist or the donor.
Observations of this nature will suggest themselves to every one, and the arguments urged by the Abbe de la Rue are very strong; and yet I confess that my own feelings always inclined to the side of those who assign the highest antiquity to the tapestry. I think so the more since I have seen it. No one appears so likely to have undertaken such a task as the female most nearly connected with the principal personage concerned in it, and especially if we consider what the character of this female was: the details which it contains are so minute, that they could scarcely have been known, except at the time when they took place: the letters agree in form with those upon Matilda's tomb; and the manners and customs of the age are also preserved.Mr. Stothard, who is of the same opinion as to the date of the tapestry, very justly observes, that the last of these circumstances can scarcely be sufficiently insisted upon; for 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 costume of their own times."
Till the revolution, the tapestry was always kept in the cathedral, in a chapel on the south side, dedicated to Thomas a Becket, and was only exposed to public view once a year, during the octave of the feast of St. John, on which occasion it was hung up in the nave of the church, which it completely surrounded. From the time thus selected for the display of it, the tapestry acquired the name of le toile de Saint Jean; and it is to the present day commonly so called in the city. During the most stormy part of the revolution, it was secreted; but it was brought to Paris when the fury of vandalism had subsided. And, when the first Consul was preparing for the invasion of England, this ancient trophy of the subjugation of the British nation was proudly exhibited to the gaze of the Parisians, who saw another Conqueror in Napoleon Bonaparté; and many well-sounding effusions, in prose and verse, appeared, in which the laurels of Duke William were transferred, by anticipation, to the brows of the child and champion of jacobinism. After this display, Bonaparte returned the tapestry to the municipality, accompanied by a letter, in which he thanked them for the care they had taken of so precious a relic. From that period to the present, it has remained in the residence appropriated to the mayor, the former episcopal palace; and here we saw it.
It is a piece of brownish linen cloth, about two hundred and twelve feet long,
and eighteen inches wide, French measure. The figures are worked with worsted
of different colors, but principally light red, blue, and yellow. The historical
series is included between borders composed of animals, &c. The colors are
faded, but not so much so as might have been expected. The figures exhibit a
regular line of events, commencing with Edward the Confessor seated upon his
throne, in the act of dispatching Harold to the court of the Norman Duke, and
continued through Harold's journey, his capture by the Comte de Ponthieu, his
interview with William, the death of Edward, the usurpation of the British throne
by Harold, the Norman invasion, the battle of Hastings, and Harold's death.
These various events are distributed into seventy-two compartments, each of
them designated by an inscription in Latin. Ducarel justly compares the style
of the execution to that of a girl's sampler. The figures are covered with work,
except on their faces, which are merely in outline. In point of drawing, they
are superior to the contemporary sculpture at St. Georges and elsewhere; and
the performance is not deficient in energy. The colors are distributed rather
fancifully: thus the fore and off legs of the horses are varied. It is hardly
necessary to observe that perspective is wholly disregarded, and that no attempt
is made to express light and shadow.
Great attention, however, is paid to costume; and more individuality of character has been preserved than could have been expected, considering the rude style of the workmanship. The Saxons are represented with long mustachios: the Normans have their upper lip shaven, and retain little more hair upon their heads than a single lock in front.-^Historians relate how the English spies reported the invading army to be wholly composed of ecclesiastics; and this tapestry affords a graphical illustration of the chroniclers' text. Not the least remarkable feature of the tapestry, in point of costume, lies in the armor, which, in some instances, is formed of interlaced rings; in others, of square compartments; and in others, of lozenges. Those who contend for the antiquity of Duke William's equestrian statue at Caen, may find a confirmation of their opinions in the shape of the saddles assigned to the figures of the Bayeux tapestry; and equally so in their cloaks, and their pendant braided tresses.
The tapestry is coiled round a cylinder, which is turned by a winch and wheel; and it is rolled and unrolled with so little attention, that if it continues under such management as the present, it will be wholly ruined in the course of half a century. It is injured at the beginning: towards the end it becomes very ragged, and several of the figures have completely disappeared. The worsted is unravelling too in many of the intermediate portions. As yet, however, it is still in good preservation, considering its great age, though, as I have just observed, it will not long continue so. The bishop and chapter have lately applied to government, requesting that the tapestry may be restored to the church. I hope their application will be successful.
 I. p. 371379; pl. 3549, and II. p. 129; pi. 19.
 VI. p. 739, and VIII. p. 602.
 Anglo-Norman Antiquities, Appendix, No. I.
Archaeologia, XVIII. p. 85.
 Archaeologia, XVIII. p. 359.Return to Main Index