A bibliographical, antiquarian and picturesque tour in France...,
Volume 1. By Thomas Frognall Dibdin, 1821

Now then, my friend, it is high time that you should be introduced in proper form to the famous Bayeux Tapestry. Let us leave, therefore, paper and printing, for linen and needle-work. It is unnecessary to communicate the hundred little things which occurred till Mr. Lewis had finished his laborious task, after an application of six or eight hours, for two successive mornings. His labours are at an end, and they have been thoroughly successful. I hope to carry with me, throughout France and Germany, this most marvellous fac-simile—stitch for stitch, colour for colour, size for size. Not that I would be understood to under-rate the previous labours of Mr. Stothard, which are in truth equally admirable—only that they are of a different nature, and upon a more extensive scale. Know then, in as few words as possible, that this celebrated piece of Tapestry represents chiefly the Invasion Of England by William The Conqueror, and the subsequent death of Harold at the battle of Hastings. It measures about 214 English feet in length, by about nineteen inches in width; and is supposed to have been worked under the particular superintendance and direction of Matilda, the wife of the Conqueror. It was formerly exclusively kept and exhibited in the Cathedral; but it is now justly retained in the Town Hall, and treasured as the most precious relic among the archives of the city. There is indeed every reason to consider it as one of the most valuable historical monuments which France possesses. It has also given rise to a great deal of archaeological discussion. Montfaucon, Ducarel, and De La Rue, have come forward successively—but more especially the first and last: and Montfaucon in particular has favoured the world with copper-plate representations of the whole. There are in fact several series of plates of portions of this needle-work; but all those which I have seen are lamentably defective. Montfaucon's plates are generally much too small: and the more enlarged are too ornamental. It is right, first of all, that you should have an idea how this piece of tapestry is preserved, or rolled up. You see it here, therefore, precisely as it appears after the person who shews it takes off the cloth with which it is usually covered.



A female unrolls and explains it to you. The first portion of the needle-work, representing the embassy of Harold, from Edward the Confessor to William Duke of Normandy, is comparatively much defaced—that is to say, the stitches are worn away, and little more than the ground, or fine close linen cloth, remains. It is not far from the beginning—and where the colour is fresh, and the stitches are, comparatively, preserved—that you see the Portrait Of Harold which accompanies this letter.[1] Nothing can be more true to the original.

You are to understand that the stitches, if they may be so called, are threads laid side by side—and bound down at intervals by cross stitches, or fastenings—upon rather a fine linen cloth; and that the parts intended to represent flesh are left untouched by the needle. I obtained a few straggling shreds of the worsted with which it is worked. The colours are generally a faded or bluish green, crimson, and pink. About the last five feet of this extraordinary roll are in a yet more decayed and imperfect state than the first portion. But the designer of the subject, whoever he was, had an eye throughout to Roman art—as it appeared in its later stages. The folds of the draperies, and the proportions of the figures, are executed with this feeling: witness the following representation of one of the messengers of William.

I admit that this is a mere copy of Montfaucon's plate, and that, compared with the original, it is too sharp and brilliant—but you can hence judge pretty accurately of the general character of the original. You may possibly like to have a further specimen or two: first of the Shipping,

and secondly of the Architecture.

Take them, and admit that they are very curious and very interesting performances of the age.

You will observe that, both at top and at bottom of the principal subject, there is a running allegorical ornament;[2] of which I will not incur the presumption to suppose myself a successful interpreter. The constellations, and the symbols of agriculture and of rural occupation, form the chief subjects of this running ornament. All the inscriptions, as you have them above, are executed in capital letters of about an inch in length ; and upon the whole, whether this extraordinary and invaluable relic be of the latter end of the XIth century or of the beginning or middle of the XIIth century[3] seems to me a matter of rather secondary consideration. That it is at once (borrowing a word out of the bibliomaniacal vocabulary) unique and important, must be considered as a position to be neither doubted nor denied. It is at once an exceedingly curious document of the conjugal attachement, and even enthusiastic veneration, of Matilda, and a political record of more weight than may at first sight appear to belong to it. I suspect that, in painting as well as in poetry, a little fiction is mixed up with the truth; but taking it altogether "none but itself can be its parallel." I have learnt, even here, of what importance this tapestry-roll was considered in the time of Buonaparte's threatened invasion of our country: and that, either after, or before, displaying it at Paris for two or three months, to awaken the curiosity and excite the love of conquest among the citizens, it was conveyed to one or two sea-port towns, and exhibited upon the stage as a most important materiel in dramatic effect. Whether, at such a sight, the soldiers shouted—and, drawing their glittering swords,

Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,

—confident of a second representation of the same subject, by a second subjugation of our country—is a point which has not been exactly detailed to me! But the supposition may not be considered very violent, when I inform you that I was told, by a casual French visitor of the Tapestry, that—"pour cela, si Bonaparte avoit eu le courage, le resultat auroit ete comme autrefois." Matters however have taken rather a different turn; and instead of all the notable duchesses and countesses of Paris,[4] sitting down to display the progress and the prowess of their needles, to commemorate a second conquest of the same country by a second tapestry roll—I would advise them, as a subject for a reverse to the present, to embody, in suitable stitches and tints, the poor solitary intended Pillar Of Triumph upon the heights near Boulogne, with the rotting gun-boats and deserted corvettes, in picturesque groups around!... and instead of Caesar's memorable three-worded designation of victory, to substitute a motto a little more lengthy, but not quite so pleasant:

"VOLUI SED NON POTUI."

And now, my dear friend, I think you have had a pretty good share of Bayeux intelligence; ...

...Now fare you well. To have seen the Bayeux Tapestry is a requital for all my sufferings at sea, and all my tours and devours by land. But, in other respects, this is a town well deserving of greater antiquarian research than appears to have been bestowed upon it; and I cannot help thinking that its ancient ecclesiastical history is more interesting than is generally imagined. In former days the discipline and influence of its See seem to have been felt and acknowledged throughout nearly the whole of Normandy. Again adieu. In imagination, the spires of Coutances Cathedral begin to peep in the horizon. First, however, for St. Lo.

Footnotes.

[1] See the Opposite Plate. In the original, this figure, which is upon horseback, is thus introduced—with the attendant pursuivants and dogs: but great liberties, as a nice eye will readily discern—even upon this reduced scale—have been taken, when compared with the opposite fac-simile. The ensuing is a mere copy of the smaller suite from Montfaucon; also in outline.

[2] a running allegorical ornament,']—Something similar may be seen round the border of the baptismal vase of St. Louis, in Millin's Antiquity Nationales. A part of the border in the Tapestry is a representation of subjects from AEsop's Fables.

[3] be of the latter end of the XIth or of the beginning or middle of the XIIth century]—Of a monument, which has been pronounced by one of our ablest antiquaries to be "The Noblest In The World Relating To Our Old English History," (See Stukely's Palaeog. Britan. Number XI. 1746, 4to. p. 2-3) it may be expected that some archaeological discussion should be here subjoined. Yet I am free to confess that, after the essays of Messrs. Gurney, Stothard, and Amyott, (and more especially that of the latter gentleman) the matter—as to the period of its execution—may be considered as well nigh, if not wholly, at rest. These essays appear in the XVIIIth and XIXth volumes of the Archaeologia. The Abbe de la Rue contended that this Tapestry was worked in the time of the second Matilda, or the Empress Maud, which would bring it to the earlier part of the XIIth. century. The antiquaries above mentioned contend, with greater probability, that it is a performance of the period which it professes to commemorate; namely, of the defeat of Harold at the battle of Hastings, and consequently of the acquiring of the Crown of England, by conquest, on the part of William. This latter therefore brings it to the period of about 1066, to 1088—so that, after all, the difference of opinion is only whether this Tapestry be fifty years older, or younger than the respective advocates contend.

Mr. Gurney's Essay is chiefly occupied by the "Inscriptions and Subjects." These are faithfully specified: as are the engravings of a few of the subjects to be seen on the banners. Mr. Gurney justly observes that "the prints we have of it, are very insufficient to convey any accurate idea" of the original. He further calls the performance "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 it is a perfect and finished action." Archaeologia: vol. xviii. p. 359.—Mr. Charles Stothard has an observation worth extracting. "On coming (says he) 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 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 que ot veus,
Tos les Normans res et tondus
Cuida que tot provoire feussent
Et que messes canter peussent.

Le Roman du Rou, fol. 232.

"How (continues Mr. Stothard) 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 anathemas of the church?" Archaeologia; vol. xix. p. 184, &c.

But the most copious, particular, and in my humble judgment the most satisfactory, disquisition upon the date of this singular historical monument, is entitled "A Defence of the early Antiquity of the Bayeux Tapestry," by Thomas Amyott, Esq. immediately following Mr. Stothard's communication, in the work just referred to. It is at direct issue with all the hypotheses of the Abbe de la Rue, and in my opinion the results are triumphantly established. Whether the Normans or the English worked it, is perfectly a secondary consideration. The chief objections, taken by the Abbé, against its being a production of the XIth century, consists in, first, its not being mentioned among the treasures possessed by the Conqueror at his decease:—secondly, that, if the Tapestry were deposited in the church, it must have suffered, if not have been annihilated, at the storming of Bayeux and the destruction of the Cathedral by fire in the reign of Henry I., A. D. 1106:—thirdly, the silence of Wace upon the subject,—who wrote his metrical histories nearly a century after the Tapestry is supposed to have been executed."The latter is chiefly insisted upon by the learned Abbe; who, which ever champion come off victorious in this archaeological warfare, must at any rate receive the best thanks of the antiquary for the methodical and erudite manner in which he has conducted his attacks.

At the first blush it cannot fail to strike us that the Abbe de la Rue's positions are all of a negative character; and that, according to the strict rules of logic, it must not be admitted, that because such and such writers have not noticed a circumstance, therefore that circumstance or event cannot have taken place. The first two grounds of objection have, I think, been fairly set aside by Mr. Amyott. As to the third objection, Mr. A. remarks—"But it seems that Wace has not only not quoted the tapestry, but has varied from it in a manner which proves that he had never seen it. The instances given of this variation are, however, a little unfortunate. The first of them is very unimportant, for the difference merely consists in placing a figure at the stern instead of the prow of a ship, and in giving him a bow instead of a trumpet. From an authority quoted by the Abbé himself, it appears that, with regard to this latter fact, the Tapestry was right, and Wace was wrong: and thus an argument is unintentionally furnished in favour of the superior antiquity of the Tapestry. The second instance of variation, namely, that relating to Taillefer's sword, may be easily dismissed; since, after all, it now appears, from Mr. Stothard's examination that neither Taillefer nor his sword is to be found in the Tapestry," &c. But it is chiefly from the names of AElfgyva and Wadard, inscribed over some of the figures, that I apprehend the conclusion in favour of the Tapestry's being nearly a contemporaneous production, may be safely drawn.

It is quite clear that these names belong to persons living when the work was in progress, or within the recollection of the workers, and that they were attached to persons of some particular note or celebrity, or rather perhaps of local importance. An eye-witness, or a contemporary only would have introduced them. They would not have lived in the memory of a person, whether mechanic or historian, who lived a century after the event. No antiquary has yet fairly appropriated these names, and more especially the second. It follows therefore that they would not have been introduced had they not been in existence at the time; and in confirmation of that of Wadard, it seems that Mr. Henry Ellis (Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries) "confirmed Mr. Amyott's conjecture on that subject, by the references with which he furnished him to Domesday-Book, where his name occurs in no less than six counties, as holding lands of large extent under Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the tenant in capite of those properties from the crown. That he was not a guard or centinel, as the Abbé de la Rue supposes, but that he held an office of rank in the household of either William or Odo, seems now decided beyond a doubt." Mr. Amyott thus spiritedly concludes:—alluding to the successful completion of Mr. Stothard's copy of the entire original roll.—"Yet if the Bayeux Tapestry be not history of the first class, it is perhaps something better. It exhibits general traits, elsewhere sought in vain, of the costume and manners of that age, which, of all others, if we except the period of the Reformation, ought to be the most interesting to us;—that age, which gave us a new race of monarchs, bringing with them new landholders, new laws, and almost a new language" ... "Most sincerely therefore do I congratulate the Society on possessing a faithful and elegant copy of this Matchless Relic, affording at once a testimonial of the taste and liberality of our Council, and of the diligence and skill of our artist."

Mr. Amyott has subjoined a delightful specimen of his own poetical powers in describing "the Minstrel Taillefer's achievements," in the battle of Hastings, from the old Norman lays of Gaimar and Wace. I am half tempted to subjoin it; but can only find room for the first few verses. The poem is entitled,

The Onset Of Taillefer.

Foremost in the hands of France,
Arm'd with hauberk and with lance,
And helmet glittering in the air,
As if a warrior knight he were,
Rush'd forth the Minstrel Taillefer
Borne on his courser swift and strong.
He gaily bounded o'er the plain,
And raised the heart-inspiring song
(Loud echoed by the warlike throng)
Of Roland and of Charlemagne,
Of Oliver, brave peer of old,
Untaught to fly, unknown to yield,
And many a Knight and Vassal bold,
Whose hallowed blood, in crimson flood.
Dyed Roncevalles' field.

[4] M. Denon told me, in one of my visits to him at Paris, that by the commands of Bonaparte, he was charged with the custody of this Tapestry for three months: that it was displayed in due form and ceremony in the Museum; and that after having taken a hasty sketch of it, (which he admitted could not be considered as very faithful) he returned it to Bayeux—as it was considered to be the peculiar property of that place.

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