Archaeologia or miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity,
Volume 19, 1821

XI Observations on an Historical Fact supposed to be established by the Bayeux Tapestry,
By Thomas Amyot, Esq. F. S. A. in a Letter addressed to Henry Ellis, Esq. F.R.S. Secretary.

Read 26th Feb. 1818.

Downing-street, Feb. 24, 1818.

Dear sir,

In an interesting paper which has been recently published by the Society, entitled "Observations on the Bayeux Tapestry,[1] that very curious monument of antiquity is said to contain an Apologetical History of the Claims of William to the Crown of England, and of the breach of faith and fall of Harold," The historical fact which the tapestry is supposed to establish, namely, that of Harold's mission to Normandy by the Confessor to offer the succession to William, is so important if true, and is at the same time involved in so much doubt and obscurity, that I shall perhaps be pardoned if I venture to offer a brief notice and examination of the original authorities which have a reference to the subject. I should not indeed have presumed to solicit the attention of the Society to this discussion, if the Tapestry itself had not been rendered highly interesting to us by the striking and elegant delineations of it which now adorn our walls.

It is agreed, I believe, by all the Historians of the times, that Harold was shipwrecked on the coast of Picardy—that he was there made a prisoner by Guy Earl of Ponthieu—that he was released at the instance of the Duke of Normandy—and that he then proceeded to the Court of that Prince, where he was treated with great hospitality and distinction. It is equally indisputable that, while at the Norman Court, Harold, by whatever motives actuated, bound himself by a solemn oath to support William's claim to the English succession. The occasion of Harold's voyage is the only fact which has been the subject of contention.

Concerning this fact there are three distinct stories.

The first of them is, that Harold merely went out to sea on a fishing party from his country seat at Boseham, and was driven by a storm on the opposite coast. The earliest authority for this statement seems to be William of Malmsbury, the most learned, vigorous, and esteemed historian of his age. He admits indeed that another story was in circulation, for he says that it was held by some persons that Harold was sent to Nornjandy by the King;[2] but he gives the former account as that which appeared to him to be nearest to the truth, adding that the story of the mission was craftily fabricated by Harold in his confinement, for the purpose of inducing William to enforce his liberation. I am not aware that this statement is confirmed by any contemporary writer;[3] but it was adopted above a century afterwards by Matthew Paris,[4] an author justly valued for his judgment and fidelity, and subsequently by Matthew of Westminster,[5] who, however his merits may have been overrated, was at least one of the most popular of the monkish historians.

A second account of this transaction is, that Harold went to Normandy with the permission, though contrary to the advice of King Edward, for the purpose of procuring the liberty of his Brother and Nephew, whom William had detained as hostages. This statement appears to have been originally, as well as very circumstantially given by Eadmer,[6] a nearly contemporary writer, of considerable elegance for the times in which he lived, and much esteemed for his veracity. He was followed by Simeon of Durham,[7] whose History closes a few years after that of Eadmer, by Alfred of Beverley,[8] and by Roger Hoveden.[9] The latter writer only is quoted as to this fact by Baron Maseres, in his useful volume of Extracts from the Norman Historians.[10] It appears to have escaped the learned and venerable editor that there were at least three older and better authorities on this point than Hoveden, who did not write till about a century after Eadmer, and has nearly transcribed his words. Brompton,[11] Diceto,[12] Knighton,[13] Higden,[14] Hemingford,[15] and some later historians have adopted this tale of Harold's Voyage for the liberation of his relatives.

The third statement, and that which the Tapestry has been supposed to establish, is, that Harold was sent to Normandy by Edward expressly for the purpose of offering the succession to William, or rather of confirming an offer of it which had been previously made to him. For this account Mr. Lethieullier, in the Introduction to his Description of the Tapestry,[16] has referred to Ingulphus. But that writer (as Baron Maseres has already observed) makes no such statement. His words are merely "Haroldus Major Domus Regiae veniens in Normanniam, &c." without pretending that the King had sent him thither.[17] The earliest writer by whom the story of the mission appears to have been related is William of Poitiers, the biographer and partizan of the Duke of Normandy.[18] His account is followed by two other Norman Historians, William of Jumieges[19] and Ordericus Vitalise.[20] The latter indeed was an Englishman by birth, but was, sent at an early age to a Norman Convent, of which he became the Historian.[21]

That the authority of the Tapestry is also in favour of this statement appears to me to be doubtful. Mr. Lethieullier indeed has taken it for granted that Edward is represented as giving orders to Harold to depart on his embassy; and the author of the late invaluable History of the Anglo-Saxons has admitted the correctness of this explanation. But, as Lord Lyttelton has observed, the inscription gives no account of the commission or business on which Harold was going. There is nothing in fact in this representation of the King and of Harold which does not as well accord with the story related by Eadmer; for the King may with equal justness be supposed to be in the act of addressing Harold in the manner in which Eadmer asserts he did address him, namely, by permitting his journey, but expressing the strongest doubts of its success. The inscription, it may be remarked, is sufficiently full and explicit in other parts of the Tapestry, and if the Norman story was really the true one, it seems strange that an opportunity should here have been neglected of asserting it in unequivocal terms. This omission indeed is a stronger argument as to the falsehood of the story than the assertion of it would have been for its truth. For supposing the Tapestry to have been the work of Queen Matilda (a point which is not meant to be here discussed) her testimony could be of no value, as she would of course tell her story in conformity with the declaration which her husband had found it his interest publickly to promulgate. And supposing with Lord Lyttelton that this interesting relick was the work of the Empress Matilda in the following century, there would still have been motives for adopting that story which was most favourable to the Norman cause, while in point of time the authority of the Tapestry as a historical document, would be considerably weakened. In either case, it would of course tell the Court story," as the Author of the recently published Observations has properly expressed it.[22]

Upon a comparison of the above authorities, I certainly incline to think that the Norman story is not the true one.

1st. Because it is only asserted by the Norman Historians; the English writers, who were well enough affected towards William after the Conquest, having given contrary accounts.[23]

2dly. Because Ingulphus, the Secretary of William, who may be presumed to have been desirous, as well as called upon by the duties of his station, to confirm the assertion of his Master had he believed it, does not confirm it.

3dly. Because it seems improbable that William, if he believed Harold to be really Edward's ambassador, would have imposed an oath of allegiance on him, or that Harold would in that capacity have volunteered such an oath. While on the other hand, either of those suppositions is sufficiently probable, if William stood in the situation of a benefactor to Harold, either by restoring to him his brother and nephew, or by simply releasing him from captivity. It is to be observed that the act of releasing him could have conferred no personal obligation on him, had he really been an ambassador from Edward, and the bearer of such welcome intelligence. I am aware that it may be said, that, whether Harold was or was not Edward's ambassador, it appears even by Malmsbury's account that he represented himself as such to William. But William had too much penetration to be deceived by a story thus fabricated, though he might find it convenient to seem to credit it; and his tendering the oath to Harold appears to me to afford an inference that he knew Harold was not an ambassador, and therefore sought to entrap him in his own snare.

Of the two English accounts, it is not of much historical importance which is the true one. It is remarkable that no light on this question is to be derived from either the Saxon Chronicle or Florence of Worcester, the two most exact authorities of the times.[24] Lord Lyttelton adopts the story given by Malmsbury, which appears also to have been preferred by Milton: while, on the other hand, Rapin and Hume have followed the more circumstantial narration of Eadmer. Without venturing to express any decided opinion on this point, I may be permitted to observe that it is the common fault of Historians, not less than of Criticks, to "find out meanings never meant," by ascribing to design what has been merely accidental. As it is now much too late to dive, with any hope of success, into the state secrets of the Courts of Edward and William, it might be safer to admit the simpler story, in preference to the more elaborate one; though that must be allowed to derive much weight from the character of its author for information, veracity, aud judgment. Whichever may be the true account, I feel that I have already trespassed too largely to be allowed to proceed in the discussion; and I have only therefore to subscribe myself with much respect,

Dear Sir,
Your very faithful and obedient Servant,


To Henry Ellis, Esq.

Mr. Sharpe has laudably commenced that task, by translating William of Malmsbury; and the English reader will soon, it is understood, be in possession of the Saxon Chronicle. Except the old translations of Gildas, Bede, and Jeffery of Monmouth, I am not aware that any others of our ancient chroniclers have yet appeared in an English dress, though in the British Museum a MS. translation of Florence of Worcester, by Holinshed, will be found among Stow's collections. I have only to add, that whoever will take the trouble to peruse the venerable Fathers of our English history, will not fail to regret, that they should have hitherto remained

"Like unregarded Age in corners thrown,"

and will find them abound in interesting delineations of early manners and character, more than sufficient to compensate for the barbarism of their style, and the errors of their superstition.


[1] Archaeolog. Vol. XVIII. p. 359.

[2] Ferunt quidam ipsum Haroldum a Rege in hoc Normanniam, missum, p. 93, edit. Francof. 1601.

[3] Henry of Huntingdon assigns no motive for the Voyage, as he only says "Haroldus vero transiens in Flandriam, tempestate compulsus est in Ponticam provinciam;" p. 366, edit. 1601.

[4] P. 1, edit. 1640, a Wats. Milton has made a distinction between the statements given by Malmsbury and Matthew Paris, but they will appear on comparison to be the same in effect.

[5] P. 426, edit. 1570

[6] P. 4, edit. Selden, 1623.

[7] Twysden. Script, x. col. 195.

[8] P. 125, edit. 1716, a Hearne. Eadmer, Simeon, and Alfred were contemporaiy writers. The first appears to have died in 1124, the second about 1130, and the last, according to Bale and Pits, in 1136, but according to Vossius, about ten years earlier. On a comparison of these three writers, I think no doubt can be entertained of the priority of Eadmer's account of this transaction. It should be observed too that Eadmer was the companion and biographer of Archbishop Anselm, who at the time of the conquest was Abbot of Caen in Normandy, and was likely to be well acquainted with the transactions of that period, his knowledge of which he probably communicated to his friend and follower.

[9] Script, post Bedam. p. 440, edit. 1601.

[10] P. 133.

[11] Twysd. x. Script, col. 947. Brompton places Harold's voyage as early as 1056. I am not aware of his authority for this date. Other writers fix the period at about 1064.

[12] Twysd. col. 481.

[13] Twysd. col. 2337.

[14] Gale, tom, iii. p. 283.

[15] Gale, tom. ii. p. 456.

[16] Appendix to Ducarel's Anglo-Norman Antiquities, p. 3.

[17] Gale, tom. i. p. 68. It is to be observed, however, that Mr. Turner has cited Ingulphus in support of the Norman story. History of the Anglo-Saxons, vol. i. p. 466,4to. edit.

[18] Duchesne Hist. Norman, p. 191.

[19] Ibid. p. 285.

[20] Ibid, p. 492.

[21] The authority of the chronicler and poet Wace, though a Norman, does not confirm the statement above referred to. In his History of the Dukes of Normandy ih the British Museum, (Bibl. Reg. 4, C. xi. 9) he leaves the question undecided. Perhaps a short extract or two from this very curious manuscript may not be wholly unacceptable. He begins the story by a panegyrical description of Harold:

En la terre out un Sencscal
Heraut out no noble vassal
Por son pries & por sa bonte
Out el regne grant poeste—
Li plus fort hoem fu del pais
Fort fu domes, fort fu damis—
Engleterre out en sa baillie
Com hoem q'a Senechaucie, &c.

After tracing his pedigree he goes on to relate that Harold

En Normandie volt passer
Por les hostages delivrer,

which the king endeavoured to dissuade him from attempting. But Wace adds,

Issi lai io trove escrit,
Et uns altres livres me dit
Q'li Reis le roua aler
Por li realme asseurer
Al' duc Guill' son cosin
Q'il leust empres la fin,
Helai mie certe achaison
Mais l'un & l'autre escrit trovon, &.

He then proceeds to give the story of the shipwreck and the oath, nearly in the manner in which it is related by Eadmer.

In the MS. chronicle called "Le Brut,"also in the British Museum, (Lib.Cott.Vitellius A.X.) which has been shewn by the Abbe de la Rue to have been versified by Wace, who was also probably the author of the continuation of it, the story is related in a manner somewhat differing from all the other accounts. It is there represented that Harold applied to Edward for leave to pass over to Normandy, in order to speak to William, without assigning any other purpose for his voyage; that, without mention of the remarkable incident of the shipwreck, he was graciously received by William; and that after a visit of a month, William, on his application for leave to depart, imposed on him his oath of allegiance. The conversations are given in French verse, varying but little from Eadmer's report of them.

[22] The real value of the tapestry appears to me to consist, not so much in its importance as an historical document, as in the delineations which it contains of our ancient costume. Some interesting memorials, however, it has undoubtedly preserved of various minute particulars connected with the battle of Hastings, and which may be fairly admitted as correct, wherever national or party feelings are not interested in their truth or falsehood. I will take this opportunity of noticing, that among other forgotten fables of the times, Giraldus Cambrensis in his Itinerary (edit. Francf. 1603, p. 874,) asserts that it was believed that Harold escaped from the battle of Hastings, pierced with wounds, and with the loss of his left eye, and that he ended his days holily and virtuously as an anchoret at Chester. This story was afterwards quoted by Brompton, Knighton, and some other writers. It will be recollected that a similar fable has since been related, and partially believed, of the escape of James the 4th of Scotland from Flodden Field. King Arthur, Charles of Burgundy, and Don Sebastian of Portugal, have also been made the heroes of popular tales of this description.

[23] I am aware that some of the English Historians of the middle ages adopted the Norman account, particularly Robert of Gloucester, Wykes and Walsingham. But the two former of these did not write till towards the end of the 13th century, nor the latter till a much later period. Walsingham too in the Ypodigma Neustriae was writing a Norman History and naturally following the Norman authors. It is proper to add that Mr. Carte, to whose great merits as a historian justice has at length been rendered, has made choice of the Norman statement as the true one. But this learned writer is perhaps more to be commended for his great diligence and integrity, and for his clear and copious narration, than for the general solidity of his judgment.

[24] The obscurity in which this important event appears to be involved, is the more extraordinary, when it is considered that the period at which it took place abounded more than any subsequent one for many centuries in historians of talent and character. Besides the valuable records preserved to us by the Saxon Chronicle and Florence of Worcester, the names of Malmsbury and Eadmer, Henry of Huntingdon and Simeon of Durham, Ingulphus and Ordericus Vitalis, would have done honour to a far more polished period. These were not, generally speaking, obscure monks immured in cloisters, but were, on the contrary, men of a certain rank and importance in society, possessing ample and undoubted means of information. The excellence of our early historians has been strongly insisted on by two of the most celebrated ones of modern times, Dr. Henry and Mr. Gibbon. Among the posthumous works of the latter, will be found an eloquent and masterly essay, strongly recommending the publication of our Corpus Historicum, with English notes. This plan, however, in the execution of which Mr. Gibbon had himself consented to assist, was relinquished, probably from its being found that the republications of these ancient writers would necessarily bear a larger price than even the old editions of them could still be procured for. The late learned and excellent Dr. Sayers of Norwich (whom the writer of this paper cannot name without the strongest emotions of personal regard and regret) has, in his "Disquisitions," (2d edit. 1808, p. 244) earnestly recommended the translation of portions of our early historians.

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