The Art of Needle-Work
From the Earliest Ages

Edited by
The Countess of Wilton, 1840

This electronic edition
was prepared by
Michael A. Linton



"Needlework sublime."—Cowper.

Great discussion has taken place amongst the learned with regard to the exact time at which the Bayeux tapestry was wrought. The question, except as a matter of curiosity, is, perhaps, of little account—fifty years earlier or later, nearly eight hundred years ago. It had always been considered as the work of Matilda, the wife of the conquering Duke of Normandy until a few years ago, when the Abbe de la Rue started and endeavoured to maintain the hypothesis that it was worked by or under the direction of the Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry the First.[1] But his positions, as Dibdin observes,[2] are all of a negative character, and, "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." Hudson Gurney, Charles A. Stothard, and Thos. Amyott, Esqrs. have all published essays on the subject,[3] which establish almost to certainty the fact of the production of this tapestry at the earlier of the two periods contended for, viz. from 1066 to 1068.

In this we rejoice, because this Herculean labour has a halo of deep interest thrown round it, from the circumstance of its being the proud tribute of a fond and affectionate wife, glorying in her husband's glory, and proud of emblazoning his deeds. As the work of the Empress Matilda it would still be a magnificent production of industry and of skill; as the work of "Duke William's" wife these qualities merge in others of a more interesting character.[4]

This excellent and amiable princess was a most highly accomplished woman, and remarkable for her learning; she was the affectionate mother of a large family, the faithful wife of an enterprising monarch, with whom she lived for thirty-three years so harmoniously that her death had such an effect on her husband as to cause him to relinquish, never again to resume, his usual amusements. [5]

Little did the affectionate wife think, whilst employed over this task, that her domestic tribute of regard should become an historical memento of her country, and blazon forth her illustrious husband's deeds, and her own unwearying affection, to ages upon ages hereafter to be born. For independently of the interest which may be attached to this tapestry as a pledge of feminine affection, a token of housewifely industry, and a specimen of ancient stitchery, it derives more historic value as the work of the Conqueror's wife, than if it were the production of a later time. For it holds good with these historical tapestries as with the written histories and romances of the middle ages;—authors wrote and ladies wrought (we mean no pun) their characters, not in the costume of the times in which the action or event celebrated took place, but in that in which they were at the time engaged; and thus, had Matilda the Empress worked this tapestry, it is more than probable that she would have introduced the armorial bearings which were in her time becoming common, and especially the Norman leopards, of which in the tapestry there is not the slightest trace. In her time too the hair was worn so long as to excite the censures of the church, whilst at the time of the Conquest the Normans almost shaved their heads ; and this circumstance, more than the want of beards, is supposed by Mr. Stothard[6] to have led to the surmise of the Anglo-Saxon spies that the Normans were all priests. This circumstance is faithfully depicted in the tapestry, where also the chief weapon seen is a lance, which was little used after the Conquest. These peculiarities, with several others which have been commented on by antiquarian writers, seem to establish the date of this production as coeval with the action which it represents, and therefore invaluable as an historical document.

"It is, perhaps," says one of the learned writers on the Bayeux tapestry, "a characteristic of the literature of the present age to deduce history from sources of second-rate authority; from ballads and pictures rather than from graver and severer records. Unquestionably this is the preferable course, if amusement, not truth, be the object sought for. Nothing can be more delightful than to read the reigns of the Plantagenets in the dramas of Shakespeare, or the tales of later times in the ingenious fictions of the author of Waverley. But those who would draw historical facts from their hiding-places must be content to plod through many a ponderous worm-eaten folio, and many a half-legible and still less intelligible manuscript."

"Yet," continues he, "if the Bayeux tapestry be not history of the first class, it is, perhaps, something better. It exhibits genuine 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."

"As in the magic pages of Froissart, we here behold our ancestors of each race in most of the occupations of life, in courts and camps, in pastime and in battle, at feasts and on the bed of sickness. These are characteristics which of themselves would call forth a lively interest; but their value is greatly enhanced by their connection with one of the most important events in history, the main subject of the whole design."

This magnificent piece of work is 227 feet in length by 20 inches in width, is now usually kept at the Town-hall in Rouen, and is treasured as the most precious relic. It was formerly the theme of some long and learned dissertations of antiquarian historians, amongst whom Montfaucon, perhaps, ranks most conspicuous.

Still so little local interest does it excite, that Mr. Gurney, in 1814, was nearly leaving Bayeux without seeing it because he did not happen to ask for it by the title of "Toile de St. Jean," and so his request was not understood; and Ducarel, in his "Tour," says, "The priests of this cathedral to whom we addressed ourselves for a sight of this remarkable piece of antiquity, knew nothing of it; the circumstance only of its being annually hung up in their church led them to understand what we wanted; no person there knowing that the object of our inquiry any ways related to William the Conqueror, whom to this day they call Duke William."

During the French Revolution its surrender was demanded for the purpose of covering the guns; fortunately, however, a priest succeeded in concealing it until that storm was overpast.

Bonaparte better knew its value. It was displayed for some time in Paris, and afterwards at some seaport towns. M. Denon had the charge of it committed to him by Bonaparte, but it was afterwards restored to Bayeux. It was at the time of the usurper's threatened invasion of our country that so much value was attached to, and so much pains taken to exhibit this roll. "Whether," says Dibdin, "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 avait eu le courage, le resultat auroit ete comme autrefois' Matters, however, have taken rather a different turn."

The tapestry is coiled round a machine like that which lets down the buckets to a well, and a female unrolls and explains it. It is worked in different coloured worsteds on white cloth, to which time has given the tinge of brown holland; the parts intended to represent flesh are left untouched by the needle. The colours are somewhat faded, and not very multitudinous. Perhaps it is the little variety of colours which Matilda and her ladies had at their disposal which has caused them to depict the horses of any colour—"blue, green, red, or yellow." The outline, too, is of course stiff and rude.[7] At the top and bottom of the main work is a narrow allegorical border; and each division or different action or event is marked by a branch or tree extending the whole depth of the tapestry; and most frequently each tableau is so arranged that the figures at the end of one and the beginning of the next are turned from each other, whilst above each the subject of the scene and the names of the principal actors are wrought in large letters. The subjects of the border vary; some of Aesop's fables are depicted on it, sometimes instruments of agriculture, sometimes., fanciful and grotesque figures and borders; and during the heat of the battle of Hastings, when, as Montfaucon says, "le carnage est grand," the appropriate device of the border is a layer of dead men.

"From the fury of the Normans, good Lord deliver us," was, we are told, in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries a petition in the Litanies of all nations.[8] For long did England sorrow under their "fury," though in time the Conquest produced advantageous results to the kingdom at large. Whether this Norman subjugation was in accordance with the will of the monarch Edward, or whether it was entirely the result of Duke William's ambition, must now ever remain in doubt. Harold asserted that Edward the Confessor appointed him his successor (of which, however, he could not produce proof); to this must be opposed the improbability of Edward thus ennobling a family of whom he felt, and with such abundant cause, so jealous.

Probably the old chronicler (Fabyan) has hit the mark when he says, "This Edgarre (the rightful heir) was yonge, and specyally for Harolde was stronge of knyghtes and rychesse, he wanne the reygne." Be this as it may, however, Harold on the very day of Edward's interment, and that was only the day subsequent to his death, was crowned king in St. Paul's; apparently with the concurrence of all concerned, for he was powerful and popular. And his government during the chief part of his short kingly career was such as to increase his popularity : he was wise, and just, and gracious. "Anone as he was crowned, he began to fordoo euyll lawes and customes before vsed, and stablysshed the good lawes, and specyally whiche (suche) as were for the defence of holy churche, and punysshed the euyll doers, to the fere and example of other."[9]

But uncontrolled authority early began to produce its wonted results. He "waxyd so prowd, and for couetouse wold not deuyde the prayes that he took to hys knyghtys, that had well deseruyd it, but kepte it to hymself, that he therby lost the fauour of many of his knyghtys and people."[10] This defection from his party doubtless made itself felt in the mortal struggle with the Norman duke which issued in Harold's discomfiture and death.

Proceed we to the tapestry.

The first scene which the needlewoman has depicted is a conference between a person who, from his white flowing beard and regal costume, is easily recognized as the "sainted Edward," and another, who, from his subsequent embarkation, is supposed to be Harold. The subject of the conference is, of course, only conjectured. Harold's visit to Normandy is well known; but whether, as some suppose, he was driven thither by a tempest when on a cruise of pleasure; whether he went as ambassador from Edward to communicate the intentions of the Confessor in William's behoof; or whether, as the tapestry is supposed more strongly to indicate, he obtained Edward's reluctant consent to his visit to reclaim his brother who, a hostage for his own good conduct, had been sent to William by Edward; these are points which now defy investigation, even if they were of sufficient importance to claim it. Harold is then seen on his journey attended by cavaliers on horseback, surrounded by dogs, and, an emblem of his own high dignity, a hawk on his fist.

One great value of this tapestry is the scrupulous regard paid to points and circumstances which at first view might appear insignificant, but which, as correlative confirmations of usages and facts, are of considerable importance. Thus, it is known to antiquarians that great personages formerly had two only modes of equipment when proceeding on a journey, that of war or the chase. Harold is here fully equipped for the chase, and consequently the first glimpse obtained of his person would show that his errand was one of peace. The hawk on the fist was a mark of high nobility: no inferior person is represented with one: Harold and Guy Earl of Ponthieu alone bear them.

In former times this bird was esteemed so sacred that it was prohibited in the ancient laws for any one to give his hawk even as a part of his ransom. In the reign of Edward the Third it was made felony to steal a hawk; and to take its eggs, even in a person's own ground, was punishable with imprisonment for a year and a day, besides a fine at the king's pleasure. Nay, more than this, by the laws of one part of the island, and probably of the whole,[11] the price of a hawk, or of a greyhound, Was once the very same with the price of a man; and there was a time when the robbing of a hawk's nest was as great a crime in the eye of the law, and as severely punished, as the murder of a Christian. And of this high value they were long considered. "It is difficult," says Mr. Mills,[12] "to fancy the extravagant degree of estimation in which hawks were held during the chivalric ages. As symbols of high estate they were constantly carried about by the nobility of both sexes. There was even a usage of bringing them into places appropriated to public worship; a practice which, in the case of some individuals, appears to have been recognised as a right. The treasurer of the church of Auxerre enjoyed the distinction of assisting at divine service on solemn days with a falcon on his fist; and the Lord of Sassai held the privilege of perching his upon the altar. Nothing was thought more dishonourable to a man of rank than to give up his hawks; and if he were taken prisoner he would not resign them even for liberty."

The different positions in which the hawk is placed in our needlework are worthy of remark. Here its head is raised, its wings fluttering, as if eager and ready for flight; afterwards, when Harold follows the Earl of Ponthieu as his captive, he is not, of course, deprived of his bird, but by a beautiful fiction the bird is represented depressed, and with its head turned towards its master's breast as if trying to nestle and shelter itself there. Could sympathy be more poetically expressed? Afterwards, on Harold's release, the bird is again depicted as fluttering to "soar elate."

The practice very prevalent in these "barbarous times," as we somewhat too sweepingly term them, of entering on no expedition of war or pastime without imploring the protection of heaven, is intimated by a church which Harold is entering previously to his embarkation. That this observance might degenerate in many instances into mere form may be very true; and the "hunting masses" celebrated in song might, some of them, be more honoured in the breach than the observance: nevertheless in clearing away the dross of old times, we have, it is to be feared, removed some of the gold also; and the abolition of the custom of having the churches open at all times, so that at any moment the heart-prompted prayer might be offered up under the holy shelter of a consecrated roof, has tended very much, it is to be feared, to abolish the habit of frequent prayer. A habit in itself, and regarded even merely as a habit, fraught with inestimable good.

We next see Harold and his companions refreshing themselves prior to their departure, pledging each other, and doubtless drinking to the success of their enterprise whatever it might be. The horns from which they are drinking have been the subject of critical remark. We find that horns were used for various purposes, and were of four sorts, drinking horns, hunting horns, horns for summoning the people, and of a mixed kind.

They were used as modes of investiture, and this manner of endowing was usual amongst the Danes in England. King Canute himself gave lands at Pusey in Berkshire to the family of that name, with a horn solemnly at that time delivered, as a confirmation of the grant. Edward the Confessor made a like donation to the family of Nigel. The celebrated horn of Alphus, kept in the sacristy in York Minster, was probably a drinking cup belonging to this prince, and was by him given together with ail his lands and revenues to that church. "When he gave the horn that was to convey it (his estate) he filled it with wine, and on his knees before the altar, 'Deo et S. Petro omnes terras et redditus propinavit.' So that he drank it off, in testimony that thereby he gave them his lands."[13] Many instances might be adduced to show that this mode of investiture was common in England in the time of the Danes, the Anglo-Saxons, and at the close of the reign of the Norman conqueror.

The drinking horns had frequently a screw at the end, which being taken off at once converted them into hunting horns, which circumstance will account for persons of distinction frequently carrying their own. Such doubtless were those used of old by the Breton hunters about Brecheliant, which is poetically described as a forest long and broad, much famed throughout Brittany. The fountain of Berenton rises from beneath a stone there. Thither the hunters are used to repair in sultry weather, and drawing up water with their horns (those horns which had just been used to sound the animated warnings of the chase), they sprinkle the stone for the purpose of having rain, which is then wont to fall throughout the whole forest around. There too fairies are to be seen, and many wonders happen. The ground is broken and precipitous, and deer in plenty roam there, but the husbandmen have forsaken it. Our author[14] goes on to say that he personally visited this enchanted region, but that, though he saw the forest and the land, no marvels presented themselves. The reason is obvious. He had, before the time, contracted some of the scepticism of these matter-of-fact "schoolmaster abroad" days. He wanted faith, and therefore he did not deserve to see them.

The use of drinking horns is very ancient They were usually embellished or garnished with silver; they were in very common use among our Saxon ancestors, who frequently had them gilded and magnificently ornamented. One of those in use amongst Harold's party seems to be very richly decorated.

The revellers are, however, obliged to dispatch, as their leader, Harold, is already wading through the water to his vessel. The character of Harold as displayed throughout this tapestry is a magnificent one, and does infinite credit to the generous and noble disposition of Matilda the queen, who disdained to depreciate the character of a fallen foe. He commences his expedition by an act of piety; here, on his embarkation at Bosham, he is kindly carrying his dog through the water. In crossing the sands of the river Cosno, which are dangerous, so very dangerous as most frequently to cause the destruction of those who' attempt their transit, his whole concern seems to be to assist the passage of others, whose inferior natural powers do not enable them to compete with danger so successfully as himself; his character for undaunted bravery is such, that William condescends to supplicate his assistance in a feud then at issue between himself and another nobleman, and so nobly does he bear himself that the proud Norman with his own hands invests him with the emblems of honour (as seen in the tapestry); and, last scene of all, he disdained all submission, he repelled all the entreaties with which his brothers assailed him not personally to lead his troops to the encounter, and the corpses of 15,000 Normans on this field, and of even a greater number on the English monarch's side, told in bloody characters that Harold had not quailed in the last great encounter.

Unpropitious winds drive him and his attendants from their intended course. Many historians accuse the people of Ponthieu of making prisoners all whose ill fortune threw them upon their coast, and of treating them with great barbarity, in order to extort the larger ransom. Be this as it may, Harold has scarcely set his foot on shore ere he is forcibly captured by the vassals of Guy of Ponthieu, who is there on horseback to witness the proceeding. The tapestry goes on to picture the progress of the captured troop and their captors to Belrem or Beurain, and a conference when there between the earl and his prisoner, where the fair embroideresses have given a delicate and expressive feature by depicting the conquering noble with his sword elevated, and the princely captive, wearing indeed his sword, but with the point depressed.

It is said that a fisherman of Ponthieu, who had been often in England and knew Harold's person, was the cause of his capture. "He went privily to Guy, the Count of Pontif, and would speak to no other; and he told the Count how he could put a great prize in his way, if he would go with him; and that if he would give him only twenty livres he should gain a hundred by it, for he would deliver him such a prisoner as would pay a hundred livres or more for his ransome." The Count agreed to his terms, and then the fisherman showed him Harold.

Hearing of Harold's captivity, William the Norman is anxious on all and every account to obtain possession of his person. He consequently sends ambassadors to Guy, who is represented on the tapestry as giving them audience. The person holding the horses is somewhat remarkable; he is a bearded dwarf. Dwarfs were formerly much sought after in the houses of great folks, and they were frequently sent as presents from one potentate to another. They were petted and indulged somewhat in the way of the more modern fool or jester. The custom is very old. The Romans were so fond of them, that they often used artificial methods to prevent the growth of children designed for dwarfs, by enclosing them in boxes, or by the use of tight bandages. The sister of one of the Roman emperors had a dwarf who was only two feet and a hand breadth in height. Many relations concerning dwarfs we may look upon as not less fabulous than those of giants. They are, like the latter, indispensable in romances, where their feats, far from being dwarfish, are absolutely gigantic, though these diminutive heroes seldom occupy any more ostensible post than that of humble attendant.

"Fill'd with these views th' attendant dwarf she sends:
Before the knight the dwarf respectful bends;
Kind greetings bears as to his lady's guest,
And prays his presence to adorn her feast.
The knight delays not."

"A hugye giaunt stiffe and starke,
All foule of limbe and lere;
Two goggling eyen like fire farden,
A mout he from eare to eare.
Before him came a dwarffe full lowe,
That waited on his knee—Sib Cauline.

Behind her farre away a dwarfe did lag
That lasie seem'd, in being ever last,
Or wearied with bearing of her bag
Of needments at his backe.—Faerie Queens.

The dwarf worked in the tapestry has the name Tvrold placed above him, and seems to have been a dependant of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William the Conqueror's brother [15]

The first negotiations are unsuccessful; more urgent messages are forwarded, and in the end Duke William himself proceeds at the head of some troops to compel the surrender of the prisoner. Count Guy is intimidated, and the object is attained; every stage of these proceedings is depicted on the canvas, as well as William's courteous reception of Harold at his palace.

The portraiture of a female in a sort of porch, with a clergyman in the act of pronouncing a benediction on her, is supposed to have reference to the engagement between William and his guest, that the latter should marry the daughter of the former. Many other circumstances and conditions were tacked to this agreement, one of which was that Harold should guard the English throne for William; agreements which one and all—under the reasonable plea that they were enforced ones—the Anglo-Saxon nobleman broke through. It is said that his desertion so affected the mind of the pious young princess,[16] that her heart broke on her passage to Spain, whither they were conveying her to a forced union with a Spanish prince. As this young lady was a mere child at the time of Harold's visit to Normandy, the story, though exceedingly pretty, is probably very apocryphal. Ducarel gives an entirely different explanation of the scene, and says that it is probably meant to represent a secretary or officer coming to William's duchess, to acquaint her with the agreement just made relative to her daughter.

The Earl of Bretagne is at this moment at war with Duke William, and the latter attaching Harold to his party, from whom indeed he receives effectual service, arrives at Mount St. Michel, passes the river Cosno (to which we have before alluded), and arrives at Dol in Brittany. Parties are seen flying towards Rennes. William and his followers attack Dinant, of which the keys are delivered up, and the Normans come peaceably to Bayeux; William having previously, with his own hands, invested Harold with a suit of armour.

Harold shortly returns to England, but not before a very important circumstance had taken place. William and Harold had mutually entered into an agreement by which the latter had pledged himself to be true to William, to acknowledge him as Edward's successor on the English throne, and to do all in his power to obtain for him the peaceable possession of that throne; and as Harold was, the reigning monarch excepted, the first man in England, this promised support was of no trifling moment. William resolved therefore to have the oath repeated with all possible solemnity. His brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, assisted him in this matter. Accordingly we see Harold standing between two altars covered with cloth of gold, a hand on each, uttering the solemn adjuration, of which William, seated on his throne, is a delighted auditor; for he well knew that the oath was more fearful than Harold was at all aware of. For "William sent for all the holy bodies thither, and put so many of them together as to fill a whole chest, and then covered them with a pall; but Harold neither
saw them, nor knew of their being there, for nought was shown or told to him about it; and over all was a phylactery, the best that he could select. When Harold placed his hand upon it, the hand trembled and the flesh quivered; but he swore, and promised upon his oath, to take Ele to wife, and to deliver up England to the duke; and thereunto to do all in his power, according to his might and wit, after the death of Edward, if he should live, so help him God and the holy relics there! (meaning the Gospels, for he had none idea of any other). Many cried 'God grant it!' and when Harold had kissed the saints, and had risen upon his feet, the duke led him up to the chest, and made him stand near it; and took off the chest the pall that had covered it, and showed Harold upon what holy relics he had sworn, and he was sorely alarmed at the sight."



"But bloody bloody was the field,
Ere that lang day was done."—Hardyknute.

"King William bithought him alsoe of that
Folke that was forlorne,
And slayn also thoruz him
In the bataile biforne.
And ther as the bataile was,
An abbey he lite rere
Of Seint Martin, for the soules
That there slayn were.
And the monkes well ynoug
Feffed without fayle,
That is called in Englonde
Abbey of Bataile."

Immediately after the solemn ceremony described in the foregoing chapter, Harold is depicted as returning to England and presenting himself before the king, Edward the Confessor. "But the day came that no man can escape, and King Edward drew near to die." His deathbed and his funeral procession are both wrought in the tapestry, but by some accident have been transposed. His remains are borne in splendid procession to the magnificent house which he had builded (i.e. rebuilded), Westminster Abbey; over which, in the sky, a hand is seen to point as if in benediction. It is well known that the Abbey was barely finished at the time of the pious monarch's death, and this circumstance is intimated in an intelligible though homely manner in the tapestry by a person occupied in placing a weathercock on the summit of the building.

The first pageant seen within its walls was the funeral array of the monarch who so beautifully rebuilt and so amply endowed it. Before the high altar, in a splendid shrine, where gems and jewelry flashed back the gleams of innumerable torches, and amid the solemn chant of the monks, whose "Miserere" echoed through the vaulted aisles, interrupted but by the subdued wail of the mourners, or the emphatic benediction of the poor whose friend he had been, were laid the remains of him who was called the Sainted Edward; whose tomb was considered so hallowed a spot that the very stones around it were worn down by the knees of the pilgrims who resorted thither for prayer; and the very dust of whose shrine was carefully swept and collected, exported to the continent, and bought by devotees at a high price.

We next see in the tapestry the crown offered to Harold (a circumstance to be peculiarly remarked, since thus depicted by his opponent's wife), and then Harold shows right royally receiving the homage and gratulations of those around.

But the next scene forbodes a change of fortune: "ISTI MIRANT STELLA," is the explanation wrought over it. For there appeared "a biasing starre, which was seene not onelie here in England, but also in other parts of the world, and continued the space of seven daies. This biasing starre might be a prediction of mischeefe imminent and hanging over Harold's head; for they never appeare but as prognosticats of afterclaps."

Popular belief has generally invested these ill-omened bodies with peculiar terrors. "These biasing starres—dreadful to be seene, with bloudie haires, and all over rough and shagged at the top." They vary, however, in their appearance. Sometimes they are pale, and glitter like a sword, without any rays or beams. Such was the one which is said to have hung over Jerusalem for near a year before its destruction, filling the minds of all who beheld it with awe and superstitious dread. A comet resembling a horn appeared when the "whole manhood of Greece fought the battaile of Salamis." Comets foretold the war between Caesar and Pompey, the murder of Claudius, and the tyranny of Nero. Though usually, they were not invariably, considered as portents of evil omen: for the birth and accession of Alexander, of Mithridates, the birth of Charles Martel, and the accession of Charlemagne, and the commencement of the T&t&r empire, were all notified by blazing stars. A very brilliant one which appeared for seven consecutive nights soon after the death of Julius Caesar was supposed to be conveying the soul of the murdered dictator to Olympus. An author who wrote on one which appeared in the reign of Elizabeth was most anxious, as in duty bound, to apply the phenomenon to the queen. But here was the puzzle. "To have foretold calamities might have been misprision of treason; and the only precedent for saying anything good of a comet was to be drawn from that which occurred after the death of Julius Caesar;" but it so happened that at this time Elizabeth was by no means either ripe or willing for her apotheosis.[17] Comets, one author writes, "were made to the end the etherial regions might not be more void of monsters than the ocean is of whales and other great thieving fishes, and that a gross fatness being gathered together as excrements into an im-posthume, the celestial air might thereby be purged, lest the sun should be obscured." Another says, they "signifie corruption of the ayre. They are signes of earthquake, of warres, chaunging of kyng-domes, great dearth of corne, yea, a common death of man and beast." So a poet of the same age:—

"There with long bloody hair a blazing star
Threatens the world with famine, plague, and war;
To princes death, to kingdoms many crosses,
To all estates inevitable losses;
To herdsmen rot, to plowmen hapless seasons,
To sailors storins, to cities civil treasons."

But a writer on comets in 1665 crowned all previous conjecture. "As if God and Nature intended by comets to ring the knells of princes; esteeming the bells of churches upon earth not sacred enough for such illustrious and eminent performances."

No wonder that the comet in Harold's days was regarded with fearful misgivings.

It did not, however, dismay him. Duke William, as may be supposed, did not tamely submit to a usurpation of what he considered, or affected to consider, his own dominions—a circumstance which we see an envoy, probably from his party in England, makes him acquainted with. He holds a council, seemingly an earnest and animated one, which evidently results in the immediate preparation of a fleet; of which the tapestry delineates the various stages and circumstances, from the felling of the timber in its native woods to the launching of the vessels, stored and fully equipped in arms, provisions, and heroes for invasion and conquest.

William in this expedition received unusual assistance from his own tributary chiefs, and from various other allies, who joined his standard, and without whom, indeed, he could not, with any chance of success, have made his daring attempt. A summer and autumn were spent in fitting-up the fleet and collecting the forces, "and there was no knight in the land, no good serjeant, archer, nor peasant of stout heart, and of age for battle, that the duke did not summon to go with him to England; promising rents to the vavassors, and honours to the barons." Thus was an armament prepared of seven hundred ships, but the one which bore William, the hero of the expedition, shone proudly pre-eminent over the rest. It was the gift of his affectionate queen. It is represented in the canvas of larger size than the others: the mast, surmounted by a cross, bears the banner which was sent to William by the Pope as a testimony of his blessing and approbation On this mast also a beacon-light nightly blazed as a point d'approche of the remainder of the fleet. On the poop was the figure of a boy (supposed to be meant for the conqueror's youngest son), gilded, and looking earnestly towards England, holding in one hand a banner, in the other an ivory horn, on which he is sounding a joyful reveillee.

But long the fleet waited at St. Valeri for a fair wind, until the barons became weary and dispirited. Then they prayed the convent to bring out the shrine of St. Valeri and set it on a carpet in the plain; and all came praying the holy relics that they might be allowed to pass over sea. They offered so much money, that the relics were buried beneath it; and from that day forth they had good weather and a fair wind. "Than Willyam thanked God and Saynt Valary, and toke shortly after shyp-pynge, and helde his course towarde Englande."

On the arrival of the fleet in England a banquet is prepared. The shape of the table at which William sits has been the theme of some curious remarks by Father Montfaucon, which have been copied by Ducarel and others. It is in form of a half-moon, and was called by the Romans sigma, from the Greek c. It was calculated only for seven persons; and a facetious emperor once invited eight, on purpose to raise a laugh against the person for whom there would be no place.

"A knight in that country (Britain) heard the noise and cry made by the peasants and villains when they saw the great fleet arrive. He well knew that the Normans were come, and that their object was to seize the land. He posted himself behind a hill, so that they should not see him, and tarried there watching the arrival of the great fleet. He saw the archers come forward from the ships, and the knights follow. He saw the carpenters with their axes, and the host of people and troops. He saw the men throw the materials for the fort out of the ships. He saw them build up and enclose the fort, and dig the fosse around it. He saw them land the shields and armour. And as he beheld all this his spirit was troubled; and he girt his sword and took his lance, saying he would go straightway to King Harold and tell the news. Forthwith he set out on his way, resting late and rising early; and thus he journeyed on by night and by day to seek Harold his lord." And we see him in the tapestry speeding to his beloved master.

Meanwhile Harold is not idle. But the fleet which, in expectation of his adversary's earlier arrival, he had stationed on the southern coast, had lately dispersed from want of provisions, and the King, occupied by the Norwegian invasion, had not been able to reinstate it; and "William came against him (says the Saxon chronicle) unawares, ere his army was collected." Thus the enemy found nor opposition nor hinderance in obtaining a footing in the island.

Taken at such disadvantage, Harold did all that a brave man could do to repel his formidable adversary. The tapestry depicts, as well as may be expected, the battle.

"The priests had watched all night, and besought and called upon God, and prayed to him in their chapels, which were fitted up throughout the host They offered and vowed fasts, penances, and orisons; they said psalms and misereres, litanies and kyriels; they cried on God, and for his mercy, and said paternosters and masses; some the SPIRITUS DOMINI, OTHERS SALUS POPULI,and many SALVE SANCTE PARENS, being suited to the season, as belonging to that day, which was Saturday.


"Then Taillefer, who sang right well, rode, mounted on a swift horse, before the duke.

"Loud and far resounded the bray of the horns, and the shocks of the lances, the mighty strokes of clubs, and the quick clashing of swords. One while the Englishmen rushed on, another while they fell back; one while the men from over sea charged onwards, and again at other times retreated. When the English fall, the Normans shout. Each side taunts and defies the other, yet neither knoweth what the other saith; and the Normans say the English bark, because they understand not their speech.

"Some wax strong, others weak; the brave exult, but the cowards tremble, as men who are sore dismayed. The Normans press on the assault, and the English defend their post well; they pierce the hauberks and cleave the shields; receive and return mighty blows. Again some press forwards, others yield, and thus in various ways the struggle proceeds."

The death of Harold's two brothers is depicted, and, finally, his own. It is said that his mother offered the weight of the body in gold to have the melancholy satisfaction of interring it, and that the Conqueror refused the boon. But other writers affirm, and apparently with truth, that William immediately transmitted the body, unransomed, to the bereaved parent, who had it interred in the monastery of Waltham.

With the death of Harold the tapestry now ends, though some writers think it probable that it once extended as far as the coronation of William. There can be little doubt of its having been intended to extend so far, though it is impossible now to ascertain whether the Queen was ever enabled quite to complete her Herculean task. Enough there is, however, to stamp it as one of the "most noble and interesting relics of antiquity;" and, as Dibdin calls it, "an exceedingly curious document of the conjugal attachment, and even enthusiastic veneration of Matilda, and a political record of more weight than may at first sight appear to belong to it." Taking it altogether, he adds, "none but itself could be its parallel."
Almost all historians describe the Normans as advancing to the onset "singing the song of Roland," that is, a detail of the achievements of the slaughtered hero of Roncesvalles, which is well known to have been, for ages after the event to which it refers, a note of magical inspiration to deeds of "derring do." On this occasion it is recorded that the spirit note was sung by the minstrel Taillefer, who was, however, little contented to lead his countrymen by voice alone. It is not possible that our readers can be otherwise than pleased with the following animated account of his deeds[18]:—


"Foremost in the bands of France,
Arm'd with hauberk and with lance,
And helmet glittering in the air,
As if a warrior-knight he were,
Rushed 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 Roncesvalles' field.

"Harold's host he soon descried,
Clustering on the hill's steep side:
Then turned him back brave Taillefer,
And thus to William urged his prayer:
'Great Sire, it fits me not to tell
'How long I've served you, or how well;
'Yet if reward my lays may claim,
'Grant now the boon 1 dare to name;
'Minstrel no more, be mine the blow
'That first shall strike yon perjured foe.'
'Thy suit is gained,' the Duke replied,
'Our gallant minstrel be our guide.'
'Enough,' he cried, 'with joy I speed,
'Foremost to vanquish or to bleed.'

And still of Roland's deeds he sung,
While Norman shouts responsive rung,
As high in air his lance he flung,
With well directed might;
Back came the lance into his hand,
Like urchin's ball, or juggler's wand,
And twice again, at bis command,
Whirled its unerring flight—
While doubting whether skill or charm
Had thus inspired the minstrel's arm,
The Saxons saw the wondrous dart
Fixed in their standard bearer's heart.

Now thrice aloft his sword he threw,
'Midst sparkling sunbeams dancing,
And downward thrice the weapon flew,
Like meteor o'er the evening dew,
From summer sky swift glancing:
And while amazement gasped for breath,
Another Saxon groaned in death.

More wonders yet!—on signal made,
With mane erect, and eye-balls flashing,
The well taught courser rears his head,
His teeth in ravenous fury gnashing;
He snorts—he foams—and upward springs—
Plunging he fastens on the foe,
And down his writhing victim flingst
Crushed by the wily minstrel's blow.
Thus seems it to the hostile band
Enchantment all, and fairy land.

Fain would I leave the rest unsung:—
The Saxon ranks, to madness stung,
Headlong rushed with frenzied start,
Hurling javelin, mace, and dart;
No shelter from the iron shower
Sought Taillefer in that sad hour;

Yet still he beckoned to the field,
'Frenchman, come on—the Saxons yield—
'Strike quick—strike home—in Roland's name—
'For William's glory—Harold's shame.'
Then pierced with wounds, stretched side by side,
The minstrel and his courser died."

We have dwelt on the details of the tapestry with a prolixity which some may deem tedious. Yet surely the subject is worthy of it; for, in the first place, it is the oldest piece of needlework in the world—the only piece of that era now existing; and this circumstance in itself suggests many interesting ideas, on which, did our space permit, we could readily dilate. Ages have rolled away; and the fair hands that wrought this Work have mouldered away into dust; and the gentle and affectionate spirit that suggested this elaborate memorial has long since passed from the scene which it adorned and dignified. In no long period after the battle thus commemorated, an abbey, consecrated to praise and prayer, raised its stately walls on the very field that was ploughed with the strife and watered with the blood of fierce and evil men. The air that erst rang with the sounds of wrath, of strife, of warfare, the clangour of armour, the din of war, was now made musical with the chorus of praise, or was gently stirred by the breath of prayer or the sigh of penitence; and where contending hosts were marshalled in proud array, or the phalanx rushed impetuous to the battle, were seen the stoled monks in solemn procession, or the holy brother peacefully wending on his errand of charity.

But the grey and time-honoured walls waxed aged as they beheld generation after generation consigned to dust beneath their shelter. Time and change have done their worst. A few scattered ruins, seen dimly through the mist of years, are all that remain to point to the inquiring wanderer the site of the stupendous struggle of which the results are felt even after the expiration of eight hundred years.

These may be deemed trite reflections: still it is worthy of remark, that many of the turbulent spirits who then made earth echo with their fame would have been literally and altogether as though they never had been—for historians make little or no mention of them—were it not for the lasting monument raised to them in this tapestry by woman's industry and skill.

Matilda the Queen's character is pictured in high terms by both English and Norman historians. "So very stern was her husband, and hot, that no man durst do anything against his will. He had earls in his custody who acted against his will. Bishops he hurled from their bishoprics, and abbots from their abbacies, and thanes into prison;" yet it is recorded that even his iron temper was not proof against the good sense, the gentleness, the piety, and the affection of a wife who never offended him but once; and on this occasion there was so much to palliate and excuse her fault, proceeding as it did from a mother's yearnings towards her eldest son when he was in disgrace and sorrow, that the usually unyielding King forgave her immediately. She lived beloved, and she died lamented; and, from the time of her death, the King, says William of Malmesbury, "refrained from every gratification."

Independently of the value of this tapestry as an historical authority, and its interest as being projected, and in part executed, by a lady as excellent in character as she was noble in rank, and its high estimation as the oldest piece of needlework extant —independently of all these circumstances, it is impossible to study this memorial closely, "rude and skilless" as it at first appears, without becoming deeply interested in the task. The outline engravings of it in the "Tapisseries Anciennes Historiees" are beautifully executed, but are inferior in interest to Mr. Stothart's (published by the Society of Antiquarians), because these have the advantage of being coloured accurately from the original. In the study of these plates alone, days and weeks glided away, nor left us weary of our task.


[1] Archaeologia, vol. xvii.

[2] Biblio. Tour, vol. i., 138.

[3] Archaeol. vols, xviii., xix.

[4] One writer, Bolton Corney, Esq., maintains that this work was provided at the expense of the Chapter of Bayeux, under their superintendence, and from their designs. "If it had not (says he) been devised within the precincts of a church it could not have escaped female influence: it could not have contained such indications of celibatic superintendence. It is not without its domestic and festive scenes; and comprises, exclusive of the borders, about 530 figures; but in this number there are only three females."

[5] Henry III., 25.

[6] Archaeol. vol. xix.

[7] The attempts to imitate the human figure were, at this period, stiff and rude: but arabesque patterns were now chiefly worked; and they were rich and varied.

[8] Henry III., 554.

[9] Fabyan's Chron.

[10] Rastell's Chron.

[11] Henry II., 515.

[12] Hist. Chiv.i., 163.

[13] Archaeol. 1 and 3.

[14] Master Wace. Roman de Rou, &c., by Taylor.

[15] Archaeologia, lvo. xix.

[16] "Her knees were like horn with constant kneeling."

[17] The Comet of 1618 carried dismay and horror in its course. Not only mighty monarchs, but the humblest private individuals seem to have considered the sign as sent to them, and to have set a doable guard on all their actions. Thus Sir Symonds D'Ewes, the learned antiquary, having been in danger of an untimely end by entangling himself among some bell-ropes, makes a memorandum in his private diary never more to exercise himself in bell-ringing when there is a comet in the sky.—Aikin.

[18] By Thomas Amyot, Esq., F.S.A.—Archaol., vol.xix.

Return to Main Index