The following is an excerpt from the 1910 book The Tapestry Book by Helen Churchill Candee. The full chapter can be found here from the Project Gutenberg.

Bayeux Tapestry overview

Bayeux Tapestry

“To begin with, then, we say frankly that it is not a tapestry; that it has no place in this book. And then we will trail its length through a short review of its history and its interest as a human document of the first order.

“In itself it is a strip of holland—brown, heavy linen cloth, measuring in length about two hundred and thirty-one feet, and in width, nineteen and two-thirds inches—remarkable dimensions which are accounted for in the [Pg 242] neatest way. The hanging was used in the cathedral of the little French city of Bayeux, draped entirely around the nave of the Norman Cathedral, which space it exactly covered. This indicates to archeologists the original purpose of the hanging.

“On the brown linen is embroidered in coloured wools a panoramic succession of incidents, with border top and bottom. The colours are but eight, two shades each of green and blue, with yellow, dove-colour, red and brown.

“This, in brief, is the great Bayeux tapestry. But its threads breathe history; its stitches sing romance; and we who love to touch humorously the spirits of brothers who lived so long ago, find here the matter that humanly unites the Eleventh Century with the Twentieth.

“The subject is the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. That is fixed beyond a doubt, so that the precious cloth cannot trail its ends any further back into antiquity than that event. However, even the most insatiable antiquarian of European specialties is smilingly content with such a date…”

Excerpt of Harold from the Bayeux Tapestry

“The history it portrays in all its seventy-odd yards is easy enough to verify. That is like working out a puzzle with the key in hand. But the history of this keenly interesting embroidery is not so easy.

“The records are niggardly. Inventories record it in 1369 and 1476. In an inventory of the Bishop of Bayeux it is mentioned in 1563. About this time it was in ecclesiastical hands and used for decorating the nave of the Bayeux Cathedral…”

File:Tapestry by unknown weaver - The Bayeux Tapestry (detail) - WGA24162.jpg

Excerpt from the Bayeux Tapestry

“The pictures of the great embroidery are such as a child might draw, for crudeness; but the archeologist knows [Pg 246] how to read into them a thousand vital points. History helps out, too, with the story of Harold, moustached like the proper Englishman of to-day, taking a commission from William, riding gaily out on a gentleman’s errand, not a warrior’s. This is shown by the falcon on his wrist, that wonderful bird of the Middle Ages that marked the gentleman by his associations, marked the high-born man on an errand of peace or pleasure.

“In these travelling days, no sooner do we land in Normandy than Mount St. Michael looms up as a happy pilgrimage. So to the same religious refuge Harold went on the pictured cloth, crossed the adjacent river in peril, and—how pleasingly does the past leap up and tap the present—he floundered in the quicksands that surround the Mount, and about which the driver of your carriage across the passerelle will tell you recent tales of similar flounderings.

“And when in Brittany, who does not go to tumbley-down Dinan to see its ancient gates and walls, its palaces of Queen Anne, its lurching crowd of houses? It is thither that Harold, made of threads of ancient wool, sped and gave battle after the manner of his time.

“Another link to make us love this relic of the olden time: It is the star, the star so great that the space of the picture is all too small to place it; so the excited hands of the embroiderers set it outside the limit, in the border.

Harold and "the star" that portends the end of his reign, from the Bayeux Tapestry

“It flames over false Harold’s head and he remembers sombrely that it is an omen of a change of rule. He is king now, has usurped a throne, has had himself crowned. But for how long is he monarch, with this flaming menace [Pg 247] burning into his courage? The year finishing saw the prophecy fulfilled by the coming of the conqueror.

“It was this section of the tapestry that, when it came to Paris, had power to startle Napoleon, ever superstitious, ever ready to read signs. The star over Harold’s head reminded him of the possible brevity of his own eminence.

“The star that blazed in 1066—we have found it. It was not imaginary. Behold how prettily the bits of history fit together, even though we go far afield to find those bits. This one comes from China. Records were better kept there in those times than in Christian Europe; and the Chinese astronomers write of a star appearing April 2, 1066, which was seen first in the early morning sky, then after a time disappeared to reappear in the evening sky, with a flaming tail, most agreeably sensational. It was Halley’s comet, the same that we watched in 1910 with no superstitious fear at all for princes nor for powers. But it is interesting to know that our modern comet was recorded in China in the Eleventh Century, and has its portrait on the Bayeux tapestry, and that it frightened the great Harold into a fit of guilty conscience.

“The archeologist gives reason for the faith that is in him concerning the Bayeux tapestry by reading the language of its details, such as the style of arms used by its preposterous soldiers; by gestures; by groupings of its figures; and we are only too glad to believe his wondrous deductions.

“There are in all fifteen hundred and twelve figures in this celebrated cloth, if one includes birds, beasts, boats, [Pg 248] et cetera, with the men; and amidst all this elongated crowd is but one woman. Queen Matilda, left at home for months, immured with her ladies, probably had quite enough of women to refrain easily from portraying them. Needless to say, this one embroidered lady interests poignantly the archeologist.

“Most of the animals are in the border—active little beasts who make a running accompaniment to the tale they adorn. This excepts the very wonderful horses ridden by knights of action.

The tapestry as a primary source

Trees are used as punctuation in the Bayeux Tapestry

“Scenes of the pictured history of William’s conquest are divided one from the other by trees. Possibly the archeologist sees in these evidences of extinct varieties, for not in all this round, green world do trees grow like unto those of the Bayeux tapestry. They are dream trees from the gardens of the Hesperides, and set in useful decoration to divide event from event and to give sensations to the student of the tree in ornament.

“Such is the Bayeux tapestry, which, as was conscientiously forewarned, is not a tapestry at all, but the most interesting embroidery of Europe.”

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