The Bayeux Tapestry: Why all the fuss?
Last week at Sandhurst, President Macron announced that the French were willing to lend Britain the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70m long embroidered account of the events surrounding the conquest of England in 1066. The enduing media storm covered everything from BBC Newsnight to local radio, and places all over the country put in a claim as a great place to host the Tapestry. But why all the fuss? What is so special about the Bayeux Tapestry that for a few days, it gripped the media?
The Bayeux Tapestry, probably made in southern England between the late 1060s and 1070s under the patronage of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, is an amazing testament to the events of 1066 in England. In October of that year, William Duke of Normandy sailed his fleet across the Channel and engaged King Harold in Battle, killing him and taking the throne for himself.
The Tapestry celebrates his achievements, but it also goes to some lengths to explain why William invaded England. The narrative told in the Tapestry, as far as we can interpret it, probably shows that the English crown was promised to William by Edward the Confessor, and that Harold (then an earl), swore on the holy relics of Bayeux Cathedral to recognise William’s claim. When the time came, Harold instead usurped the throne and thus William was fully justified in invading to claim back what was rightfully his.
But it also much more than that. The Tapestry is full of ambiguous messages, scenes or figures we cannot identify with certainty, and details of life in 1066. Sympathetic portrayal of the Anglo-Saxon figures have led some to suggest there are subversive messages in the piece, but there by its Anglo-Saxon creators.
Using the Tapestry
Whatever the makers of the Bayeux Tapestry hoped to convey with their work, in the modern era it has been appropriated by others who want to use its perceived message for themselves. Napoleon looked to the Bayeux Tapestry when he wanted advice on how to Conquer England in the early 1800s.
The Nazis wanted to get their hands on the Tapestry for quite another reason. The Ahnenerbe or ‘Ancestral Heritage’ division of the SS was obsessed with proving the existence of a pure Aryan race, saw the Tapestry as proof of this. The Normans, descended from the Vikings, were just the sort of racial type they wanted to associate themselves with. Moreover, the Tapestry had potential propaganda value for the Nazis, as it showed the Normans conquered England
Bayeux and Brexit
Many people see the Tapestry as a triumphalist celebration of William’s conquest of England and destruction of the Anglo-Saxon natives – for that reason it has a particular resonance for today’s Brexit story. Nigel Farage infamously wore a tie depicting the Tapestry in 2014, claiming he did so as a reminder of ‘the last time we were invaded and taken over.” For Farage and others, the Conquest of 1066 symbolises the end of English rule by the English – the Anglo-Saxons – in the same way that the EU stopped England’s self-rule in the twentieth century.
As a result, modern commentators reacting to the news about the Tapestry are using – and abusing – the history of the Tapestry and what it represents to say something about Anglo-France, and Anglo-EU relations. The headlines over the past week, as is so often the case, overlook the sheer complexities of the Tapestry, and the difficulties historians have in agreeing on its interpretation.
Dr Kathryn Hurlock
Manchester Metropolitan University
Not sure if you want further reading? If you do, Carola Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry: the Life Story of a Masterpiece (2007)