Let me count the ways the Bayeux Tapestry was almost destroyed…

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The Star – figures in the Bayeux Tapestry pointing at a bad omen: what is now known as Halley’s Comet, spotted in the sky on April 24th, 1066. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

On a rainy day in Normandy last month, I made an obligatory pilgrimage to see the Bayeux Tapestry. I was fairly impressed with their audio guide, which walked visitors along the narrative of the embroidery alongside medieval music. It wasn’t so busy on a weekday in April that we couldn’t go back to the start of the embroidery to revisit and more closely examine certain sections. My favourite details among many are the dwarf Tuvold holding a pair of horses and the appearance of what we now know as Haley’s Comet.

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The figure of Turold, as he appears in the Bayeux Tapestry. Image source: this History Notes blog post.

I always like to support museums through their gift shops (they often have the most meaningful souvenirs for me, a history nerd), so while there I picked up a copy of The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks.

This book delves into a series of fascinating anecdotes covering not only what we can actually know of how/when/why the embroidery was originally made (which includes surprisingly little solid documentary evidence, mostly assumptions based on material culture and lots of fierce debating over the centuries) but also what’s happened to it over the last 900+ years. Much of that is a series of anecdotes detailing how it was damaged or narrowly avoided being lost or destroyed. Here are some highlights from the Bayeux Tapestry’s biography:

  • It has survived more than one fire and centuries of moths.
  • It wasn’t stolen, destroyed, or damaged like most of the other church treasures by a mob that ransacked the Bayeux Cathedral on May 10th, 1562.
  • Maybe at some point it was longer and pieces were removed. Judging from the assumption of narrative and visual symmetry, there was likely a scene at the end depicting William the Conqueror’s coronation. It may have been removed early on in the embroidery’s history and it’s lucky more of it wasn’t sliced away.
  • It is said that the tapestry was nearly cut up and used as a canvas cart covering during the French Revolution and only the timely arrival of a local official rescued the textile from this ignominious fate.
  • After the Revolution, it could have been brought to the Louvre in Paris like so many other regional pieces of art and could have easily been damaged or stolen on the way to Paris or afterwards.
  • It was nearly sliced into different sections to be used in a parade.
  • It actually was brought to Paris to be displayed under Napoleon. An ancient “document” such as this displaying a successful French invasion of England was an excellent propaganda coup during the war. It was luckily returned to its home in Bayeux unscathed.
  • For at least a century it was displayed by being wound and unwound on a giant wooden spool, damaging the ends and distorting sections of the fabric. The sight of this damaging method of storage and display reportedly “outraged” English tourists.
  • At least one piece of the embroidery was snipped away in the 1810s by English artist and antiquarian Charles Stothard (not his wife as many believed). It was eventually returned.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry fell into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War and was once again used as propaganda, this time by Nazis highlighting the Germanic ancestry of the Norman invaders. Now the embroidery purported to show a successful invasion of England by German people at a time when the Third Reich was also aiming to cross the channel and take over England. It could easily have been stolen away by the Germans or destroyed by bombings, as so much European art was during the war.

Author Carola Hicks made the point that one of the most exceptional things about the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t necessarily its workmanship or the narrative it tells, but the fact that it survived. Other perhaps more magnificent examples of wall hangings from the same period may not have made it to the present day simply because they were made of gold or silver thread or more precious materials like silk. The more humbly made linen and worsted wool Bayeux Tapestry may have survived in large part because it wasn’t made of valuable materials. Now we consider it valuable beyond measure for the stories it tells: a 70m remnant of a very precise and yet in many ways still mysterious period of time.

The Bayeux Tapestry’s history is almost as long and storied as the actual embroidery itself. I personally find the stories of how it came to survive to present day almost more interesting than the context in which it was originally produced. The history of artifacts tells us a lot about changing perceptions of what people valued. Mainly, we today are often horrified by the carelessly cavalier way people in the past treated what are now beloved artifacts. In any case, whenever I visit a museum, I enjoy looking at artifacts and imagining where they were and what happened to them in the intervening years between their creation and when they ended up in a climate-controlled glass case in front of me.