HISTORY OF THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY

From The Bayeux Tapestry: A History and Description by Frank Rede Fowke (1913)

The earliest known mention of this interesting work is made in an inventory of the ornaments of the Cathedral of Bayeux, taken in the year 1476. The preamble of this document is subjoined, [1] together with two entries from the third chapter and one from the fifth, as these passages are frequently cited by those who have written of the tapestry.
On the 12th May, 1562, the cathedral was pillaged by the Calvinists, who committed the most horrible devastations. During this rising the clergy handed over many of their treasures to the municipal authorities for safe keeping, and M. Pezet has conjectured that the tapestry was placed for safety in the Town-hall, and carried thence by the mob. The Bishop of Bayeux, in his report upon this occasion, 19th August, 1563, mentions the preservation of some tapestry, and the loss of "une tapisserie de grande valeur," which M. Pezet conceives to relate to the Bayeux tapestry missing from the time of its abstraction by the populace up to that date. This opinion appears erroneous, for the Bishop states that the missing hangings were used to surround the choir on solemn occasions, and that they were composed of cloths of different colours slid upon a cord. Whilst the tapestry is correctly described in the inventory as telle (i.e. toile) à broderie, and as used to decorate the nave.
Whether or not it was missing in these troublous times, it was soon afterwards in possession of the ecclesiastical authorities, being used as a festal decoration for the nave of the cathedral. Here it remained obscure and forgotten, save by those who lived within the walls of Bayeux, until, in the year 1724, a drawing which had formerly belonged to M. Foucault, Ex-intendant of Normandy, and a collector of antiquities, was presented to M. Lancelot, a member of the Académie des Inscriptions, by the secretary of that institution.
On the 21st July of that year M. Lancelot read a paper upon the drawing, but was ignorant of what it actually represented. He had failed, he said, to discover whether the original was a bas relief, a sculpture round the choir of a church, upon a tomb, or on a frieze — if a fresco painting, stained glass, or even a piece of tapestry. He saw that it was historical, that it related to William, Duke of Normandy, and the conquest of England, and conjectured that it formed part of the Conqueror's tomb in the church of St. Etienne de Caen, or of the beautiful windows which are said to have formerly existed in that abbey. Following up these speculations, he caused investigations to be made at Caen, but his researches were entirely without success.
Father Montfaucon, a Benedictine of Saint-Maur, was more fortunate. Upon reading Lancelot's memoir he at once perceived the value of this curious representation, and determined to leave no stone unturned till the original was discovered. In the first volume of his " Monumens de la Monarchic Francoise," which appeared in 1729, he gave a reduction of M. Foucault's drawing in fourteen double plates, and added a double plate, divided into four parts, with the whole of the then-discovered work, drawn to a small scale. He saw that this fragment was but the commencement of a long history, and he therefore wrote to the Benedictines of St. Etienne de Caen and of St. Vigor de Bayeux to inquire if they were acquainted with any such monument. The Reverend Father Mathurin l'Archer, Prior of St. Vigor de Bayeux, answered that the original was a piece of tapestry, preserved in the cathedral, about thirty feet in length (nearly thirty-two English feet), and one foot and a-half broad, and that they had another piece of the same breadth continuing the history, the whole being two hundred and twelve feet long (nearly two hundred and twenty-six English feet). He copied all the inscriptions, and sent them to Montfaucon, who saw that the entire monument was now discovered.
Montfaucon sent a skilful draughtsman named Antoine Benoit to copy the tapestry, with instructions to reduce it to a given size, but to alter nothing. At the opening of the second volume of his " Monumens de la Monarchic Francoise," published in 1730, Montfaucon engraved the whole history in this reduced form, [2] accompanied by a commentary upon the Latin inscriptions which throughout explain the intention of the figures represented in the different compartments, and M. Lancelot now composed a second memoir, which was read in 1730. It will be seen that at the time of its discovery by Montfaucon the tapestry was in two pieces, the first ending at the word Hic of the inscription, Hic venit nuntius ad Wilgelmum Ducem, and the join, in spite of the beautiful manner in which it has been made, may still be detected. [3] At this period, too, the extremities began to suffer, and in order to save the work from destruction, the chapter caused it to be lined.
The interest awakened by the discovery of the tapestry was not confined to France. In 1746 Stukeley wrote of it as " the noblest monument in the world, relating to our old English History." He was followed by the learned antiquary Dr. Ducarel, who gave an account of the tapestry in the appendix to his " Anglo-Norman Antiquities," published in 1767, where he reproduced the drawings given by Montfaucon, and printed an elaborate description which had been drawn up some years previously, during a residence in Normandy, by Mr. Smart Lethieullier. Dr. Ducarel tells us that when he was in Normandy the tapestry was annually hung up on St. John's Day, and that it went exactly round the nave of the cathedral, where it continued for eight days. This mode of decorating the cathedral of Bayeux was a most ancient custom, as we learn from its statutes, which declare that, "Il est bon de savoir que le matin du samedi de Pâques, avant d'appeler les dignitaires et les chanoines au service, on pare le tour de l'église, dans l'intérieur, avec des tapisseries propres, au-dessous desquelles, entre le chœur et l'autel, on place des coussins et des draps de soie les plus beaux qui se trouvent dans l'église. ... L'église se pare depuis la fête de Pâques jusqu'à le Saint-Michel, en septembre." When not employed as a decoration for the nave, the tapestry was carefully preserved, in a strong wainscot press, in a chapel on the south side of the cathedral.
Before we again hear of it the tapestry had passed through great dangers, and had nearly perished; but, as in 1562, it escaped the revolutionary disorders by little short of a miracle. Kept in the depositories of the cathedral it remained intact, even during the events of the year 1792, until the day when the invasion of France called all her sons to arms. At the first sound of the drum in the town of Bayeux, which had already furnished a numerous contingent, rose the local battalion. Amidst the tumult of sudden departure, carts were improvised to transport the military equipage. One of these conveyances needed a covering ; canvas was wanting ; the tapestry was suggested as suitable for the purpose ; and the administration pusillanimously ordered its delivery. It was brought and placed on the waggon, which was already en route, when M. le Forestier, commissary of police, learning the state of affairs, ran to the District Directory, of which he was a member, and himself issued the order to bring it back. This was no sooner done than he snatched the tapestry from its perilous position, provided some stout canvas to supply its place, and committed the treasured embroidery to the security of his own study.
Some of the citizens, viz. MM. Moisson de Vaux, J. B. G. Delaunay, ex-deputy of the States-General, Bouisset, afterwards professor of literature at the Lyceum of Caen, with Le Brisoys-Surmont, an advocate, as secretary, now formed themselves into a commission for the protection of works of art in the district of Bayeux. They at once demanded the delivery of the tapestry, which they obtained in time to save it from a new danger. For from a letter dated "4 Fructidor an II" (21st August, 1794), we learn that "un zèle plus ardent qu'éclairé avait été sur le point de faire lacérer dans une fête civique cet ouvrage auquel on n'attachait plus d'autre mérite que d'être une bande de toile propre à servir au premier usage."
So jealous was this commission of the safety of the tapestry, that it was not mentioned in their first catalogue, probably from fear lest it should be wrested from their custody, since in a letter of the " 10th Frimaire an XII " (30th November, 1803) they speak of the vigilance with which they had watched over this national monument, and the opposition that their great solicitude had oft-times raised against its removal from the town.
It is not known for certain where the tapestry was kept during the time that it was in the custody of the commission, but as the books of the religious communities suppressed at the time of the revolution were deposited in the college, it is probable that the tapestry found a similar resting-place.
On the "29 Brumaire an XII" (19th November, 1803) the prefect of Calvados informed the commission that Bonaparte, then First Consul of France, desired the exhibition of the tapestry at the Musee Napoleon. To this wish the commission deferred, and it was deposited in the national museum for public inspection.
The First Consul himself went to see it, and affected to be struck with that particular part which represents Harold on his throne at the moment when he was alarmed at the appearance of a meteor which presaged his defeat: affording an opportunity for the inference that the meteor which had then been lately seen in the South of France was the presage of a similar event. [4]
At the time of this exhibition, M. Denon. director-general of the Musée Napoléon, caused an explanatory hand-book to be prepared, entitled " Notice historique sur la Tapisserie brodée de la reine Mathilde, épouse de Guillaume-le-Conquérant." [5]
The exhibition was popular : so much so, that three authors of vaudevilles, much renowned in that day, MM. Barre, Radet et Desfontaines, composed a one-act comedy in prose, entitled, " La Tapisserie de la reine Mathilde," which was produced at the Theatre du Vaudeville. In this piece Matilda, who had retired to her uncle Roger during the contest, was represented passing her time with her women in embroidering the exploits of her husband, never leaving her work except to put up prayers for his success. It related to passing events, and was of a very light character, as all such pieces are, but contained nevertheless many witty strokes, and some ingenious allusions to the projects of Napoleon.
When the time for the restoration of the tapestry to Bayeux arrived, more than one voice was raised in favour of its retention in Paris ; but it was returned, after a hasty copy of it had been made by M. Denon, to the municipality of the town which had preserved it so well throughout all vicissitudes, with the following letter : —

"Paris, le 30 pluviose, an XII (18th February, 1804).
"Denon, membre de l'lnstitut National, directeur-général du musée Napoléon, et de la reconnaissance des médailles, au sous-préfet de l'arron-dissement de Bayeux.

"Citoyen, —
"Je vous renvoie la tapisserie brodée par la reine Mathilde, épouse de Guillaume-le-Conquérant. Le premier consul a vu avec intérêt ce précieux monument de notre histoire; il a applaudi aux soins que les habitants de la ville de Bayeux ont apporté depuis sept siecles et demi a sa conservation. II m'a chargé de leur témoigner toute sa satisfaction et de leur en Conner encore le dépôt. Invitez-les done, Citoyen, à apporter de nouveaux soins à la conservation de ce fragile monument, qui retrace une des actions le plus mémorables de la nation française, et consacre pareillement le souvenir de la fierté et du courage de nos aieux. J'ai l'honneur de vous saluer.
" Denon."

Incited by this letter to renew their zealous precautions on behalf of their trust, the Municipal Council of Bayeux held a deliberation '24th Ventose, an XII' (13th March, 1804). At this meeting it was decided that the tapestry should be deposited in the college library, and the director was charged to watch over it with the greatest care, the mayor giving his supervision. Remembering its ancient use, the council further directed "that it be hung in the parish church during fifteen days in the finest part of the year" — a concession to the clergy to which I cannot discover that effect was ever given.
Nor does it seem that the decision to deposit it in the college was adhered to, as it was quickly transferred to the Hôtel de Ville, where the mode of its exhibition to the curious was to wind it from one cylinder on to another, after the manner of a panorama. This barbarous mode of showing it must infallibly have caused its destruction in a very short time; yet it continued with but slight protest under the Empire, the Restoration, and the first years which succeeded the Revolution of 1830.
From the new degree of publicity given to the tapestry by its exhibition in Paris, its origin again became the subject of discussion ; and in 1812 the Abbé de la Rue, professor of history in the Academy of Caen, composed a memoir, subsequently translated and annotated by Mr. Francis Douce, [6] in which he contended that the manufacture of the tapestry should have been ascribed to the Empress Matilda, and not to the wife of the Conqueror.
The next notice of the tapestry is comprised in a short letter, dated 4th July, 18 16, from Mr. Hudson Gurney, printed in the " Archæologia." [7] Mr. Gurney had seen the tapestry at Bayeux in 1814; it was, he says, then kept in the Hôtel of the Prefecture, [8] coiled round a machine like that which lets down the buckets in a well, and was shown to visitors by being drawn out over a table.
Mr. Dawson Turner, writing some two years later, adds that the necessary rolling and unrolling were performed with so little attention, that it would be wholly ruined in the course of half a century if left under its then management. He describes it as injured at the beginning, as very ragged towards the end, where several of the figures had completely disappeared, and adds that the worsted was unravelling in many of the intermediate parts. [9] At this time the tapestry was known as the Toile de St.-Jean, which is explained by what Ducarel has said, that it was formerly exhibited upon St. John's Day. Remembering this its ancient use, the clergy, in 1816, claimed its restoration to the cathedral. To this request, however, the Municipal Council refused to accede, alleging that it had been returned to the inhabitants, who had never lost sight of it, but had preserved it through the exertions of their representatives. With the civil administration, then, the tapestry still remains.
In the same year that the clergy claimed the tapestry, the Society of Antiquaries of London despatched that excellent and accurate artist, Mr. Charles Stothard, to Bayeux, to make drawings and he brought home two small pieces of the tapestry. [10] Within two years he completed the best copy of the tapestry that had been produced, which will be found in the sixth volume of the "Vetusta Monumenta."
The appearance of the first portion of these drawings gave rise to some remarks [11] (dated 24th February, 1818) by Mr. Amyot, intended to refute the idea that Harold had been sent to Normandy with an offer of the succession to William, which idea the pictures of the tapestry had been supposed to confirm.
These were followed by Mr. C. Stothard's own observations while at Bayeux, pointing out such circumstances as presented themselves to his notice during the minute investigation to which he necessarily subjected the tapestry. Mr. Amyot then took up a defence of the early antiquity of the tapestry, in which he invalidates the objections of the Abbé de la Rue to the opinion which makes the tapestry coeval with the events that it records.
In 1835 the Municipal Council began to occupy themselves with the idea that a permanent restingplace for the tapestry should be provided, and they then decided that it should be removed to that place which it now occupies.
Dr. Bruce saw the tapestry about this time, and says that it was then exhibited in eight lengths up and down the room in which it was kept. I do not know if the learned doctor means that it was cut into eight parts or folded backwards and forwards; [12] but, at any rate, nothing was lost, and the tapestry, as far as it has come down to us, is complete.
At a meeting of the Administrative Council of the Society for the Preservation of French Historical Monuments, held 30th January, 1836, Mr. Spencer Smith announced that he would shortly call the attention of the council to the tapestry of Queen Matilda at Bayeux, and offer recommendations as to the mode of its exhibition to visitors. The tapestry was gaining friends, its dangers seemed past, and men vied with each other who should most contribute to its well-being. But not content with the assurance of its safety, they were anxious to satisfy sceptical minds ; and on the 15th February, 1840, we find M. de la Fontenelle, [13] together with several of his fellow-labourers of the "Revue Anglo-Française," about to form a commission of archaeologists composed half of English and half of French savants, to give a final opinion as to the age of the tapestry. It does not appear that this commission issued any report, nor is it by any means certain that it was ever really formed.
In 1840 we find, in the " Bulletin Monumental," [14] a report made by M. Pezet, President of the Civil Tribunal, to the Municipal Council of Bayeux, on behalf of the commission charged to take measures for the safety of the tapestry. In this report he announces that the building erected by the town for the reception of the treasured relic approached completion, the masons' work was completed, and the wainscoting commenced.
In 1836, Mr. Bolton Corney printed his "Researches and Conjectures on the Bayeux Tapestry," as a brochure of sixteen pages, and, after castigating its critic in the "Gentleman's Magazine" of the following year, issued a second " revised and enlarged" edition in 1838. Not content with extirpating the tradition which ascribed the tapestry to Queen Matilda he discredited the antiquity of the work itself, seeking to show that its execution before 1206 was impossible, by some questionable arguments which invited retort.
In 1841 M. de Caumont communicated to the Institut des Provinces a notice in refutation of Mr. Bolton Corney's remarks, and an extract from this notice was published the following year, entitled " Un Mot sur les Discussions relatives a l'Origine de la Tapisserie de Bayeux." [15]
The Society for the Preservation of French Historical Monuments held a meeting at Caen, 1 2th May, 1853, at which M.de Caumont reported that the Bayeux Tapestry had received aid to the extent of 5,000 francs [16](£200).
The tapestry was not shown in a settled and permanent manner in the place which it now occupies until 1842. M. Ed. Lambert, librarian of the town of Bayeux, was named custodian of the tapestry, and he it was who undertook the task of superintending its re-lining ; nor did he stop here, for, guided by the holes left by the needles, by the fragments of worsted adhering to the canvas, and by drawings executed at earlier dates, he successfully restored certain portions which had suffered from age or from the friction of the cylindrical method of exhibition.
Since the above date the tapestry has been continuously shown to the public in the same manner as at the present time, and its history during this period of repose would be but a catalogue of savants, artists, and illustrious personages who, from every corner of the world, have made a pilgrimage to Bayeux.
The tapestry was not, however, to pass its old age without some renewal of danger, for in 1871 the Prussians were so near the town as to cause most serious alarm to the authorities for the safety of their precious treasure. The tapestry was taken from its case, so rapidly that many of the sheets of glass under which it was kept were broken ; it was then tightly rolled up and packed into a cylindrically-shaped zinc case, the lid of which was soldered down. What next ensued is a secret which the authorities desire to keep ; for, though they trust never again to be obliged to resort to a like expedient, they wisely remark that they know not what of danger the future may have in store for the tapestry, nor do they think that the proper moment has arrived to publish their hiding-place.
On the 3rd of August, 1871, the Lords of the Committee of Council on Education authorized Mr. Joseph Cundall to proceed to Bayeux to consult with the authorities and endeavour to obtain permission to make a full-sized photographic reproduction of the tapestry. He was successful in his mission, and Mr. E. Dossetter, a skilful photographer, was despatched to Bayeux to commence the work, which he completed in the following year.
The local authorities courteously rendered every assistance, M. Marc, the mayor, M. Bertot, the deputy-mayor, and the Abbe Laffetay, the librarian, vieing with each other in their obliging attentions. The work was, however, attended with great difficulty, for, although the custodians finally permitted the removal of the glass, pane by pane, so as to free from distortion the portion of the work under manipulation, they would in nowise consent to the removal of the tapestry from its case. The tapestry is carried first round the exterior and then round the interior of a hollow parallelogram, and the room in which it is shown is lighted by windows at the side and at one end, so that the difficulty of cross lights and dark corners had to be overcome as far as possible; nor this alone, for the brass joints of the glazing came continually in the way of the camera, and great credit is due to Mr. Dossetter for the ingenious devices by which he successfully overcame the difficulties with which he had to contend.
Owing to the difficulties of manipulating a large camera in the comparatively small space of the chamber at Bayeux, the negatives first taken were those used for the illustrations of his work; from these transparencies were made from which negatives enlarged to both half and the full size of the original were produced. It will therefore be seen that besides the series here given two sets of large reproductions exist, one the full size of the original and one half that size, both of which were published by the Arundel Society. The Lords of the Committee of Council on Education presented a copy of each of these larger sets to the town of Bayeux, in recognition of the valuable aid and courteous co-operation of the authorities.
A copy of the full-sized reproduction was coloured after the original, and exhibited at the International Exhibition of 1873 (Catalogue No. 2897 d). This copy is now preserved in the South Kensington Museum.
The South Kensington Museum purchased at the sale of Mr. Bowyer Nicholls, in 1864, that piece of the tapestry which had been brought away from Bayeux by Mr. Stothard, [17] and it was resolved by the Lords of the Committee of Council on Education that this fragment should be restored to the custodians of the tapestry. The compiler of these notes was then, August, 1872, visiting the town of Bayeux to inspect the tapestry, and was so fortunate as to be charged with the return of the relic.

Notes

1. Inventaire des joyaulx, capses, reliquiairs, ornemens, tentes, paremens, livres, et autres biens apartenans à l'église Nostre-Dame de Bayeux, et en icelle trouvés, veus et visités par venerables et discretes personnes maistre Guillaume de Castillon, archidiacre des Vetz, et Nicole Michiel Fabriquier, chanoines de ladite église, à ce députez et commis en chapitre general de ladite église, tenu et celebré après la feste de sainct Ravent et sainct Rasiph, en l'an mil quatre cent septante-six, tres reverend pere en Dieu Mons. Loys de Harecourt, patriarche de Jerusalem, lors évêque, et reverend pere maistre Guillaume de Bailleul, lors doyen de ladite église; et fut fait ce dit inventaire en mois de septembre par plusieurs journées, à ce presens les procureurs et serviteurs du grand cousteur de ladite église, et maistre Jehan Castel, chappellain de ladite église et notaire apostolique; et icy est redigé en françois et vulgaire langage pour plus claire et familière désignation desdits joyaulx, omements et autres biens, et de leurs circonstances, qu'elle n'eust pu estre faicte en termes de latinité, et est ce dit inventaire cy-après digeré en ordre, et disigné en distinction en six chapitres. ...
Ensuivent pour le tiers chapitre les pretieux manteaux et riches chapes trouvés et gardes en triangle qui est assis en costé dextre du pulpitre dessous le crucifix.
Premièrement ung mantel duquel, comme on dit, le due Guillaume estoit vestu quand il épousa la ducesse, tout d'or tirey; semey de croisettes et florions d'or, et le bort de bas est de or traict à ymages faict tout environ ennobly de fermailles d'or emaillies et de camayeux et autres pierres pretieuses, et de present en y a encore sept vingt, et y a sexante dix places vuides ou aultres-foiz avoient est£ perles, pierres et fermailles d'or emaillies.
Item. — Ung autre mantel duquel, comme l'en dit, la ducesse estoit vestue quand elle épousa le due Guillaume, tout semey de petits ymages d'or tiré à or fraiz pardevant, et pour tout le bort de bas enrichiz de fermailles d'or emaillies et de camayeux et autres pierres pretieuses, et de present en y a encore deus cens quatre-vingt-douze, et y a deus cens quatre places vuides ausquelles estoient aultres-foiz pareilles pierres et fermailles d'or emaillies. ...
Ensuivent pour le quint chapitre les tentes, tapis, cortines, paremens des autels et autres draps de saye pour parer le cueur aux festes solonnelles, trouvés et gardés en le vestiaire de ladicte église.
Item. — Une tente tres longue et étroite de telle à broderie de ymages et escripteaulx faisans representation du conquest d'Angleterre, laquelle est tendue environ la nef de l'église le jour et par les octaves des Reliques. [At this date the feast of the Relics was kept on the 1st July]
2. These plates are, however, lamentably inaccurate.
3. M. Léchaudé-d'Anisy remarks upon the absence of any sign of a join.
4. This meteor was seen in the south of England, 13th November, 1803, and particulars of it are recorded in the "Gentleman's Magazine," vol. lxxiii. part 2, pp. 1077-1120.
5. This notice forms a brochure in 12mo of forty-six pages, of which two other editions exist ; one in 4to, with Lancelot's plates, coloured; the other published at Saint-Lô, in 1822, by Élie.
6. "Archæologia," vol. xvii. p. 85.
7. Ibid. vol. xviii. p. 359.
8. This is an error; the prefecture is at Caen-Bayeux is a sous-prefecture. The building was the Hôtel de Ville, where the tapestry was deposited in 1804.
9. "Account of a Tour in Normandy," by Dawson Turner, 3 vols. 8vo, London, 1820, vol. ii. p. 242.
10. One fragment was, in 1825, seen by M. Allou, of the Société Royale des Antiquaires de France, in the library of Dr. Meyrick. "Les anciennes Tapisseries Historiées," par Achille Jubinal, 2 vols, oblong folio, Paris, 1838-39, vol. i. p. 16.
11. "Archæologia," vol. xix. p. 88.
12. This latter seems to be intended, as the Abbé Laffetay describes it as "se repliant sur elle-même." — Notice Historique et Descriptive sur la Tapisserie dite de la Reine Mathilde, 8vo, Bayeux, 1874, p. 17.
13. "Bulletin Monumental, public par la Société Française pour la Conservation des Monuments," 8vo, Paris, Rouen, Caen, 1834, et seq. vol. vi. p. 44.
14. Ibid. vol. vi. p. 62.
15. "Bulletin Monumental," vol. viii. p. 73.
16. Ibid. vol. xix. p. 378.
17. Mrs. Stothard has been commonly accused of abstracting this fragment ; but I have it, on her authority, that it was not until 1818, the last of the three years in which Mr. Charles Stothard copied the tapestry, that she became his wife and accompanied him to Bayeux. Prior to his marriage he possessed two pieces of the tapestry which, in whatever manner he acquired them, are said to have come from a mass of rags incapable of restoration. One of these pieces he had given, before his marriage, to Mr. Douce, the antiquary, and the other formed part of the collection which, after Mr. Stothard's death in 1821 was purchased by Sir Gregory Page Turner.

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