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Friday, October 28, 2011

The 'Other' Invasion of Normandy and the Bayeux Tapestry

“Luke, you are going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend on our own point of view.”  Obi-Wan Kenobi in The Return of the Jedi.
Ben teaches Luke the rudiments of relativism!
This blog began with the rather extreme assertion that the French and English are really surprisingly similar people, despite rather different geography, languages and cultures and their own heated opinions.  Many divergences remain, of course, but it is difficult to escape the idea that in 1066, a great convergence began when Guillaume, Duc du Normandie beat Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings.  In the sleepy Norman town of Bayeux resides one of the great historical records of that conquest, the Bayeux Tapestry, a visual document designed to provide the definitive account of that dramatic conflict, and carefully preserved down through the centuries.  Our tour of the World War II battlefields takes a time-out to traverse an additional 880 years of history when the Normans came as ‘liberators’ to free England from an evil usurper.  Depending on your point of view, apparently the “Crusade in Europe” -- Eisenhower’s term for the American participation there in World War II -- can look rather similar to the Norman Conquest.  Or maybe not so much…

A single panel of the Bayeux TapestryEdward the Confessor orders Harold to inform William of the latter's inheritance
It may be crewel to suggest, but the Bayeux Tapestry is, in fact, not a tapestry at all, but embroidery.  The original legend is that it was stitched by Guillaume’s wife (Queen Matilda) and her ladies-in-waiting, but modern historical research favors the needlework to Bishop Odo, Guillaume’s half-brother.  Its dyed wool embroidery was worked on a linen background  (but was not actually crewel either!) and was of a type renowned in England at the time of the Conquest, and was almost certainly executed by religious brothers in Kent, Odo’s bishopric.  The textile is a foot and a half wide and over 230 feet long, and was probably designed to decorate a newly built cathedral.  It is now displayed in Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux where long lines of people gather to view it.  While not woven like a tapestry, this piece functions as one.  The medieval French word for tapestry and embroidery were the same which explains why it is called a tapestry.  This language problem is only one of many ways in which the incomplete Frankification of England has resulted in far less similarity than might be expected – and more room for misunderstanding.

On display in Le Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux,  but minus the crowds
The central misunderstanding of concern in the Bayeux tapestry is not that it is not strictly a tapestry, but who should succeed the dying 11th Century English monarch, Edward the Confessor.  You may recall that Edward was responsible for beginning the construction of Westminster Abbey, his final resting place.  The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of how Edward named Guillaume/William as his rightful heir, and how Edward required Harold to travel to Normandy to convey this message to William.  Harold was captured en route, and was finally freed through William’s intervention.  Upon delivering the message, Harold swore fealty to William and they campaigned together against William’s southern enemies, where Harold distinguished himself in William’s service.  Later Harold returned to England, only to recant his oath of loyalty to William, rebelliously leading a group of English lords and getting crowned King of England by a cleric of dubious authenticity.  

Signs and Portents:  The cosmology behind the Great Chain of Being required heavenly bodies to travel in perfect circles.  Comets obviously didn't do so, and were signs of evil and disorder in the heavens and harbingers of disaster here on Earth.
As the tapestry depicts, evil signs and portent’s provided ample evidence of God’s displeasure, where upon it became William’s holy obligation to punish this oath-breaker.  William duly built an immense fleet and army, traveled to England, built a wooden castle there, and finally cornered Harold, and an immense and bloody battle ensued.  After a ferocious struggle against Harold’s mighty shield wall, and with great loss on all sides, Harold was killed. The tapestry is thought to have then displayed a small final segment  showing William’s coronation but, if so, that segment no longer exists.  In the version we saw, English warriors are seen retreating from the battlefield with William victorious.  The thrust of the tapestry’s narrative is that William had every right and obligation to make war on Harold, that his punishment was required by the violation of Harold’s oath of fealty, and that William was the rightful owner of lands given him by Edward the Confessor’s wishes.  From this point of view, the Norman Conquest was no conquest at all merely a transfer of leadership to its rightful heir.

The Normans disembark at Pevensey
The Bayeux Tapestry is beautifully rendered and compellingly told.  It is one of the first graphic novels, complete with Latin narration, a precursor to the Renaissance banderoles sans the cherubim and artful scrolling.  There are no modern dialogue balloons.   The embroidered narration identifies the key characters, locations and plot developments.  The Tapestry was clearly designed to inform the literate and illiterate alike, at a time when there were a great many more of the latter!  As one walks the 240 feet around the displayed work, it appears very like a modern story board.  Depictions of the weapons, armor, ships, fortifications and personalities provide detail about military, political and social practices of the time, such that the Bayeux Tapestry is both a political polemic and a valuable window into medieval life from which little direct documentary evidence remains.  The state of its preservation seemed remarkable to this writer, who is by no means a trained art historian and certainly not a textile specialist.

Harold's housecarls (knights on foot) use their shield wall to repel William's mounted knights during the Battle of Hastings.
The Bayeux Tapestry story of William and Harold leaves out much that modern historians have since learned about the Norman Conquest, including some critical pieces of the story.  To non-partisans, Edward the Confessor’s death left his wishes for the succession to the English crown ambiguous.  Historians are unsure who, if anyone, he named.  Harold was supported for the kingship by a broad coalition of English nobles who didn’t fancy serving a French monarch.  Harold Godwinson’s estranged brother, Tostig, Norwegian King Harald Hardrada, Sven Forkbeard, King of Denmark, as well as William of Normandy all had claims to the throne.   

The modern version of the Bayeaux story goes something like this.  King Harald Hardrada attacked Britain first, landing near York with about 9,000 men, but Harold Godwinson marched north from London in September of 1066 with an army of 15,000, many of whom were conscripted local peasants, or levies.  Harold utterly defeated the Norwegians in a long sanguine affair, catching the Viking army of 9,000 by surprise and without their armor in the Battle of Stamford Bridge across the Derwent River near York on September, 25, 1066.  This crucial defeat ended the Norwegian claim; Harold killed  both Harald and Tostig, losing about a third of his own men in the process.  Three days later, William’s force of about 7,500 landed on the south coast of England at Pevensey.  Tired and depleted, Harold rushed south, loosing many of his local levies to the harvest season in a march of 250 miles over indifferent roads.  After a brief stop in London for fresh levies, Harold brought his 7,500 tired men to Hastings.  On October 14, 1066, he took good defensive positions on a hill.  William attacked and the battle was hard and evenly fought and until counter-attacks against the Norman cavalry depleted Harold’s troops and disorganized the effective shield wall.  Late in the day, the English shield wall broke and Harold was killed.  This did not quite break the English resistance, but William was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.  Perhaps persuasive pieces like the Bayeux Tapestry – telling a story that justified William’s reign - were deemed necessary by Bishop Odo as scattered resistance to Norman rule would continue for the next twenty years.  As mentioned in my former post London:  The Bridge and the Tower, the central keep of the Tower of London, White Tower, was begun in 1078 by William to consolidate his control over a restive populace.  

Key locations in the campaign of 1066

The center of this panel depicts the climactic death of Harold Godwinson.

By way of convergence, The Norman victory at Hastings is seen as fundamentally transforming the English language and culture with French ideas and idioms.  The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was largely displaced and scattered, and the remaining aristocrats largely merged with the French so as to become indistinguishable after several centuries.  Nevertheless, a long series of crossed political claims bound the English and French in rivalries that continue in some ways even now reinforced by a long series of wars between them, particularly in the Hundred Years War (the topic of my next post) and the period between the 16th and early 19th centuries.  So contentiousness about the events of 1066 persists to this day.

Passion to reenact Hastings persists too.  These fellows from Sussex are wearing 55lbs of gear.  It is a good thing they didn't march from Stamford Bridge in it!

Despite propaganda, rivalry, imperialist ambitions, and persistent nationalist pride, the French and English remain bound by deeper shared sensibilities.  Less than a mile a way lays the Bayeux Commonwealth Cemetery, final resting place of 4,141 British and 466 Germans who died in the Allied invasion and liberation of France in World War II.  On the memorial, inscribed in Latin is the British acknowledgement:

“We were defeated by William, but liberated the land of the Conquerors.”

The Memorial at Commonwealth Bayeux Cemetery

Thanks to Cruise Director Extraordinaire AJ and Amy Williams, both of Uniworld for helping me identify the final quote.  No, they did not pay a promotional fee for this endorsement, but they certainly earned special thanks!

A J, Cruise Director Extraordinaire plies his simple trade while a shadowy figure looks on