Magazine article The Spectator

A Tapestry's Rich Life

Magazine article The Spectator

A Tapestry's Rich Life

Article excerpt

THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY by Carola Hicks Chatto, £25, pp. 358, , ISBN 0701174633 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The Bayeux tapestry records pictorially in a series of 56 panels, stretching for 70 metres, the last successful invasion of England. It reveals that the invasion of 1066 was a combined operation involving the building of 800 ships to transport an army of some 12,000 men and 2,000 horses across the Channel. For its time it was as complex a piece of planning as the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Since its creation, probably in the 1070s, the tapestry had rested for centuries in comparative obscurity in the care of Bayeux cathedral. In the 18th century, squabbling British antiquarians, for whom the artefacts of the past constituted a supplement, even a substitute for the written record, had established its historical importance. But with the confiscation of church property in the early years of the French Revolution, the tapestry became the property of the state, and states use history and its artefacts for propaganda purposes. The tapestry itself was intended as propaganda for William the Conqueror. It illustrated Harold's breaking of his oath to William, giving the latter a just cause for war against a perjurer. This Norman/ French version of the conquest was indignantly rejected by English patriots. For the novelist BulwerLytton and Tennyson, Harold was the tragic victim and William a brutal tyrant.

Throughout its history the tapestry exposed the tensions that underlie our relationship with the French.

Napoleon consistently used a controlled press to brush up his image. In 1803 he had assembled an army in Boulogne which would conquer England. Ordering the tapestry to be exhibited in the Louvre, he assumed the mantle of William the Conqueror. To Carola Hicks, 'it could not more directly predict the same outcome for the same enterprise', i. e.

the successful invasion of England. But the invasion never came off; while William became King of England, Napoleon ended up on St Helena.

The most serious threat to the tapestry came with the obsession of Himmler and the racists of his SS. As Himmler wrote, it was important 'for our glorious and cultured German history', because it represented the superiority of the Aryans over the decadent nations of the West. The efforts of the SS to get the tapestry first to Paris and then to Germany as the Allies advanced across France is a splendidly researched set-piece in this book.

The use of the tapestry as propaganda by rapacious conquerors is only one theme of Hicks's book, which is subtitled 'The Story of a Masterpiece'. She casts her net very widely indeed. She catalogues the use of the tapestry by writers, from Bulwer-Lytton to Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley and Anthony Powell.

The tapestry, as Hicks points out, is not a tapestry at all but a piece of coloured wool embroidery on linen. But embroidery was women's work and this raised the whole status of women in 19th-century society.

Did embroidery give women a dignified role or was it, as Mary Lamb, a disciple of Mary Wollstonecroft, called it, 'self-imposed slavery' to the exclusion of higher pursuits?

Agnes Strickland and her publisher spotted that female royals were a marketable commodity. Strickland used the tapestry for her best-selling Queens of England (1840). It was a female historical novelist who lamented 'the growing tendency among women to become historians'. This tendency has become an established feature of our literary landscape. …

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