Magazine article The Spectator

The Year of the Comet

Magazine article The Spectator

The Year of the Comet

Article excerpt

The year of the comet 1066: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY by Andrew Bridgeford Fourth Estate, £20, pp. 309, ISBN 184115041X

THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS, 1066 by M. K. Lawson Tempus, £25, pp. 252, ISBN 0752426893

The Bayeux Tapestry, nearly 75 yards long, the mother of all newsreels and the father of all strip cartoons, was embroidered at Canterbury (most probably) some years after the Conquest. With '626 human figures, 202 horses, 55 dogs, 505 other animals, 49 trees, 37 buildings and 41 ships', plus as many corpses, some stripped, some in bits, as any self-respecting modern movie, and two sex scenes, it is one of the world's great historical documents and its survival is a minor miracle.

Its vivid images are stamped on our views of 1066, and on a great deal of All That. There is ' 'Arold', as Stanley Holloway told it, 'with 'is 'awk in 'is 'and' and later 'with an arrow in 'is eye', and that is the end of Anglo-Saxon England. Very sad, say the nostalgies, the end of fair government, of exquisite Anglo-Saxon art, the birth of class warfare, the start (if one forgets Rome, that is) of unwelcome Continental intrusion in our affairs. Inevitable, reply the realists, the Anglo-Saxon regime was unstable, Danes had ruled twice, there were strong links with the Normans (King Edward was half-Norman), they and/or the Norwegians were bound to invade and, even if beaten once, would be back; Vikings or Vikings à la française was the choice.

One thing is sure, 1066 was an extraordinary year and the comet was not wrong: two kings' deaths, two coronations, two invasions, three major battles, and a regime change that brought a change of language and of architecture.

Andrew Bridgeford will have nothing of the standard explanation of the Tapestry and burrows into the many gaps in its narrative and in the other sources to build a revisionist case. But, like a TV programme that announces 'revolutionary new insights' into some established theory and ends up only compounding the mysteries, his 'Hidden History' is less than it sounds. Not that this is his fault: his enthusiasm and diligence in pursuing every thread (literally) of evidence are very sympathetic, he runs after every hare, sometimes far out of sight of Hastings, even into the Old Testament, to reappear, panting, at the end of the chapter, keen for the next.

But 11th-century sources are too sketchy to support a firm argument. Some events and names and places are certain, but intentions, ambitions, personalities and plots are and will always remain a mystery, as will the mindset of warriors 938 years ago. Frustrating as this is, our curiosity has to stop at inference: if it strays into speculation of the 'X must have felt ...' type, history professors bristle.

M. K. Lawson does justice to all that is known of the battle of Hastings and offers a fascinating, authoritative, well constructed critique of all the sources, as well as a thorough examination of the battlefield and of each stage of the battle itself. …

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