The Bayeux Tapestry is finally coming to England, or so the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has promised. There have long been calls to bring the work to England, such as for the Queen’s coronation in 1953 – but until now they have fallen on deaf ears.
But why is this one historic artefact so important – and what does it tell us about the UK’s historic relationship with France just as the country is about the leave the European Union?
The Bayeux Tapestry was probably commissioned by Odo, bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William the Conqueror, to commemorate the Norman victory at Hastings in October 1066. Odo figures prominently in the work – and in one scene holds a club as he goes to fight for his brother.
The tapestry also told a story that explained and justified the conquest. The scenes depicting King Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson, who took the throne as Harold II on Edward’s death in 1066, imply that Harold went back on a promise sworn on the relics of Bayeux cathedral to support William’s claim. Instead, he took the crown for himself.
A new Anglo-Norman realm
In the wake of the Battle of Hastings, a new country was formed. England had been linked to other parts of Europe – Scandinavia, in particular – for centuries, but this connection endured and created strong links between England and Normandy which were to last for several centuries.
They usually had the same ruler – and the destruction of the Anglo-Saxon nobility and gifting of lands in England to William’s followers meant England and Normandy had the same aristocracy, too. The conquering Normans married Anglo-Saxon women – and when they later went on to conquer parts of Wales and Ireland, they intermarried there, too.
The conquest had a longlasting impact on English, and indeed British and Irish, history. The great castles and vast cathedrals we associate with medieval England and enjoy visiting were part of the Norman legacy, as was a new tendency to look south to Europe, rather than to the north – as had been the case before, as settlers came to England from Scandinavia.
Being continental in outlook was par for the course. Around 10,000 Norman French words entered the English language, changing the way the English people expressed themselves then – and still do. For example, the old Saxon words for livestock (sheep, swine, cow) were retained, but English took on the French way of talking about cooked meat (mutton, pork, beef). New laws, such as the ending of slavery, were merged in the decades after 1066, and the Anglo-Norman kings reformed English law and governance, introducing many of the systems still in use today (like the Exchequer) which came from the continent.
England and France more broadly were intimately connected throughout the 12th century as additional lands in France came under the control of the English king. More than half of England’s kings at this time were born in France, and many chose to be buried there, too. Richard the Lionheart, that great hero of medieval English history, actually spent less than six months in England, preferring his French lands.
Normandy was lost in 1204, but in the 14th century the Hundred Years War resurrected English claims to rule in France. The upset caused by the loss of English lands in France contributed to the Peasants Revolt of 1381 as people were sick of paying for a war they were not winning. The final loss of the French lands in 1453 was one of the causes of the Wars of the Roses. At this point, Calais was all that the English crown could claim in France. So traumatic was its eventual loss in 1558 that Queen Mary claimed when she died, if someone chose to look they would find Calais written in her heart.
Ties that bind
Whatever the motives of the person who commissioned the tapestry, or the message it was supposed to convey to those who saw it, it has since taken on a symbolic role in Anglo-French relations. In 1803, when he was planning to invade England, Napoleon wanted the tapestry for its propaganda value – he was going to show how the French had conquered England in the past as evidence that they could do it again, this time under his leadership.
Even Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader and Brexit campaigner, chose to wear a tie depicting the tapestry as a reminder of “the last time we were invaded and taken over”.
That is just one take on the Bayeux tapestry. What it shows, beyond dispute, is a time when England and Normandy united under one ruler. And while that was undoubtedly a catastrophe for the native English of 1066, the Norman conquest formed the England that we recognise today and brought the country closer to French continental politics.
At a time when Britain is moving away from Europe, it is interesting that president Macron has finally agreed to let the tapestry come to England – not as a reminder that once part of France conquered and ruled England, but that once the two countries shared a common history that defined many of the things we think of as English today.