1066: THE HIDDEN HISTORY OF THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY
By Andrew Bridgeford
Walker, $26, 354 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY ROGER K. MILLER
What a difference a day makes. A single day on a battlefield 1000 years ago determined that all the subsequent course of events in Britain and Europe would go one way and not another.
Consider just one little consequence: If Harold Godwinson, the Anglo-Saxon king of England, had defeated William the Conqueror, the Norman invader, at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066 — and he almost did — Andrew Bridgeford probably would have written this delightful book not in our modern English, but in some German-like descendant of Old English.
While it recounts the Norman invasion of England in detail, “1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry,” is primarily a discussion of the tapestry, which is a record of that invasion. More particularly, it discusses how the tapestry has been interpreted, and in doing so reveals a lot about some extremely interesting characters, as well as about how they attempted to control how history is perceived.
A half-million visitors a year come to Bayeux in Normandy to see the tapestry, which is half a meter wide and 70 meters long, forming a sort of linen frieze depicting 626 human figures, 202 horses, 55 dogs, 505 other animals, 49 trees, 37 buildings and 41 ships. Strictly speaking it is not a tapestry, but an embroidery, for the images are stitched onto the fabric rather than woven out of it. Its colors are still bright. The book reproduces its full length in miniature.
We do not know for sure when, why or by whom the tapestry was made or for what purpose, or why it ended up at Bayeux, where its first recorded appearance is 1476. Its survival since its probable creation in the 1070s, shortly after the actions it depicts, is nothing short of a miracle.
Beyond that almost everything is conjecture. The conjecture that has gained most acceptance is that the tapestry is “a work of Norman triumphalism,” told totally from the Norman point of view, produced in Normandy “by the Normans in order to celebrate and justify the conquest of England.”
Mr. Bridgeford, who is not a professional historian but a lawyer, challenges that view. Basing his interpretation on scholarly advances of the last 50 years, he contends that the tapestry only superficially supports the Norman story, that it was made in England and is “a covert, subtle and substantial record of the English version of events, one whose true meaning has been largely lost for well-nigh a thousand years.”
Among the many things that cannot decisively be known is who legitimately should have succeeded to the throne of England upon the death of Edward the Confessor in December 1065. Edward, who died childless, had “dangled the prospect of the succession in front of far too many people,” including William of Normandy. Harold, of course, became king, but William maintained that Harold was a usurper who had, moreover, promised to support William’s claim.
Mr. Bridgeford, reading the tapestry as if it were a written text, unearths clues that uphold an English version. Since the Norman regime would not countenance anything favorable to Harold, the clues had to be subtle and subversive, but they are there nevertheless.
The tapestry, the author says, shows Edward on his deathbed bequeathing the kingship to Harold and the English nobles subsequently supporting that decision by offering him the crown. In a world in which everything was viewed through the prism of religion, the tapestry had to find a reason for the Anglo-Saxons’ defeat. If William ultimately won, it was not because he was in the right, but because the English had done wrong — they had sinned, through Harold’s broken promise to William (even though it was made under duress), through Archbishop of Canterbury Stigand’s ungodly actions, through various other ways.
All of this is pure interpretation, but it is cleverly and persuasively done, and is the same process that others followed earlier in coming to opposite conclusions. If you cannot find satisfaction in the book’s intellectual detective work, perhaps you can find it in the description of the turbulent 11th century society that Mr. Bridgeford brings to life.
The tapestry has proved fascinating ever since its “discovery” by the outside scholarly world in the 18th century. In the 1880s several Victorian English ladies went to the trouble of embroidering a life-size replica, complete in every detail except for depriving naked males of their genitalia in certain explicit scenes. You might call that a stitch in time.
Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.
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