And so another year has passed. In October 2016, we began our commemorative observation marking the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. It has been a year of sifting through details, lamenting in poetry and song, pondering memories, tossing about the what ifs, beholding the heartache of knowledge, of this ending in 1066 certainly, but also the converging roads that led to this day, and the days and years after. Picking up the pieces and then looking back upon those shards of memory … surely even ordinary people, non-combatants, recalled this day soon and years later as life continued to move forward. Could an average person have predicted that their land and people would so rapidly and overwhelmingly be stolen by foreign invaders, so thoroughly transformed?
That their language, for starters, be unrecognizable to someone who lived nearly a thousand years in the future? That to later people—us—common names, the markers of individual identity, would come across as foreign and unpronounceable? Or worse, we might catch glimpses of people through the tapestry of time and perceive only that they come from some generic, long-ago past too distant to be embraced?
And it all would have started with their own children, especially those extremely young or not yet born when the battle occurred. They never had the memories, and those of their parents died with them. Their own lives were to play out in a markedly different fashion to those their parents had known, not only owing to generational differences, but also because an entirely new framework was forcibly re-defining who they were.
I wonder if William the Bastard contemplated this result as he set out to supplant an entire class of elites with new ones from his own land. His victory lap in the form of castle building began straight away and signaled without a doubt his conquest, the subjugation of England’s people and cruelly sought to end, once and for all, the stubborn pockets of resistance that kept popping up. Did he aim to be the boss of everybody, or more, to completely re-make them? As a non-historian still within the beginning phases of serious study of the Anglo-Saxon era and its end, some of my questions may already have definitive answers, or be ones scholars still debate. One thing I do know for sure is that as long as people keep making these queries, even if the inquiries re-produce themselves into scores more, this invader hasn’t completely won.
Now that would have been even less than cold comfort for the people who suffered under his rule, and I’m not sure it even satisfies me. Nevertheless, I believe we owe it to the people who lived in this time and after to continually seek answers and ensure they aren’t forgotten.
Someone else felt something along those lines, and for centuries it was believed he came at the ideal from a Norman perspective. No one knows for sure who designed, commissioned or created the Bayeux Tapestry, a pictorial version of events stitched out on a nearly seventy-meter long strip of linen measuring less than half a meter wide. It appears to tell the story of the Norman Conquest as a way to glorify the achievement. A magnificent piece of work, its story of survival is in itself breathtaking, as Andrew Bridgeford briefly discusses at the start of his 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Hidden history, you say? Well, yes, very possibly. Bridgeford sets out to examine the tapestry and comes across some previously undetected threads, so to speak, in the story. He begins by re-iterating the now-discarded legend surrounding the tapestry’s French name—la Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde—and elaborates on that frankly astounding history of the piece’s survival, including its narrow avoidance of serving during the French Revolutionary Wars as protective covering for an equipment wagon.
Given these hints at secrets within the tapestry, and the mystery surrounding from whence it originated, it perhaps is fitting that its identity as tapestry is not exactly spot on, either. Created from wool yarn sewn into the cloth, it nevertheless remains the tapestry. Searching keenly into what it holds, as Bridgeford does, what reveals itself is the really important part, and his stunning account gives us a glimpse of someone else who may have contemplated what William was thinking, and sought to set the record straight, albeit in a “dangerously many-layered masterpiece.” The Normans had their castles and fought from horseback, but even in French country and beyond, Anglo-Saxon needlework was prized in its time, and it makes sense that the artist who designed the images was not, in fact, a Norman paying homage to his land and people’s supremacy—or to the man who was now his king.
That alone sends us whispers through the winds to our time, that Anglo-Saxons were not the products of a dark age many today still see them as, but rather a society with an art, a textile, people who could tell a story that, as it turns out, has enchanted us for many lifetimes. Even if the story is secretly told, it is done on Saxon terms, on their framework, held in a sort of trust until we could once again speak safely about these events.
Speaking of them often originates in the written word, Bridgeford writes, “[y]et when you close these books and pass to the Bayeux Tapestry your imagination still feels as if it has emerged out of the darkness of a cave into a world of sunlit colours.” Perhaps, if our artist could hear these words on a wind that passes him by, he might smile that his age is characterized thus.
“Seemingly irrelevant.” A small illustration of a fox, a crow and a piece of cheese is depicted in a lower corner on the tapestry in reference to a fable that dates to Aesop. Three times it appears to warn of the consequences of treacherous flattery, once in close proximity to the scene in which Harold, having journeyed across the sea to the duke, finds himself first a prisoner of Count Guy, and then William, who presents himself as having rescued the English earl. Then we are shown HIC WILLELM DEDIT HAROLDO ARMA. Here William gives arms to Harold. William’s weighty gesture at the Breton war precedes the moments in which William demands Harold swear a sacred oath to support his bid for the throne. Here the duke sits, pointing at Harold in front of him, significantly standing, his eyes “narrowed to the width of a stitch … [t]he very atmosphere seems to have been pulled taut.” Harold understands that William had planned this all out, agonizing over the gravity of a sacred oath and that if he breaks it, he will have to answer to God. If he doesn’t, the brother and nephew he seeks to release from the duke’s imprisonment, will surely not be leaving with him. Wulfnoth and Hakon may die in captivity.
Harold swears the oath.
Straight away the Englishmen are shown on a boat and Bridgeford examines the scene, remarking that the artist’s reversal of the order in which these events actually took place “accentuate[s] the impression of duress,” that secreted within the images is the statement that Harold is permitted to return to England only because he swore the oath.
Upon his homecoming, Eadmer tells us, the Confessor reacts angrily: “Did I not tell you that I knew William well and that your going there might bring untold calamity upon this kingdom?” This and Bridgeford’s observation of a repentant Earl Harold are in stark contrast to the Norman claim that Edward sent the earl to Normandy to seal the deal regarding William as successor to the king. Why would Harold appear to be begging forgiveness of Edward, arms outstretched, if he had returned from doing as instructed?
Bridgeford believes this to be a covert English version of events, though so often passed over because Norman propaganda tells us of a perfidious Harold Godwinson, and those of the land who conquered his were unlikely to see anything else. After all, did he not break a sacred oath? Did he not later steal a throne that rightfully belonged to William? However, as we see, William flatters Harold with a sort of knighthood; it is he who surreptitiously effects the Englishman’s presence in his household and places him in an impossible position.
Perusing the tapestry once more, we see the fox and the crow again, accompanying Harold and his men back to England, and remember the ancient fable. Harold has imprudently traveled to Normandy and been tricked into a terrible dilemma, one in which his tormenter could easily wriggle away from by pointing out that Harold had a choice. Woven within all this is the disaster of which Edward speaks, that the nation must suffer owing to Harold’s improvidence, increasing the spoils of William’s duplicity. “Can there be any doubt that William is the greedy fox and that Harold is the naïve and foolish crow?”
There is, of course, more to the chapter (“The Fox and the Crow”) than presented here, and it is but one example Bridgeford presents. In some spots the detail can be intense, but it is never dense and the narrative nature of the book makes it read at times like a novel. The author also includes extensive notes to support this fascinating and impressive medieval detective work.
Part of me winces when wondering if, apart from the partial exile of the tapestry, our technological “superiority,” relieving us of so much brainwork, has played a role in why nearly one thousand years have passed before someone recognized what our artist set out so long ago? As I think more on it, I don’t believe so, for he must have been confident that even those in his own time wouldn’t recognize his coded messages so easily; with his production he might even have been betting his life on it. If he is who Bridgeford believes him to be, then he certainly had a lot to lose. He needed to shield his statements; they were for us to decipher correctly, not his contemporaries.
Whoever created this tapestry: did he even dare to hope it would last as long as it has? Did he believe the Normanization of England would falter, and that would be the time to speak openly of what his treasure spoke? Or did he know well William’s terrible determination? Was he even an Anglo-Saxon? Or was he a non-Norman French who selected this medium, perhaps as a nod to the famous Saxon skill, to weave his report?
One thing is certain: he reaches through time, gifting us who yearn to know of our past a legacy, a concrete marker of where we came from, to spare us the more complete loss of our collective memory. Something that once actually breathed in some of the same dust that today blows about in the wind, nearly one thousand years later. As physical representation of their time it may be small, but given the risk he likely took in setting out to perform the task, it is much larger than any of us.
I’ve written before of the Russian ideal that no one ever really dies if there is someone to remember them. It’s a tenet I hold very close to my heart, because to be forgotten, for any memory of someone to be so scattered, unseen, amongst the winds, is a horrible fate. It renders them as not having mattered, one reason why names are so significant. Many people know this. William knew this.
Fortunately, we do have at least some names, even if their sounds don’t quite conform to our ears (or vice versa), and we have some identities. We also know of an unidentified someone willing to take a huge risk with his life, understanding that it mattered whether we who came next knew about events in his era. Perhaps he even understood it might take us quite some time to pick apart the threads, satisfied that once we began to sort through, there was much more to uncover, even than what initially was discovered, that William might be denied his absolute victory, even this far out. While understandably unsatisfying to many, it is at least some small justice, perhaps, as one 1066 writer recently commented, perhaps the only justice those who suffered will get. Even if so, we know much more about events leading up to and of this day, and many of the interwoven threads depicting lives, each with so much relevance.
And so today, one year after 950, and for many more to come, we see the people laid into flax, their whispers on the winds of time as we strain to hear what they say.
These busy little figures are not just eleventh-century cartoon characters stitched onto linen. They stand for real people, real people whose lives were changed, and in some cases ended, by the greatest of all events in English history. More than that, recorded in these threads are forgotten stories yet to be retold.
With love and gratitude to those who suffered and were lost, and others through the ages,
descendants of Saxon, Viking and Norman alike, who toil to tell their stories.
Thank you for joining us for this final installment of our year-long commemoration
of the Battle of Hastings. For a complete list of entry hyperlinks, please click here.