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The Bayeux Tapestry popped into the news a couple of weeks ago when French President Emmanuel Macron announced it would be loaned to Britain for public display.
Immediately, people imputed political meaning. That’s nothing new. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the tapestry has been political from the get-go.
Created in the late 11th century, the tapestry derives its name from Bayeux in Normandy. With a few interruptions, it’s been on display there for centuries.
While age is obviously a reason for the tapestry’s fame, there are others.
At almost 70 metres in length and 50 centimetres in height, it’s physically impressive. And with its multiple panels relating the events leading up to the 1066 Norman conquest of England and depicting the decisive Battle of Hastings, it’s a vivid contemporary record of a major historical turning point.
However, many observers believe that the way in which the tapestry tells the story contains more than a modicum of propaganda.
If history is written by the winners, it’s fair to say that the tapestry fits into that category. Although the defeated Anglo-Saxons aren’t denigrated, there’s no sense of questioning either the validity of William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne or the invasion that turned claim into actuality. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Historians debate the question of who commissioned the tapestry. Prime contenders include Odo of Bayeux (William’s half-brother), Queen Matilda (William’s wife), and Edith of Wessex (widow of the next-to-last Anglo-Saxon king and sister of the last one). Edith, the argument goes, knew a winner when she saw one and successfully sought to ingratiate herself with the new regime.
In a recent column in The Times, journalist Ben Macintyre pulls no punches. The Bayeux Tapestry, he says, is “French propaganda a thousand years old that gives a false account of the most important episode in 1066.”
Macintyre’s particular beef is the famous arrow-in-the-eye image of Harold, the defeated Anglo-Saxon king. This, he points out, differs from the earliest account, Song of the Battle of Hastings, which described Harold being hacked to death by four Norman knights, one of whom was probably William.
It matters because of the symbolism.
If Harold was killed by an arrow “hurtling out of the sky,” it could be presented as “divine punishment for breaking his oath to support William’s claim.” However, “the brutal battlefield carve-up” of a crowned and anointed king has a very different feel to it.
Placing the tapestry in historical context and talking about its role in legitimizing the Norman Conquest is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Injecting it into the modern Brexit debate isn’t.
For some on the pro-Brexit side, Macron’s loan is a form of trolling. It’s as if he’s saying, “We beat you once and we’ll beat you again.”
On the anti-Brexit side, it’s a timely reminder of the long historical connection between England and France and the folly of attenuating that connection by leaving the European Union (EU).
In reality, though, the tapestry and the events it depicts are completely irrelevant to Brexit. The reasons for or against leaving the EU have nothing to do with what happened in 1066.
Those opposed to Brexit can make two plausible arguments.
One is that staying in the EU enhances their sense of identity by introducing a European dimension. The other is that the EU-related sacrifice of national sovereignty is more than compensated for by the economic and personal convenience benefits of membership.
For those in favour of Brexit, a European identity has no particular allure and economic costs, if any, are likely to be transitional. And if push comes to shove, reassertion of full national sovereignty is worth paying a price for.
As for the prime movers in the tapestry events, the Normans generate a mixed historical press.
They unambiguously changed the face of England, replacing the traditional ruling class, upending land ownership, introducing new building styles and legal concepts, erasing swaths of native historical memory and much more. They could also be extraordinarily ruthless.
Descended from Viking raiders who established themselves in northwestern France in the early 10th century, the Normans have been described as “a most cunning race” and “great builders.” They’ve also been noted for “their aggressive military ethos and their berserk violence in battle.”
You’d have probably wanted them on your side in any medieval argument.
Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.
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