The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece
By Carola Hicks
Random House (Chatto & Windus), 2006
The vivid scenes on the thin, 70-metre long linen strip of the Bayeux Tapestry depict the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror seized the English throne. One of Europe’s greatest treasures, it tells a magnificent tale – but as Carola Hicks shows, its own story has been just as dramatic and surprising.
From the start there are mysteries and controversies. Who commissioned the tapestry? Was it Bishop Odo, William’s ruthless half-brother? Or another ambitious lord? Or was it Harold’s dynamic sister Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor, juggling for a place in the new court? Hicks makes an entirely new, strong case for Edith, showing us her world and the miracle of the tapestry’s making: talented women in convents plying their needles, the stitches and dyes, the strange details in the margins. The tapestry moved from a noble court to Bayeux cathedral where it lay dusty and ignored until its ‘discovery’ in the eighteenth century, rousing fierce disputes between British and French antiquarians. In the French Revolution, the townsfolk narrowly saved it from destruction, while Napoleon displayed it in Paris to boost his own planned conquest. Nineteenth-century women claimed it as ‘female’ history, to the horror of male historians. In the twentieth century it was swept up in the breathtaking struggle with the Nazis and since then its immediately recognisable images have inspired films, novels, political cartoons and adverts – even today, it acts as shorthand for our long rivalry with France.
This marvellous book, packed with thrilling stories, shows how we remake history in every age and how a great work of art has a life of its own, enduring every storm.