The announcement last week by Emmanuel Macron that France is to lend Britain the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry was described by the French presidential office as “a symbolic decision for France and perhaps even more so for the United Kingdom”.
It will be the first time that the tapestry, a 70-metre long embroidered cloth which depicts the Norman invasion of England in 1066, has ever left France, and after a complex operation, notably to ensure no damage is caused by the transfer, it is expected to be exhibited at the British Museum in London beginning in 2022.
The loan was officially announced at last Thursday’s summit meeting at the Sandhurst military academy between British Prime Minister Theresa May and President Macron, when discussions centred on Brexit, defence cooperation and immigration policy, notably the issue of border control at Calais. In that context, and especially the talks on Brexit, the French decision to lend the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain prompted speculation over what symbolic reason lay behind the gesture.
To cut through the ambiguity, Mediapart sought the insight of Julien Théry, a lecturer and researcher in mediaeval history with the University of Lyon 2 who, in the interview below, offers a French analysis of what he regards as a diplomatic reminder of “the ‘continental’ dimension of modern England’s origins”.
Mediapart: What is the Bayeux Tapestry?
Julien Théry: This tapestry, which is technically an embroidery, is an extraordinary document that is a unique thing of its kind. Firstly by its size, because it is a strip of fabric that measure 70 metres long and just 50 centimetres wide, but also because it has existed for almost a millennium, given it was most certainly made at around 1070, and that it is no doubt the only such fragile object that has been conserved for 1,000 years.
What it contains is also exceptional, because it is made up of 58 embroidered scenes, thus images, surmounted by commentary in Latin, sometimes mixed with Anglo-Saxon, which tells of the crisis of succession of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and the victory of one of the pretenders, the Duke of Normandy. For the occasion, the latter took on the name of William the Conqueror following the Battle of Hastings on October 14th 1066, a battle still celebrated every year by English enthusiasts of ‘Medievalism’ who regularly reconstruct it in [the English county of] Sussex in dress that is very close to the reality of the times.
Mediapart: Is the precious and fragile nature of the tapestry, or embroidery, the reason it has never left France?
JT: It will be the first time, if the loan announced by Macron effectively happens in 2022 as stated, and after material preparations and negotiations over conditions, which are also material, because the major obstacle is the risk of it becoming deteriorated, that the tapestry will have left France – at least since 1476 which was the first time it was accounted for in an inventory of the Bayeux cathedral. It has hardly been moved since then, except to be placed inside the former seminary, in the centre of Bayeux, where it is displayed. It has been moved from Bayeux only very rarely.
In 1803, Napoleon ordered its transfer to Paris to exhibit it at a time when peace between France and England had been broken. This tapestry represents the last successful invasion of England, while the idea that the island is impregnable has for a longtime been a source of English national pride – that was reinforced with the failure of the Blitz bombings during the Second World War. To exhibit this tapestry in 1803 was perhaps a way of underlining that England is not impregnable.
In 1945 it was also exhibited in the Louvre [museum in Paris] after having been retrieved from the hands of the Nazis.
Mediapart: How do you interpret Emmanuel Macron’s decision to lend it to Great Britain?
JT: Macron’s decision to lend the tapestry, on the occasion of the Franco-British summit which was marked by Brexit preoccupations, could of course be regarded as a sign of friendship, all the more given that William the Conqueror, who is celebrated in the tapestry, is a glorious figure in English imaginary [of the nation’s] identity.
But it is also a manner of underlining that England’s origins are European, that England has a continental history – and in particular Norman. It’s a way of reminding the English that they are somehow ‘congenitally’ linked to the continent and not only to the “open sea”, meaning the United States, as Churchill’s phrase had it after the Second World War, according to which “every time we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we shall choose”. * [See editor’s footnote at the bottom of this page].
This conception governs the image England has of itself, and its relationship with Europe. To lend them the tapestry is a way of telling them that if, historically, the United States is an emanation of England, well before that England itself came from this bit of the European continent that was in the process of becoming France – and this [message comes] just as the American president cancelled his visit to Great Britain.
This reminder of the ‘continental’ dimension of modern England’s origins is all the stronger given that as of 1066, and William’s conquest of England which is retraced in the Bayeux Tapestry, and then for about three centuries – until the modern French state, following the re-conquest of 1450 imposed a clearer separation between the Norman and English nobility – it was a same aristocratic social group that dominated Normandy and England.
The English kings, nobility and bishops did not speak the language of the population of England, which is Anglo-Saxon, but Roman, which is Old French. They had to use translators to communicate with the non-nobles whose work they exploited through the feudal and lordly system.
The ‘French’ character of the Anglo-Norman nobility is reinforced with the arrival of the Plantagenet dynasty in 1154. It was a count from Anjou, Henry, who became both Duke of Gascony, ‘Guyenne’, Duke of Normandy and King of England. He and his successor, English king Richard the Lionheart, spent much more time in their continental possessions, in France, than in their kingdoms in England.
From the 11th to the 15th centuries, the Channel was therefore not a frontier but, to exaggerate a little, a vast river that cut across what in many ways was a unitary political entity. At a time when Brexit threatens to place in question the agreement of Le Touquet and to re-position Dover as a border, at a moment when May and Macron are renegotiating the policing and financial management of what’s happening in Calais, reviving this period of history takes on a political sense.
The best example of when the Channel was not a frontier is the Bayeux Tapestry itself. It was most probably commissioned by the Bishop of Bayeux who, like most of the major Norman prelates, had land in England. The Bishop of Bayeux, Odo – or – Eudes, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, became, after the 1066 conquest, the Earl of Kent. According to the most common theory, the tapestry was made in England, a country reputed for its art of embroidery, perhaps in Saint Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, in Kent, before being brought to Bayeux.
Mediapart: So Macron’s gesture carries several meanings?
JT: I must admit that, while not being a fan of Macron’s politics or the PR stunts, it is a subtle gesture, rich in meaning and of various interests. It is also an opportunistic gesture, in the sense that it appears that Macron’s announcement had in fact been preceded by negotiations that were begun some while ago by the British Museum to obtain the loan. [Other] discussions had already been unsuccessfully attempted for a loan of the tapestry to England, for example on the occasion of the coronation of Elizabeth 11 in 1953, and subsequently for the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1966. It’s probable that Macron and his PR team took the opportunity of this project already being discussed to turn it into an instrument of a culturally symbolic political move, in this case with a spectacular gesture, to reinforce Anglo-French relations, to limit the damaging effects of Brexit.
But on the other hand, the opponents of Brexit can read into the Bayeux Tapestry a reminder that the decisive transformation of pre-modern England came from the continent.
*The veracity of the quote attributed to Winston Churchill – “each time we have to decide between Europe and the open sea, it is always the open sea that we shall choose” – is contested by a number of historians. It was cited by the pro-Leave campaign in the 2016 British referendum on membership of the EU, when it was claimed that Churchill made the comment during a 1953 speech in parliament, which was untrue. The most likely origin of the phrase is the memoirs of Charles de Gaulle, who recounted an argument between himself and Churchill on the eve of the 1944 Normandy landings, when Churchill supposedly told him that “if I have to choose between Roosevelt and you, I will always choose Roosevelt”.
- The French version of this interview can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse