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For the First Time in 940 Years, the Bayeux Tapestry Will Leave France

The 70-meter-long embroidery also features 35 dogs, three women, and an astral phenomenon.

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing the coronation of King Harold (all images in the Public Domain)

The Bayeux Tapestry is set to go on display in the United Kingdom, in a major loan from France that marks the first time the historic record has left the country in 940 years. The 70-meter-long artifact, which depicts the events surrounding the 1066 Norman conquest of England, will likely be loaned in 2022, as The Times first reported yesterday. What remains a mystery is where exactly it will go on display: its temporary home has yet to be confirmed, although the British Museum is reportedly the top candidate.

President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce the loan at the 35th UK-France summit tomorrow. While he and Prime Minister Theresa May are expected to hail the agreement, some have found it difficult to ignore the symbolism in the sending of an artwork, post-Brexit, to the UK that depicts a comprehensive defeat of the English. Macron’s generous offer, in other words, comes off to many as a smooth mockery of Brexiters. Others have characterized it as a bribe, as a “charm offensive” to nudge May on various issues set to be discussed.

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry

Possible political jabs aside, the Bayeux Tapestry is a masterpiece of decorative Anglo-Saxon art that necessitates in-person examination, and its move — perhaps to a major museum — is significant. Housed in the Bayeux Museum, its name is actually a misnomer: the Bayeux Tapestry is really an embroidery, made of threads hand-sewn into fabric, rather than woven with a loom. With its narrative divided into 32 scenes filled with hundreds of figures and colorful embellishments, it is often described as a historical political cartoon; a proto-graphic novel, if you will.

Action-packed, and accompanied by captions stitched in Latin, the embroidery shows the buildup to and violence of the Battle of Hastings, told from the perspective of the Normans. It includes sections portraying soldiers, led by Duke William of Normandy, preparing for battle; crossing the English Channel in dragon-headed ships; and gouging their enemies with swords. Arguably the most famous and debated detail is the moment of the death of King Harold, who had broken his oath to support William’s claim to the English throne. The king appears to be yanking an arrow out of his head, supporting theories that getting struck in the eye was his fatal blow; yet, that stitch work was added in the 19th century, raising questions about how that scene unfolded exactly.

Harold Godwinson falls at Hastings.

The embroidery has been moved only a few times in its history. In 1804, Napoleon ordered it to be shown in Paris as he was planning to invade England. It was shown again in the capital during World War II, when the Gestapo moved it to the Louvre for safekeeping under the orders of Heinrich Himmler, who wanted it for his castle. British officials also attempted to borrow the tapestry for the queen’s coronation in 1953, as well as in 1966, for the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, but those plans were unsuccessful.

For those who get a chance to see the Bayeux Tapestry in person, whether at its permanent home, or in the UK, here are some details you should look out for:

Diverse Fauna

The Bayeux Tapestry features 626 people — and you can differentiate between the Englishmen and Normans by their hairstyles — but is filled with a wide array of animals as well. If you’re up for the challenge, see if you can count the 190 horses and mules or 35 dogs present. There are also 506 other animals, including a rich variety of identifiable birds, from doves to hawks to peacocks.

Detail showing the Battle of Hastings

Halley’s Comet

About a month after Harold was crowned king, Halley’s Comet shot across the sky. Its blaze is recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry, in a register above a small group of men who point at the fiery ball — not as a remembrance of a wondrous natural phenomenon, but rather to commemorate what was seen as a portent of things to come, as a result of Harold breaking his oath. William of Poiters, who wrote an account of the Norman invasion in 1071, described the gravity of the astral omen in a rhetorical address to Harold, as such: “The comet, terror of kings, which burned soon after your elevation, foretold your doom.”

Detail showing men observing Halley’s Comet

The Only Three Women

Given that the embroidery centers on a battle scene, it’s not entirely surprising that there are only three women depicted (although credit must be given to the talented, unnamed female embroiders whose duty it was to execute the intricate design). As the Reading Museum, which owns a full-size, 19th-century replica of the Bayeux Tapestry notes, only two are identifiable by name: shown in one of the embroidery’s first scenes is a woman named Aelfgyva, who has remained a mysterious figure to many scholars.

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing a woman known as Aelfgyva

In a later panel, Queen Edith, wife of King Edward, is shown wearing yellow at the foot of her husband’s deathbed.

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing the deathbed of King Edward

The third woman is an anonymous survivor fleeing with a child from a burning building.

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing a woman and child running from a building set on fire

The Embroidered Erection

If you revisit the scene featuring Aelfgyva, look closer to observe a rather curious individual standing in the lowest register. This pantless man appears in mid-squat, seemingly reaching for something. He remains another enigma in the embroidery, but what is certain is that his nudity was perceived as too explicit for later observers. The Reading Museum’s replica, created by 35 Staffordshire women in the 1880s, almost matches the original in its entirety; the nude figure, however, received a pair of pants to cover up his exposed parts.

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry showing a nude individual

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