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OP-ED: Not just a long piece of cloth

  • Published at 07:28 pm March 22nd, 2021
bayeux tapestry

What an old British tapestry teaches us about the origins of the English language

The year 1066 is undoubtedly the most famous date in English history. The Battle of Hastings and the subsequent conquest of England by the Normans, ended almost 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule and profoundly altered the course of the country’s future. 

The events leading up to and including the battle were recorded on the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70 metre long cloth which begins with King Harold of England promising to support Duke William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne, his supposed betrayal of that oath, the battle itself, and ending with the Anglo-Saxon’s defeat and flight from the field. 

However, it looks as though the tapestry’s planned return to Britain next year for a special exhibition will not now go ahead. The promise to loan the tapestry to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A) was made in 2018 by France’s President Emmanuel Macron to then-British Prime Minister Theresa May. But the curators of the Bayeux Museum in Normandy, where the tapestry is displayed, now believe that it is too fragile to travel.

The tapestry was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo and was probably made by nuns in Canterbury in Kent, which was a noted centre for early medieval woolcraft. The name, however, is a little misleading; the Bayeux Tapestry is in fact an embroidery, with several different coloured wools stitched onto the linen cloth.

The most important scene is at the start of the Tapestry. It depicts Harold, then Earl of Wessex, with Duke William swearing an oath over the bones of two English saints. This oath, at least accruing to Norman sources, was that Harold, upon the death of the reigning king, Edward the Confessor, would promise to support William’s claim to the English throne. 

For Harold to make such a promise seemed highly unlikely as the Earl clearly had designs on the throne himself. And indeed, when Edward died shortly after, Harold immediately had himself crowned king in the newly-built Westminster Abbey. 

In what was a mostly pre-literate society with very few written agreements, a man’s sworn oath was considered to be sacred. Harold’s apparent breaking of that oath, was just the excuse that William needed to invade England and set in train a series of events that would change the kingdom forever. 

The Tapestry has never been out of France, although there were some earlier attempts to bring it to Britain, most recently for the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1966 and before that for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Like the present attempt, these earlier ventures failed.

A possible compromise was, this week, offered by the mayor of Bayeux, Patrick Gomont. Gomont suggested that if Britain wanted to display the Tapestry, then it could do so, but only if it met the total cost of a full restoration, something estimated to be in the region of two million euros. The head of the V & A, Tristram Hunt, said the idea was “fabulous.” 

However, that has not been the universal reaction. Coming so soon after Brexit, many Britons cannot understand why the country should want to celebrate a period in its history when it was subjected to the laws and rules of an oppressive European power -- and pay mighty for the privilege. 

Others, perhaps with their tongue placed firmly in their cheeks, say that the timing is just perfect. Recalling Harold’s supposed breaking of his promise to William, should prove an object lesson for today’s politicians of what the consequences might be for those who lie. 

However, when all of the sound and fury has been taken out of the debate, the British government should seize this opportunity and respond positively to the offer. The Bayeux Tapestry is a unique piece of British history. Although clearly commissioned as a piece of Norman propaganda, it, nonetheless, records a significant point in English and European history. 

Before 1066, England was on the fringes of European society. Its conquest by the Normans brought it into the European mainstream. The cultural, political, and legal changes that it brought to England were huge. 

Latin replaced Anglo-Saxon as the official language of government; changes in the style of religious architecture were introduced and the whole system of law developed into a two tier form of jurisprudence, merging Anglo-Saxon common law with the system of a centralized lawmaking, common in continental Europe -- something that is still in operation today. 

But probably, and more significantly, was the conquest’s impact upon the English language. The introduction of Norman French, the language of the court, over time, merged with the language of the common people to create one of the richest vocabulary in the world. 

Effectively, the bringing together of these two tongues, has meant that modern-day English has at least two words for almost everything. The origins of these words are usually quite simple to spot. 

Generally speaking, the more basic the word will be derived from Anglo-Saxon; the “posher,” the more formal the word, from the French. Thus “bench” is derived from English, “seat” from French; “bucket” is English, “pail” is French; “pig”, “sheep” and “cow”, English; “pork”, “lamb” and “beef”, French, and so on. 

Speakers and writers of English around the world, thus have a multiplicity of words to draw upon thanks entirely to the Battle of Hastings and from the ultimate “Normanization” of England’s language and culture. 

Two million euros, therefore, seems a relatively small price to pay to bring home and renovate that one unique document that records those momentous and literally world-changing events.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.

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