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Great discussion has taken place amongst the learned with regard to the exact time at which the Bayeux tapestry was wrought. The question, except as a matter of curiosity, is, perhaps, of little account—fifty years earlier or later, nearly eight hundred years ago. It had always been considered as the work of Matilda, the wife of the conquering Duke of Normandy until a few years ago, when the Abbe de la Rue started and endeavoured to maintain the hypothesis that it was worked by or under the direction of the Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry the First.* But his positions, as Dibdin observes, f are all of a negative character, and, "according to the strict rules of logic, it must not be admitted, that because such and such writers have not noticed a circumstance, therefore that circum
* ArchaeoJogia, vol. xvii. f Biblio. Tour, vol. i., 138.
stance or event cannot have taken place." Hudson Gurney, Charles A. Stothard, and Thos. Amyott, Esqrs. have all published essays on the subject,* which establish almost to certainty the fact of the production of this tapestry at the earlier of the two periods contended for, viz. from 10G6 to 1068.
In this we rejoice, because this Herculean labour has a halo of deep interest thrown round it, from the circumstance of its being the proud tribute of a fond and affectionate wife, glorying in her husband's glory, and proud of emblazoning his deeds. As the work of the Empress Matilda it would still be a magnificent production of industry and of skill; as the work of" Duke William's" wife these qualities merge in others of a more interesting character.!
This excellent and amiable princess was a most highly accomplished woman, and remarkable for her learning; she was the affectionate mother of a large family, the faithful wife of an enterprising monarch, with whom she lived for thirty-three years so harmoniously that her death had such an effect on her husband as to cause him to relinquish, never again to resume, his usual amusements. J
* Archaeol. vols, xviii., xix.
t One writer, Bolton Corney, Esq., maintains that this work was provided at the expense of the Chapter of Bayeux, under their superintendence, and from their designs. "If it had not (says he) been devised within the precincts of a church it could not have escaped female influence: it could not have contained such indications of celibatic superintendence. It is not without its domestic and festive scenes; and comprises, exclusive of the borders, about 530 figures; but in this number there are only three females."
J Henry III., 25.
Little did the affectionate wife think, whilst employed over this task, that her domestic tribute of regard should become an historical memento of her country, and blazon forth her illustrious husband's deeds, and her own unwearying affection, to ages upon ages hereafter to be born. For independently of the interest which may be attached to this tapestry as a pledge of feminine affection, a token of housewifely industry, and a specimen of ancient stitchery, it derives more historic value as the work of the Conqueror's wife, than if it were the production of a later time. For it holds good with these historical tapestries as with the written histories and romances of the middle ages;—authors wrote and ladies wrought (we mean no pun) their characters, not in the costume of the times in which the action or event celebrated took place, but in that in which they were at the time engaged; and thus, had Matilda the Empress worked this tapestry, it is more than probable that she would have introduced the armorial bearings which were in her time becoming common, and especially the Norman leopards, of which in the tapestry there is not the slightest trace. In her time too the hair was worn so long as to excite the censures of the church, whilst at the time of the Conquest the Normans almost shaved their heads; and this circumstance, more than the want of beards, is supposed by Mr. Stothard* to have led to the surmise of the Anglo-Saxon spies that the Normans were all priests. This circumstance is faithfully depicted in the tapestry, where also the chief weapon seen is a lance, which was little used after the Conquest. These peculia
* Archaeol. vol. xix.
rities, with several others which have been commented on by antiquarian writers, seem to establish the date of this production as coeval with the action which it represents, and therefore invaluable as an historical document.
"It is, perhaps," says one of the learned writers on the Bayeux tapestry, "a characteristic of the literature of the present age to deduce history from sources of second-rate authority; from ballads and pictures rather than from graver and severer records. Unquestionably this is the preferable course, if amusement, not truth, be the object sought for. Nothing can be more delightful than to read the reigns of the Plantagenets in the dramas of Shakspeare, or the tales of later times in the ingenious fictions of the author of Waverley. But those who would draw historical facts from their hiding-places must be content to plod through many a ponderous worm-eaten folio, and many a halflegible and still less intelligible manuscript.
"Yet," continues he, " if the Bayeux tapestry be not history of the first class, it is, perhaps, something better. It exhibits genuine traits, elsewhere sought in vain, of the costume and manners of that age which, of all others, if we except the period of the Reformation, ought to be the most interesting to us; that age which gave us a new race of monarchs, bringing with them new landholders, new laws, and almost a new language.
"As in the magic pages of Froissart, we here behold our ancestors of each race in most of the occupations of life, in courts and camps, in pastime and in battle, at feasts and on the bed of sickness. These are characteristics which of themselves would call forth a lively interest; but their value is greatly enhanced by their connection with one of the most important events in history, the main subject of the whole design."
This magnificent piece of work is 227 feet in length by 20 inches in width, is now usually kept at the Town-hall in Rouen, and is treasured as the most precious relic. It was formerly the theme of some long and learned dissertations of antiquarian historians, amongst whom Montfaucon, perhaps, ranks most conspicuous.
Still so little local interest does it excite, that Mr. Gurney, in 1814, was nearly leaving Bayeux without seeing it because he did not happen to ask for it by the title of " Toile de St. Jean," and so his request was not understood; and Ducarel, in his "Tour," says, "The priests of this cathedral to whom we addressed ourselves for a sight of this remarkable piece of antiquity, knew nothing of it; the circumstance only of its being annually hung up in their church led them to understand what we wanted; no person there knowing that the object of our inquiry any ways related to William the Conqueror, whom to this day they call Duke William.
During the French Revolution its surrender was demanded for the purpose of covering the guns; fortunately, however, a priest succeeded in concealing it until that storm was overpast.
Bonaparte better knew its value. It was displayed for some time in Paris, and afterwards at some seaport towns. M. Denon had the charge of it committed to him by Bonaparte, but it was afterwards