There is consternation in Bayeux: President Macron has offered to lend the Bayeux Tapestry to the United Kingdom. The president of the French Republic is the head of state and the tapestry is the property of the French state. However, since 1804, when custody of the tapestry was conferred on Bayeux by order of Napoleon, its legal guardian has been the mayor of Bayeux, representing the citizens of the city, a joint responsibility of state and city confirmed in December 2017 in an agreement that runs till 2066.
Bayeux welcomes around 400,000 visitors a year to view the tapestry and does well financially out of its guardianship: it is a prosperous city. However, it takes its duties to its precious charge very seriously. The textile, which is in fact an embroidery, not technically a tapestry, is extremely fragile. It dates to the 1070s or 1080s and it has not been gently treated over the centuries. Its fine linen cloth is worn and torn; it has been patched in over 500 places. We do not know its early history before its re-emergence in the 15th century, but in the course of its existence it has been folded, rolled, stored in a chest, hung up by metal loops and ribbons, wound round spools and even nailed up. It has been stained by rust and what may be candle grease. Pieces have been snipped from it as souvenirs or as misguided research. The end is missing. Darning, patching, replacement of embroidery and cleaning, less gentle than the micro-vacuuming of recent times, have all taken their toll. Regular monitoring (by comparing photographs of selected areas taken over a period of time) indicates that there has been no deterioration since it was hung in its present location in 1983; but the textile was extremely fragile and vulnerable then and is no less so now.
The tapestry is kept in a sophisticated display case, in which temperature, humidity and lighting are controlled and dust particles are filtered out. The glass behind which it is displayed is shatterproof, and magnifies slightly to enhance appreciation of the images. Although its support is attached to a rail so that the tapestry could be rescued in emergency, such as fire, it has hardly stirred since 1983. Isabelle Attard, a former director of the Bayeux Tapestry Museum, recalls that when it was moved a few centimetres to facilitate a repair to the glass case, the operation required more than 20 people. Removing, packing, transporting and re-displaying the whole enormous embroidery – it is 68.38 metres long – presents tremendous logistical problems, scientific challenges and enormous expense. However, it is no secret that in a €20 million project to be completed in 2023 the Bayeux Tapestry Museum is to be transformed, with millions of euros dedicated to study and more to the conservation and restoration of the textile. Inevitably, therefore, the tapestry will have to be moved in the foreseeable future; so most of these difficulties will have to be tackled anyway, at a local level. Why not think big and send it to England, where it was probably made?
Rivalry, suspicion and hostility between France and England have been normal for centuries and are particularly rife at present as Brexit is discussed. However, Bayeux, and the wider area of Normandy, has particular affinities with her wartime allies. The Bayeux War Cemetery is the largest cemetery for British casualties of the Second World War. The British Legion holds annual ceremonies and services in Bayeux, and the town has a museum memorialising the Battle of Normandy. Many of the tourists who flock to the city are drawn by this association. It is a friendship Bayeux strives to maintain: postcards on sale reproduce poems by local schoolchildren thanking the allied soldiers who gave their lives that the present generation may live in freedom. Let us hope that if the Bayeux Tapestry does come to England it can be done in the spirit of this friendship.
And if it comes, I have three wishes. The first is that is should be displayed so that all of the artwork can be seen at the same time, which has never been done in modern times. That way the viewer can appreciate the interrelationships between scenes (feasts, sea crossings, deaths). The second is that the public be made aware of the ambiguities in the ‘story’ the tapestry tells: just where do the loyalties of the designer lie? Is this entirely a pro-Norman version of events? Is there a pro-English sub-text? Does the designer have reservations about both sets of combatants? And finally, I’m hoping that, in the course of the removal, specialists (especially me!) should get a chance to see the back of the tapestry, a closely-guarded secret until recently when photographs from 1982 were made available.