Bayeux and Brexit: What the tapestry says about the UK’s shared European heritage

Bayeux and Brexit: What the tapestry says about the UK’s shared European heritage


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Kathryn Hurlock / The Conversation

The Bayeux Tapestry is finally coming to England , or so the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has promised . There have long been calls to bring the work to England, such as for the Queen’s coronation in 1953 – but until now they have fallen on deaf ears.

But why is this one historic artefact so important – and what does it tell us about the UK’s historic relationship with France just as the country is about the leave the European Union?

The Bayeux Tapestry was probably commissioned by Odo, bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William the Conqueror, to commemorate the Norman victory at Hastings in October 1066. Odo figures prominently in the work – and in one scene holds a club as he goes to fight for his brother.

Odo, Bishop of Bayeux battling with a club as depicted on the tapestry.

The tapestry also told a story that explained and justified the conquest. The scenes depicting King Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson , who took the throne as Harold II on Edward’s death in 1066, imply that Harold went back on a promise sworn on the relics of Bayeux cathedral to support William’s claim. Instead, he took the crown for himself.

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Edward the Confessor and Harold II of England depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

A new Anglo-Norman realm

In the wake of the Battle of Hastings, a new country was formed. England had been linked to other parts of Europe – Scandinavia, in particular – for centuries, but this connection endured and created strong links between England and Normandy which were to last for several centuries.

They usually had the same ruler – and the destruction of the Anglo-Saxon nobility and gifting of lands in England to William’s followers meant England and Normandy had the same aristocracy, too. The conquering Normans married Anglo-Saxon women – and when they later went on to conquer parts of Wales and Ireland, they intermarried there, too.

The conquest had a long-lasting impact on English, and indeed British and Irish, history . The great castles and vast cathedrals we associate with medieval England and enjoy visiting were part of the Norman legacy, as was a new tendency to look south to Europe, rather than to the north – as had been the case before, as settlers came to England from Scandinavia.

Being continental in outlook was par for the course. Around 10,000 Norman French words entered the English language , changing the way the English people expressed themselves then – and still do. For example, the old Saxon words for livestock (sheep, swine, cow) were retained, but English took on the French way of talking about cooked meat (mutton, pork, beef). New laws, such as the ending of slavery , were merged in the decades after 1066, and the Anglo-Norman kings reformed English law and governance , introducing many of the systems still in use today (like the Exchequer) which came from the continent.

England and France more broadly were intimately connected throughout the 12th century as additional lands in France came under the control of the English king. More than half of England’s kings at this time were born in France, and many chose to be buried there, too . Richard the Lionheart, that great hero of medieval English history, actually spent less than six months in England, preferring his French lands.

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Richard the Lionheart lies buried at Fontevraud … in France. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Normandy was lost in 1204, but in the 14th century the Hundred Years War resurrected English claims to rule in France. The upset caused by the loss of English lands in France contributed to the Peasants Revolt of 1381 as people were sick of paying for a war they were not winning. The final loss of the French lands in 1453 was one of the causes of the Wars of the Roses. At this point, Calais was all that the English crown could claim in France. So traumatic was its eventual loss in 1558 that Queen Mary claimed when she died, if someone chose to look they would find Calais written in her heart.

Ties that bind

Whatever the motives of the person who commissioned the tapestry, or the message it was supposed to convey to those who saw it, it has since taken on a symbolic role in Anglo-French relations. In 1803, when he was planning to invade England, Napoleon wanted the tapestry for its propaganda value – he was going to show how the French had conquered England in the past as evidence that they could do it again, this time under his leadership.

Even Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader and Brexit campaigner, chose to wear a tie depicting the tapestry as a reminder of “the last time we were invaded and taken over”.

That is just one take on the Bayeux tapestry. What it shows, beyond dispute, is a time when England and Normandy united under one ruler. And while that was undoubtedly a catastrophe for the native English of 1066, the Norman conquest formed the England that we recognise today and brought the country closer to French continental politics.

At a time when Britain is moving away from Europe, it is interesting that president Macron has finally agreed to let the tapestry come to England – not as a reminder that once part of France conquered and ruled England, but that once the two countries shared a common history that defined many of the things we think of as English today.


Bayeux tapestry: a brag, a lament, an embodiment of history's complexity

It is a miracle of cooperation across borders that brings two peoples, two cultures together and reveals they are the same, after all.

I’m not talking about the news this week that France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has given the go-ahead for the Bayeux tapestry to visit Britain. I am describing the tapestry itself.

Perhaps it is coming to something when we have to turn to the early middle ages for lessons in humanity, compassion and how to be Europeans. The Bayeux tapestry was created in a world of bullying knights, near-universal illiteracy and tiny life expectancies, a remote time when a comet passing in the sky was a sign from God. In 1066 – as every British child is taught – the Normans, a hardy people who had been Vikings before they settled in northern France, invaded England. Their leader, Duke William, seized the crown after killing his Anglo-Saxon rival, Harold Godwinson, at the Battle of Hastings.

Very soon after that fatal battle, a more than 70 metre-long comic strip was created that told the story of the Norman invasion in bold, bright, embroidered woollen images revealing one unexpectedly subtle detail after another to create a moving picture (in every sense) of what war is really like. All great historical events are complex. Modern historians can tell you that and historical novels like War and Peace or Wolf Hall set out to capture it. The Bayeux tapestry shows it. The incredible, mysterious thing about this apparently primitive work made by anonymous craftspeople so long ago is that it shows the truth from multiple points of view, with respect for the losers as well as winners of the most decisive battle in British history.

“It’s a fantastic example of the making of history,” says Simon Schama. The writer, broadcaster and Columbia professor who has done so much to put narrative at the heart of today’s historical thinking and teaching is awed by the storytelling skills of the anonymous embroiderers who filled this panorama with lovely living detail.

“My favourite bit is where the embroiderers abolish the borders at the point where the armada sails so you have this extension in space, creating the sense of an infinite flotilla. There’s also a couple having it off. And there are these peasants in the border pulling the hauberks [chain-mail armour] off the dead.”

It all starts with a holiday gone wrong. Perhaps the trip the Anglo-Saxon noble Harold takes to Normandy in the early scenes of the tapestry is more business than pleasure, but whatever his plans, they are wrecked. He ends up a “guest” of Duke William, who gets him to swear an oath of loyalty. Harold has to stand placing his hands on two ornate reliquary caskets. William sits on his throne, already the image of a king. He points to the relics in an acutely cinematic, psychologically truthful image of smouldering power.

Already the question hits you – whose side are the artists on? For this is no simple propaganda image. Harold is portrayed just as sensitively as William. This is a moment of strange intimacy. If anything, we’re on Harold’s side.

Schama, like most historians, believes the tapestry was commissioned by Odo, bishop of Bayeux and half-brother to William. After the Norman victory at Hastings, Odo was made Earl of Kent, giving him access to “Europe’s greatest embroiderers – men and women”. The style of Kent’s craftspeople has been detected in the bright wool of the frieze. Chances are it is their work and, in its most subversive moments, their vision.

For ambivalence runs like a subtle thread right through this richly told story. If it only showed the Normans building castles when they landed in England, that would be impressive propaganda. Yet it also shows them burning a house – not such a good look. The Anglo-Saxons meanwhile are portrayed fighting bravely and well. Harold’s death in battle is given tragic pathos. “Really the two armies are indistinguishable,” says Schama. He thinks this even-handed quality underlines “the sense the embroiderers are bound to be English”.

The Bayeux tapestry showing the Normans burning houses – not a good look. Photograph: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

This is where the tapestry becomes not just an image of history but an embodiment of its living complexity. It is both a Norman brag and a Saxon lament. Perhaps we are looking at it with the wrong eyes if we ascribe a fixed point of view – for or against the conquest – to anyone involved in its creation. This is a wise, broadminded, tolerant work of art that sees no need to insult the weak or make gods of the strong.

“It’s so much about Englishness or Britishness and at the same time how that is rooted in Norman-ness,” marvels Schama.

At a time when our relationship with Europe is being remade – or just plain broken – here is a document of how interwoven that relationship really is.


France to lend priceless Bayeux Tapestry to Britain - but is Macron just trolling?

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry. Source: Shutterstock

IN A GESTURE OF abiding friendship, or perhaps a subtle warning, French President Emmanuel Macron will offer Britain a loan of the famed Bayeux Tapestry – which depicts the French conquest of England.

The 40-year-old French leader is due to visit the UK today to sign a treaty with British Prime Minister Theresa May on policing the port of Calais, which links the two countries as well as discuss European security measures.

Since his election last year, Macron’s developed a name for himself for symbolic moves and gifts to other world leaders, as he sets about establishing new French diplomatic ties following political uncertainty in the UK and US.

On a trip to Beijing, he offered the Chinese president a French stallion, while Russian leader Vladimir Putin was given a tour around an exhibition at the Versailles Palace last year that marked 300 years of Franco-Russian friendship.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is given a tour of the Galerie des Batailles by Macron in May last year. Source: PA Images

Transporting the 70-metre-long Bayeux Tapestry to Britain for the first time will be a technically difficult journey for the priceless thousand-year-old artwork.

“It will not be before 2020 because it’s an extremely fragile cultural treasure which will be subject to major restoration work before being transported anywhere,” an official in Macron’s office said yesterday.

What is the Bayeux Tapestry?

Source: Jorisvo via Shutterstock

The tapestry, which dates from around 1077, depicts the famed Battle of Hastings when William the Conqueror from France defeated English forces in southern England.

The story of the 1066 military defeat, in which the English King Harold famously died after taking a French arrow in the eye, is still taught to British school children and is a founding moment in the long and bloody history of Anglo-French rivalry.

“It is very significant that the Bayeux Tapestry is going to be coming to the UK and that people are going to be able to see this,” Theresa May said in response to the offer.

Gallic joke?

Many historians and politicians have welcomed the gesture as a friendly move that underlined the two countries’ shared history and intermingled blood at a time when Britain is leaving the European Union.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity for British people from around the country to come, I hope to the British Museum, and see it in all its glory,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of a foreign affairs committee at the British parliament.

“This is a real demonstration on how diplomacy is done,” he told BBC radio.

But other commentators wondered exactly what Macron was trying to say by focusing on an inglorious moment in British military history.

The Times newspaper published a cartoon showing Macron in Middle Ages military garb skewering British Prime Minister Theresa May: “Emmanuel The Conqueror: It’s One In The Eye for Theresa Regina.”

My cartoon Wednesday on the #BayeuxTapestry: it's one in the eye for #TheresaMay (and two in the arse for #Boris). #Brexit pic.twitter.com/oBPoCNCbvA

&mdash Peter Brookes (@BrookesTimes) January 17, 2018

Writing on Twitter, broadcast journalist Robert Peston commented that “lending the UK a magnificent depiction of the last time this country was invaded and subjugated is a wonderful Gallic joke by Emmanuel Macron”.

Macron is trolling us by lending us the the Bayeux Tapestry. Now is the time for Boris to respond by sending him pictures of Agincourt

&mdash John Crace (@JohnJCrace) January 17, 2018

Jockeying over who would display the work is already underway, with the British Museum’s director Hartwig Fischer saying he would be “delighted” to show the work.

Lawmakers representing the seaside town of Hastings, as well as the village of Battle, where the historic clash took place, are also hoping for the honour.

“I’m sure we will be looking very carefully to ensure the maximum number of people can take benefit from seeing this tapestry,” May said.

Argument over origins

The loan might also reopen an unsettled argument about the creators of the tapestry, which has rarely moved from its home in a museum in Bayeux in France.

It was displayed in Paris in 1804 and again briefly at the Louvre Museum in 1945.

“There is a reasonable case that it could have been made in Canterbury” in southern England, British historian David Musgrove, who authored a book on the subject, told the BBC.

Other theories are that it was made in Bayeux itself or perhaps in an abbey in the Loire region of central France.

French historian Pierre Bouet said the tapestry should be seen by Britons as evidence of the role of France in the country’s history.

The tapestry “is a reminder of the military exploit of the founder of the current royal dynasty,” Bouet told AFP.

The British royal family still has the French words “Dieu Et Mon Droit” (God and my Right) on its coat of arms.

Macron will hold talks with May at Sandhurst, a British military academy outside London, later today.


Published: 21:49 BST, 19 January 2018 | Updated: 00:57 BST, 20 January 2018

It is a historic relic destined to return to British soil again for the first time in 950 years.

Masterfully crafted in 1066 the Bayeux Tapestry - on permanent display in the Normandy town of its namesake - depicts the Norman Conquest of England.

Today, events of historical importance are filmed, recorded, snapped, shared, updated, streamed and tweeted at the touch of the button.

But what if the advent of modern technology never came and historians, scholars and journalists were still confined to documenting history using nothing more than embroidery and cloth?

Today, the Mail envisions the product of such a world, with our own version of how the Bayeux Tapestry might look were it conceived today.

From Donald Trump's presidency and the Harvey Weinstein scandal, to Wayne Rooney's run-in with the law and Brexit negotiations — the tapestry of the 2018 would be certain to fascinate future historians.

'Marry us, Harry,' young maidens they'd beg. Alack, they're too late, he's bagged one called Med, from yon TV's suits comes good lady Markle, with sharp thigh-high boots and razzle and sparkle

'Pray, no!' came the cry from thrice-pregnant Kate, 'upstaged by an actress! What a terrible fate.' 'Tush, tush,' quoth her Wills, 'you're classier than her. True, mum's doors-to-manuel — but I'm nearly the heir!'

'Bald prince,' wailed yon duchess, I've fallen from favour. They only want Meghan and Harry The Raver.' In despair she sought solace from Eugeine and Bea but too busy were they on their hols by the sea

'Hark Philip,' cried Kate, 'Do tell what you think.' The Duke simple shrugged: 'Just have a stiff drink.' Prince Randy said Meg's a gal he wouldn't mind: 'I'll get Fergie of Pork to invite her right round'

'Hark Philip,' cried Kate, 'Do tell what you think.' The Duke simple shrugged: 'Just have a stiff drink.' Prince Randy said Meg's a gal he wouldn't mind: 'I'll get Fergie of Pork to invite her right round'

In Windsor, meanwhile, the nuptials draw near, Camilla the wench did wed her prince here. Today he inks parchments in spidery hand, and haws homeopath potions the doctors want banend

On steeds they all come to yon great Golden Globes, the damsels are dressed in their finest black robes. 'You're shameful, you men,' they cry, 'touch and we'll sue! Our club's for girls only, we call it Me Too'

From o'er yonder hill, fair Oprah she rides. 'Just make me the President NOW,' she chides. But isn't fat Weinstein a fond friend of thine? 'Forsooth, he is not. He's a brute ugly swine'

But wherefore that rage in Donald Trump's head? 'Tis 'cos a wench says that he laid her a-bed. Yon flesh films she makes, they be XXXX. 'Fake news,' he insists, 'there never was sex'


French Bayeux Tapestry to Be Loaned to UK for First Time in 950 Years - Reports

The upcoming loan of the 11th-century artwork, which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England, is believed to symbolize the strength of the relations between France and the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Emmanuel Macron will announce during his Thursday's UK visit for negotiations with Theresa May that the Bayeux Tapestry will be allowed to leave France for the first time in 950 years and be exhibited in the UK, the Times newspaper reported.

According to the media, the loan is likely to take place in about five years, whereas the location of the exhibition in England and other detailes are yet to be negotiated.

The tapestry is a linen cloth on which the invasion of England by William, Duke of Normandy, also known as William the Conqueror, and his victory over Harold, the Anglo-Saxon King, in the 1066 Battle of Hastings are embroidered. These events are believed to have changed the course of the history of England as it contributed to the establishment of firm links to Europe and Normandy as well as transformed the English language to its modern form.

Cartoonists like Peter Brookes are having a field day with the #BayeuxTapestry Here is another Frenchman aiming for an Englishman pic.twitter.com/m3CqAoyFfG

&mdash Angela Walters (@Anglusndola) January 17, 2018

The artwork is also known as the "Tapestry of Queen Matilda" and is about 50 centimeters in width and 68 meters long. However, the final part of the tapestry is missing. Experts suggest that it depicted events after the Battle of Hastings, including the coronation of William the Conqueror to the English throne in 1066. It is thought that the tapestry was embroidered by court weavers at the order of Queen Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror.

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Bayeux Tapestry to be loaned to the UK: historians react

Following the news that the Bayeux Tapestry is set to be loaned to the UK from its current home in Normandy, we asked four historians to share their reactions to the loan, what is known about the origins of the tapestry and its movements since its creation

This competition is now closed

Published: January 22, 2018 at 12:11 pm

A scene depicted on the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

Last week, it was announced by French president Emmanuel Macron that the Bayeux Tapestry, an 11th-century artwork which depicts the Norman Conquest of England, would be loaned to the UK. Not expected to be transferred before 2020, it hasn’t yet been announced where the tapestry might be displayed.

According to the Times, the loan is subject to tests which will show if the tapestry is able to be moved without damage and, as BBC History Magazine’s David Musgrove told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the age, fragility and size of the tapestry are obvious concerns. However, there might also be opportunities to carry out some historical tests with the new technology available since the tapestry was last investigated.

In a 2008 article for BBC History Magazine, David Musgrove considered where the Bayeux Tapestry was made and by whom, and asked historians whether it should be displayed in England. Elsewhere, Gale R Owen-Crocker unravelled the stories behind some of the tapestry’s key scenes for our Story of the Normans special edition, here.

Meanwhile, we asked four historians for their reactions to the news and the significance of the loan…

Shirley Ann Brown: “If the exhibition comes about, this would reverse precedent”

The news is out that the French and British governments have brokered a deal which would make possible an exhibition of the Bayeux Tapestry in the UK, in about five years’ time. The embroidery is a unique work of medieval art which illustrates the Norman invasion of England in 1066, an event central to Britain’s history. The fact that it has survived, having undergone hundreds of repairs over the centuries, is nothing short of a miracle. It is immensely “readable”, bringing the historical narrative to life with identifiable characters, places and events, much like a modern graphic novel. It is now a component of the cultural and historical consciousness of both England and Normandy, omnipresent in history books, and a major tourist attraction in Bayeux, attracting thousands of British visitors annually. Bringing it temporarily to Britain would create a wonderful opportunity for people unable to travel to Bayeux to see it first-hand.

If the exhibition comes about, this would reverse precedent. Ensconced in Bayeux in the 15th century, the tapestry was never moved further afield than Paris. Earlier attempts to “borrow” the Embroidery – by Britain in 1931 and 1953, possibly in 1966, and by the Americans in 1947 – ultimately came to nothing. The extreme fragility of the more than 900-year-old fabric has been the main concern, along with worries over the method of transportation, conditions of display, cost of insurance and loss of tourist income in Bayeux. In each negotiation, there was bickering between the local Bayeux authorities and the government in Paris, each exercising a veto at the last moment. These concerns still exist today and will have to be resolved. In five years, though the political exigencies currently at work behind the announcement will most likely have dissipated, the Bayeux Tapestry could be shared and viewed as the important cultural monument that it truly is.

Shirley Ann Brown is a professor of visual art and cultural expression at York University, Toronto.

George Garnett: “Whoever the designer was, she or he knew the English language, was well read, had a better grasp of architecture than battle”

The tapestry will, following an announcement from the French president, return briefly to the land where it was created, probably in the 1070s. Many of its images bear such a striking resemblance to the distinctive style of contemporary manuscripts from St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, that the designer of the tapestry must have had access to them. I say designer, rather than designers, because the whole is so consistent that it is difficult to imagine more than one mind behind it. Perhaps the designer was one of the Kentish needlewomen (or men) who executed the design, perhaps not. Whoever she or he was, she or he knew the English language, was well read, had a better grasp of architecture than battle, and a (crude) sense of humour.

The tapestry is not a tapestry, but an embroidery. It embroiders the history of the Norman Conquest. In most respects, it appears to follow the standard account of the Conquest told in the immediately post-Conquest Norman narratives. But in some respects, it does not. King Edward the Confessor’s alleged designation of Duke William as his successor is, for instance, entirely missing. This is not because the beginning of the tapestry has been lost, as the end has – almost certainly, William’s consecration as king. The closer one looks at the tapestry, the less faithfully it follows the Norman account. Pictures are ambiguous, and the commentary running along the top of the action often seems studiedly to avoid specifying the point of the images below.

The tapestry is unique in being not only a masterpiece of visual art, on an epic scale, but also a major narrative source for the most significant event in English history, which it postdates by only a decade or so.

George Garnett is a professor of medieval history at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford.

Marc Morris: “The real wonder of the Bayeux Tapestry is that, almost a millennium after its manufacture, it is still with us at all”

When news of Monsieur Macron’s suggestion of lending the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain broke, headline writers announced that this would be its first crossing of the Channel in 950 years. That’s probably true enough, and tolerable as a rough estimate, but the fact is nothing certain is known about the tapestry’s whereabouts until 1476, when it appears in an inventory of Bayeux Cathedral. Before that, its history has to be inferred.

Comparison with contemporary manuscript illustrations indicate that it was made in the late 11th century, almost certainly in Canterbury. It is also as good as certain that it was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who features prominently in several key scenes. Odo was made earl of Kent by William, so he provides the most obvious explanation of how it first crossed the Channel from Canterbury to Bayeux, which makes it likely this occurred before his death in 1097.

The tapestry’s survival since that time is nothing short of miraculous. It survived all the perils of the Middle Ages, fire and warfare, mice and moths. It came within a whisker of being chopped up and used for bunting during the French Revolution. It subsequently became famous, and was transported to Paris on the orders of Napoleon, to be exhibited at the Louvre. Back in Bayeux, it was for a time stored indifferently on a giant spindle in the Hôtel de Ville. In the 1940s, it was taken back to Paris by the Nazis, and managed to dodge every shell and explosion when the city was liberated by the Allies. The real wonder of the Bayeux tapestry is that, almost a millennium after its manufacture, it is still with us at all.

Dr Marc Morris is the author of William I: England’s Conqueror (Penguin, 2016) and The Norman Conquest (Windmill, 2013)

Nicholas Vincent: “It is entirely appropriate that the tapestry be employed to encourage Anglo-French entente”

For those who have not seen it face to face, the first thing to strike anybody viewing the tapestry will be its sheer size. This is something of truly epic scale. Not only is it a wonderful thing to behold, but it is entirely appropriate that the tapestry visit England.

Despite the claims of Normandy or the Loire valley, there seems little doubt that it was originally designed and manufactured in Kent, most likely at Canterbury. The patron was almost certainly William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Odo of Bayeux. Odo carried it off to his cathedral city where, in the later middle ages, it survived as a result of beneficent neglect.

Its rediscovery at Bayeux in the early 18th century was first properly broadcast in 1752, by the Eton and Oxford-educated Andrew Ducarel, a ‘Huguenot’ Protestant whose mother had fled to London from persecution in France. It was another Englishman, Charles Stothard, in the aftermath of Waterloo, who made the first accurate illustrations of the tapestry. Published in the 1820s, Stothard’s drawings remain essential for our understanding of what survived before ‘repairs’ and changes later in the 19th century. As a result, it is entirely appropriate that the tapestry be employed to encourage Anglo-French entente.

Too often in the past, first by Napoleon, and thereafter by the Nazis, it has been enlisted as propaganda for European ‘conquests’ of England. In reality, and for all the violence it depicts, it proves that, within a few decades of 1066, the Normans were dependent on English artistry and story-telling to commemorate the greatest of their victories. There can be no greater symbol of the extent to which English and French history have been intertwined, both in rivalry and in fruitful cooperation, for more than a thousand years.

Nicholas Vincent is a professor of medieval history at the University of East Anglia

Join us for a day of talks and discussion with five experts on the Bayeux Tapestry at St Anne’s College, Oxford on Sunday 17 June 2018. Our speakers will explore the tapestry and the era that created it, and share the latest ideas and research about the monumental embroidery. The talks will be followed by audience Q&As and book signings and the ticket price also includes refreshments and a buffet lunch.

Tickets are on sale now and BBC History Magazine subscribers can enjoy a discount – click here to buy.


Tied up with History. Nigel Farage and the Bayeux Tapestry

The day after the recent English by-election in Rochester on 20 November (St Edmund’s Day, no less), newspaper front pages across the country were plastered with pictures of a grinning politician sporting a rather garish tie. Adorning Mr Farage’s neck was not a Disney figure or other staple of the ‘comic tie’ genre, but (to some medieval historians’ great excitement) scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. What should we make of this latest eruption of the Norman Conquest into modern British politics?

The subliminal message, one may presume, was that in an age of bland, corporate politicians who stick to bland, corporate neckwear, here at last is a man who is not afraid to stick out from the crowd, a man with a personality, and someone who thankfully doesn’t take himself or his dress sense too seriously. The tie in question (retailing at £22.50) has reportedly now sold out, so the UKIP leader is a trend-setter in mens’ fashion as well as politics.

But Mr Farage helpfully provided his own gloss too. When asked why he had picked this tie, he explained to the Daily Telegraph that “It was the last time we were invaded and taken over.” This was – one assumes? – a jovial off-the-cuff statement, intended to demonstrate Mr Farage’s patriotism. Still, it nevertheless reveals a rather peculiar view of medieval English history. Evidently Mr Farage identifies with the pre-conquest English, and not with the Normans. In such a view of history, the Normans are little but a group of threatening European immigrants. Plus ca change…

What we might call the Farage interpretation of the Norman Conquest is not however terribly robust. It’s certainly true that the Normans conquered England. But in doing so, they became part of English history. These immigrants are logically as much ‘our’ political ancestors as the Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom that they conquered, and to whose development they made such a mighty contribution. It simply doesn’t make sense for people in the 21 st -century to choose sides on the Battle of Hastings.

In fact, if Mr Farage knew more about the Norman Conquest 1 , he might have hesitated before tying the double-Windsor, since it is frankly difficult to think of a less suitable tie for a leader of UKIP, apart perhaps from one emblazoned with the EU flag. For if a Bayeux Tapestry tie symbolises anything, it is England’s long and enduring history of participation, indeed immersion, in continental politics, trade and tradition. For centuries after 1066, those who ruled England also ruled lands across the English Channel. Even English culture came into line with continental traditions, as libraries across the land restocked. The Conquest was a defining moment in the enduring ‘Europeanisation’ of England.

It is true of course that this ‘Europeanisation’ was not exactly a peaceful process. Yet Mr Farage’s tie, as it happens, also demonstrates that there was more to the Conquest than violence alone. Alongside serried ranks of immigrant-bearing boats and horses, the tie’s key scene (as far as can be seen from the blurry photos) is one in which one man, standing, is talking to another, seated on a throne (this blog’s cover image). You might assume that the seated man is King William, or perhaps King Edward the Confessor – but not so. It is actually Guy, the count of Ponthieu (a town in northern France, near Calais), who is in conversation with a dejected-looking Harold.

Harold had ended up in Guy’s court after being shipwrecked on route to see Duke William in Normandy in 1064. What Harold had been travelling to Normandy for is unclear, and still debated. Still, what all historians can agree on is that the visit shown on Mr Farage’s tie proves the Norman Conquest didn’t come out of the blue, and wasn’t the product of violence alone: it was a result of pre-Conquest English political engagement with powerbrokers on the continental mainland. That engagement was reflected in marriage alliances, in the movement of politically-motivated asylum seekers, like King Edward the Confessor, who had been sheltered by the Normans as a child, as well as in (tentative) moves towards ‘ever-closer union’ led by the popes in Rome, whose councils pre-Conquest English abbots and bishops willingly attended. 2 What the tie represents, in short, is how deeply entwined England and the continental mainland were in the Middle Ages, before as well as after the Normans, in times of peace and of war. Put simply, medieval England was a European country.

Yet there is also another dimension to the scene on Mr Farage’s tie. Harold made his ill-fated visit to Normandy via Ponthieu against his king’s wishes, in pursuit of his own narrow political interests. But he should have listened to King Edward, for after the detour to Ponthieu, he ended up being made to take an oath to Duke William, an oath that helped pave the way to Hastings. That kind of misjudgement was not isolated. Indeed, it can be argued that the disruption of the Conquest, and the economic devastation of the north in particular that it brought in its wake, was in large part the result of a failure of leadership on the part of the English political class, carelessly caught up in factional squabbles, short-termism and sordid politicking, at the expense of the long-term national interest, with disastrous consequences. This might not have been the message that Mr Farage had in mind, but perhaps it’s his tie’s most important message of all.

Charles West is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the Department. You can follow him on Twitter @Pseudo_Isidore, and read about his research here.

Image: scene from Bayeux Tapestry, via Wikipedia. The Latin reads “Where Harold and Wido [Guy] discuss”.


Brexiteer highlights UK's secret weapon in defeating EU - and mocks bloc over Thatcher

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Andrew Rosindell: PM freed UK from entanglement of EU

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Andrew Rosindell has also taunted Brussels by highlighted the bloc&rsquos fundamental mistake in ignoring warnings by former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher more than 30 years ago. The Tory MP for Romford in Essex, mentioned the subject in the Commons yesterday - and later told Express.co.uk: &ldquoAfter almost 40 years of being shackled to the European Union, today we can say with pride that Britain is back, as a sovereign, independent, and a truly global nation once again.

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&ldquoI believe our United Kingdom has bright future ahead on the world stage, as we escape the grasping tentacles of the European continent&rsquos ideological project, but Brexit is merely the first step, not the last, on this great national project to rebuild our position standing in the world and sovereign nation.&rdquo

In order to do so, he advocated rekindling relationships which he characterised as the &ldquobackbone of Global Britain&rdquo, namely the &ldquowider British family of Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies&rdquo, together with friends in the Commonwealth as well as cultivating the UK&rsquos special relationship with the United States.

He added: &ldquoWe have spent over half a century being sucked into a political project which primarily exists to secure the interests of Germany and France, looking inward towards the continent rather than out towards the world.

&ldquoWhen Britain joined the Common Market, few expected that it would evolve in the way that it did, trying to expand its control into every aspect of our society and override our democratic political system.&rdquo

Boris Johnson has been urged to make full use of the UK's Commonwealth connections (Image: GETTY)

Andrew Rosindell is the MP for Romford in Essex (Image: GETTY)

If only the European Union had listened to Margaret Thatcher

Andrew Rosindell

Referring to the woman many regard as the architect of modern euroscepticism, Mr Rosindell added: &ldquoIf only the European Union had listened to Margaret Thatcher, when she warned them that the British people would not tolerate their ideological project of ever-closer union and political control, which they have imposed without the consent of the peoples and nations of Europe.&rdquo

Britain&rsquos &ldquoproud history of independence, democracy&rdquo explained why 17.5million people had rejected the &ldquofailed political project&rdquo which was the European Union in favour of &ldquotaking back control of our laws, borders, seas and most importantly, our own destiny,&rdquo Mr Rosindell said.

As one of 28 so-called &ldquoSpartans&rdquo, Mr Rosindell refused on three occasions to vote for Theresa May&rsquos Withdrawal Agreement, believing it would leave the UK shackled to Brussels, instead holding out for a deal which he believes ensures Britain had truly broken free.

He added: &ldquoWe have to seize that freedom and use it, to pivot outwards into the wider world and restore our relationships with friends and partners across the globe that have been neglected for too long while we have been trapped in the clutches of the European Union.

Margaret Thatcher warned the EU well over 30 years ago (Image: GETTY)

Boris Johnson is questioned in Parliament yesterday (Image: GETTY)

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&ldquoThe British people know that our nation has played a global role in the world throughout our incredible history as a sea-faring island nation. These world-wide connections were not a god-given right.&rdquo

The UK&rsquos global outlook was a consequence of the hard work and initiative of British explorers, traders, merchants and missionaries over the course of several centuries.

Mr Rosindell said: &ldquoThanks to them, no country in the world has more global links than Britain. However, this Parliament and our Government cannot sit back and rest on the achievements of our ancestors. We have to be just as bold today as the Britons of the past, going out into the world to strengthen those old friendships and forge new relationships.

&ldquoWhere better to start than with our wider British family of Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies? I cannot think of a better representation of Global Britain than these territories.&rdquo

Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary (Image: GETTY)

Falklands factfile (Image: Express)

All were &ldquoproud members&rdquo of the British family, even if they do not currently enjoy formal representation in Parliament, Mr Rosindell stressed.

He said: &ldquoI know that many of the issues which affected them specifically were left out of our main negotiations with Europe, and will now be decided through separate side agreements.

&ldquoA bilateral deal has already been reached between Spain and Gibraltar, which I am assured by my friends in Gibraltar retains its independence while minimising disruption on the frontier with Spain.

&ldquoI was also glad to see the Prime Minister reassure our friends in the Falklands in his Christmas Message that this Government will be doing everything it can to support the islands and their fisheries as we leave the EU.&rdquo

Boris Johnson's Cabinet (Image: Express)

Similar support must now also be extended to all of the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies, and in future, and Mr Johnson, Foreign Secretary Dominic Road and Liz Truss Secretary of State for International Trade, needed to remember they were also negotiating for them as well as the UK.

Mr Rosindell said: &ldquoThe historic bonds between Britain and our Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies are not the only old ties that are in need of strengthening post-Brexit.

&ldquoThe UK shares the same common history, culture, language, and Head of State in Her Majesty the Queen with the nations of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

&ldquoWe have far more in common with the CANZUK nations than the countries of Europe, and our close-relations in intelligence and diplomacy mean that the CANZUK countries naturally form a group that can defend on the international stages the values that we all share, based on our shared heritage.&rdquo

Dominic Raab, the Foreign Secretary (Image: GETTY)

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The UK already had trade relationships with Commonwealth countries worth over £100 billion a year, with Ms Truss working on further agreements alongside huge investments to promote inter-Commonwealth trade and break down non-tariff barriers, Mr Rosindell said.

He concluded: &ldquoThe twin pillars of free trade and support for development through aid must be at the heart of Global Britain&rsquos future policy towards the Commonwealth and beyond.

&ldquoFreedom is not enough on its own. The British people and their Government must be bold in using that freedom, to go out into the world and reclaim our global leadership on issues like free trade, enterprise and liberal democracy, spreading those values which make this country great.

&ldquoIf we can do that, in partnership with our traditional friends and allies, then we will have truly made a success of Global Britain."


Gallic joke?

Many historians and politicians on Monday welcomed the gesture as a friendly move that underlined the two countries’ shared history and intermingled blood at a time when Britain is leaving the European Union.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic opportunity for British people from around the country to come, I hope to the British Museum, and see it in all its glory,” said Tom Tugendhat, chairman of a foreign affairs committee at the British parliament.

“This is a real demonstration on how diplomacy is done,” he told BBC radio.

But other commentators wondered exactly what Macron was trying to say by focusing on an inglorious moment in British military history.

The Times newspaper published a cartoon showing Macron in Middle Ages military garb skewering British Prime Minister Theresa May: “Emmanuel The Conqueror: It’s One In The Eye for Theresa Regina.”

Writing on Twitter, broadcast journalist Robert Peston commented that “lending the UK a magnificent depiction of the last time this country was invaded and subjugated is a wonderful Gallic joke by Emmanuel Macron.”

Jockeying over who would display the work was already underway, with the British Museum’s director Hartwig Fischer saying he would be “delighted” to show the work.

Lawmakers representing the seaside town of Hastings, as well as the village of Battle, where the historic clash took place, are also hoping for the honour.

“I’m sure we will be looking very carefully to ensure the maximum number of people can take benefit from seeing this tapestry,” May said.


Historical nonsense underpins UK&rsquos Brexit floundering

In June, the UK’s then Brexit secretary, David Davis, said: “Anyone who suggests that the United Kingdom cannot be trusted, and isn’t the proven friend of every single country in Europe, needs to brush up on their history.” Like former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson in a Burmese temple, one cannot help but think of the words of Rudyard Kipling. “They are whimpering to and fro,” he lamented in his 1891 poem The English Flag, “what should they know of England who only England know?” Very little, it appears, as the pied pipers of Brexit have peddled a past that blinds Britain to reality. Politicians, public, and press need remedial history lessons before it’s too late.

The Brexiteers’ historical narrative begins by mangling the medieval. “The first Eurosceptic,” according to Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, was the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great, who defeated the Norse ‘great heathen army’ in 865. Rees-Mogg likens the European Union to the Vikings, opposing a financial settlement with Brussels by quoting Kipling’s warning: “If once you have paid him the Danegeld, you never get rid of the Dane.”

The absurd anachronisms keep coming: the Guardian offers us Anglo-Danish “King Canute’s lessons for Brexit”, while MEP Daniel Hannan christens the Battle of Hastings “England’s Nakba” (the Arabic term for the Palestinian exodus of 1948), the beginning of centuries of “oppression” (of England, in case you’re confused).

Norman conquest

The Norman conquest was “the last time we were invaded and taken over”, explained former Ukip leader Nigel Farage when wearing a Bayeux tapestry tie while campaigning, and to Rees-Mogg it is the only parallel for the “foreign rule” that would be a Brexit transition period.

Tory MP Michael Fabricant reaches back even further, hoping that prime minister Theresa May becomes “the new Boudica”, perhaps forgetting that the Celtic leader poisoned herself after her failed uprising against Roman rule.

Rees-Mogg sees May’s Chequers plan as “the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet”, a bizarre reference to a short-lived treaty by which England accepted French sovereignty over territories in France. Medieval Britain’s fascinating complexities, and its political and cultural entanglements with the continent, are ignored in favour of flag-waving fantasy: The Daily Express declared the crusader knight – drawn from the European attempts to conquer the Holy Land – “the figurehead of the struggle to repatriate British sovereignty”.

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In the 1970s, anti-immigration Eurosceptic Enoch Powell dated that (English) sovereignty to Henry VIII’s break with Rome, arguing that the modern history and character of “the British people . . . trace their unique quality from that moment”. Today the Reformation is rebranded “the first Brexit”, “Brexit 1534”, an event historian David Starkey calls “astonishingly similar” to today’s break with Brussels (let’s hope for fewer executions). Opinion writers in British newspapers tell us that “the Reformation sowed the seeds of Brexit” and should have been a “warning to Remainers”, as Brexit “recycles the defiant spirit” of sixteenth century Protestants.

Little attention is paid to the Reformation’s origin and focus on the continent, or to the fact that alongside the power politics was a profound spiritual and social upheaval that many believed to be a struggle against (or the work of) the Antichrist. But don’t worry about violent sectarian conflict or looming food shortages: “We survived our break from Europe then, and we’ll do so again,” reassures the Rev Giles Fraser in the Telegraph.

The Brexiteer narrative is an English story, in which cross-channel connections, Ireland and Scotland are conveniently ignored, and even where there was discord there are myths of harmony. A group of ‘historians for Brexit’ apparently do not think that even the civil war of the 1640s – a beheaded king “the world turned upside down” Cromwellian slaughter and dictatorship – derailed Britain’s “largely uninterrupted history since the middle ages”. Brexit is, Rees-Mogg intones, “a great liberation”, as worthy of celebration as “the Glorious Revolution” of 1688, though he probably doesn’t mean the Dutch king seizing the English throne with a massive fleet. It will be, Farage famously promised, “Independence Day”, raising eyebrows in the dozens of countries around the world that mark their freedom from British rule.

The empire, however, does not cause discomfort. After a visit to Amritsar – where British soldiers murdered hundreds of unarmed Indian demonstrators in 1919 – former prime minister David Cameron noted that in the history of the empire there was “an enormous amount to be proud of”. Polls show that Britons agree by a margin of three to one, and believe the former colonies are “better off” thanks to British imperialism. Civil servants dubbed Brexit trade strategy ‘Empire 2.0’ since its architects seem to believe the global operating system is simply in need of a British reboot.

Johnson has written that the problem for postcolonial societies is “not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”. Violence, exploitation, racism and division defined British imperialism from Barbados to Bengal, Kenya to Canton, but such uncomfortable truths are dismissed as what Johnson’s Vote Leave colleague Michael Gove called “versions of the past designed to belittle Britain”.

While education secretary in Cameron’s government, Gove proposed reforms to school history curriculums that the historian Simon Schama scathingly described as “1066 and All That, but without the jokes”, referencing the 1930 parody of a nationalist history exemplified by Our Island Story (chosen by Cameron as his favourite children’s book). Gove backed down, but the past taught in British schools remains strikingly narrow, and public discourse is plagued by historical ignorance. Gove justified his support for leaving the EU by saying (without a hint of irony) that Britain’s history “showed the world what a free people could achieve if they were allowed to govern themselves”.

‘Finest hour’

In the British mind, that history remains centred on the second World War, the ‘darkest’ and ‘finest’ hour in which Britain imagines it stood alone in defiance of Nazism, not as a global imperialist allied to emerging superpowers. Winston Churchill is omnipresent on screens and shelves – his support for a united Europe ignored – and the ‘spirit’ of Dunkirk and the blitz are staples of the tabloid press’s European coverage.

May has “gone into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank,” complains Johnson as if the Brexit negotiations were a job for a British expeditionary force. While the horrors of war remind the UK’s continental neighbours of the need for co-operation, Britain’s war story feeds an adversarial view of the country’s place in the world.

From the beginning of the European project, British opposition has rested on Powell’s assertion that the defining feature of Britain – “and above all of England” – is its “separateness from the history of continental Europe”. Such nationalist exceptionalism has long been a vice of the left too: EEC membership was, Tony Benn told a cabinet meeting in 1975, “betraying, in a very special sense, our whole history” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn voted to leave in the referendum that year.

Superiority, antagonism and a fear of betrayal are not healthy historical lessons instead they encourage Britain’s worst tendencies. “All the wrong people are cheering,” Dora Gaitskell told her husband Hugh – then Labour leader – of his 1961 declaration that joining the EEC would be “the end of a thousand years of history”. As our experience in Ireland shows, Europe offered not an end but a new beginning. By refusing to confront its complex and difficult history, Britain is turning its back on decades of shared progress, to the dismay of its friends. Britannia is adrift on the waves, and only by facing its past can it reclaim its future.

Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian with the Royal Historical Society in London

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