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France's epic Bayeux Tapestry is headed to Britain in a loan for the ages

The Bayeux Tapestry chronicles William the Conqueror's conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is housed in the Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in France.

PETER KOELMAN/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE/TNS

By WILLIAM BOOTH AND JAMES MCAULEY | The Washington Post | Published: January 18, 2018

LONDON — It is probably the most famous piece of medieval embroidery in the world, a ribbon of scrolling tapestry 70 yards long that tells in pictures the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, an epic tale of gore, glory and God.

A near-cinematic work of narrative genius, there is nothing quite like the Bayeux Tapestry. At the conclusion of bilateral talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to announce that his government will allow the priceless treasure to leave France for the first time in almost 1,000 years and be exhibited in England - a sensational stroke of cultural diplomacy.

For the British, the Bayeux Tapestry holds a powerful allure, since the Norman Conquest represented not just a tragedy and a defeat, but a pivot point that essentially transformed Anglo-Saxon society into the Great Britain of today (and gave us the language of Shakespeare).

The 20-inch-wide, intricately stitched work is a history and morality play - unfolding chronologically from left to right, with a couple of flashbacks - about how the heroic but flawed Harold, Earl of Wessex, briefly took the throne after the death of the heirless Edward the Confessor, only to be defeated a month into his reign by the righteous William, Duke of Normandy, at the climactic Battle of Hastings.

As William Faulkner wrote: "'The past is never dead. It's not even past." A descendant of William the Conqueror sits on the British throne today, 91-year-old Queen Elizabeth II.

The last formal request by Britain to have the tapestry on loan came ahead of Elizabeth's coronation in 1953. The Bayeux Museum declined. Another entreaty in 1966 for a loan to mark the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings was also rebuffed.

The fragile tapestry is currently on display in its own specially designed conservatory at the Bayeux Museum, which is in northern France not far from the Normandy beaches that saw the D-Day invasion. British visitors make up the largest contingent of pilgrims wanting to see it.

In a statement, the Bayeux Museum appeared a little reluctant to let the tapestry go, stressing that the needlework masterpiece may need to be stabilized before it is moved, would probably not be ready to travel until 2023 and should then be allowed to stay in England for no more than a year.

Other reports from French and British negotiators suggest the tapestry could be moved as soon as 2020.

Either way, fans of the Bayeux embroidery were giddy at the prospect of its appearance in Britain, with various museums and their political patrons already competing to host the show.

"This is a work that can only be spoken of in superlatives," said Andrew Bridgeford, a lawyer, historian and author of "The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry."

Bridgeford noted the work's enormous scale, the richness and detail of the story it tells - "these simple drawings in yarn, that seem very naive, but are not" - and the lingering mysteries surrounding its creation. "There's really nothing like it," he said.

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum, called the loan "probably the most significant ever from France to the U.K. It is a gesture of extraordinary generosity and proof of the deep ties that link our countries."

Philippe Plagnieux, a professor and specialist in medieval art history at the Sorbonne in Paris, said: "Without doubt, it has tremendous political significance, but I think for many it's a fascinating object, a grand succession. The details alone - the elements of daily life, the concrete things it shows - that's incredibly rare for the period, and it's absolutely unique."

Not only is the tapestry extraordinary, so is its mere survival: The wool yarn embroidered on linen has bested both moths and Nazis.

During the French Revolution, the panels were to be confiscated to cover military wagons, but they were rescued by a local lawyer.

Napoleon took the tapestry to Paris and paraded before it as he contemplated an invasion of England.

Because of its depiction of the Norman Conquest - by the descendants of Norsemen or Vikings - the Nazis coveted the tapestry as Aryan propaganda.

Before the Allied invasion of France in World War II, the Germans moved the tapestry to occupied Paris to safeguard it along with their other loot in the Louvre. The SS chief, Heinrich Himmler, wanted the Bayeux masterwork to decorate his medieval castle in Germany.

Just hours before the Allies swept into Paris, British codebreakers intercepted a signal from Himmler to his troops ordering them to snatch the tapestry - but they were repelled by French resistance fighters who took up positions at the Louvre.

The panels read as a kind of medieval page-turner, a cartoon of treachery, revenge, honor, guts and glory. There are scenes of feasts (chickens on spits) and an ominous apparition (Halley's comet). There are depictions of shipbuilding, dangerous voyages, falconry and funerals, quicksands, looting and pillaging, and sexual scandal (complete with an image of a naked man).

The battle that raged at Hastings is the centerpiece. It shows a field littered with headless torsos and strewn corpses, where a king falls not with an aristocratic sigh, but an arrow through the eye.

The flat-bottomed vessels are built of overlapping planks. They resemble the Viking ships they were modeled upon.

The men - nobles, cavalry and foot soldiers - are dressed in knee-length tunics. The English are hairier than the Normans. Both Normans and Anglo-Saxons sport a haircut that resembles today's mullet, long on top, short on the sides.

There are 626 human figures, 190 horses and 35 dogs, alongside 506 short inscriptions in Latin. Three women are shown. In one scene, they are fleeing a burning building.

Who sponsored the work? Richard Gameson, professor of early medieval art and manuscripts at Durham University, said the consensus view is that the tapestry was most likely created not in France but in England, just a few years after the 1066 Battle of Hastings.

Most scholars suspect William the Conqueror's half brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, commissioned the piece, although no one knows and there are other intriguing possibilities. Indeed, William's Norman lords, and the Anglo-Saxons who backed him, became landed millionaires, even billionaires, by today's standards.

Alas, the designer's identity is also lost to history. Although Gameson said it could have been a monk, as some argue, he suspects it was someone more worldly, who had traveled widely and was familiar with the look of contemporary ships, weapons, horse tack, architecture and court life.

Who stitched the nine panels? Many hands. But it is unknown whether the embroiderers were men or women or both. At the time, Gameson said, embroidery was "a high-status occupation" pursued by experts of both sexes.

One of the notable elements of the narrative of the Bayeux Tapestry is how evenhanded it is. It was clearly created by the victors to represent the Norman side of things. But it also portrays the vanquished Harold as a noble and brave king.

"The tapestry shows Harold as a worthy foe and the English as ferocious fighters. And so the victory is hard-won. It is earned," Gameson said.

But the tapestry suggests, too, that William won by divine right. Harold was the usurper to the throne, it appears to argue, and William the rightful heir.

There is a literal hand of God shown here, a cross emblazoned on a Norman ship there. "The signs are subtle to us," Gameson said. But to its audience in the 11th century, the message would have been clear: The right guy won.

The Bayeux Tapestry chronicles William the Conqueror's conquest of England at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is housed in the Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in France.
PETER KOELMAN/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE/TNS

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