by Dr. Matilda Warwick
Temporal Anthropologist with the University of Melbourne
The Middle Ages is full of tales of gallant knights, great kings and devout monks. What it lacks is much record of the women of the era. Outside of an occasional mention of a royal marriage or some miracle by a female saint, women are invisible. It is known that the convents created beautiful embroideries, manuscripts, paintings, music and poetry, some of which actually survived. I have devoted my career to recording these forgotten artists and scholars and their works.
I tell people I am a nun for simplicity’s sake, but that is not accurate. If I were a nun, I would have to take vows of obedience and would not be allowed to move about without permission from my superiors. Instead I am more like a “lay nun” if that is the proper term.
A woman traveling in the Middle Age has three options: camp in a tent (and get attacked by bandits), stay at an Inn which is nothing better than a tavern full of drunken men or stay at a convent. Monasteries were given more respect (and gifts) than convents, so most convents are strapped for cash. They welcome paying guests...with reservation. The guests come with their jewels, lap dogs, servants and fine clothes causing a disruption among the nuns with their vows of poverty.
My persona is that of a wealthy widow. Since men often married women young enough to be their daughters or even granddaughters, many women were widows before they were thirty. My story is I had a vision one night that Saint Hilda of Whitby came to me and told me to go on a pilgrimage to all the convents in England and live as the nuns there. I dress in a simple brown tunic and veil and live as much like the nuns as I can without getting in the way. Needless to say I am always welcomed back.
One night, while at a convent near Canterbury, some novice nuns came to my room, all upset. “Lady Matilda!” the one name Gunhild spoke. “Mother Superior has sent us to beseech your help. The bishop has brought us a tapestry to complete in too short a time. You are a lady, are you not?”
“Yea, wife of my late Lord.”
“Then you will know how to embroider! We need your help.”
I rushed to the dining hall to find a long white linen cloth over 19 inches wide spread over the tables. My heart skipped a beat as I recognized the design sketched in charcoal on it. “Did Bishop Odo, brother of King William send this?”
“Yes, my lady!” Mother Superior looked amazed. “How did you know?”
“I have heard rumors this was in the making.” I didn’t tell them I had read history books about this--the Bayeux Tapestry!
|The Bayeux Tapestry|
|Odo , Bishop of Bayeux|
half-brother to William
Many think the Bayeux Tapestry was just created to celebrate William’s conquest and to rub England’s nose in it. The Tapestry is in fact an “apologia” which does not mean “an apology” but rather a defense for one’s actions. This is William’s “proof” that he had the legal right to invade England and defeat “Good King Harold.” The truth is Harold’s claim to the throne was as shaky as William’s.
How do I condense this tangled skein which could easily fill volumes into a short narrative? Pray thee, bear with me if you will.
In 1016 Canute the King of Denmark conquered England. Aethelred the Unready, king of England, and his two oldest sons, Edmund Ironside and Eadwig all die in the conflict. Aethelred’s widow and second wife, Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy, catches the eye of Canute. He decides to set aside his current wife and marry Emma. She agrees under two conditions. First he must spare her two young sons by Aethelred and secondly Canute will make their offspring his legal heir. Canute agrees. Emma’s sons, Edward and Alfred are sent off to live with Uncle Richard in Normandy.
King Canute goes on to conquer Norway and parts of Sweden, spreading himself thin. He wants to keep England stable and lo and behold, Godwin, a minor English noble, shows up offering his wise advice. Canute makes him Earl of Wessex. Godwin will always manages to always stay on the winning side and accumulates wealth and power.
Canute dies. His son by Emma, Harthcnut, becomes his successor in 1035. Harthcnut doesn’t make it to England to get crowned until 1040. Meanwhile his half-brother by Canute and his first wife Aelfgifu, Harold Harefoot, tries to take over England. Harthcnut finally makes it to England to behead his brother. Unfortunately Harold had already died before Harthcnut could make it to England, so he has him dug up and beheaded anyway.
Godwin switches sides again and offers Harthcnut his loyal services which the king accepts. Maybe he was too sick to fight with the second most powerful man in England. Knowing he is dieing and without heir, Harthcnut sends for his half-brother, Emma’s son, Edward in Normandy to be his heir, who assumed the crown in 1042.
Although this restores the Saxon lineage, Edward is viewed as a Norman by the English lords since he has spent most of his life there. Godwin, now the most powerful man in England, offers Edward his daughter Edith’s, hand in marriage. Despite the fact this is the man who betrayed his brother Alfred to his death, Edward sees no other choice. However he does cheat Godwin from ever seeing his grandson on the throne. Edward builds Westminster Abbey west of London and spends his days praying there and remaining celibate and becoming known as Edward the Confessor. Edith is without child and not very happy.
|King Edward the Confessor|
When Godwin’s spoiled son Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, proves to be so mean that the natives revolt. King Edward sends Godwin’s other son, Harold, to deal with the situation. Harold sees no other way to save his own good name than to convince Edward to banish Tostig, who flees to Norway.
Edward the Confessoris, not doing well himself, calls Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside, his half-brother on his father Aethelred’s side, to England. Nephew Edward dies mysteriously two days after he arrives before King Edward can make him his heir. Godwin’s hand? There are rumors.
1066 Edward the Confessor on his deathbed with his last breath reaches out his hand. His brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson grabs it proclaiming that Edward reached out to him to make him his heir. No one dares point out that Edward was in a coma and didn‘t know what he was doing. Harold is crowned King of England.
|Right after Harold is crowned King of England |
a comet is spotted. This is a sign of doom.
|William, Duke of Normandy in front|
Three days later William lands on the coast of East Sussex far to the south with 7000 mercenaries he has promised land to. Harold and his troops march 200 miles to fight the Normans at the Battle of Hastings. Exhausted and outnumbered King Harold and most of the English nobility is killed. The survivors have their titles and land taken away and given to William’s men.
|Battle of Hastings - mounted Normans fight exhausted Saxons|
Did I want to help embroider even a stitch on the most famous embroidery of all time? Yes! But would I get in trouble with the Institute of Time Travel for interfering with history? The piece we were given was so large, even my contribution would be a small fraction.
|While the nuns often embroidered with a single strand of silk,|
the Bayeux Tapestry was done with cheaper wool
in the "quick and dirty" couch and laid stitch
This was not their best work (and I doubt their heart was in it.)
“Yea, I was.”
“Then you have cleaved your flesh to that of your husband?”
“Yes, we lived as man and wife.”
“We have a great favor to ask of you, my lady. You may refuse, but if you could embroider two of the figures none of us dare touch.” She took me by the arm and lead me over to one of the few female figures on the Tapestry. Under her in the decorated margins, instead of a duck or hare was a naked man, proudly showing off what God had bestowed upon him.
“There is another,” the Abbess pointed to the figure a bit to the left. It was a man hacking at a plank of wood with an adz, also naked. No sane man would have worked with a sharp instrument in the nude. He was viewed from the side, but his privates were peeking out.
|The two nude figures at bottom with naughty bits covered|
I bowed my head to the older woman. “I understand your dilemma, Mother. I would be honored to help you and the Sisters in this dire situation.”
And so I got to embroider the two “pornographic” figures on the Tapestry. The Enforcers were not happy with me, but I convinced them my part in this had no effect on history other than relieving my embarrassed hostess.
Now here is the funniest part of my tale. When I told this story to my friend, Dr. Wendell Howe from Cambridge University, he doubled over laughing. He is a Temporal Anthropologist studying the Victorian Era. He said the good ladies of the Leek Embroidery Society made an exact copy of the Bayeux Tapestry in 1886 for the Reading Museum. Exact except for the two figures mentioned. The man with the adz apparently had an accident and was castrated. As for the full frontal nude, the Victorian ladies put him in a pair of un-medieval-looking shorts! Now Wendell understood why the man was wearing them.
|The sanitized Victorian version of the nude man|
More Information on the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Stitch by Signora Giuliana di Benedetto Falconieri (S.C.A.)
A study of the Bayeux Tapestry Stitch and how to do it.
High quality panoramic image of Bayeux Tapestry
Reading Museum copy of the Bayeux Tapestry made in the Victorian Age
This website shows each scene and explains the story on the Tapestry
Animated Bayeux Tapestry (Youtube)
A History of Britain - Part 2 - Conquest (Youtube)
A documentary by Simon Schama - The soap opera that was 1066