Philobiblon: The women of the Bayeux tapestry

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The women of the Bayeux tapestry

When you really look at history, it is amazing how many women you CAN find. In today's Guardian a review of The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks.

Hicks makes an elegant and intriguing counter-claim for a female patron, a woman who was herself an expert in this historically feminine artistic medium, and had a personal stake in finding a subtle accommodation between Saxon and Norman accounts of the conquest: Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor and sister of the defeated king Harold, who was reconciled to the conqueror's regime after 1066 as an honoured Saxon survivor among the new Norman aristocracy.

The tapestry's iconic status also precipitated bitter battles among 18th and 19th-century historians, dividing English from French, male from female. Two redoubtable women give this story its heart. The engaging and astute Eliza Stothard first encountered the tapestry on her honeymoon in 1818, her artist husband having been commissioned to paint an exact copy for the Society of Antiquaries, only to find herself dogged by a false accusation that she had stolen a fragment of the fabric. She was finally exonerated just before her death, by now a prolifically successful historical novelist, at the age of 92. And Elizabeth Wardle, wife of a master dyer from Leek in Staffordshire who was one of William Morris's closest collaborators, led a team of 37 women to create a full-scale replica of the entire tapestry, "so that England should have a copy of its own".


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