The diligence brought me here from Caen in about two hours and a half. The country, during the whole route, is open, well cultivated, occasionally gently undulating, but generally denuded of trees. Many pretty little churches, with delicate spires, peeped out to the right and left during the journey; but the first view of the cathedral of Bayeux put all the others out of my recollection.
There is, in fact, no proper approach to this interesting edifice. The western end is suffocated with houses. Here stands the post-office; and with the most unsuspecting frankness, on the part of the owner, I had permission to examine, with my own hands, within doors, every letter-under the expectation that there were some for myself. Nor was I disappointed.
But you must come with me to the cathedral, and of course we must enter together at the western front. There are five porticoes; the central one being rather large, and the two, on either side, comparatively small. Formerly, these were covered with sculptured figures and ornaments, but the Calvinists in the sixteenth, and the Revolutionists in the eighteenth century, have contrived to render their present aspect mutilated and repulsive in the extreme. On entering, I was struck with the two large transverse Norman arches which be-stride the area, or square, for the bases of the two towers. It is the boldest and finest piece of masonry in the whole building. The interior disappointed me. It is plain, solid, and divested of ornament.
Hard by the cathedral stood formerly a magnificent episcopal palace. Upon this palace the old writers dearly loved to expatiate. There is now, however, nothing but a good large comfortable family mansion; sufficient for the purposes of such hospitality and entertainment as the episcopal revenues will afford.
It is high time that you should be introduced in proper form to the famous Bayeux tapestry. Know then, in as few words as possible, that this celebrated piece of tapestry represents chiefly the Invasion of England by William the Conqueror, and the subsequent death of Harold at the battle of Hastings. It measures about 214 English feet in length, by about nineteen inches in width; and is supposed to have been worked under the particular superintendence and direction of Matilda, the wife of the Conqueror. It was formerly exclusively kept and exhibited in the cathedral; but it is now justly retained in the Town Hall, and treasured as the most precious relic among the archives of the city.
There is indeed every reason to consider it as one of the most valuable historical monuments which France possesses. It has also given rise to a great deal of archeological discussion. Montfaucon, Ducarel, and De La Rue, have come forward successivelybut more especially the first and last; and Montfaucon in particular has favored the world with copper-plate representations of the whole. Montfaucon’s plates are generally much too small; and the more enlarged ones are too ornamental.
It is right, first of all, that you should have an idea how this piece of tapestry is preserved, or rolled up. You see it here, therefore, precisely as it appears after the person who shows it, takes off the cloth with which it is usually covered. The first portion of the needle-work, representing the embassy of Harold from Edward the Confessor to William Duke of Normandy, is comparatively much defacedthat is to say, the stitches are worn away, and little more than the ground, or fine close linen cloth remains. It is not far from the beginning and where the color is fresh, and the stitches are, comparatively, preservedthat you observe the portrait of Harold.
You are to understand that the stitches, if they may be so called, are threads laid side by sideand bound down at intervals by cross stitches, or fasteningsupon rather a fine linen cloth; and that the parts intended to represent flesh are left untouched by the needle. I obtained a few straggling shreds of the worsted with which it is worked. The colors are generally a faded or bluish green, crimson, and pink. About the last five feet of this extraordinary roll are in a yet more decayed and imperfcct state than the first portion. But the designer of the subject, whoever he was, had an eye throughout to Roman artas it appeared in its later stages. The folds of the draperies, and the proportions of the figures, are executed with this feeling.
I must observe that, both at top and at bottom of the principal subject, there is a running allegorical ornament, of which I will not incur the presumption to suppose myself a successful interpreter. The constellations, and the symbols of agriculture and of a rural occupation form the chief subjects of this running ornament. All the inscriptions are executed in capital letters of about an inch in length; and upon the whole, whether this extraordinary and invaluable relic be of the latter end of the eleventh, or the beginning or middle of the twelfth century seems to me a matter of rather a secondary consideration. That it is at once unique and important, must be considered as a position to be neither doubted nor denied.
I have learned even here, of what importance this tapestry roll was considered in the time of Bonaparte’s threatened invasion of our country: and that, after displaying it at Paris for two or three months, to awaken the curiosity and excite the love of conquest among the citizens, it was conveyed to one or two seaport towns, and exhibited upon the stage as a most important material in dramatic effect.