Immortalising the only permanently successful conquest of England in 1066, the epic frieze known as the Bayeux Tapestry has iconic status. But who commissioned it and when? What is it made of? How long is it? Is it accurate? Where is it now? Carola Hicks answers all these questions and raises many more in her enthralling account of its ten centuries or more of life.
For a start, it isn't a tapestry at all, but an embroidery, stitched onto linen in workaday wools rather than silk and cloth of gold. It is formidably large: 70 metres long, designed to form an eye-level frieze around a feast hall or a spacious chamber.
Hicks makes us long to see it, drawing our attention to such details as men wading ashore carrying hounds, their tunics tucked high around their waists, contrasting the "cavalier" locks and long moustaches of the tunic-clad Saxons with the Norman "skinheads" in manly breeches. She enthuses over its subtly harmonised colours and "rippled, textured stitchwork", as lively as a strip cartoon, packed with hidden messages, ribald nudges in the ribs and unsolved riddles. Who is Aelfgyfu, the shrinking nun with the priapic man squatting in the border below her? Why is there a ghost fleet below Harald's throne?
Long assumed to be mistress-minded by William the Conqueror's Flemish queen Matilda, the tapestry might also have been commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, in whose cathedral it surfaced for the first time in recorded history in 1476. Hicks has a new notion. Pointing to the sympathetic presentation of the luckless Harald Godwin, she suggests that it was made by English nuns on the initiative of his sister.
Edith, Edward the Confessor's queen, came to such good terms with William that she kept both her lands and regal status and became his mentor. Mediating between English and Norman pride, the commemorative tapestry would have been an effective peace-making gesture.
Hicks is less interested in contributing to the Everest of contradictory scholarship on the tapestry than in telling the extraordinary story of its afterlife. It was almost destroyed during the French Revolution, then used by Napoleon as a rallying point for his own planned invasion of England. It was copied by Charles Stothard (whose lively helpmeet Eliza deserves a book in her own right), made the backdrop to Tennyson's poetic tragedy Harald, admired by Ruskin and Morris, and recreated stitch by stitch by Elizabeth Wardle and her Leek Embroiderers.
Hitler was interested in its propaganda value, and only D-Day and the liberation of Paris saved it from being spirited away by Himmler. Hicks shows how it lives on: not just thronged by tourists in Bayeux, but in poetry, fiction and graphic spin-offs that range from political cartoons to Terry Pratchett. What her book can't give is the visual detail you will long for as you read it. For that, you will need the superb CD produced by Martin K Foys of Scholarly Digital Editions ( www.sd-editions.com/bayeux/sales), which allows you to zoom in and scroll along the entire, glorious length.
Christina Hardyment's 'Malory' is published by HarperCollinsReuse content