Travel: Stitching up my relatives

Kevin Pilley lands in Normandy and heads for a museum in Bayeux in search of a very long-lost relation

Shoes squeaked behind me and a hand tapped my shoulder. "Non," said the official, as I squashed my nose flat against the glass. For a moment I seemed to be changing the course of history: the Battle of Hastings was being fought in the condensed fog of my own breath. But I made no excuses. How was the museum attendant to know that my interest in the Bayeux Tapestry was more personal than that of the average punter? In fact, I was here in search of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great- grandpa.

And no, there was nothing insane about this. My great-grandmother had looked into our family tree and traced our roots back to 1066. My earliest descendant came over with William the Conqueror. We think he might have been a cook. No one is sure how my great-grandmother found all this out. But she was convinced that a Pilley had once been a star of the Norman conquest. She was adamant that we came from a long and very distinguished line of menials.

To try to find out for certain and to save myself money by going through the usual genealogical channels, I caught the ferry from Portsmouth and drove to Bayeux to conduct my own research among the twisted yellow, woad and madder-dyed woollen threads which have made the capital of the Bessin famous. With a retinue comprising one wife and two children, I joined a queue, refused the multilingual earphones, skipped the 14-minute film show and began to scrutinise the tapestry scene by scene for clues. The tapestry has been in its current setting since 1983.

Pretending that I was fascinated by the intricate detail and astonishing stitchwork ("couching" and "stem" stitch, a leaflet explained), I inched my way along all 231ft of evocative worsted, nodding knowingly at the Aesopian fables and gasping suitably as I scoured the decorative borders. Did any of the 3in-high pencil men bear any striking family resemblances? I caused the first ever Bayeux Tapestry bottleneck, but I wanted to be thorough.

There were no obvious Pilley lookie-likies in the first panels. My wife thought there was some similarity between me and a man seen attending Edward's deathbed beside the grief-stricken Queen Edith. In turn, I pointed out a more than passing similarity between her and a horse. It wasn't easy. I don't think I would recognise my own mother in knee-length chain mail and a large conical hat and broad steel nasal. But we continued to scan the tapestry and the "conrois" (contingents) of foot- soldiers, clerics, servants and members of the "force de frappe" (armoured mounted knights).

Our youngest son was transfixed by the swords, lances, kite-shaped shields, decapitated bodies, soldiers drowning in the marshes and, of course, Harold getting it in the eye. One issue a visit to the Bayeux Tapestry does throw up is its effect on the mind of a developing child. Medieval embroidery is a powerful and persuasive medium. Does the tapestry glamorise violence and death-dealing? Is it suitable for an impressionable three-year-old?

The search went on. Our eldest thought he recognised his Dad officiating at Edward's coronation. I told him that we were Norman. Not Saxon. And anyway, Archbishop Stigand was tall. We took a breather for lunch and a walk around Bayeux, past the old Dyer's Mill on the river Aure and down the rue Saint-Jean, the main shopping precinct.

Since my hairline has started ebbing, I have become more Norman in profile. I was confident that we were bound to spot someone who might be an 11th- century relative among the 1,500 people, castles and animals depicted on canvas. Although I don't excel at hawking and have not committed any wanton acts of devastation in the New Forest, I am quite Norman in character. Admittedly, I have not been responsible for building an impressive range of abbeys, cathedrals and bailey castles or founded many monasteries or been a great patron of learning, but I do like cider and Calvados and I do exercise my power with pitiless ruthlessness in crushing any revolts provoked by my tyranny. I don't get on very well with people from Sussex either.

The Bayeux Tapestry, which is really an embroidery, is almost certain to have been supervised by Odo de Conteville, Bishop of Bayeux, half-brother to William and later Earl of Kent and papal-wannabe. It was probably produced by English women in Canterbury which had a renowned school of illumination. It was first displayed in 1077 to decorate the nave of Bayeux Cathedral during its consecration ceremonies.

Four thousand infantry and 3,000 cavalry came over with William the Conqueror to help him claim the English throne from Godwin, Earl of Wessex. And it was the scenes of the Norman fleet arriving at Pevensey Bay which produced the most exciting discovery. My wife saw him first. Depicted seated, seventh from the front, in one of the ships and watching a man put up a sail, was my twin. Corpulent, balding and sporting a nutcracker chin as well as a slobbish mien, quite clearly we shared the same gene pool. That we were related was confirmed when the same tubby appeared in a later scene serving at a feast. The resemblance was uncanny. But who was he and what was his name?

The museum staff were slightly puzzled by my close interest in the tapestry and advised me to look up William the Conqueror's website which has information on the leading personalities such as Count Eustace of Boulogne, Humphrey de Bohun, Roger le Bigod, Samson d'Ansneville, Hugh de Bauchamp, Geoffrey de Mowbray, Robert Comte d'Eu and Drogo de Brevere. Nothing came up. William of Poitiers, the ducal chaplain and reliable chronicler of the times, does not mention chefs. Or anyone with a surname as silly as ours.

My relative could have worked for anyone. I don't know if he fought "at the hoary apple tree" at Senlac Hill, Hastings on 14 October 1066. But my doppelganger of nine centuries ago was somewhere to be found when the Norman fleet was assembled at Dives-sur-Mer near Caen and St Valery-sur- Somme. The gravestones in the ancient church of Saint-Pierre de Maon near Caen, which goes back to 1080, were no help either. But maybe my great- gran was not as batty as some people think. After all, there is a village in the middle of the New Forest called Pilley which could have been named after an ancestor. And if he really was a chef, it is likely his family followed in his professional footsteps, which means it is very likely that my family shaped the course of British history and therefore are one of the most important and influential families in the country.

In 1135, 48 years after William died and was buried in St Stephen's in Caen, Henry I died from food-poisoning when he ate an infected lamprey. My detective work must continue.

BAYEUX

GETTING THERE

Brittany Ferries (tel: 0990 360360) sails from Portsmouth to Caen. A day-trip costs pounds 11.95 per person and per car. A five-day return with a car costs from pounds 158, and for a foot-passenger pounds 44. Bayeux is 29km from Caen.

The Bayeux Tapestry is at the Centre Guillaume le Conquerant, rue de Nesmond, Bayeux (tel: 00 33 231 512 550). Open 1 May to 15 September; 16 October to 14 March.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the French Tourist Board (tel: 0891 244123; premium rate).

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