Regency Bicentennial:   The Stothards and the Bayeux Tapestry

Two hundred years ago, this week, Charles Stothard was making plans for his third trip to France, at the direction of the Council of the Society of Antiquaries. He would travel to the French town of Bayeux in order to complete his series of detailed drawings of the famous tapestry depicting the Norman Conquest of Britain. Though the tapestry was more than seven centuries old, it was only in the second half of the eighteenth century that British scholars had begun to take an interest in it. Stothard’s drawings would be crucial to further study of this remarkable textile. Unlike his previous trips, this time he would be accompanied by his new bride, whom he had married only months before. Unbeknownst to her, a half century later, she would be accused of vandalizing the extraordinary tapestry her husband was there to record, since most people thought she had already passed away.

Mr. and Mrs. Stothard and the Bayeux Tapestry . . .

The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most fascinating historical documents of British history. Though it has generally been called a tapestry, technically, it is not, since it is embroidered rather than woven. (Today, it is more commonly called the "Bayeux Embroidery.") This textile "document" is just 20 inches tall and a little over 230 feet long, embroidered in colored wool threads on a linen base cloth. It is rather like an embroidered filmstrip, consisting of a series of about seventy scenes which illustrate the events that led up to, and included, the Battle of Hastings, when William, Duke of Normandy, invaded Britain, in 1066, and claimed the British throne. Most scholars now believe that the tapestry was commissioned by Duke William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, within a decade after the Norman invasion. It is also now generally accepted that it was embroidered in England, not in France. However, Odo was Bishop of Bayeux, which seems to be why the tapestry was stored and periodically displayed as one of the great treasures of the Bayeux Cathedral, from at least a decade after it was made until the later eighteenth century. It is still in Bayeux, but is now on permanent exhibit at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.

The first mention of the Bayeux tapestry, in English, in print, was in Palaeographia Britannica, published in 1743, by William Stukeley. More detailed accounts in English were published over the course of the next few decades. All record of the tapestry might have ended there, since it was nearly destroyed during the French Revolution. In 1792, it was seized from the Bayeux Cathedral as public property and the order was given that the cloth be used to cover the cargo in a military wagon or as bunting for a float. Fortunately, a local lawyer was able to spirit it away before any real damage was done. He hid it in his house until the Terror was over, at which time he gave it to the Bayeux Municipal Council. In 1803, after Napoleon took control of France, a Fine Arts Commission was established to protect national treasures. Shortly thereafter, the tapestry was taken to Paris to be put on display at the Louvre, then known as the Musée Napoléon. It was ostentatiously exhibited in the French capital to provide a kind of historical propaganda for Bonaparte’s planned invasion of Britain. When Napoleon eventually gave up his plan to invade the British Isles, the tapestry lost its propaganda value to his government and it was returned to the town of Bayeux.

Once they had regained possession of the tapestry, the Bayeux Municipal Council decided that it should be put on display at the Hôtel de Ville, in order to help attract tourists to their town. But they chose a particularly perilous method to do so. The tapestry was wound onto a pair of wooden cylinders fitted with crank handles which were mounted horizontally, a few feet apart, with a table in between. The tapestry was then unwound from one cylinder to the other, as the length was pulled over the table before those who wished to view it. This method of display put exceptional strain on what was, at the time, a textile which was more than seven hundred years old. The officials of the Bayeux Cathedral were gravely concerned that the tapestry would soon be damaged beyond repair. The clergy of the cathedral still considered it church property by tradition and demanded that it be returned to them. The town council refused to return the tapestry to the Bayeux Cathedral, claiming it was the property of the town. They continued to display it in that rough and careless manner for more than twenty years.

Once Napoleon was in exile on St. Helena, and the Continent was finally at peace, the Society of Antiquaries of London wished to continue to pursue their mission of recording significant monuments and artifacts which had some link to British history. Since 1718, the Society had begun to publish Vetusta Monumenta: quae ad Rerum Britanicarum memoriam conservandam Societas Antiquariorum Londini sumptu suo edenda curavit, more commonly known as Vetusta Monumenta (Ancient Monuments). This was an irregular series of illustrated papers, typically written by society members, on ancient sites, buildings and artefacts with a connection to British history. In some cases, the author of a paper provided their own illustrations, but in many cases, the Society commissioned artists to produce the illustrations for those articles. In 1816, the 750th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, they had learned the Bayeux Tapestry was in a rather dilapidated condition. One of their more prominent members, Francis Douce, implored his fellow Antiquarians to take steps to record the tapestry before it could be damaged further. Therefore, their historical draughtsman, Charles Stothard, was directed to travel to France for the first time to begin making detailed, colored drawings of the tapestry, while it was still mainly intact. The Society expected that Francis Douce, and/or one or more of their members would eventually write a paper on the tapestry, but in 1816, the most critical need was to record images of the tapestry before it sustained any further damage.

In September of 1816, Charles Stothard crossed the Channel to France, then traveled on to Bayeux. The Municipal Council accepted his credentials and he was allowed nearly unlimited access to the tapestry. Late summer and fall was a slow season for tapestry visitors. Even so, from time to time, he would have to interrupt his work in order to allow the occasional visitor to view the tapestry. As he made his drawings, Stothard examined the tapestry very closely and he was appalled at the frayed and shabby condition in which he found sections of it. At some point, Stothard removed two small fragments from a ragged edge of the tapestry. It has been suggested by some that he removed the fragments in order to preserve them. However, he did not hand those two fragments over to those who supervised the tapestry, he kept them with his drawings. By December of 1816, Charles Stothard had completed detailed drawings of about one-third of the length of the tapestry and he traveled back to Britain with those two fragments in his baggage.

Charles Stothard returned to Bayeux the following year to continue his work in capturing images of the next sections of tapestry. Once again, he was allowed nearly unlimited access to the textile as he studied each segment and made his drawings. Though he does seem to have been concerned about the long-term survival of the tapestry, he was just as concerned about making a complete record of this extraordinary document of British history. In particular, he wanted to make a record of the texture of the tapestry. To capture that, he poured hot modeling wax on at least three small areas of the tapestry in order to make molds of those details. Once the wax had cooled, he pulled it away from the cloth and then poured plaster of paris into each wax mold he had made. When the plaster had set, he carefully hand colored those casts so they were as close as possible to the color of the tapestry itself. While he was scrutinizing the tapestry, Stothard also realized that in a few areas, the woolen embroidery threads had been lost. However, he could see that the residual color of those threads was still visible on the linen background cloth. Therefore, he acquired woolen threads in the closest possible colors and restitched those portions of the tapestry to preserve the scenes it depicted.

As he had the previous year, Charles Stothard returned to Britain, with his next set of drawings of the tapestry, late in 1817. In February of 1818, he married Anna Eliza Kempe, the daughter of a bullion porter at the Royal Mint. Known as Eliza by her family and friends, Miss Kempe had hoped to become a professional actress, but her hopes were dashed when she became ill with a bad case of nerves and severe sore throat just days before her debut on the stage. However, she and her siblings were fond of amateur theatricals and they sometimes staged plays for gatherings of family and friends. Eliza’s brother, Alfred John Kempe, was a fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquarians, who shared his sister’s delight in acting. It was probably Alfred who first met Charles Stothard and invited him to the family home in London for some of their performances. Eliza had a keen interest in history, so she and Charles found they had a great deal in common. They became engaged in 1814, despite the fact that as an itinerant draughtsman, Stothard was not a particularly good marriage prospect. Fortunately, the commission Charles had received from the Society of Antiquities for the Bayeux Tapestry drawings, in 1816, had significantly improved his financial situation. He and Eliza were finally able to marry in 1818. The marriage does appear to have been a love match and the couple seem to have been very happy together. In fact, after their marriage, Eliza usually accompanied Charles when he traveled to make drawings of monuments for which he was commissioned by the Society, and by other antiquarians. Naturally, the newlyweds were not willing to be separated when Charles was directed to make his final journey to France to complete the drawings of the last sections of the Bayeux Tapestry. Since this would be Eliza’s first trip to France, Charles chose to leave early rather than waiting until the fall.

Mr. and Mrs. Stothard took a ship across the English Channel to France, in July of 1818. The couple then began a leisurely trip through north-western France, including Normandy and Brittany, before making their way to Bayeux in late August. There, they rented a house from an abbé, one of the canons of the cathedral, who, as a young priest, had been an underground resistance fighter against the French Revolution. On many evenings, the abbé, also their neighbor, strolled with the young couple on their terrace, sharing his memories and enjoying the view of the now peaceful town and the nearby cathedral. Once they had settled into their cozy little house, Charles spent most days at the Hôtel de Ville, where the tapestry was on display. He continued making drawings of the remaining sections of the tapestry, sometimes with his wife’s assistance. She also studied the tapestry and took it upon herself to copy down all the inscriptions, as well as writing an eleven-page verbal description of the historic textile. When Charles did not need her help, Eliza explored the town, practicing her French as she became acquainted with some of the local residents. On Sundays, the couple spent time together, often making excursions into the surrounding countryside. By early November, Charles had completed his drawings of the last sections of the Bayeux Tapestry. But he and Eliza were not yet ready to leave France and return to England. Instead, they traveled through parts of Brittany which they had not seen on their earlier journey and then they went south to see the French capital, Paris. Though both Eliza and Charles had enjoyed their travels, they were also very glad to return to home and family that December.

By March of 1819, Charles Stothard put the finishing touches on his detailed colored drawings of the Bayeux Tapestry and handed them over to the Council of the Society of Antiquities, who had commissioned them. Later in that same year, 1819, the members elected Charles Stothard as a fellow of the Society. Stothard’s drawings were soon turned over to James Basire II, who was the senior engraver for the Society. Basire set to work making carefully detailed engravings from Stothard’s drawings, with oversight from Charles Stothard. The engravings were hand-colored, using Stothard’s colored drawings as a guide. This work by Stothard and Basire remains, to this day, one of the most accurate and authentic visual records of the Bayeux Tapestry from the early nineteenth century. In fact, the only better records are the photographic images made in the twentieth century, but those include later restorations and repairs. Five hundred sets of hand-colored engravings of the full length of the Bayeux Tapestry were ready for publication in 1822, and were included in the sixth volume of the Society of Antiquities’ Vetusta Monumenta.

When she accompanied her husband to Bayeux, Eliza Stothard does not appear to have kept a journal of her excursion through north-western France. However, she did write letters to her mother about her travels nearly every day, describing in detail all that she saw and experienced. In addition, she made a number of sketches and watercolors of some of the places which caught her eye along the way. In the months after she returned to England, Eliza sorted through all of the letters she had written to her mother with the idea that they might make an interesting travel book. She was right and, in November of 1820, Letters Written during a Tour in Normandy, Brittany, and other Parts of France, was published by Longman and Brown of London. Though it was not a runaway best seller, the book sold well and set Eliza on a lengthy and successful career as an author. At about the time her first book was published, Eliza Stothard also discovered she was expecting her first child.

Though Charles Stothard was able to celebrate his wife’s success as a first-time author, he did not live to see the publication of one of his most important works, the images of the Bayeux Tapestry. Sadly, he would also not live to see the birth of his only child. In the spring of 1821, Stothard had traveled to Bere Ferrers, in Devon. There, he was to make drawings of the stained glass windows in St. Andrew’s Church for Samuel Lyons’ upcoming history of Devonshire. On 28 May 1821, Stothard was making a tracing of one of the more significant windows, when the rung on the ladder on which he was standing snapped and he fell to the church floor. He hit his head on one of the stone effigies below and was killed instantly. His new baby, a little girl, was born just a month later, on 29 June 1821. Compounding the grief suffered by his young wife, their baby daughter died less than a year later, on 2 February 1822.

Anna Eliza Stothard lived quietly for a couple of years following the loss of her husband and infant daughter. During that time, she wrote a detailed biography of her late husband’s life and work, The Memoirs, including Original Journals, Letters, Papers and Antiquarian Tracts, of the Late Charles Stothard, which was published in 1823, to great acclaim. This book, dedicated to George IV, secured Charles Stothard’s position as an important artist and antiquarian of the time. A few years later, Eliza married Edward Atkyns Bray, a fellow author and vicar of Tavistock. She had kept all of Charles Stothard’s papers and drawings after his passing. In the years following her second marriage, with the help of her brother, the antiquarian, Alfred Kempe, she was able to complete the work Charles Stothard had left unfinished, The Monumental Effigies of Great Britain, which was published in 1832. She then went on to re-establish herself as a popular author of historical novels as well as additional travel books. Anna Eliza Bray became a respected member of the literary circles of Britain for the next several decades.

Shortly after her husband’s death, Eliza Stothard sold off his small personal collection of antiquities, to Sir Gregory Page Turner, in order to cover some of her expenses. The collection of items acquired by Sir Gregory probably included one of the fragments Charles had removed from the Bayeux Tapestry. Nothing more is known of that fragment of the tapestry. Sometime after he returned from Bayeux, in 1816, and before his untimely death, in 1821, Charles Stothard gave, or sold, some of the plaster casts he had made from the surface of the Bayeux Tapestry, as well as the other small fragment of the tapestry, to Francis Douce, who had urged the Society of Antiquaries to commission the drawings of the tapestry in the first place. After that, the fragment went through several other owners until it became the property of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum), in 1864. In August of 1871, the museum was seeking permission from the Bayeux Municipal Council to photograph the Bayeux Tapestry. However, the Mayor of Bayeux objected, concerned that the process might damage the tapestry. To show their goodwill, the Director of the South Kensington Museum offered to return their fragment of the tapestry to the Municipal Council. This offer was accepted and the fragment was returned to Bayeux on 14 August 1872. The section from which it had been taken had already been repaired, so it was not reattached to the tapestry. It is now part of the archives of the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.

Unbeknownst to Anna Eliza Bray, the records at the South Kensington Museum noted that she had removed the tapestry fragment while she was assisting her then husband, Charles Stothard, as he made drawings of the tapestry, in 1818. Then, in August of 1881, a review of a recent book, La Tapisserie de Bayeux by Jules Comte, was published in The Times. The reviewer called for the former Mrs. Stothard to be forgiven, because, though he considered it to be inexcusable, her removal of the fragment of the tapestry was explained thus:   "Impelled by a feminine instinct, she cut a small piece of the border and took it away with her." Not long before the publication of that review, Eliza Bray had heard that the keeper of the tapestry in Bayeux was not only telling visitors that she had cut the fragment from the tapestry, he was also claiming that she had made this admission on her deathbed. Since Eliza Bray had ceased publishing books some years before, it was generally believed that she was dead. In actual fact, she was living in London, a relatively sprightly woman of ninety-one.

Eliza’s nephew, Charles Kempe, was quick to decisively and publicly vindicate his aunt. On 24 September 1881, The Times published a letter from him in which he reported that not only was the former Mrs. Stothard alive and well, but that she was the famous authoress Mrs. Bray. He explained that her recollection of that early time in her life was quite clear. She remembered that Charles Stothard had been in possession of two fragments of the tapestry some years before she married him and they traveled together to Bayeux, in 1818. Kempe also wrote that his aunt had learned, with "mingled feelings of indignation and amusement" that the keeper of the tapestry in Bayeux was telling visitors that she had confessed to the theft of the fragment on her deathbed. "Thank God, she is still alive to tell the true tale," added Kempe. Having outlived two husbands and a public, but false, accusation of theft, Anna Eliza Bray died a few months later, on 21 January 1883.

Dear Regency Authors, might Mr. and Mrs. Stothard, or the Bayeux Tapestry, find a place in an upcoming tale of romance? Perhaps you might send fictional characters to Bayeux to study and/or make records of the tapestry. Or, will your fictional characters encounter the young couple from England when they travel to Bayeux, in the fall of 1818? Then again, perhaps you might be inspired by the false accusation made against Eliza Stothard Bray to craft a similar experience for one of your characters in a work in progress. How will your version play out? Are there other aspects of the Stothard’s adventures in France in the fall of 1818 which might add interesting embellishment to a story of romance in the Regency?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Stothards and the Bayeux Tapestry

  1. Interesting! I’m stumped for a plot bunny though

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I know what you mean. I have to say, I was most struck by how badly the tapestry has been treated over the years. It was not treated much better by the Nazis than it was the French revolutionaries. It is truly amazing that it has survived more than 950 years, considering all of that. At least now, I believe that reasonable care is being taken of it, and maybe it will last a few more centuries.

      I have been fascinated by the tapestry since I first learned it existed while studying the Norman Conquest in college. So, I could not resist the chance to post an article about it during the Regency. I was also a bit annoyed that Mrs., rather than Mr., Stothard was automatically assumed to be the person who took the two fragments, and that her supposed “offense” was to be excused by her inability to control her desire for a souvenir. I felt the need to do what I could to help keep her name clear!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I could see a governess using the engravings to make history come to life, and perhaps encouraging a pupil to write French captions after the manner of Gillray cartoons. [and not mentioning that the Norman knights would not have understood more than a few words of the French seven hundred years after they had existed]. Would the father of the motherless child she is caring for be interested in antiquities? might he take his child[ren] and governess to France to see the original? would he be amused or irritated by basic French like ‘Voila, Je m’appelle Harold. j’ai mal a l’oieull’ [spelling?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          That is a very creative plot bunny! However, the story would have to be set after the Regency, since Stothard’s images of the tapestry were not published until late in 1819, and then only in the Vetusta Monumenta, which was by subscription only. Of course, if the hero was a member of the Society of Antiquities, he would probably have had a copy in his library, so that fits your story nicely.

          From what I could tell, the Bayeux Tapestry was not widely known in England, beyond a small circle of antiquarians, until well into the reign of Victoria. So only those with a deep knowledge of the history of the Middle Ages and/or the Norman Conquest would have been aware of its existence before the middle of the nineteenth century. But if your hero was such a scholar, I can easily see him taking the children, and their governess, to Bayeux to have a look at it. Then again, if he does not want his society acquaintances to know of his scholarly pursuits, might he swear the governess to secrecy and find some other reason for visiting Normandy, while they just “happen” to make a stop in Bayeux, taking time to see the tapestry since they are in the area?

          I love the idea of the captions. There is so much room for humor there. The children might have great fun with the bad spelling. Perhaps your governess might be a close friend of Eliza Stothard, who sends her copy of the inscriptions which she transcribed while she was in Bayeux with her husband? That would provide a chance to view the inscriptions even before seeing the tapestry.

          Regards,

          Kat

  2. gordon759 says:

    As for a plot bunny how about, not the drawing of the Bayeux Tapestry, but the story of the drawing of the church in Devon.
    Imagine – an artist comes to a village to draw the antiquities of the church or ruined abbey or castle, and finds themselves involved, not only romantically with someone but also with the search for treasure hidden in the church, abbey etc at the reformation, or perhaps the ruins are being used by smugglers to hide their goods, and they are developing ghost stories to keep the superstitious villagers away, or perhaps — but now I am getting carried away.

  3. elfahearn says:

    What a fascinating story. I didn’t know about the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s such a magnificent relic, I pray it’s kept with the greatest respect and care.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It is certainly getting more care and respect than it got in centuries past. I understand it is now kept inside a sealed glass case which is carefully climate-controlled and protects the fragile textile from nearly everything, while still making it easy to view by visitors. This is probably the best care it has gotten in its long life.

      There was an announcement earlier this year that France will be loaning the tapestry to Britain, for public display in the British Museum, in 2022. I expect there will be great care taken of it for that visit, along with high security. It is believed that will be the first time the tapestry has been back to the British Isles in more than 950 years. I imagine the queues to see it will be very long. But it will be an opportunity for many people to see it who might not otherwise get the chance.

      Regards,

      Kat

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