On the eve of Bastille Day, I drive northeast toward the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. My destination is the coastal town of Barfleur, site of Arthur’s continental landing and of the massing of his troops for the Roman campaign.
the Kynge aryved at Barflette and founde there redy many of his grete lordis, as he had commaunded at Crystemasse before hymselfe.
Per my usual, I embark on the drive with just a hazy idea of heading to Barfleur for the afternoon, then Mont St. Michel by evening. But as I drive along, I see a road sign and realize that I am passing within a ½ hour drive, more or less, of the town of Bayeaux.
Detour to the magnificent tapestry of Bayeux!
Scroll through the entire 230-foot tapestry, a work of exquisite craftmanship that shows the lead-up events of comet, diplomatic negotiations, ship building, and assault that comprise what is known as the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest of 1066. This animated version of the tapestry is fantastic, bringing the embroidered figures to life and set to music!
Most students of medieval English history have the date 1066 branded on their brain. It marks the beginning of the Norman Conquest of England—after which the native English language languished at the margins of the French-dominated court. Martin Foys has a great scholarly CD on the tapestry and is the editor of the 2009 collection of essays about the tapestry The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations. While the tapestry ostensibly celebrates the Norman victory, it was stiched in England, so mysteriously functions perhaps more as a memento mori or cautionary tale of the Conquest by the conquered.
In the museum, the tapestry is remarkable up close for its winsome, detailed depiction of birds and horses, feasts and armaments, presenting a gripping narrative, but it is even more spectacular when you step back and look down its incredible 230-foot length.
While the Normans continue to recall 1066 as part of their history, Arthur’s campaign across Normandy was–as far as we know–only a literary battle; there is no cultural marking of his landing or battles on Norman soil.
But the memory of other battles is deep in the soil here.
Though thrilled at this worthwhile detour, I head resolutely back out onto the highway for my intended destination of Barfleur. But not two miles north of Bayeux, I come upon another road sign, this time for a massive battle far closer to our own lives: American Cemetery.