Welcome to this edition of Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles. This time I am really pleased to introduce Abigail Youngman, who is a radio dramatist and script editor. She writes radio plays based on historical fact, mainly from a female point of view with an element the absurd, because truth is stranger, and sometimes funnier, than fiction, as the makers of the Bayeux Tapestry might have agreed. Here she tells us about her fascination with the Bayeux Tapestry and how it inspired her two BBC Radio4 programmes about the women who made and can be seen in it.
My interest in the women who made the Bayeux Tapestry began with a newspaper article in early 2018, when it was announced that Emmanuel Macron had agreed to let the Tapestry leave France for the first time in 950 years. (Although we still don’t know when it will get here.)
The article focused on the ambiguity of the Tapestry’s message and how its pro-Norman narrative is undermined by some very silly jokes at the Normans’ expense, odd (nude and lewd) figures in its ‘margins’ and confusing pro-Saxon scenes in which Harold is quite heroic and the Normans definitely aren’t. The article said that the reason for the ambiguity might be that the Tapestry was embroidered by Anglo-Saxon women, but commissioned by the conquering Normans. I was intrigued.
I found that theories about the making of the tapestry vary, but the prevailing opinion is that it was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, the very badly behaved Bishop Odo of Bayeux, designed by Scolland, abbot of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury and almost certainly embroidered by women in southern England, possibly based in nunneries. But who were these women and what were the circumstances of its making? Did Odo and Scolland have trouble getting them to embroider it exactly as they wanted? (Were the naked couples in the margins really part of the original design?)
I began to develop the idea of a radio drama series of fifteen-minute episodes about how the Tapestry was made. Each episode would feature an individual embroiderer and the motif she was working on, which would be her own idea and a clue to her identity and life-story. I imagined that we’d hear the women chatting as they worked, telling their stories, laughing at the men trying to manage their work, and maybe whispering about how they might get the better of them. I was aiming for something funny, but down-to-earth, featuring some unvarnished truths, just like the best kind of conversation between friends, and in fact very like the Tapestry itself.
Researching possible characters, I became fascinated by Edith of Wessex, Edward the Confessor’s widow, herself a skilled embroiderer. She was a shrewd politician who managed to keep her lands and wealth after the Conquest. No mean feat when most other Anglo-Saxon nobles had lost everything to the Normans. I was also inspired by Leofgyth of Knook in Wiltshire, who is mentioned in the Doomsday book and was allowed to keep her lands under the Normans because she made embroidery for the King and Queen, showing the prestige that really skilled embroiderers enjoyed. Another interesting historical figure is Gunnhilda, teenage daughter of King Harold who, like Edith, lived at Wilton Abbey after the Conquest. It was really interesting to think about what her contribution to the Tapestry might have been, especially given that her father’s death is depicted in it. All of these women became characters in the play.
The setting for the drama is Wilton Abbey. The populations of nunneries increased after 1066, most likely due to Anglo Saxon women seeking safe places to live after the invasion. Wilton had long been a centre of learning, which attracted many high-born women, both English and Norman, all of whom would likely have been skilled seamstresses.
I sent my idea to Mary Ward-Lowery, a radio producer who I’d worked with on other projects. She immediately responded very positively, although she thought a 45-minute format would suit the story better. This is the pitch we wrote:
Bayeux: Embroidering the Truth
Short synopsis: Rapacious bishop meets match in Anglo-Saxon ex-queen. He wants her wealth and body: she wants to survive. Armed only with a needle, she leads a group of women in a bid to outwit their violent Norman oppressors. Her plan succeeds and in the process they create a masterpiece with a message that will last a thousand years.
Long synopsis: The year is 1070. England is occupied by the Normans. They use any means necessary to suppress English rebels. A group of disparate women fleeing for their lives find themselves living, almost imprisoned, in Wilton Abbey. They include former Queen of England, Edith of Wessex. She has been allowed to keep her lands and wealth because she has paid tribute to the new King, William. But William’s powerful half-brother Bishop Odo has other ideas. Odo is, ‘an untrustworthy man, ambitious, given to fleshly desires and of enormous cruelty.’
Edith must defend her life, and those of the women sheltering with her, as well as her fortune, from Odo. She knows the Normans’ position is difficult; they need to silence doubters and prove William’s right to be King of England. Like a kind of medieval Malcolm Tucker, but female and living in a nunnery, Edith’s connections and political skill enable her to invent a story so effective that, not only does it save her life, but, almost 1,000 years later, it is still the accepted version of events. It is the Bayeux Tapestry.
English needle work was the best in the Western World. Edith persuades Odo that she can set out the definitive story of William’s conquest in the form of a tapestry. So he must keep them alive. But first Edith has to convince women traumatised by the invasion to work for the enemy. Edith wheels and deals to avoid Odo’s demands, while the other women find ways to stitch their secrets into the tapestry, risking their lives to tell the truth. Will Odo discover their hidden message and take revenge? How much will Edith have to compromise? (And why does Wulgyth like embroidering willies so much?)
Treatment: Thriller with a twist of Ianucci. Edith is a cool operator under extreme pressure, like Gloria Grahame in a Bogart film: only the listener can see the furious paddling under her swan-like surface. It’s a massive effort of will to suppress her contempt for Odo, to play him. The listener will be rooting for revenge, which, if Edith’s plan works, will be satisfyingly long-lasting. The story will centre on the jeopardy the women face. Key scenes will be exchanges between Odo and Edith, in which he threatens her and she uses all her ingenuity and political know-how to outwit him. The women’s own stories of surviving the invasion are gripping sub-plots, increasing the tension and adding very dark humour to the piece.
To our delight, the drama got through the commissioning process, and was given the green light. The play I wrote, Bayeux: Embroidering the Truth staring Katy Brand was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, brilliantly cast, directed and edited by Mary Ward-Lowery. You can listen to it here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0009bn8
But Mary and I weren’t done with the Tapestry yet… We went on to make a radio documentary about the clues that the Tapestry might contain about the women who made it, and whether any of my ideas about them have any basis in fact. It was a great privilege, and really fascinating, to interview leading experts, including Dr Alexandra Makin. The documentary, Women in Stitches: The Making of the Bayeux Tapestry, broadcast in February 2022, can be found on BBC Sounds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001327r
I would like to thank Abigail for telling us this famous early medieval embroidery inspired two radio shows. Will there be more in the future… (I should point out here that I have no inside information on any more productions). Next time, Dr Ulla Moilanen tells us how even small fragments of textile found in archeological contexts can tell bigger stories about people, societies and cultures.
Contact: If you would like to contact Abigail or follow on social media her work, please see her LinkedIn profile below:
- Queen Emma and Queen Edith, Queenship and Women’s Power in 11th Century England – STAFFORD, Pauline
- The Bayeux Tapestry: Life Story of a Masterpiece – HICKS, Carola
- The Bayeux Tapestry: The Embroiderer’s Story – MESSENT, Jan
- Women in Anglo Saxon England – FELL, C. & WILLIAMS, E.
- The Story of the Bayeux Tapestry – MUSGROVE, D. & LEWIS, M.
- Making Sense of the Bayeux Tapestry: Readings and Reworkings – HENDERSON, Anna C. & OWEN-CROCKER, Gale R.