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'France-UK tension over Bayeux tapestry repair plans'

The Normandy tapestry is in worse condition than previously thought, throwing potential plans for the UK to borrow it into serious doubt

The planned restoration of the prized Bayeux Tapestry is creating tension between France and the UK, as the project’s timescale and the tapestry’s condition threaten to derail plans to lend the artefact to Britain.

The 68.4 metre-long medieval tapestry - which famously tells “the story” of the Norman Conquest in 1066 - is set to begin restoration in 2024, but experts have said it is more damaged than previously thought.

In addition, the tapestry has been locked away and unseen for the past five months, as museums across France remain closed due to Covid-19. 

But while the Calvados museum - which houses the tapestry - has suffered due to the closure, the tapestry itself may have benefited from this lack of visitors.

Experts fear that the tapestry is in even worse repair than previously thought, despite all efforts made to preserve it.

In January 2020, a team of eight textile restoration specialists inspected the tapestry, and found “4,204 stains, 16,445 creases, and 9,646 'missing [pieces] of fabric or embroidery'”, as well as 30 "unstable" tears. 

In a statement, Normandy cultural affairs office la direction régionale des affaires culturelles (DRAC) said: “Such a survey had never before been done on the embroidered side.”

A high-resolution display of the tapestry, available to view online for free since February, shows some scale of the state of the famous piece.

The reasons for the damage are largely linked to previous attempts to display and restore it, with a braid added in around 1860 beginning to pull on the fibres, deforming the bottom of the tapestry.

Mathilde Labatut, conservationist at DRAC, told newspaper Le Monde: “Patches added in the 19th century are also causing tension.”

Following this study, the DRAC decided to restore the tapestry, with the €33 million project set to begin in 2024, as the museum itself is set to close for renovations. Around €2 million of state funding will be used for the tapestry alone.

In the new museum, the tapestry will be displayed in one straight line, and at an angle of 45-65 degrees, to avoid further strain. It will also be dusted but not “washed” as this is thought to be too dangerous.

Cécile Binet, DRAC advisor, said: “The current museum was built with ‘sanctuary’ in mind. But the fire of Notre-Dame [of April 2019] showed that we must be able to evacuate the tapestry in case of serious incident, which is not possible currently.”

Some of the “stains” will be preserved in the restoration process, in the hope that they might offer more insight into the history of the tapestry in future, should new tools of analysis become available.

History and repair

It is not known for certain how or where the piece was originally made or stored - although specialists generally believe that it was in Canterbury, in Kent. The first 400 years of the tapestry’s existence remain largely a mystery.

The first known reference to its existence is from 1476, where it appears on an inventory for the Bayeux cathedral. It had only been displayed for eight days during a festival, records suggest, and had then been stored and rolled up in a wooden box.

It was brought to Paris in 1803 and shown at the Louvre by Napoleon Bonaparte, partly in an attempt to persuade the Parisians to invade England. It was eventually sent back to Normandy.

In 1941, Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler sent a team to study the artefact, and took it to the Chateau de Sourches in Sarthe, where the Germans had hoarded requisitioned works from the Louvre and the Chateau de Versailles.

The tapestry was returned to Normandy in 1945, and has not been moved since.


Diplomatic tensions

The protracted restoration plans, and the extent of the damage to the tapestry, are causing tension between France and the UK, as it had been previously suggested that the UK could borrow the tapestry during the museum repair work, French newspaper Le Monde reported

This is now in serious doubt.

In January 2018, during the 35th Franco-British summit at Sandhurst in the UK, President Emmanuel Macron suggested to then-Prime Minister Theresa May that the Bayeux museum could lend the piece to the UK, for its own exhibition.

This could be a way to “commemorate our shared cultural history”, and improve relations following Brexit, he said at the time.

This suggestion was enthusiastically received by the UK, which sees the tapestry as a key part of its own history. The UK has asked to borrow the tapestry twice before; once for the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952, and once in 1966, for the 900th anniversary of the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Both requests were refused. 

But now, President Macron’s offer is in serious doubt. Experts have said that it will not be possible, given the likely restoration time, and the condition of the piece.

And the town of Bayeux has said that it does not want to be without the tapestry for longer than the 18 months of restoration, given its central importance to the museum’s success.

Loïc Jamin, head of culture at the Bayeux Mairie, said: “We have planned to start work in September or October 2026, so that we do not lose more than one summer season.”

In a normal year, the museum attracts more than 700,000 visitors, of which 70% are foreigners. This brings in significant revenue, over €5 million, of which €800,000-€1.2m goes to the town’s overall budget.

Experts have also said that given the state of the tapestry, which is worse than previously thought, sending it to the UK is also very unlikely. 

Frédérique Boura, director of DRAC in Normandy, said: “As long as the tapestry is not restored, it cannot be transported.”

Related stories

Stitches in time: The history of Bayeux and its tapestry
Normandy region builds on enduring UK ties
Bayeux Tapestry definitely French, professor claims

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