Why I Wrote Attercoppe Hall

I like history – the weird things from history. And little, in my opinion, is more bizarre, more puzzling or more enticing than the Bayeux Tapestry. I was first introduced to this strange and wonderful embroidery in sixth grade. As we opened our history books one day, my teacher, Mrs. McCullough, announced, “Here is a depiction of the Bayeux Tapestry. Stitched in England after the Norman Conquest, it’s nearly a thousand years old. Oh, and the whole thing is two hundred and thirty feet long. Okay now, on the next page. . .” 

Scene from the Intro of Disney’s 1971 film “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”

        All of the other students moved on, seemingly unfazed. But I was captivated. What was this thing that had been so casually introduced to me? This mysterious, tattered embroidery Mrs. McCullough had mistakenly called a tapestry with its odd, contorted figures and a story line that meandered through a progression of semi-innocuous scenes before ending, quite suddenly, in a very graphic battle. Even as I’d turned the page of my history book that day, the Bayeux Tapestry stayed with me. It lingered in the back of my head, made appearances here and there throughout my childhood; from a newly-imagined version in the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, to the embroidery Ophelia stitches in Mel Gibson’s Hamlet. There’s a hilarious rendition of it in the introduction to The Simpsons TV show. Earnest Shepard, the first artist of the Winnie the Pooh series, drew a Hundred Acre Woods version of it. There’s even a Game of Thrones one, styled just the same — just as gory and salacious as the original. And then, of course, the Bayeux Tapestry is in every documentary or history book I’ve ever encountered that conveys the Norman Conquest.

         Over time, I learned a bit more about that conquest — mostly that it was brutal. I knew that Normans were Vikings and Saxons were Vikings and that what remained of the poor Britains left in the fall of Rome, had scampered off to the hills of Wales or, further still, to the green dells of Ireland. I knew that Vikings fought each other with relish and forged weapons from pattern welding. They liked silver brooches and shallow-hulled boats and made themselves dubious Christians. I knew that Vikings called Normans conquered Vikings called Saxons in October of 1066.

A scene from Mel Gibson’s 1990 film adaptation of “Hamlet”

         The Bayeux Tapestry itself is a huge, almost cartoon-style saga stitched in wool on linen. It’s twenty inches wide, two hundred and thirty feet long and no part of it is actually a tapestry. In a tapestry, the picture is woven into the cloth. In an embroidery, the picture is stitched on top of the cloth. No one knows why this artifact has come down through the ages with this erroneous title. Although believed to have been crafted in England sometime in the 1070’s, it is kept in Bayeux, France. It was rehung in the early 1980’s and during those months of careful curating, it was meticulously photographed, front and back. These are the photographs which fill David Wilson’s book The Bayeux Tapestry, a book which became a prime resource in researching for my novel. David’s book has detailed descriptions of each scene and careful translations given for the Latin inscriptions that were stitched above each section all those hundreds of years ago. David’s book – a large coffee table book, big enough that every stitch, every rip and every smudge is clearly visible – was a treasure to me. And yet, the more I studied this artifact, the more curious and confused I became.

         The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of how Normans, led by Duke William, invade Saxon England in the mid-eleventh century and win. That much is easy to understand. But that isn’t all the tapestry portrays. There’s more. And much of what else there is remains shrouded in mystery. To begin with, why was the embroidery made at all? It is widely believed, but not known for certain, that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror, and that it was stitched by nuns in Canterbury. But even this fact is curious. Why would a bishop commission such a thing?

E. H. Shepard’s rendition of the Bayeux Tapestry

         Odo is an elusive figure. Few facts are known about him. Even the precise date of his birth is unsubstantiated. But it is generally believed that Odo was several years younger than William. It was William who had his brother appointed bishop of Bayeux at the age of nineteen. As Odo’s clerical prestige grew, he began to believe a soothsayer who predicted that he would be pope and this became Odo’s obsession. In 1066, Odo crossed the Channel with William’s army. He fought in the battle of Hastings and served as regent — effectively king — on the many occasions that William returned to Normandy in the following years. Odo owned huge swaths of land in England following the invasion, including the whole of Kent. His reputation as a cruel, ruthless, power-hungry tyrant far outstrips that of his brother, William.

         As for the Bayeux Tapestry itself, how did those Canterbury nuns stitch it? Where did they stitch it? And why would this massive, expensive project take precedence in a time and place of such upheaval? Furthermore, how did those nuns even feel about embroidering scenes of their country’s demise? It’s a puzzling artifact, strangely personal at times with tiny unexpected details –  Normans with shaved heads, Saxons with wild mustaches, Halley’s comet zipping through the sky, Mont Saint-Michel looming over beaches of quicksand, men pressing shushing fingers to lips while gripping their swords by the blade, reliquaries and revelries and painted long-ships ferrying armies across the sea. There’s no knowing what those nuns thought of any of it, least of all the prospect of stitching scenes of bloodshed and invasion. Why did they do it then? Why did they willingly stitch scenes of rape and plunder and a battle so violent that it has sent shock waves down long generations?

         I think they did it for us. And I think a clue to why lies at the end of this embroidery. The end of the Bayeux Tapestry is missing. It’s shredded and unraveled and no one knows why or how long it originally was. No one knows what pictures were at the end when it was completed all those years ago.

         That is the story of Attercoppe Hall.

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