Bayeux Revisited: or, a Tale of Victorian Censorship

Regional museums: a delightful hotch-potch, a veritable Granny’s-Front-Room  with accompanying cafe, shop and starry-eyed curator.

We pottered off to one such museum yesterday: Reading Museum, a random outpouring of stories old and quaint. It is a Regional Curator’s task to put the beloved claptrap of centuries into context.

On the first floor,one exhibit dominates all the others; and this is its story.

Allow me to transport you back to the nineteenth century, the heyday of florid romanticism, when Tennyson was altering the historical evidence with every line of poetry he wrote and Dickens was keepin’ it real.

William Morris was at the centre of a craft revolution: 1861 saw the opening of his epoch-making firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co, which among many fortes boasted the design of tapestries. The influence of the mediaeval was strong here: much as Tennyson adored the ancient stories, Morris borrowed and created a 19th century interpretation of mediaeval times.

The Victoria and Albert Museum – then the South Kensington Museum – had opened its doors too. An eclectic mix, its drawing-board name was The Museum of Manufactures, housing, as it would, exhibits from the Great Exhibition of 1851.

It was practical and beautiful from the start, with Morris co-designing one of the restaurant rooms. And it devoted itself to the history of art and design.

One day in 1885, curator Sir Philip Cunliffe-Owen was showing a wealthy couple around the museum. An interesting partnership, Elizabeth and Thomas Wardle: he was owner of a company which dyed materials; he had traveled India and cannily gauged the new craze for needlework, producing silk sewing kits for the newly emergent middle class.

He was absorbed in the craft revolution: Morris approached Wardle to partner him in research into original herbal dyes. And Wardle’s wife Elizabeth was an accomplished needlewoman and a clever social organiser.

The two were invited back to Cunliffe-Owen’s office for tea and a chat: an it is then that the Director brought a treasure out of his cupboards.

Photographs. Lots of photographs.

And drawings, too: colour-keys, diagrams, technical information for Extreme Embroiderers.

It was the Bayeux Tapestry, in its entirety. The visual cartoon-strip of Harold’s duplicity and eventual defeat at the hands of William the Conqueror. Like Wardle’s little sewing kits, it made replication of this priceless artwork possible.

The first one was housed in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux at the Centre Guillaume-le-Conquérant in Bayeux, Normandy. Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William’s brother, is thought to have commissioned it, according to Jan Messent in The Bayeux Tapestry Embroiderers’ Story. She posits the original tapestry may well have been embroidered by nuns in Essex.

Elizabeth Wardle took one look at the drawings and made up her mind immediately. England must have a Bayeux tapestry of its own. Marshalling her husband to create the ancient dyes necessary from woad for blue, walnut roots for browns and weld for yellows.

Then she assembled 39 women from her hometown of Leek, Staffordshire: one to trace onto linen; two to sew the work together; and the rest to use their needles to fill in the  tracery.

It was a project born in heaven: but a Victorian heaven, complete with great eyed pre-Raphaelite angels: and everyone was suitably attired. It was a world away from the tapestry’s earthy origin.

And so, in the interests of Victorian modesty, the women made a few changes. Generally in the area of male anatomical detail, if you get my modest drift. The mediaeval Wessex nuns had accorded the men of the tapestry sizeable appendages. Huge.

It could have transformed a young Victorian maiden’s outlook, for sure. And so all genitalia were censored. The ladies – many young and unmarried –  used the tracing of a Miss Lizzie Allen. And Miss Allen hit on a surefire way of shielding the ladies’ eyes: she gave the mediaeval gentlemen shorts.

Obediently, the ladies of Leek embroidered mediaeval gentlemen with bespoke Victorian pantaloons.

All save one. Miss Margaret J Ritchie was having none of it. She must have been an open-minded soul because she got one of the most puzzling panels of the whole tapestry, entitled Where Æfgyva and a certain cleric. We are left hanging, destined never to fathom the incident involving a sexual scandal- a young woman lured to a convent by a priest- or why it should be included in the account at all.

Under the panel is a small well-endowed male figure. The tracer had left shorts for Miss Ritchie to embroider on.

But the lady was a true historian. While she would not embroider the historically accurate genitalia, she was not for the shorts either.

And to this day, they remain tracing: a detail which reveals the stout-mindedness of a woman who may well have seen the importance of the project through the eyes of future generations.


Check out this wonderful, detailed history of the Reading replica which I used as source material:


51 thoughts on “Bayeux Revisited: or, a Tale of Victorian Censorship

    1. I know. They are very well endowed, these embroidered noblemen. They say we have all grown bigger and taller over the centuries – hence the tiny doors from the 13th and 14th centuries. I wonder if the reverse is true for this aspect of the physique?

      1. Now this is all getting a bit naughty Kate! – but presumably because we are much bigger and taller, that physical aspect would look smaller in comparison!

  1. I love the Victorians… all that incredible passion buttoned down and squashed until it’s bursting at the … ahem… seams.

    Another place to tuck into my travel plans… if only to see the shorts of faux-Bayeux.

  2. Oh, the parallels we find in life… This morning, you’ve provided another, Kate. The further I read, the more I smiled, remembering where I was employed for most of the ’70s: and a similar tale.

    I so wish I could remember the particulars of that tale, but I do recall being told that as originally rendered, many of the figures in various of the murals here were voluptuous and naked . . . at some point in time, the Victorian sensibilities of certain local citizens prevailed and those figures were variously veiled in strategic places. Now I want to learn whether the renovation to the building ( and her murals, not only repaired those murals, but also truly restored them to their original state.

    I’ll also need to take a second look at our county courthouse here, as it was designed by the same architect, Brentwood S. Tolan.


    1. Wonderful, Karen! So the urge to cover up was clearly not limited to Bayeux: and maybe, out there, there are other examples.

      This is one of those times when I wish heartily that you had a blog so I could watch your investigation follow its course 😀

      1. Thanks, Kate. Not sure a blog will ever emanate from this desk….but I appreciate that you’d read if it did.

        Today, UPS has delivered my new android tablet (not quite an iPad, but I’m believing it will function similarly), and I anticipate devoting some serious time to learning about it and how to “compute” from my easy chair, so, if I’m missing in action for a little while….. 😉

  3. Sounds, FAB, Kate. Glad that you’re having such a lovely week of global exploration and time travel right in your own backyard.

    I’ve got a veritas viaduct vin venue for you to peruse next trip to London:

    Set under the soaring arches of a former railway Viaduct, Vinopolis offers wine and spirit enthusiasts the opportunity to learn more about the history of their favourite tipple and how to fully appreciate them through a variety of wine tasting tours and monthly tasting classes

    You can even drive a scooter through virtual reality tours of vineyards.

  4. “Oh! South Kensington!” I had the pleasure when in college of performing the role of Lady Jane in G&S “Patience.” That role is a particular favorite of mine of the many I have had the good fortune to do. The following lines between Saphir, Jane and the Duke are some of the funniest in a very funny operetta:

    SAPHIR. It can never be. You are not Empyrean. You are not Della Cruscan. You are not even Early English. Oh, be Early English ere it is too late! (Officers look at each other in astonishment.)

    JANE. (looking at uniform) Red and Yellow! Primary colours! Oh, South Kensington!

    DUKE. We didn’t design our uniforms, but we don’t see how they could be improved!

    JANE. No, you wouldn’t. Still, there is a cobwebby grey velvet, with a tender bloom like cold gravy, which, made Florentine fourteenth-century, trimmed with Venetian leather and Spanish altar lace, and surmounted with something Japanese – it matters not what – would at least be Early English! Come, maidens.

    Cracks me up every time, and your wonderful post gave me back that memory of my youth! Thanks!

    1. Paula, what a fantastic snippet: it sums up the whole precious mediaeval crafty revival which actually managed to ignore quite a lot of the less wholesome elements of those early times…only Gilbert’s lyrics could hit home so completely.

      Thank YOU!

  5. Dear Kate,
    As I’ve said before in many different ways, I find your posts so engaging. I learn history while reading such well composed, literate, and wry writing. Thank you for the lessons you give with each post about thesis, word choice, and composition!


    1. Thank you, Dee, for reading 🙂 The Bayeux Tapestry – if you don’t already know it well – is an absorbing ‘read’ with information in every intricate panel. Well worth a long considered browse sometime…and of course, it was probably embroidered by nuns.

  6. What an amazing story! I’m not sure which facet I most appreciate! Every comment I want to make turns into some form of a double entendre, and I am not that clever to do that intentionally! So I will be very brief…I’m delighted with this story and grateful history records examples of women who found quiet ways to rebel against standards that didn’t, to them anyway, make a lot of sense! Tapestries are amazing works of art! Debra

    1. Debra, congratulations, your labour to create a straighforward comment bore fruit 🙂 Tapestries are beautiful: they used to adorn the houses of the wealthy here in England where it is cold and inhospitable for so much of the year. I feel it is high time we had another copy made here: there is so much we can learn from this one chronicle.

      1. This copy to leave out the shorts? Then comes the dilemma – to reproduce the genitalia accurately, or, in tune with modern art, have them protruding from the ears or somthing like that?

  7. romanticism, when Tennyson was altering the historical evidence with every line of poetry he wrote and Dickens was keepin’ it real.

    So true and accurate observation. But while Dickens may have contributed to the legislative remedies for the oppression and deplorable conditions resulting from industrial capitalism, Tennyson reminded us of the best and noble part of us “…on rode the six hundred.” Even the oppressed could have some dignity knowing that they too were part of that tradition.

  8. What a giggle. She wouldn’t go near the beastly thing with needle or cover. I enjoy the delicate manner with which you write – especially confirming the innocence of nuns! 😀

    Wonder post. Many thanks, Kate.

  9. I’ve saved the links to look at later, thanks. I hadn’t known that there was anything needing covering up as the parts of the tapestry I’m most familiar with are the ones with horses… that said, when I was a child (about 8 yrs old) I did a frieze for my room copied from a drawing of the Bayeux tapestry and my dad put it up for me just above the picture rail. It went all round the room. 🙂

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