Lecture reports 2009

Sussex and the Bayeux Tapestry

Hove Civic Society on 29 January 2009

Michael Smith began his talk by mentioning other historical tapestries, including the Leek replica of the Bayeux in Reading and the Overlord in Portsmouth. He went on to an account of the history of the Tapestry form its commissioning by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (half brother of  William the Conqueror), its creation by nuns in Canterbury and its exhibition in the newly built Bayeux Cathedral.

Technically the Tapestry is an embroidery using dyed wool yarn stitched to linen. There is a central 'strip cartoon' with inscriptions in Latin and upper and lower borders showing representations of animals (from Aesop's fables) and other pictures sometimes relevant to the narration.

The survival of the Tapestry over the centuries is little short of miraculous. In the seventeenth century it was 'rediscovered' in Bayeux. Subsequently Napoleon, Hitler and Himmler all wished to use it for their own purposes. It was kept in the Louvre during the second world war and is now housed in protective conditions in a converted religious house in Bayeux.

Using illustrations from the Tapestry itself, present-day pictures of the historical sites and diagrams, Michael Smith recounted the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of England. He showed Harold Godwinson visiting William of Normandy, apparently swearing an oath of allegiance to William, Edward the Confessors's death, Harold's coronation, Halley's comet (an ill-omen), Harold's defeat in battle of his half-brother Tostig and the Norse King Harold Hadrada at Stamford Bridge (near York) and the Battle of Hastings which took place very shortly afterwards.

In this battle success initially went to Harold and his weakened army but subsequently William and his cavalry won the day during which Harold was killed ostensibly by an arrow which penetrated his eye. The last section of the Tapestry, now lost, is thought to have shown William's coronation on Christmas Day 1066.

Michael Smith concluded his excellent talk by discussing the reliability of the narration as the production of the Tapestry had been supervised by Odo, William's half brother.

The Beale family at Standen

James and Margaret Beale lived with their seven children at 32 Holland Park London. James Beale was a highly regarded (and wealthy) Solicitor and parliamentary lobbyist on behalf of the railway companies.

When Mr Beale had his 50th birthday he decided that the time had come to have a house in the country to which the family could go for weekends and holidays and to which he and Mrs Beale would eventually retire. At the end of 1890 three farms were for sale in East Grinstead which was an area of outstanding natural beauty and very popular as a place for second homes for Londoners, particularly as there was a train journey time of about an hour back to London. The three farms were purchased and it was decided to keep one as a working dairy farm.

Mr Beale asked friends for recommendations for an architect and Phillip Webb’s name was put forward by several of those asked. Phillip Webb was very little known because he would not allow his work to be publicised in the trade journals of the day, however, Mr Beale went to see him in March 1891 and a contract was signed for Phillip Webb to design the house. There were only two buildings on the site of the new house, a dilapidated farmhouse (Hollybush House) and a large barn, and at first Phillip Webb decided that Hollybush House would have to be pulled down, but on doing research he thought that if Mr Beale would spend a not inconsiderable amount of money it and the barn could be saved.

Work on the new house began in October 1892 after the 9th set of plans were accepted by Mr and Mrs Beale, and the building was completed in August 1894, by which time Amy (the oldest child) was 23years old and Helen (the youngest) was 9.

Mrs Beale ran the household with a minimum of rules, but with a firm hand and the whole family made good use of their time and talents. The daily pattern of life in the Beale household was largely determined by mealtimes, thus the ladies would go to the morning room after breakfast and the gentlemen to the billiard room. The ladies would discuss their embroidery, talk about what they would do with their time that day, write letters, read the newspaper, and the men would read the papers, write letters, talk about world affairs and smoke.

After lunch the family would sit in the drawing room and if the grandchildren were staying Mrs Beale would read them stories, after which, on a fine day they would be taken down to the woods to play and perhaps to have a picnic.

In 1898 Mrs Beale asked Phillip Webb if he could make the hall larger and he put on a bay window, and at the same time the gentlemen asked if he could give them more room to sit and talk comfortably, so he blocked a section of the corridor and gave them a conversation corner.

Mr and Mrs Beale cared about their servants and wanted them to a have pleasant life, so each Christmas they would provision a party for the servants and then the family would go out for the evening so that the servants knew that no bells would be rung, and that they could make as much noise as they liked and that no-one would be there to complain.

When Mr Beale retired only his two unmarried daughters still lived at home and so went to live at Standen with their parents, however, the rest of the family often came to visit. Mr Beale died in 1912 and Mrs Beale in 1936.

Helen lived alone at Standen after her sister’s death in 1947, and it was Helen who willed it to the National Trust so that everyone could enjoy this beautiful property. When Helen died in 1972 much of the furniture had to be sold to raise the endowment needed for the National Trust to take over the property