Nearly 1,000 years ago, the epic story of the build up to and successful invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror was captured on a length of embroidered cloth. There is much that we don’t know about this iconic piece of work, including who commissioned it. But looking closer, the Bayeux tapestry tells us much about trees.
I was recently invited to the heart of Normandy to give a presentation to the University of Paris, Summer School in Collonges about the iconography of the trees on the Bayeux tapestry.
According to Sylvette Lemagnen, one of the conservators of the tapestry,
“The Bayeux tapestry is one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque … Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous … Its exceptional length, the harmony and freshness of its colours, its exquisite workmanship, and the genius of its guiding spirit combine to make it endlessly fascinating.”
The 70m original, now kept in a purpose built museum in Bayeux, or the Victorian copy (almost an exact replica) kept in Reading Museum, are well worth a visit. For a tree archaeologist like me, a visit to the tapestry is an opportunity to study first-hand the many different pollard trees that are depicted on it. Pollards are trees that are cut on a regular cycle from an early age above head height, mainly for fodder, building and fuel wood.
There are 37 trees or groups of trees on the tapestry and many are used as scene ends, as in this very first section:
What is especially interesting is that the iconography of these trees on the tapestry has been important in estimating the date it was made. The historic, ‘bocage’ landscape from the Parc naturel régional Normandie-Maine across into Brittany is very pretty; it is rich in mixed woodland and small pastures surrounded by hedgerows full of pollard, still ‘working’, trees. A thousand years after the images of these trees were captured in woollen yarn, it’s still easy to relate the trees on the tapestry to the landscape today, and vice versa.
We can see from the tapestry that pollards were cut to provide the wood to make the boats, as shown in this scene:
The trees being cut are clearly pollards and the wood cutters are standing and wielding their axes above their heads. There is astonishing attention to detail – the buds on the trees vary, differentiating at least oak and ash trees, the compartmentalisation of the trunks seems to be emphasised by the coloured stripes and even the hollowing of the trunks has been captured. There is however much to interest and still many questions – such as what are the horizontal bands on the stems, and the scales or nets in some of the crowns?
Pollarding is clearly a very ancient tree management practice – hence the term “tree archaeology” and they give huge character to the landscapes in which they are still found. To capture this we have encouraged the recording of pollards on the Ancient Tree Inventory, which records nearly 25,000 of the 140,000 trees on the database as pollards; although this is a great underestimate – many trees that would qualify have not been categorised as pollards in the tree hunting projects that have been run across the UK.
The history of pollarding trees is very deep. Recently some pollard oak sub fossils were excavated during gravel working in the River Trent, near Nottingham and carbon dated. The pollards were estimated to be 3,400 years old. Similar examples have been discovered in the Netherlands and in France from the big river gravels – some of the earliest examples of coarse woody debris that we are encouraged to put back into re-wilded rivers today!
Society has no difficulty in recognising the historic value of the Bayeux tapestry and understanding how important such a ‘document’ is in helping us understand the past. For tree archaeologists, the same applies to working pollard trees – the older and veteran pollards are living history. Trees like these, and others which hold a significant place in our cultural heritage, are known as Trees of Special Interest. They too are ‘documents’ that tell us about our history. Like our listed buildings and precious art works, they should be recognised as being nationally important for this contribution with their own ‘V.I.P’ status.
You can help us ensure living monuments like these can be properly recognised – take part in the Country Living and Woodland Trust’s ‘V.I.Trees’ campaign calling for a national register of Trees of Special Interest.
Jill Butler, Ancient Tree Specialist