President Macron’s offer to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to the UK is a diplomatic masterstroke. Even the most ardent Brexiteer can recognise the gesture of a European leader extending the hand of friendship at a time of discord and difficulty.
The Bayeux Tapestry is perhaps the single most famous work of European medieval art — that’s quite something, given it is not a tapestry, it was not made in Bayeux and was almost certainly made in England. Lending it to Britain after more than 950 years will generate enormous excitement, huge crowds and be a coup for France.
Gift-giving is not easy, as recent Prime Ministers have found out. At times it has almost been a question of who could give the most underwhelming token of friendship, rather than a showstopper. It would be hard to know who came out worse when Gordon Brown gave Barack Obama a set of biographies about Winston Churchill and received a set of DVDs in return — with the sense that both had been picked up in duty free, only set off by Brown’s additional present of a pen made from the same timbers as the desk in the Oval Office. Macron’s grandiose gesture is in an altogether different league.
It helps, perhaps, that the French President has just been to China and so has his eye in for the game of trying to build connections around the world with people who matter: on a tour of Xi’an and Beijing last week, Macron announced that he had given President Xi an eight-year-old horse named Vesuvius in what he modestly referred to as “an unprecedented diplomatic gesture”. In fact, what it showed was that Macron had done his homework — not surprising for a man who sometimes responds to questions in Latin. Horses have always been important in China, so revered in the past that particularly fine specimens became famous in their own right in sculpture, song and poetry.
That is the trick of good diplomatic gift-giving: it is one thing to hand over something rare and expensive but altogether another to understand what has value and will resonate with the recipient. Animals good, DVDs bad.
Zoological exotica have always been high on the list of high-status, high-profile gifts. Chinese emperors were often sent rare animals — with elephants, rhinos, bears and birds presented by regimes all over South-East Asia by those wishing to maintain or improve relations with the imperial regime. There was great excitement in the 15th century at the arrival of a giraffe from Africa, which was kept — like the other rare animals — in forbidden gardens in order to underline their status.
Gifting of animals has always been popular, though not always easy. A giraffe sent by the Fatimid Caliph in Cairo to the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople in the 11th century caused a sensation but also a great deal of debate about how this unusual animal should be cared for, and what to feed it. Similar excitement accompanied the dispatch of a giraffe, again from Egypt, to the King of France in the 1820s, which walked from Marseilles to Paris (alongside its favourite antelope) generating enormous excitement and huge crowds — just like the Bayeux Tapestry will do.
That was a much shorter journey than that made by Abul-Abbas, an elephant sent by the Muslim ruler of Baghdad Harun al-Rashid at the start of the 800s to the court of Charlemagne in response to a request for this magnificent animal, which would underline Charlemagne’s political reach and also his unrivalled status in Europe.
Gifting animals is less common these days. So too is the other diplomatic present par excellence — the eunuch. Eunuchs were highly prized as gifts in the early Middle Ages, especially Slavs (who became “better servants and more intelligent in all kinds of work” according to one Arabic source), or the “charzimasium” — a boy whose testicles and penis had been cut off — who were seen as “the most precious of things” in medieval Constantinople.
For those really keen on winning favour, quantity and quality could be equally important. One Dutch delegation that made for Lahore in the early 1700s to try to get its trading concessions renewed left nothing to chance, bringing Japanese laquerware, spices from the Dutch colonies, and the best that contemporary Europe could offer, such as cannon, telescopes, sextants and microscopes to impress the Mughal ruler.
Making friends has always been important, especially at times of international discord. In the late 1500s, when England faced unprecedented dangers from Catholic Europe, Queen Elizabeth sought to build ties with the Ottomans, reasoning that they both shared common enemies but hoping to establish trade links. An organ sent to the Sultan went down a treat (once it had been mended after falling apart in transit). The Sultan was so pleased that he offered the Queen’s ambassador the chance to pick any two concubines as wives from his harem as a treat.
Those days, too, are past — which makes it all the more important to think hard about what the best way to repay the loan of the Bayeux Tapestry will be. The easy response would be to offer a like-for-like loan back to France, such as the Rosetta Stone, or the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse. It would be much cleverer (and better diplomacy) to think hard not so much about what the French would most like — but least expect.
The best gift of all, of course, is a marriage alliance. The Byzantines used to receive so many requests for a marriage tie that they kept a stock answer to explain why this was out of the question. What a shame, then, that Macron did not offer the Bayeux Tapestry a few months ago. If he had, there might still have been time to get Prince Harry back into action for Queen and country. Maybe the Elysée should be asked who their preferred option would be if Britain made a prominent political figure available. We could even have another referendum so we could vote for who that might be. For the first time in my life, I would vote for Nigel Farage, especially now he’s single again. That might just put a spanner in the Bayeux Tapestry works. But perhaps it’s worth a go.