The Bayeux Tapestry
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
The Bayeux Tapestry is a magnificent piece of artwork that has attracted the attention of audiences for centuries, and it’s easy to see why. Not only does the Bayeux Tapestry depict an astonishing amount of Norman and Saxon history, its sheer size is magnificent to behold. At more than 70 metres (or 230 feet) long, this incredible artistic masterpiece would be an impressive production of today’s standards. However, the Bayeux Tapestry was produced centuries ago, and has managed, with modern preservation, to withstand the test of time.
What is the Bayeux Tapestry?
The Bayeux Tapestry is an impressive 230 feet long, but it is just 20 inches high, creating one very long thin piece that tells an incredible story.
The Bayeux Tapestry uses a number of characters and props to tell a dramatic story from one biased perspective.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the events leading up to and during the Battle of Hastings. The events are all told from a Norman point of view. The Bayeux Tapestry is a tribute to William the Conqueror and his successful invasion of England, which brought about the end of the Anglo-Saxon reign of England and started the claim of the crown by Norman leaders.
Who Made the Bayeux Tapestry, When Was It Made and How Was it Made?
The word ‘tapestry’ is actually a misrepresentation of what this magnificent artistic piece actually is. Rather than being a tapestry, the piece is actually embroidery. Coloured wool is embroidered on to eight long strips of unbleached linen. Each panel was sewn together to create one long piece of material; forming the background of the Bayeux Tapestry. The scenes and details were then sewn into these pieces. A number of colours are used for the detailing, including:
Light and dark green
Despite its magnificence and its ability to convey a very powerful story, ironically very little is known about the story behind the Bayeux Tapestry itself. There is much debate about who thought up the idea of the Bayeux Tapestry, who designed it, who produced it and where it was produced.
Although it is unclear who came up with the idea of the Bayeux Tapestry, it is thought that Bishop Odo is thought would have commissioned the piece. Bishop Odo was William the Conqueror’s half brother, and Odo features in the Bayeux Tapestry. As well as being William’s brother, the finished tapestry fits nicely inside the nave of the Bayeux Cathedral, suggesting that the Bayeux Tapestry was designed specifically for Odo and his cathedral. If this is the case, then Bishop Odo would have been responsible for approving the plans, designs and scenes created for the Bayeux Tapestry.
If Bishop Odo did commission the piece he would have wanted the people with the very best needlework skills. There was a legend that suggested Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, worked on the piece with her chamber of ladies, to honour the victories of her husband, although this legend is highly unlikely and probably nothing more than a romantic tale.
Despite being a Norman account of events, it is believed that due to the high standards of craftsmanship of the piece that the Bayeux Tapestry was made in England, possibly by highly skilled nuns who were experienced in the art.
Both the quality and the style of the needlework suggest that the piece was produced by workers in England. There are only two stitch patterns used in the Bayeux Tapestry and there are:
Laid / Couched Work
With this in mind, there have been two primary locations suggested as possible places where the Bayeux Tapestry could have been developed. These include:
Winchester - Winchester which was renowned for its high quality of needlework. Winchester was also an important city during the Norman invasion, as it was home to both a new royal residence and the royal treasury.
Canterbury – Canterbury is famous for its cathedral, but at the time it was also famous for a specialist school of tapestry which used techniques and styles similar to those found in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Based on William’s and Odo’s movements, and based on historical records, most historians believe that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned in the autumn of 1067. It is believed to have taken nearly a decade to complete the piece, and the Bayeux Tapestry was first publicly displayed in the Bayeux Cathedral in the summer of 1077.
There is no doubt that the unveiling of the Bayeux Tapestry would have created quite a stir in the local population. Following it’s unveiling, the Bayeux Tapestry continued to impress and inspire both the French and the English, and in the late 19th century Elizabeth and Thomas Wardle, with the aid of more than 30 women, set to work producing an almost exact replica of the Bayeux Tapestry that would be kept in England. It took the team just over a year to complete the task. The only alteration that they made was the addition of their names on the panels that they had worked on.
Who and What can be Seen in the Bayeux Tapestry?
The Bayeux Tapestry includes an astonishing number of people, animals and inscriptions, however, the focus of the story are three kings of England. These are:
Edward the Confessor – 1042 – 1066
Harold – 1066
William the Conqueror – 1066 – 1087
However, there are a number of additional elements in the Bayeux Tapestry, including:
More than 600 people (only 3 of which are women)
Approximately 200 horses and 50 dogs
More than 500 birds, animals and mythical creatures
Approximately 40 ships and a similar number of buildings
Nearly 50 trees
A total of 57 Latin inscriptions comprised on nearly 2000 letters
Scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry details the relationship between he Anglo-Saxons and the Normans and depicts the well known Battle of Hastings.
Harold’s Journey to Normandy
The Bayeux Tapestry starts in 1064, with King Edward and his brother in law Henry holding discussions in the Royal Palace of Westminster. Harold, wielding a hawk, leaves the palace with his followers and his hunting dogs and makes his way to the family estate in Bosham, Sussex. Harold and a companion enter a church together at Bosham to pray for a safe journey across the sea. They travelling party enjoy a fest together, and the next day Harold sets sail, still carrying the hawk. The ship travels across the English Channel and a lookout spots Ponthieu, north of Normandy. Upon his arrival Harold is captured by Count Guy.
Harold the Prisoner
As a prisoner, Harold is treated with respect. After all, he is the brother in law of King Edward. Count Guy rides with Harold to Beaurain, where Guy takes his throne to talk with Harold. News reaches William the Duke of Normandy that Guy has captured Harold, and he sends messengers to order Guy to bring Harold to him. Guy obeys this order. The two men greeting William both have hawks.
Harold is released from Guy’s custody, and Harold and William ride together accompanied by soldiers to William’s palace at Rouen. William suddenly has a hawk of his own in this part of the tapestry, and it’s at this point in the tapestry that an event is acknowledged, which involves an unnamed lady and a naked man, but very little is known why this event was included or to what it refers to.
Harold and William – Brothers in Arms
Fighting breaks out, and Harold is seen accompanying William en-route to fight Duke Conan of Brittany. The Tapestry depicts the duo passing Mont St. Michael, which lies on the border between Normandy and Brittany. In order to reach Brittany Harold, William and the troops must first cross the river, which they do so, holding their shields above their heads. Harold is then depicted as rescuing soldiers two at a time from the clutches of quicksand.
The Normans launch their attack on Brittany, and Duke Conan escapes. The Normans give chase, passing Rennes, the capital of Brittany as they do so. They catch up with Duke Conan at Dinan, and after more fighting Conan surrenders to the Norman forces, and in doing so he hands the keys of Dinan to William. William, pleased with his victory, rewards Harold with the gift of arms. This exchange between the French Duke and the English Earl would have been important from the Norman perspective.
Harold’s Oath, The Return Home and King Edward’s Death
With the battle over, Harold and William are shown returning to Bayeux in Normandy. It’s at Bayeux that Harold is depicted as swearing an oath on holy relics. It is believed that this is an attempt for the Normans to reaffirm that Harold had sworn his support to William, which had been reinforced given their most recent shared victory. Whatever was said and promised, Harold is finally released and allowed to return back to England. Harold arrives home and is shown to be sharing discussions with a rather ill looking King Edward. Despite his appearance in the Bayeux Tapestry it is believed that Edward was in good health when Harold returned from France.
The next portion of the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the last few days of King Edward’s life. He is seen one moment lying in bed, talking with his followers. The next, his coffin is being carried towards Westminster Abbey. Two noblemen can be seen offering Harold the crown and an axe, both of which were symbols of authority and royalty. Harold appears to be accepting the items and the responsibility.
The Coronation and the Impending Invasion
The next scene is a very superstitious one. Harold can be seen taking the throne on the same day as Edward’s funeral. During the celebrations Haley’s Comet passes, frightening the people as they think it is a bad omen. News of Edward’s death and Harold’s coronation is taken across the ocean and straight to William. William appears to be furious and makes the decision to invade England and claim what he feels is his to take. William makes plans to go to war, with his half brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, sitting at his side.
The Bayeux Tapestry then shows William’s men preparing for the invasion. Woodmen can be seen felling trees, while shipmakers use the planks to build big boats. Supplies and weaponry are loaded on to the shop, in preparation of the impending invasion.
Arriving in England
William is seen leading his men out to sea in their ships, and they look well supplied. William and his men land at Pevensey and take steps to establish a presence in England. A full feast is prepared for William and his nobles and Odo can be seen once again with his half brother. A castle is built to reinforce the Normans position in England.
The Battle of Hastings
William is then depicted dressed in full armour ready to mount his horse. Once mounted, he rides off with his men to war. The Bayeux Tapestry suddenly changes, and looks at the event from the English perspective. A look out warns Harold that the Normans are approaching. Just as quickly again, the Bayeux Tapestry goes back to the perspective of the Normans and a confident William can be seen giving an encouraging speech to his men.
The Normans can be seen charging, and the Battle of Hastings has formerly begun. The English, on foot, are shown to be using the shield-wall tactic that proved successful in the early part of the battle. Normans attack from two sides, and the bodies mount up. Harold’s two brothers are slain in the next scene. Suddenly William’s brother in law Bishop Odo appears, brandishing a club rather than a sword. William is depicted as being knocked from off of his horse, and to show that he still lives on William can be seen as taking his helmet off. This spurs on his soldiers, encouraging them to fight on. King Harold is shown to be killed not once but twice, firstly with a Norman soldier removing an arrow from his eye, and then Harold is depicted again, only this time he is being struck by a Norman knight.
With Harold dead, the Normans chase away the remaining English soldiers. The final scene of the tapestry has been lost, although it is believed to have shown William in his throne being crowned the King of England. This would complement the scene at the start of the Bayeux Tapestry which shows Edward looking well and healthy sat in his throne.