The Bayeux Tapestry: Defining an era

Chris Riley

Nothing defines the medieval world quite like the Canterbury Embroidery

I am of course talking about the Bayeux Tapestry, a magnificent 70-metre-long piece of wall art that contains 41 ships, 202 horses, only 3 women, 3 Kings of England and a staggering 93 penises that’s neither a tapestry nor, from Bayeux. But what about it makes it so special? When someone says ‘medieval’ the now world-famous Bayeux Tapestry is usually one of the first things that spring to mind with its glorious Norman Knights, the brave English Housecarls all within the beautifully decorated margins. The famous scenes showing the death of Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson swearing on the holy relics and ultimately, the Battle of Hastings and the fate of medieval England, still fascinate people almost 1000 years since it was made, remaining one of the most important and recognisable historical sources of the entire Middle Ages. There is a short and a long answer to this question with the short being, we simply don’t know. But with some explanation, we can begin to paint a probable picture. Although today, it is known as the Bayeux Tapestry and is housed in the Northern French town of Bayeux, it likely started life across the English Channel in Canterbury, home to some of the finest embroiderers of the medieval world. Although historians are still unsure as to exactly where, why and by whom the tapestry was constructed, it's fairly likely that Canterbury, renowned for its embroidery work in the 11th century, was the original home of the piece and we think this for several reasons. Out of all the powerful men who feature on the Tapestry, one seems somewhat out of place and may, in part, explain the tapestry’s construction location. Odo of Bayeux was only the half-brother of William I of England, yet he can be found front and centre throughout the 70-metre-long story. But, as his name suggests, Odo was Bishop of Bayeux, whilst also holding large swaths of land around Canterbury and the larger Kent area. The first recorded mention of the Tapestry is in Bayeux Cathedral in the late 15th century meaning there is a good chance that Odo commissioned the work, had it constructed in Canterbury before it was moved to the Cathedral at Bayeux likely in the 1070s, which would coincide with the consecration of Bayeux Cathedral and its most likely use as a celebratory piece. Naturally, we don’t know where the tapestry was for those four centuries between its construction and its first mention, but we do know it lived through quite a lot in the next few centuries. Famously, the Tapestry was seen as having little importance, so much so that by the late 18th century, during the French Revolution it was used to cover ammunition wagons to stop the fragile powder kegs from getting wet. The Tapestry somehow survived this ordeal before it was rolled up and placed in storage until decades later, in the 1940s, there was a failed attempt by the Nazis to steal the artefact, which may have led to its complete destruction. After all that, although very delicate, the Tapestry is still in relatively good condition.
The Bayeux Tapestry: Defining an era
Bayeux Tapestry - Scene 57: the death of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. SOURCE: Public Domain

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The Bayeux Tapestry: Defining an era

What does the tapestry show?

Although the Tapestry has become a useful and often cited historical source, it's probable that its primary function was that of art. Likely built to be hung up in a lord's great hall, the Bayeux Tapestry shows the Norman conquest of England, culminating with the Battle of Hastings, which saw Duke William of Normandy defeat King Harold Godwinson of England. But it is way more than that. Starting the story several years before the events of 1066, the Tapestry first shows Harold in Normandy on Campaign with William. It shows Harold sailing to Normandy, where he is captured and then freed by William before the two gallivanted their way around northern France, leading to one of the most famous and controversial scenes in the whole tapestry. In scene 23, Harold can be seen swearing on some kind of table that many believed to contain holy relics, whether Harold knew this or not has been up for debate ever since, but pro-Norman sources claim that Harold was swearing to uphold William’s claim to the English throne upon the death of Edward the Confessor. William and Edward were loosely related as Edward’s mother was Emma of Normandy and William’s great aunt, meaning when the confessor died without an heir, William did have a tenuous but legitimate claim to the throne. After the controversial swearing, the Tapestry shows Harold returning to England when King Edward dies (actually being buried a few scenes before he is declared dead) before Harold is given the throne and declared king. The next dozen scenes show William gathering ships, horses and all the equipment needed for an invasion, well before the actual invasion of England can be seen in scene 39, which is followed by scenes of feasting and the destruction of the countryside around Hastings with a particularly poignant scene showing one of the only three women in the whole Tapestry trying to protect her children from the invaders. Naturally, the bulk of the Tapestry focuses on the Battle of Hastings itself, where you can see the famous Norman Knights fighting against the English shield wall before Harold is finally killed in perhaps the most famous of all the scenes. Scene 57 shows several Englishmen, identifiable by their large moustaches, being killed with the famous words ‘HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST’, translating to: ‘here, King Harold is killed’. You would think it was clear who Harold was, and, for a long time, it was believed that the man under the word ‘HAROLD’ was the king, with the now famous arrow in the eye. But this has been all but debunked, as the arrow looks like a much later edition, potentially covering up a spear, meaning that the second man, under the words ‘IS KILLED’ being cut down by a man on horseback, is more likely to be the final Anglo-Saxon king of England. Regardless of which of the slain is Harold, this is where the story on the Tapestry ends, with many historians believing that a final section was either lost or never completed, which shows the coronation of William on Christmas Day 1066. Either way, the 58 scenes that make up the Bayeux Tapestry show the story of William’s triumph over the only other claimant to the throne of England. Or does it?
Ancestry UK

Key omissions

Although the Tapestry shows us in great detail, the run-up, some of the causes and the eventual Norman Conquest, it leaves out key parts of the story, with many of the most important people also conveniently left out. Firstly, there is no mention or depiction of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, fought just a few weeks before Hastings, which saw Harold Godwinson systematically destroy the army of Harald Hardrada, one of the most feared men of his age and yet another claimant to the throne of England. One reason this key battle may have been omitted is because of the heavy southern bias in the Tapestry. The battle took place near York, and although it was incredibly important in the story of William and his invasion, the fact that it was so far up north, meant it was simply not deemed worthy of mention. On the other hand, the more likely reason it wasn’t included is that it gives us two things William and the new Norman court of the 1070s didn’t want revealed. Firstly, it gives us another claimant in Hardrada, as well as showing Godwinson, the usurper who went back on his oath, defeating a large army before descending on Hastings to face William, potentially making William’s victory at Hastings seem less impressive. As well as the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and Hardrada, another claimant, arguably the one with the best blood claim is left out. Edgar Ætheling was the nephew of the late Edward the Confessor and although he grew up in Hungary and was only a teenager in 1066, Edgar was declared King after the City of London heard of Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings. Clearly, this didn’t last long, or we likely wouldn’t have the Bayeux Tapestry. But again, like with Stamford Bridge, we see another claimant removed from the story to make it seem as if it was simply Harold, the oath breaker against William, the rightful heir. Why is it important? Overall, the Bayeux Tapestry is both a magnificent piece of art and an important historical document, showing both all-out war and the very real human cost of it. From the knights and lavish feats to the burning buildings and the mother protecting her children, the Tapestry shows, in an easy-to-digest format, the horrors and the majesty of 11th-century Europe. The Tapestry also goes a long way to dismiss the ‘dark ages’ myth that hangs over this period, with the sheer size and quality of it completely shattering any ideas that medieval Europe was void of all learning and art. For me, the most incredible thing about the Tapestry is the fact that we still have it. Over 1000 years of mistreatment and even an attempted robbery couldn’t destroy the truly excellent work of art that is the Bayeux Tapestry. Unlike the dusty Latin primary written sources, the Tapestry gives us the story of the conquest in a strangely charming, but altogether enjoyable way, which allows a unique look back in time like no other. The Bayeux Tapestry can be visited in Bayeux but if you can’t get over to France, there is a remarkable copy in Reading, which is an excellent second option.
The Bayeux Tapestry: Defining an era
The Bayeux Tapestry: Defining an era

Chris Riley

Chris is a Sheffield based historian with a keen interest in medieval Queenship, the Crusades and the Hundred Years’ War. Chris is a keen writer and speaker who strives to make history both accessible and fun for all!
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