The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the world’s most curious art objects and historical records. It’s probably the most detailed and most complete existing account of the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066, and also gives an overview of life in England and France during the eleventh century. Although a few minor historical errors have been discovered in its content, it is extremely accurate as far as can be told, and therefore is generally accepted by historians.
This work of art has always been referred to as a tapestry, despite the fact that it is not really one at all. Tapestry is cloth made on a loom, with the design woven in.
|Photo—Norman Cavalry in tapestry: By Myrabella - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25450703
However, the Bayeux Tapestry is actually embroidery. On long strips of bleached linen, the story was stitched using the method known as crewel embroidery, in which woolen thread or yarn is used instead of floss.
The pictures were probably drawn lightly on the linen first. It was then given to teams of craftsmen (or women) who did the actual embroidery. The work is made of eight long strips of linen, which were probably worked separately and sewn together after the embroidery was completed. Done in eight bright colors, the finished tapestry is 230 feet long by 20 inches wide. It depicts fifty scenes.
The theme of the piece is Harold’s downfall and William the Conqueror’s subjection of England. The most important and detailed scenes are Harold’s sacred oath to support William in succession to the throne of England, the death and burial of Edward the Confessor, Harold’s coronation, the preparation of William’s invasion fleet, and the vast, finely detailed battle scenes with which the tapestry ends.
Captions in Latin help to explain some of the scenes and to identify some of the more important characters.
|This scene shows Harold taking his oath on relics to William the Conqueror. Public domain photo.
For many years, the tapestry’s origin was shrouded in legend and romanticism. Many believed it was created by William’s wife Matilda and her ladies while their husbands were off conquering England. As her personal gift to her husband, Matilda had a special ship built and outfitted to carry William across the English Channel. This ship was called the Mora. It is depicted in the tapestry as the finest in the fleet of seven hundred or more vessels that transported the soldiers, armor, supplies, and horses to England.
After the Conquest, Matilda became Queen of England. Although it is now almost certain that she had nothing to do with the making of the tapestry, many people continue to believe the legend. In France, it is still referred to as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde, or “Queen Matilda’s Tapestry.”
The prevalent belief today is that Bishop Odo, half-brother of William, ordered the tapestry made for display in his new cathedral at Bayeux, a small town near the sea in Normandy. Nothing is known about the designer, except that he or she was highly gifted and skilled and probably a Norman, since the entire story is told from the Norman point of view, with Harold’s breach of his sacred oath emphasized. Also, a great deal of Nordic detail and mythology is seen throughout the tapestry.
Strangely enough, most historians now believe the tapestry was constructed by English needle workers at the School of Embroidery at Canterbury, in Kent. One reason for this is that Bishop Odo was made Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings. The promise of lands for all was the main incentive used by William in raising his army.
The tapestry was completed after the Norman Conquest, probably between 1070 and 1080. Much of the truth about the events portrayed may have been lost, since the work was probably based on the reports, rumors, and gossip that followed the invasion.
|This portion of the tapestry portrays Harold as he arrives to inform William that he is the successor to King Edward. Public Domain.
After its completion, the tapestry was taken to Bayeux, where it was hung around the nave of Bishop Odo’s new cathedral, which was consecrated in 1077. There, all could see Harold’s sin and downfall, followed by the glorious triumph of the Normans. A treasured item at Bayeux Cathedral, the tapestry was displayed mainly on feast days and holidays. For hundreds of years, it was reverently cared for and cherished there, with little notice taken of it by the outside world.
During the French Revolution, it received some damage, but was saved from destruction. It was carefully and meticulously restored. Later it was exhibited in Paris, and after that it was moved many times and incurred damages which again had to be repaired. It is now permanently on display at the former Palace of the Bishops of Bayeux, in a special hall.
Bishop Odo himself is depicted a number of times in the tapestry. It is assumed that, since he commissioned the work, it was considered polite to mention him as often as possible.
Susan Page Davis is the author of more than seventy published novels. A Maine native, she lived for a while in Oregon and now lives in western Kentucky. Visit her website at: www.susanpagedavis.com , where you can sign up for her occasional newsletter, enter a monthly drawing for free books, and read a short story on her romance page.