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The Bayeux Tapestry

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The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidery created in the central middle ages visualising many of the key events in the Norman Conquest of England, as seen through the eyes of the victorious Normans. It was not unique, but is remarkable for the condition it has survived in, and the scale of the events it depicts.

Nature of the 'Tapestry'

The complete tapestry is seventy metres long and just 49.5 cm high, and has browned slightly due to aging. It was created with woollen threads, and must have taken hundreds of hours to make. The surviving parts were made in nine sections, and the gap between the first and second has an error where they don’t match up properly; this was not repeated later on. The sewing was done by a team, or teams, of crafts people, and many characteristics can be seen to identify which team did which part.

There are a total of seventy scenes, beginning with Harold Godwineson (later Harold II) going to France in 1064, and ending with William of Normandy’s victory at the battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s generally believed the Tapestry originally continued with the rest of William’s actions when conquering England, but this is lost. As well as the main story, there are borders along the top and bottom filled with animals, fables, local life and sections related to the Conquest. Due to restorations over the centuries, there are debates over the date of certain additions. What is generally accepted is that the Tapestry was finished by no later than 1100 and created when events were still fresh.

The scenes largely flow into each other, with characters pointing to the next events, or turning their feet towards them. When there is a narrative break, buildings and trees divide the scene. Some of the events aren’t in chronological order, and narrative tricks are played. For instance, agents of Duke William are shown negotiating for Harold’s release before the Tapestry shows messengers telling William that Harold was captured. In addition, the captions appear to have been added near the end of the construction, as they are sometimes awkwardly arranged around the images.

Propaganda

The Tapestry is an important source for historians of the Conquest and the relevant military history, but it has to be interpreted correctly. For a start, it is propaganda, and historians have to decide what it is meant to be telling us before they can unpick this. But there is also much that is unclear, whether because of knowledge the makers assumed we would have but didn’t, or deliberate intent, and these can cause many pitfalls for the viewer. For instance, at one point a woman is mentioned along with Harold and William, but there is no consensus on who she really is, or what she is shown doing. However, war is shown in true, brutal detail.

Harold dominates, which might be considered odd as most Norman sources focus on William and his victory. However, it’s been argued that the Tapestry was made to highlight the signs and dangers of oath breaking, and this is why much of the early section focuses on Harold giving an oath to William, so the consequences – Hastings and Harold’s death – are the key message. It may also be that the Tapestry was intended to buttress William’s claim to the English throne.

Odo as Patron?

Nobody is certain who created the Tapestry. The first reference we have to it is in 1476, when it was displayed annually in Bayeux Cathedral. The Frenchman who bought the Tapestry to international attention in the eighteenth century cited a local tradition that William I’s wife Matilda had commissioned it, but there is little evidence for this.

One favourite patron is now Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William. Odo is actually depicted in the tapestry, far more than in the written sources, and while very few of the people in the Tapestry are explicitly named, several obscure people you’d expect to be left anonymous, but who knew Odo, are named.

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