Nearly 1,000 Years Old, the Bayeux Tapestry is An Epic Tale and Medieval Masterpiece
The ancient Bayeux Tapestry, famous for its epic representation of medieval history, is a long, vividly embroidered cloth stretching hundreds of feet. Through exciting imagery it retells the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, including the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The artifact is almost 1,000 years old, yet the fabric remains sturdy and the exquisite threads have retained their rich color and vibrancy. However, the origins of the renowned tapestry remain a mystery, and through strange images it seems to communicate hidden messages to the viewer.
The Making of a Medieval Masterpiece
Believed to have been commissioned in the 1070s by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother to William the Conqueror, the piece relates the Norman conquest of England from the winner’s perspective and so above all, it is viewed as a Norman account of events.
Nothing is known for certain about the tapestry’s origins. There are several theories about who commissioned the work beyond Bishop Odo, such as contemporary abbots or even Edith of Wessex, wife of Edward the Confessor and sister of Harold II. The Latin captions on the linen tapestry match pieces originating in England at the time, and the type of vegetable dyes used in the cotton embroidery are the same as others woven there.
The stitching is of highest quality, indicating it might have been the skilled Anglo-Saxons, famous across Europe for their needlework, who were behind the exquisite and expensive art. This adds to the evidence that it may have been crafted in England, rather than France.
As the distinctive work is embroidered it is not technically a tapestry, which is woven.
Ultimately, the name of whoever created the piece has been lost to the ages, and while the tapestry was probably intended to be displayed in a church, it seemingly disappeared for 400 years. The first written mention of the Bayeux Tapestry came in 1476 when the Bayeux cathedral treasury recorded the existence of “a very long and narrow hanging on which are embroidered figures and inscriptions comprising a representation of the conquest of England.”
According to the conservator of the tapestry, Sylvette Lemagnen, it “is one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque ... Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous ... Its exceptional length, the harmony and freshness of its colors, its exquisite workmanship, and the genius of its guiding spirit combine to make it endlessly fascinating.”
Images Brought History to Life
The tale comes to life through the hundreds of images divided into scenes which each depict a certain historical event, although not all panels were made at the same place or time, as evidenced by differing borders and crafting techniques. As the tapestry was sewn, additional segments of linen were stitched to the end, until all significant events were included.
The tapestry features around fifty scenes including images and Latin tituli—embroidered Medieval Latin captioning the scenes. The viewer is expected to view the story by starting with the primary scene, and moving right until the last panel. The public at the time was predominantly illiterate, and this was designed so as to convey the story of the victory of William the Conqueror to the general population.
In all, 626 human figures (3 women), 190 horses, 35 dogs, 506 birds and other animals, 33 buildings, 37 ships and 37 trees, as well as 57 Latin inscriptions are included in the tapestry.
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The Norman Conquest of England
In the 11 th century, an army of Norman, French and Breton soldiers under Duke William II of Normandy invaded and occupied England. The conflict between Duke William of Normandy and Harold Godwinson to see who would become king of England played out in bloody battles. Harold, having been named successor on Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor’s deathbed, had taken the throne in 1066, but was seen as a pretender, or “pseudo-king” by the Normans due to complicated politics and shifting alliances. War raged between the men and their armies until a decisive victory by William at the renowned Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. William the Conqueror was thus crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey shortly thereafter.
The Battle of Hastings, fought between the Anglo Saxons and the Normans on British soil ( Wikimedia Commons )
The Bayeux Tapestry’s tale begins in 1064, as a dying King Edward names William the successor (again, this is said to be due to Norman interpretation). The tapestry next depicts Harold traveling to William and swearing an oath of allegiance to him, and in another panel Edward dies.
Bayeux Tapestry Scene 1 shows King Edward. ( Public Domain )
Here, Harold, Duke of the English (with hunting raptor), and his knights ride to Bosham Church. (Public Domain)
A significant scene depicts a major moment—an anomalous and bright star appears in the sky striking fear into the hearts of onlookers and signaling a bad omen. This was the medieval marking of the week-long passing of Halley’s Comet, but it was interpreted as god’s wrath at Harold for breaking his oath to William and taking the throne.
The text reads "These (people) are looking in wonder at the star" (Halley's Comet). ( Public Domain )
The Mysterious Woman on the Bayeux Tapestry
Many strange and unexplained images can be found hidden within the fields of the main images of the Bayeux Tapestry.
In one instance, a crouched naked man can be seen near the bottom of a panel, and above him one of the only three women in the tapestry is found. She has been dubbed the “Mysterious Woman”, but her name has been included on the cloth: “Ælfgyva”, a common Anglo-Saxon name of the Middle Ages. She stands between two pillars and a cleric reaches to touch her face. Historians can only guess at the meaning of the scene, and why it might have been included. Some researchers believe it may be related to a controversial medieval sex scandal, now long forgotten.
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Ælfgyva and the Cleric. ( Public Domain )
The Battle of Hastings
The final panels of the tapestry recount the bloody battle of Hastings in 1066. The English fight on foot with shields, and the Normans are mounted.
The Battle of Hastings as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. ( Public Domain )
All is carnage as troops are slaughtered and dismembered, and bodies litter the field. Early accounts say Harold was shot in the eye with an arrow, but it’s still debated whether that is depicted clearly in the tapestry. Nevertheless, he died on the battlefield.
The death of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. Illustration, 1864. ( Public Domain )
The Battle of Hastings was won, but the final scene of the tapestry was lost. The contents of the last panel may never be known as it disappeared sometime during the last 900 years, but experts guess it displayed the triumphant coronation of the Conqueror.
Leaving a Mark 1,000 Years Later
The original tapestry is now exhibited at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Normandy, France. However in July 2018, BBC News reported that an Anglo-French agreement has been reached for the Bayeux Tapestry to return to British soil…at least on loan. Said loan is believed to take place in 2022 and will allow the artifact to be on display at an unknown set of locations. It also includes a pact between the two countries to work together to produce a full English translation of the writing on the tapestry.
Speaking on the agreement, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock said : "The Bayeux Tapestry is a world treasure and a symbol of the deep ties between Britain and France. We are incredibly excited about the potential of the loan, to enhance further the bonds that tie us to our neighbours across the water."
Several reproductions have also been made, including one full-sized and accurate replica during the Victorian era which is now housed at Reading Museum in England. Due to sensibilities at the time, some of the more ‘alarming’ images were covered, such as the naked man.
Other embroidered replicas were made over the last century in Canada, United States, and Denmark. A metal mosaic version comprised of 1.5 million tiny pieces of spring steel was installed in New Zealand. The mosaic was finished in 1999, taking approximately 20 years to complete.
Sections of the 1066 Medieval Mosaic (metal re-creation) in Geraldine, New Zealand. ( Public Domain )
The tale told by the unique and captivating Bayeux Tapestry is a sight to behold. The expressive scenes depict the turmoil, ambitions, brutality and victory of the Norman Conquest over England. For all of its historical slant, it remains one of the greatest historical records and truest treasures of the Middle Ages in Britain.
The entirety of the Bayeux Tapestry can be seen online here .
Featured image: A segment of the exquisite Bayeux Tapestry. In this scene Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (with raised club), half-brother to William the Great, rallies the troops in the Battle of Hastings in 1066. ( Public Domain )
By Liz Leafloor
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Sylvette Lemagnen, Preface, page 9; Musset, Lucien; Rex, Richard (translator); (1 November 2005) . La Tapisserie de Bayeux: œuvre d'art et document historique [The Bayeux Tapestry] (annotated edition) (First ed.). Woodbridge, United Kingdom: Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 272.
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