So, the Bayeux Tapestry is to be displayed in this country for the first time? Well I for one am delighted to hear this. There’s a personal reason, for it’s the Bayeux Tapestry that first got me interested in history when I went on a family holiday in Normandy in 1987 (we visited Bayeux, among other places, and a few months later there was a school trip down to Kent and Sussex which included a visit to Battle Abbey – and that, as they say, was that).
The most famous depiction of the events of 1066 – the most famous date in English history, for that was a year of three Kings and two invasions – the Bayeux Tapestry was probably made in the 1070s under the orders of Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. It is actually an embroidered cloth rather than a tapestry (although ‘Bayeux Embroidered Cloth’ just sounds wrong) and measures 230 feet by 20 inches. An alternative theory is that it was made at the orders of (or even by) William’s wife, Queen Matilda, which is why it’s sometimes known in French as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. The Odo theory is more likely, though, and not just because the man himself makes an appearance. He is seen fighting at the battle of Hastings, albeit armed with a club rather than a sword (perhaps symbolic of his clerical status, although it’s worth noting that William himself is shown carrying a club into battle too, so maybe it was a sign of seniority).
Odo was the Bishop of Bayeux, and after the Conquest he also became the Earl of Kent which supports the theory that the Tapestry was actually made in England. The earliest known reference to the Tapestry dates back to 1476, when it was mentioned in an inventory of Bayeux Cathedral which it had probably been made to adorn. Bayeux was where William made Harold promise that he would support his (William’s) claim to the English throne, although the cathedral itself wasn’t consecrated until 1077.
Although obviously intended to tell the story of the Norman Conquest from the Normans’ perspective – to the extend that King Harold’s victory over the King of Norway at Stamford Bridge and subsequent twelve-day march from York to Sussex in order to fight William doesn’t get a look-in – it’s not all one-sided propaganda. William did not recognise Harold as the rightful King of England after Edward the Confessor’s death in early 1066 (indeed, as far as he was concerned Harold had promised to support him), but Harold is nevertheless shown on the Tapestry with the regalia of kingship and explicitly named as England’s King (the text reads Harold Rex Anglorum – Harold, King of the English – the first King of England to be crowned at Westminster Abbey, in fact). It’s a funny way of depicting someone who, according to the brother of the man who had the Tapestry made, had no right to be King. Maybe the English seamstresses who stitched the Tapestry were being a bit subversive.
In Harold’s death scene, the famous arrow-in-the-eye could well be more propaganda than fact, because perjurers were commonly punished in Medieval times by way of having weapons poked through their eyes. William’s claim to the throne would be upheld by depicting Harold as an oath-breaker, which this is evidently an attempt at doing (whether Harold was coerced into promising support for William is, of course, another matter although it does seem likely). Other historical sources state that the King was hacked to death by some Norman knights, and indeed the very next scene shows a man, who may well also be Harold, being slain by way of a sword.
There is also a depiction of some Norman brutality towards the English – they’re shown as burning down someone’s house, although given the brutal and ruthless way in which William would later deal with any English resistance to his rule, perhaps that is to be expected.
The Tapestry is also unfinished, or rather incomplete – for the end is missing. When it was first made, it would doubtless have brought the story of the Norman Conquest to a conclusion by showing the (remaining) English nobles surrendering to William at Berkhamstead, and William’s subsequent coronation on Christmas Day, 1066, although for as long as people have been studying the Tapestry that part has not been there. There have been attempts in modern times to make the final part, though, as witness the 2013 effort by over 400 people on Alderney. As it is, the last (remaining) scene on the Tapestry shows the English fleeing from the battlefield.
The Tapestry did not become widely known until the eighteenth century. After the 1476 inventory, the next reference we have to the Tapestry is in 1724. The first detailed account of it in English was written in the 1730s but not published until the 1760s, although William Stukeley, the antiquarian who has cropped up on this blog before in relation to Avebury, mentioned it in a 1743 book of his. During the French Revolution it narrowly avoided being used as covering for wagons, and after Napoleon Bonaparte came to power it was displayed in Paris for the purposes of propaganda – this was, after all, a depiction of a successful invasion of England. It remained in Paris, and by the Second World War it was on display in the Louvre – the SS tried to have it shipped to Berlin when the liberation was imminent, but fortunately they were not successful. After the war, it was moved back to Bayeux. It’s been there, in its own museum near the cathedral, ever since. Previous attempts to have the Tapestry moved to England on a temporary basis – for the Coronation in 1953, and later for the 900th anniversary of the battle of Hastings in 1966 – have not been unsuccessful, and tests will need to be done on it to make sure that it can be safely moved. The question of where it will be displayed is also one that will need to be addressed.
Getting back to the tapestry itself, some of the detail is fascinating – we see people hunting and ploughing the fields while the political/military stuff is going on above them, and Westminster Abbey makes an appearance, as God blesses it (yes, He’s there too) in time for the funeral of Edward the Confessor, the man who built it. This, weirdly, is shown before Edward’s death scene.
Halley’s Comet appears in the sky.
Then there are the oddities which are part of what makes the Bayeux Tapestry such a fascinating piece or artwork. Why, for example, is Edward the Confessor shown dying after his funeral? And, on a more trivial matter, are the invading Normans really eating kebabs? It looks like they are.
And, of course, what’s with the naked people in the, ahem, bottom section? There’s a man doing what appears to be a carpentry job in the buff, while his friend looks like he’s doing some exercises!