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Bayeux Tapestry


Bayeux Tapestry

A segment of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Odo, Bishop of Bayeux rallying Duke William's troops during the Battle of Hastings in 1066

The Bayeux Tapestry (French: Tapisserie de Bayeux, IPA: , Norman: La telle du conquest) is an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long and 50 centimetres (20 in) wide, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

According to Sylvette Lemagnen, conservator of the tapestry,

The Bayeux tapestry 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.[1]

The tapestry consists of some fifty scenes with Latin tituli, embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns. It is likely that it was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half-brother, and made in England—not Bayeux—in the 1070s. In 1729 the hanging was rediscovered by scholars at a time when it was being displayed annually in Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry is now exhibited at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France ().

The designs on the Bayeux Tapestry are embroidered rather than woven, so that it is not technically a tapestry. Nevertheless, it is always referred to as such.


  • Origins 1
  • Construction, design and technique 2
  • Background to the events depicted 3
  • Events depicted in the tapestry 4
  • Latin text 5
  • History of the tapestry 6
  • Critical reception 7
  • Mysteries 8
  • Reliability 9
  • Artistic context 10
  • Replicas & continuations 11
  • In popular culture 12
  • See also 13
  • Notes 14
  • References 15
  • Further reading 16
  • External links 17


The earliest known written reference to the tapestry is a 1476 inventory of Bayeux Cathedral,[2] but its origins have been the subject of much speculation and controversy.

French legend maintained the tapestry was commissioned and created by Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror's wife, and her ladies-in-waiting. Indeed, in France it is occasionally known as "La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde" (Tapestry of Queen Matilda). However, scholarly analysis[3] in the 20th century concluded it was probably commissioned by William's half-brother, Bishop Odo, who, after the Conquest, became Earl of Kent and, when William was absent in Normandy, regent of England.

Bishop Odo of Bayeux

The reasons for the Odo commission theory include: 1) three of the bishop's followers mentioned in the Domesday Book appear on the tapestry; 2) it was found in Bayeux Cathedral, built by Odo; and 3) it may have been commissioned at the same time as the cathedral's construction in the 1070s, possibly completed by 1077 in time for display on the cathedral's dedication.

Assuming Odo commissioned the tapestry, it was probably designed and constructed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists (Odo's main power base being by then in Kent); the Latin text contains hints of Anglo-Saxon; other embroideries originate from England at this time; and the vegetable dyes can be found in cloth traditionally woven there.[4][5][6] The actual physical work of stitching was most likely undertaken by skilled seamsters. Anglo-Saxon needlework, or Opus Anglicanum, was famous across Europe.

Alternative theories exist. Carola Hicks has suggested it could possibly have been commissioned by

  • Bayeux Tapestry - Bayeax Museum
  • High quality panoramic image of Bayeux Tapestry (Bibliotheca Augustana)
  • A Guide to the Bayeux Tapestry - Latin-English translation
  • The Bayeux Tapestry - collection of videos, articles and bibliography
  • Zoom-able Bayeux Tapestry - Interactive, scene by scene of the tapestry

External links

  • Bernstein, David J. "The Mystery of Bayeux Tapestry" Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986. ISBN 0-297-78928-7
  • Bloch, Howard. A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry. Random House, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4000-6549-3
  • Brown, Shirley Ann (1988). The Bayeux Tapestry: History and Bibliography. Woodbridge: Boydell.  
  • Burt, Richard, "Loose Threads: Weaving Around Women in the Bayeux Tapestry and Cinema", in Medieval Film, ed. Anke Bernau and Bettina Bildhauer (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007).
  • Foys, Martin K. Bayeux Tapestry Digital Edition. Individual licence ed; CD-ROM, 2003. ISBN 978-0-9539610-4-7
  • Foys, Martin K., Overbey, Karen Eileen Overbey and Terkla, Dan (eds.) The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations, Boydell and Brewer, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84383-470-0.
  • Hicks, Carola (2006). The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece. London: Chatto & Windus.  
  • Jones, Chas. "The Yorkshire Preface to the Bayeux Tapestry" The Events of September 1066 - Depicted In a Community Tapestry, Writers Print Shop, first edition (2 October 2005). ISBN 978-1-904623-37-3
  • Rud, Mogens, "The Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings 1066", Christian Eilers Publishers, Copenhagen 1992; contains full colour photographs and explanatory text
  • Werckmeister, Otto Karl. "The Political Ideology of the Bayeux Tapestry." Studi Medievali, 3rd Series 17, no. 2 (1976): 535–595.
  • Wilson, David McKenzie (Ed.). The Bayeux Tapestry: the Complete Tapestry in Color, Rev. ed. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004. ISBN 978-0-500-25122-5. ISBN 0-394-54793-4 (1985 ed.). LC NK3049.
  • Wissolik, Richard David. "Duke William's Messengers: An Insoluble, Reverse-Order Scene of the Bayeux Tapestry." Medium Ævum. L (1982), 102–107.
  • Wissolik, Richard David. "The Monk Eadmer as Historian of the Norman Succession: Korner and Freeman Examined." American Benedictine Review. (March 1979), 32-42.
  • Wissolik, Richard David. "The Saxon Statement: Code in the Bayeux Tapestry." Annuale Mediævale. 19 (September 1979), 69–97.
  • Wissolik, Richard David. The Bayeux Tapestry. A Critical Annotated Bibliography with Cross References and Summary Outlines of Scholarship, 1729–1988. Greensburg: Eadmer Press, 1989.

Further reading

  1. ^ Sylvette Lemagnen, Preface, page 9; Musset, Lucien; Rex, Richard (translator); (1 November 2005) [1989]. 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.  
  2. ^ Fowke, Frank Rede: The Bayeux Tapestry – A History and Description, London: G. Bell & sons, 1913.
  3. ^ Sir Frank Stenton (ed) et al, The Bayeux Tapestry. A comprehensive survey London: Phaidon, 1957 revised 1965.
  4. ^ UNESCO World Heritage nomination form, in English and French. Word document. Published 09-05-2006.
  5. ^ a b c Wilson, David M.: The Bayeux Tapestry, Thames and Hudson, 1985, p. 201–227
  6. ^ a b Coatsworth, Elizabeth: "Stitches in Time: Establishing a History of Anglo-Saxon Embroidery", in Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, editors, Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volume 1, Woodbridge, 2005, p. 1–27.
  7. ^ "New Contender for The Bayeux Tapestry?", from the BBC, May 22, 2006. The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece, by Carola Hicks (2006). ISBN 0-7011-7463-3
  8. ^ Clarke, Howard B. (2013). "The Identity of the Designer of the Bayeux Tapestry". Anglo-Norman Studies 35. 
  9. ^ "Designer of the Bayeux Tapestry identified". Retrieved 30 October 2013. 
  10. ^ See Grape, Wolfgang, The Bayeux Tapestry: Monument to a Norman Triumph, Prestel Publishing, 3791313657
  11. ^ "Oxford Bibliographies Online - Author (Contributor: Elizabeth Coatsworth)". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 4 August 2013. 
  12. ^ Coatsworth, "Stitches in Time: Establishing a History of Anglo-Saxon Embroidery", p. 26.
  13. ^ Beech, George: Was the Bayeux Tapestry Made in France?: The Case for St. Florent of Saumur. (The New Middle Ages), New York, Palgrave Macmillan 1995; reviewed in Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, editors, Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volume 2, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK, and Rochester, New York, the Boydell Press, 2006, ISBN 1-84383-203-8
  14. ^ Bridgeford, Andrew, 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry, Walker & Company, 2005. ISBN 1-84115-040-1
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab Hicks, Carola (2006). The Bayeux Tapestry. The Life Story of a Masterpiece. Chatto and Windus.  
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa Musset, Lucien (2005). The Bayeux Tapestry. Boydell Press.  
  17. ^ William of Poitiers: Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum, c.1071
  18. ^ a b c d e f g Bertrand, Simone (1965). "The History of the Tapestry". In Frank Stenton. The Bayeux Tapestry. Phaedon Press. 
  19. ^ Brown 1988, p. 47.
  20. ^ Brown 1988, p. 48.
  21. ^ Brown 1988, p. 153.
  22. ^ Foys, Martin (2009). Pulling the Arrow Out: The Legend of Harold's Death and the Bayeux Tapestry. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer. pp. 158–175.  
  23. ^ Bates, David (2004). "William I". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.   (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  24. ^ William of Poitiers: Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum, c.1071. Orderic Vitalis Historia Ecclesiastica, c.1123-1131.
  25. ^ Florence of Worcester / John of Worcester Chronicon ex Chronicis completed c.1140.
  26. ^ Gibbs-Smith, Charles (1965). "Notes on the Plates". In Frank Stenton. The Bayeux Tapestry. Phaedon Press. 
  27. ^ Cowdrey, H. E. J. (2004). "Stigand (d. 1072)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press.   (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  28. ^ Wingfield Digby, George (1965). "Technique and Production". In Frank Stenton. The Bayeux Tapestry. Phaedon Press. 
  29. ^ "Britain's Bayeux Tapestry at the Museum of Reading". Archived from the original on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  30. ^ "Ray Dugan's Bayeux Tapestry". Retrieved 2012-04-30. 
  31. ^ "Bayeux Tapestry, topic of seminar". 2001-03-15. Retrieved 2012-04-30. 
  32. ^ "Vikingerne kommer!" [The Vikings Are Coming!] (in Danish). Kristeligt Dagblad. 30 November 2005. 
  33. ^ Linton, Michael. "The Medieval Mosaic The Recreation of the Bayeux Tapestry, as a 34 metre Medieval Mosaic Masterpiece.". Archived from the original on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  34. ^ "A Medieval Mosaic (Medieval Mosaic)". 1066. Retrieved 2014-02-07. 
  35. ^ "Berkhamsted Castle". Berkhamsted Local History Society. Retrieved 9 February 2013. 
  36. ^ "Invasion of England, Submission to William". Castle Panels. Berkhamsted Castle. Retrieved 9 February 2013.  (discussed in "Castle Panels". 2014. Retrieved 11 February 2014. )
  37. ^ Messant, Jan (1999). Bayeux Tapestry Embroiderers' Story. Thirsk, UK: Madeira Threads (UK) Ltd. p. 112.  
  38. ^ "Bayeux Tapestry ending made in Alderney". BBC News. 9 February 2013. 
  39. ^ McCloud 1993. Understanding Comics pp.11–14
  40. ^ The History of the British Comic, Bryan Talbot, The Guardian Guide, 8 September 2007, page 5.
  41. ^  
  42. ^ "The New Yorker". Condé Nast. 15 July 1944. Retrieved 30 October 2014. 
  43. ^ Steven, Alasdair (24 September 2003). "George Gale: Obituary". The Scotsman. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  44. ^ "Re-embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry in Film and Media: The Flip Side of History in Opening and End Title Sequences". Richard Burt, University of Florida. 2007-08-18. Archived from the original on 2007-02-22. Retrieved 2007-08-31. 
  45. ^ SparkNotes Editors. "SparkNote on Angels in America". SparkNotes LLC. Retrieved 30 October 2014. Louis's problem is exacerbated by his tendency towards abstraction and his unreasonably high standards for himself. In Scene Three, he tells Emily about La Reine Mathilde, who supposedly created the Bayeux Tapestry. Louis describes La Reine's unceasing devotion to William the Conqueror and laments his own comparative lack of devotion. But as critic Allen J. Frantzen has pointed out, this popular story about Mathilde and the tapestry is wrong—it was actually created in England decades after the conquest. Louis, then, is holding himself to a mythological standard of loyalty, and he curses himself based on a positively unreal example. This is part of a larger pattern of excessive guilt and harshness toward himself, which, paradoxically, prevents him from judging his own weaknesses accurately and trying to correct them. Because no one could possibly live up to Mathilde's example, Louis initially justifies his moral failure. Later, in Perestroika, he will arrive at a more genuine remorse and an honest understanding of what he has done. 


  1. ^ 5 January 1066.
  2. ^ 6 January 1066.
  3. ^ The first appearance of the comet would have been around 24 April 1066, nearly four months after Harold's coronation.
  4. ^ Possibly about Harold's victory in the Battle of Stamford Bridge, although the Tapestry does not specify this.
  5. ^ This reflected the military reality.
  6. ^ Clerics were not supposed to shed blood, hence Odo has no sword. Rather than just praying for the Norman knights, however, which ought to have been his role, Odo seems militarily active.
  7. ^ a situation that has not since improved.
  8. ^ See Leek, Staffordshire and Art needlework.


See also

The tapestry is referenced in Tony Kushner's play Angels in America. The apocryphal account of Queen Matilda's creation of the tapestry is used, perhaps in order to demonstrate that Louis, one of the main characters, holds himself to mythological standards.[45]

A number of films have used sections of the tapestry in their opening credits or closing titles, including Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Anthony Mann's El Cid, Zeffirelli's Hamlet, Frank Cassenti's La Chanson de Roland, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Richard Fleischer's The Vikings.[44]

The tapestry has also inspired modern embroideries, notably:

  • John Hassall's satirical pastiche Ye Berlyn Tapestrie, published in 1915, which tells the story of the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914[41]
  • Rea Irvin's cover for the New Yorker magazine of 15 July 1944 marking D-Day[42]
  • European Economic Community, published across six pages in The Times's "Europa" supplement on 1 January 1973[43]

It has inspired many modern political and other cartoons, including:

Because it resembles a modern comic strip or movie storyboard, is widely recognised, and is so distinctive in its artistic style, the Bayeux Tapestry has frequently been used or reimagined in a variety of different popular culture contexts. It has been cited by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics as an example of early narrative art;[39] and Bryan Talbot, a British comic book artist, has called it "the first known British comic strip".[40]

In popular culture

Similarly, other modern artists have attempted to complete the work by creating panels depicting subsequent events up to William's coronation, though the actual content of the missing panels is unknown. In 1997, the embroidery artist Jan Messent completed a reconstruction showing William accepting the surrender of English nobles at Berkhamsted (Beorcham), Hertfordshire, and his coronation.[35][36][37] In early 2013, 416 residents of Alderney in the Channel Islands finished a continuation including William's coronation and the building of the Tower of London.[38]

The 7 mm2 steel pieces are off-cuts from patterning disks of knitting machines and are affixed to a blackened background. The pieces have been enamel-painted one by one over several years in one of eight colors in keeping with the original tapestry's color scheme. The complete mosaic is displayed as 32 sections, weighing a total of 230 kg. The work includes a hypothetical reconstruction of the missing final section of the Tapestry up to William The Conqueror's coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.[34]

An approximately half scale mosaic version of the Bayeux Tapestry is on display at Geraldine, New Zealand.[33] The mosaic of 1.5 million pieces of spring steel was created by Michael Linton over a period of twenty years from 1979.

Sections of the 1066 Medieval Mosaic re-creation

A hand-painted full-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry is at the Oglethorpe University, commissioned the work and donated it to the university in 1997.

Starting in 2000, the Bayeux Group, part of the Viking Group Lindholm Høje, has been making an accurate replica of the Bayeux Tapestry in Denmark, using the original sewing technique.[32]

Ray Dugan of University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, completed a stitched replica in 1996.[30] Since its completion, it has been displayed in various museums and galleries in Canada and the United States.[31]

[15] The naked figure in the original tapestry (in the border below the Ælfgyva figure) is depicted wearing a brief garment because the drawing which was worked from was similarly bowdlerised.[29], England.Reading, Berkshire in Museum of Reading The full-size replica was finished in 1886 and is now exhibited in the South Kensington Museum to collaborate working from a full-scale water-colour facsimile drawing provided by the [note 8] There are a number of replicas of the Bayeux Tapestry in existence. Through the collaboration of

Replicas & continuations

A monastic text from Ely, the Liber Eliensis, mentions a woven narrative wall-hanging commemorating the deeds of Byrhtnoth, killed in 991. Wall-hangings were common by the tenth century with English and Norman texts particularly commending the skill of Anglo-Saxon seamstresses. Mural paintings imitating draperies still exist in France and Italy and there are twelfth century mentions of other wall-hangings in Normandy and France. A poem by Baldric of Dol might even be describing the Bayeux Tapestry itself.[16] Therefore, the Bayeux Tapestry was not unique at the time it was created—rather it is remarkable for being the sole surviving example of Middle Ages' narrative needlework.[28]

Tapestry fragments have been found in Scandinavia dating from the ninth century and it is thought that Norman and Anglo-Saxon embroidery developed from this sort of work. Examples are to be found in the grave goods of the Oseberg ship and the Överhogdal tapestries.[16]

Artistic context

While political propaganda or personal emphasis may have somewhat distorted the historical accuracy of the story, the Bayeux tapestry presents a unique visual document of medieval arms, apparel, and other objects unlike any other artifact surviving from this period. There is no attempt at continuity between scenes either for individuals' appearance or clothing. The knights carry shields, but show no system of hereditary coats of arms—the beginnings of modern heraldic structure were in place, but would not become standard until the middle of the 12th century.[16] It has been noted that the warriors are depicted fighting with bare hands, while other sources indicate the general use of gloves in battle and hunt.

The tapestry's narration seems to place stress on Harold's oath to William although its rationale is not made clear.[16] Norman sources claimed that the English succession was being pledged to William but English sources gave varied accounts.[16] Today it is thought the Norman sources are to be preferred.[23] Both the tapestry and Norman sources[24] named Stigand, the excommunicated Archbishop of Canterbury, as the man who crowned Harold, possibly to discredit Harold's kingship; English sources[25] suggested that he was crowned by Ealdred, Archbishop of York and favoured by the papacy, making Harold's position as legitimate king more secure. Contemporary scholarship has not decided the matter although it is generally thought Ealdred performed the coronation.[26][27]

Coronation of Harold

The Bayeux Tapestry was probably commissioned by the House of Normandy and essentially depicts a Norman viewpoint. However, Harold is shown as brave and his soldiers are not belittled. Throughout, William is described as "dux" (duke) whereas Harold, also called dux up to his coronation, is subsequently called "rex" (king).[15] The fact that the narrative extensively covers Harold's activities in Normandy (in 1064) indicates that the intention was to show a strong relationship between that expedition and the Norman Conquest starting two years later. It is for this reason that the tapestry is generally seen by modern scholars as an apologia for the Norman Conquest.


  • At least two panels of the tapestry are missing, perhaps even another 6.4 m (7.0 yd) worth. This missing area would probably have included William's coronation.
  • There is a panel with what appears to be a clergyman touching or possibly striking a woman's face. No one knows the meaning of the caption above this scene ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva, "where [or in which/during which] a certain cleric and Ælfgyua", a Latinised version of Ælfgifu, a popular Anglo-Saxon woman's name.[15] The elided AE shows familiarity with English spelling.[15] There are two naked male figures in the border below this figure; the one directly below the figure is squatting and displaying genitalia, a scene that was frequently censored in former reproductions. However, similar naked figures appear elsewhere in the lower border where there seems to be no connection at all with the main action.[16]
  • The identity of Harold II of England in the vignette depicting his death is disputed. Some recent historians disagree with the traditional view that Harold II is the figure struck in the eye with an arrow. The view that it is Harold is supported by the fact that the words Harold Rex (King Harold) appear right above the figure's head. However, the arrow is a later addition following a period of repair.[16] Evidence of this can be found in a comparison with engravings of the tapestry in 1729 by Bernard de Montfaucon, in which the arrow is absent (see illustration above). However, needle holes in the linen suggest that there had been something previously in this place: though possibly a lance.[16] A figure is slain with a sword in the subsequent plate and the phrase above the figure refers to Harold's death (Interfectus est, "he is slain"). This would appear to be more consistent with the labeling used elsewhere in the work. It was common medieval iconography that a perjurer was to die with a weapon through the eye. Therefore, the tapestry might be said to emphasize William's rightful claim to the throne by depicting Harold as an oath breaker. Whether he actually died in this way remains a mystery and is much debated.[22]

The tapestry contains several mysteries:

Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva
Detail of arrow
Harold's death. Legend above: Harold Rex Interfectus Est, "Harold the King is killed"


During the Second World War Heinrich Himmler coveted the work regarding it as "Important for our glorious and cultured Germanic history".[15]

The tapestry was becoming a tourist attraction with Robert Southey complaining of the need to queue to see the work[note 7] In the 1843 Hand-book for Travellers in France by John Murray III a visit was included on Recommended Route 26 (Caen to Cherbourg via Bayeux) and this guidebook led John Ruskin to go there describing it as "the most interesting thing in its way conceivable". Charles Dickens was not impressed: "It is certainly the work of amateurs; very feeble amateurs at the beginning and very heedless some of them too".[15]

The inventory listing of 1476 shows that the tapestry was being hung annually in Bayeux Cathedral for the week of the Feast of St. John the Baptist and this was still the case in 1728 although by that time the purpose was merely to air the hanging which was otherwise stored in a chest.[15] Clearly, the work was being well cared for. In the eighteenth century the artistry was regarded as crude or even barbarous—red and yellow multi-coloured horses upset some critics. It was thought to be unfinished because the linen was not covered with embroidery.[15] However, its exhibition in the Louvre in 1797 caused a sensation with Le Moniteur, which normally dealt with foreign affairs, reporting on it on its first two pages.[15] It inspired a popular musical La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. It was because the tapestry was regarded as an antiquity, rather than a work of art, that in 1804 it was returned to Bayeux where in 1823 one commentator, A. L. Léchaudé d'Anisy, reported "there is a sort of purity in its primitive forms, especially considering the state of the arts in the eleventh century".[15]

Critical reception

By 1842 the tapestry was displayed in a special-purpose room in the Bibliothèque Publique. It required special storage in 1870 with the threatened invasion of Normandy in the Franco-Prussian War and again in 1939–1944 by the Ahnenerbe during the German Occupation of France and the Normandy landings. On 27 June 1944 the Gestapo took the tapestry to the Louvre and on 18 August, three days before the Wehrmacht withdrew from Paris, Himmler sent a message (intercepted by Bletchley Park) ordering it to be taken to "a place of safety", thought to be Berlin.[15] It was only on 22 August that the SS attempted to take possession of the tapestry by which time the Louvre was again in French hands.[15] After the liberation of Paris, on 25 August, the tapestry was again put on public display in the Louvre, and in 1945 it was returned to Bayeux[18] where it is exhibited at Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.

In 1816 the Society of Antiquaries of London commissioned its historical draughtsman, Charles Stothard, to visit Bayeux to make an accurate hand-coloured facsimile of the tapestry. His drawings were subsequently engraved by James Basire jr., and published by the Society in 1819–23.[21] Stothard's images are still of value as a record of the tapestry as it was before 19th-century restoration.

During the French Revolution, in 1792, the tapestry was confiscated as public property to be used for covering military wagons.[16] It was rescued from a wagon by a local lawyer who stored it in his house until the troubles were over, when he sent it to the city administrators for safekeeping.[18] After the Terror the Fine Arts Commission, set up to safeguard national treasures, in 1803 required it to be removed to Paris for display at the Musée Napoléon.[18] When Napoleon abandoned his planned invasion of Britain its propaganda value was lost and it was returned to Bayeux where the council displayed it on a winding apparatus of two cylinders.[18] Despite scholars' concern that the tapestry was becoming damaged the council refused to return it to the Cathedral.[18]

The tapestry was first briefly noted in English in 1743 by William Stukeley, in his Palaeographia Britannica.[19] The first detailed account in English was written by Smart Lethieullier, who was living in Paris in 1732–3, and was acquainted with Lancelot and de Montfaucon: it was not published, however, until 1767, as an appendix to Andrew Ducarel's Anglo-Norman Antiquities.[20]

In 1729 and 1730 he published drawings and a detailed description of the complete work in the first two volumes of his Les Monuments de la Monarchie française. The drawings were by Antoine Benoît, one of the ablest draughtsmen of that time.[18]

Montfaucon / Benoît drawing showing Harold's death

The first reference to the tapestry is from 1476 when it was listed in an inventory of the treasures of Bayeux Cathedral. It survived the sack of Bayeux by the Huguenots in 1562; and the next certain reference is from 1724.[16] Antoine Lancelot sent a report to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres concerning a sketch he had received about a work concerning William the Conqueror. He had no idea whether the original was a sculpture or painting though he mooted it could be a tapestry.[18] Despite his further enquiries he discovered no more. However, the Benedictine scholar Bernard de Montfaucon made more successful investigations and found that the sketch was of a small portion of a tapestry preserved at Bayeux Cathedral.

History of the tapestry

Tituli are included on many scenes to point out names of people and places or to explain briefly the event being depicted.[16] The text is in Latin but at times the style of words and spelling shows an English influence.[16] A dark blue wool, almost black, is mostly used but towards the end of the tapestry other colours are used, sometimes for each word and other times for each letter.[16] The complete text and English translation are displayed beside images of each scene at Bayeux Tapestry tituli.

Latin text

The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 less than three weeks after the Battle of Stamford Bridge but the tapestry does not provide this context. The English fight on foot behind a shield wall, whilst the Normans are on horses.[note 5] Two fallen knights are named as Leofwine and Gyrth, Harold's brothers, but both armies are shown fighting bravely.[15] Bishop Odo brandishes his baton or mace and rallies the Norman troops in battle.(scene 54)[note 6][15] To reassure his knights that he is still alive and well, William raises his helmet to show his face.[16] The battle becomes very bloody with troops being slaughtered and dismembered corpses littering the ground. King Harold is killed.(scene 57) This scene can be interpreted in different ways, as the name "Harold" appears above a number of knights, making it difficult to identify which character is Harold. The final remaining scene shows unarmoured English troops fleeing the battlefield. The last part of the tapestry is missing but it is thought that story contained only one additional scene.[15]

A star with a streaming tail then appears: Halley's Comet.[note 3] Comets, in the beliefs of the Middle Ages, were a bad omen. At this point the lower border of the tapestry shows a fleet of ghost-like ships thus hinting at a future invasion.[15](scene 33) The news of Harold's coronation is taken to Normandy, whereupon we are told that William is ordering a fleet of ships to be built although it is Bishop Odo shown issuing the instructions.(scene 35) The invaders reach England, and land unopposed. William orders his men to find food, and a meal is cooked.(scene 43) A house is burnt, which may indicate some ravaging of the local countryside on the part of the invaders.(scene 47) News is brought to William.[note 4] The Normans build a motte and bailey at Hastings to defend their position. Messengers are sent between the two armies, and William makes a speech to prepare his army for battle.(scene 51)

Detail of comet

Harold leaves for home and meets again with the old king Edward, who appears to be remonstrating with him.(scene 25) Harold is in a somewhat submissive posture and seems to be in disgrace.[15] However, possibly deliberately, the king's intentions are not made clear.[15] The scene then shifts by about one year to when Edward has become mortally ill and the tapestry strongly suggests that, on his deathbed, he bequeaths the crown to Harold.[note 1][16] What is probably the coronation ceremony[note 2] is attended by Stigand, whose position as Archbishop of Canterbury was controversial.[16](scene 31) Stigand is performing a liturgical function, possibly not the crowning itself.[16] The tapestry labels the celebrant as "Stigant Archieps" (Stigand the archbishop) although by that time he had been excommunicated by the papacy who considered his appointment unlawful.[15]

The tapestry begins with a panel of Edward the Confessor sending Harold to Normandy.(scene 1) Later Norman sources say that the mission was for Harold to pledge loyalty to William but the tapestry does not suggest any specific purpose.[15] By mischance, Harold arrives at the wrong location in France and is taken prisoner by Guy, Count of Ponthieu.(scene 7) After exchanges of messages borne by mounted messengers, Harold is released to William who then invites Harold to come on a campaign against Conan II, Duke of Brittany. On the way, just outside the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, the army become mired in quicksand and Harold saves two Norman soldiers.(scene 17) William's army chases Conan from Dol de Bretagne to Rennes, and Conan finally surrenders at Dinan.(scene 20) William gives Harold arms and armour (possibly knighting him) and Harold takes an oath on saintly relics.(scene 23) Although the writing on the tapestry explicitly states an oath is taken there is no clue as to what is being promised.[15]

Events depicted in the tapestry

Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex and the most powerful noble in England, was Edward's brother-in-law. The Norman chronicler William of Poitiers[17] recorded that Edward sent Harold to tell William that Edward had decided William should succeed him as king of England upon his (Edward's) death. However, other sources dispute this claim.

King Edward the Confessor, king of England and about sixty years old at the time the tapestry starts its narration, had no children or any clear successor. Edward's mother, Emma of Normandy, was William's great aunt. At that time succession to the English throne was not by primogeniture but was decided jointly by the king and by an assembly of nobility, the Witenagemot.

William was the illegitimate son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy, and Herleva (or Arlette), a tanner's daughter. William became Duke of Normandy at the age of seven and was in control of Normandy by the age of nineteen. His half brother was Bishop Odo of Bayeux.

Edward the Confessor sends Harold to Normandy
The messengers with Guy, with portrayal of medieval agriculture in the border

In a series of pictures supported by a written commentary the tapestry tells the story of the events of 1064–1066 culminating in the Battle of Hastings. The two main protagonists are Harold Godwinson, recently crowned King of England, leading the Anglo-Saxon English, and William, Duke of Normandy, leading a mainly Norman army, sometimes called the companions of William the Conqueror.[16]

Background to the events depicted

The entire Bayeux Tapestry
The entire Bayeux Tapestry. Individual images of each scene are at Bayeux Tapestry tituli.

In 1724 a linen backing cloth was sewn on comparatively crudely and, in around the year 1800, large ink numerals were written on the backing which broadly enumerate each scene and which are still commonly used for reference.[16]

The end of the tapestry has been missing from time immemorial and the final titulus "Et fuga verterunt Angli" ("and the English left fleeing") is said to be "entirely spurious", added shortly before 1814 at a time of anti-English sentiment.[16] Musset speculates the hanging was originally about 1.5 metres longer.[16] At the last section still remaining the embroidery has been almost completely restored but this seems to have been done with at least some regard to the original stitching.[16] The stylised tree is quite unlike any other tree in the tapestry.[16] The start of the tapestry has also been restored but to a much lesser extent[16]

The tituli are normally in the central zone but occasionally use the top border. The borders are otherwise mostly purely decorative and only sometimes does the decoration complement the action in the central zone. The decoration consists of birds, beasts, fish and scenes from fables, agriculture and hunting. There are frequent oblique bands separating the vignettes. There are nude figures, some of corpses from battle, others of a ribald nature.[16] A harrow, a newly invented implement, is depicted (scene 10) and this is the earliest known depiction. The picture of Halley's Comet, which appears in the upper border (scene 32), is the first known picture of this comet.[16]

The tapestry's central zone contains most of the action, which sometimes overflows into the borders either for dramatic effect or because depictions would otherwise be very cramped (for example at Edward's death scene). Events take place in a long series of scenes which are generally separated by highly stylised trees. However, the trees are not placed consistently and the greatest scene shift, between Harold's audience with Edward after his return to England and Edward's burial scene, is not marked in any way at all.[16]

The main yarn colours are terracotta or russet, blue-green, dull gold, olive green, and blue, with small amounts of dark blue or black and sage green. Later repairs are worked in light yellow, orange, and light greens.[5] Laid yarns are couched in place with yarn of the same or contrasting colour.

The Bayeux tapestry is embroidered in crewel (wool yarn) on a tabby-woven linen ground 68.38 metres long and 0.5 metres wide (224.3 ft × 1.6 ft) and using two methods of stitching: outline or stem stitch for lettering and the outlines of figures, and couching or laid work for filling in figures.[5][6] Nine linen panels, between fourteen and three metres in length, were sewn together after each was embroidered and the joins were disguised with subsequent embroidery.[15] At the first join (start of scene 14) the borders do not line up properly but the technique was improved so that the later joins are practically invisible.[15] The design involved a broad central zone with narrow decorative borders top and bottom.[15] By inspecting the woollen threads behind the linen it is apparent all these aspects were embroidered together at a session and the awkward placing of the tituli is not due to them being added later.[15] Later generations have patched the hanging in numerous places and some of the embroidery (especially in the final scene) has been reworked.[15] The tapestry may well have maintained much of its original appearance—it now compares closely with a careful drawing made in 1730.[15]

In common with other embroidered hangings of the early medieval period, this piece is conventionally referred to as a "tapestry", although it is not a true tapestry in which the design is woven into the cloth; it is in fact an embroidery.

Detail of stem stitching and laid work.

Construction, design and technique

[14] Andrew Bridgeford has suggested that the tapestry was actually of English design and encoded with secret messages meant to undermine Norman rule.[13]

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