The Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry, in spite of its name, is not really a tapestry. The scenes on the tapestry were embroidered with coloured thread to create the scenes. A tapestry is woven on a loom. Regardless of the name, the Bayeux Tapestry is an important historical item that gives information about events around the invasion of 1066.
What does it look like?
The tapestry is 70 meters long and just under 50 centimeters wide. It was made from linen and used eight different colours. The linen itself is a light brown colour but this is the result of age. It was made in eight pieces which were later joined together and the end of the tapestry is missing.
The tapestry itself contains about 50 different scenes. One researcher studying the tapestry counted 626 human figures, 202 horses, 55 dogs, and 505 other animals. Some of these animals are creatures that came from mythological sources. In addition to these creatures, the tapestry also includes 37 fortresses or buildings, 41 ships, and 49 trees. It also shows numerous weapons, clothes, and farming equipment. There is also writing in Latin that describes the various scenes.
There is a border on the top and the bottom of the tapestry. The border is made of images of various creatures, including lions, dragons and other mythological figures. The border depicts hunting and farming scenes as well as scenes from Aesop’s fables.
Four stories, the fox and the crow, the wolf and the crane, the wolf and the kid, and the wolf and the lamb, have been identified on the borders. No one is quite sure why these fables were chosen or why they were placed on the tapestry.
One possibility is that the stories may have been added by the English embroiders to show their resistance to the Norman invasion. The four stories choses all have the same theme: deceit and unlawful possession.
The figures in the tapestry have a lot of detail and you can tell the Normans and the English apart by the differences in their haircuts. The English have moustaches (no beards) and hair to their shoulders. The Normans have neither beard nor moustache and the hair is cut high at the back.
The tapestry shows the Norman conquest of England in 1066. It was commissioned by the winners of the invasion (the Normans) and attempts to justify William of Normandy’s invasion. The tapestry starts by showing Duke Harold Godwinson, the brother-in-law to the English king, Edward the Confessor. Harold had been shipwrecked off the coast of France in 1064. He was rescued by William, Duke of Normandy and the tapestry shows Harold swearing an oath to William to support William’s claim to the English throne. There is some doubt as to whether this oath was actually made or was just made up to bolster William’s claim to the throne.
The tapestry then shows William preparing to invade England and then setting sail for England. The final scenes of the tapestry show the Battle of Hastings. One of the scenes shows the death of Harold (who, at this point, was the king of England). The tapestry shows Godwinson getting an arrow through his eye. There is some debate as to whether the figure depicted in the tapestry is Godwinson but Godwinson definitely died during the Battle of Hastings. There is another figure that is being shown cut down by a Norman horseman which some scholars think could also be Harold.
Some scholars believe that the missing piece of the tapestry showed William being crowned king.
Who Ordered the Tapestry?
The tapestry was ordered to celebrate William’s successful invasion of England but there is some debate over who had it made.
There are three possibilities regarding who ordered the tapestry to be created. The first possibility is William’s wife, Queen Matilda. Another possibility is the sister of Harold (and wife of Edward the Confessor), Queen Edith. Scholars consider Edith to be a possibility because Edward the Confessor and Harold are both treated well in the tapestry. Edith may have used the tapestry to win favour and hold on to her estates. Usually, the losing nobles would be stripped of their estates, but Edith was able to hold on to hers.
The third possibility is Odo, the bishop of Bayeux. After William’s victory, Odo was made the Earl of Kent, which is where scholars believe the tapestry may have been created. Odo was also William’s half-brother. Odo had a falling out with William after Odo made a failed attempt to becoming pope while William was in Normandy. The tapestry might have been Odo’s way to get back into William’s good graces. Another piece of evidence which suggests Odo as the one who ordered the tapestry is the fact that the tapestry highlights Odo’s involvement in the invasion as well as names obscure men who were connected to Odo.
Where was it made?
Just as people are unclear about who commissioned the tapestry to be made, people are also unclear about where it was made. Most scholars agree that the tapestry was made in England given the recognized skill of women embroiderers in England. In addition, the names were spelled in the English style of Latin.
There are two places in England where the tapestry could have been made. The city of Winchester was well known for the skill at embroidery practiced by the people there. The second possibility is Canterbury, Kent. A famous tapestry school can be found there and the style used at this school is similar to the style used in the Bayeux Tapestry. In addition, some of the images on the tapestry seem to have come from a room in St Augustine’s Abbey and Christ Church in Canterbury.
More evidence for the tapestry being made in Kent was that Odo was made the Earl of Kent so he would have known about the skilled people there.
The Bayeux tapestry is an important piece of history but it needs to be remembered that it was commissioned by the winners and therefore, some of the information has to be verified through other sources which isn’t always possible. Regardless of its historical accuracy, the Bayeux tapestry provides important insight into medieval times.