The Bayeux tapestry (French: Tapisserie de Bayeux) is a 50 cm by 70 m (20 in by 230 ft) long embroidered cloth which depicts scenes commemorating the Battle of Hastings in 1066, with annotations in Latin. It is presently exhibited in a special museum in Bayeux, Normandy, France.
Origins of the tapestry
Since the earliest known written reference to the tapestry in a 1476 inventory of Bayeux Cathedral, its origins have been the subject of much speculation and controversy.
In France, it has traditionally been assumed that the tapestry was commissioned and created by Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror's wife, and her ladies. Indeed, in France it is occasionally known as "La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde" (tapestry of Queen Matilda). However, recent scholarly analysis in the 20th century shows it probably was commissioned by William the Conqueror's half brother, Bishop Odo. The reasons for the Odo commission theory include: three of the bishop's followers mentioned in Domesday Book appear on the tapestry; it was found in Bayeux Cathedral, built by Odo; 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 Bishop Odo commissioned the tapestry, it was probably designed and constructed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists given that: Odo's main power base was 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. Assuming this was the case, the actual physical work of stitching was most likely undertaken by skilled seamsters or seamstresses (there is no requirement in this period for them to be female; the later opus Anglicanum from the same area was made by men and women), probably monks St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury.
One other candidate, recently put forward by the art historian Carola Hicks, is Edith of Wessex.
The tapestry is a French national treasure, and its possible Anglo-Saxon artistic heritage has remained a point of controversy.
Modern history of the tapestry
The tapestry was rediscovered in the late 17th century in Bayeux (where it had been traditionally displayed once a year at the Feast of the Relics), and engravings of it were published in the 1730s by Bernard de Montfaucon. Later, some from Bayeux who were fighting for the Republic wanted to use it as a cloth to cover an ammunition wagon, but luckily a lawyer who understood its importance saved it and replaced it with another cloth. In 1803, Napoleon seized it and transported it to Paris. Napoleon wanted to use the tapestry as inspiration for his planned attack on England. When this plan was cancelled, the tapestry was returned to Bayeux. The townspeople wound the tapestry up and stored it like a scroll. (Crack 1) After being seized by the Ahnenerbe, the tapestry spent much of World War II in the basement of the Louvre. (Setton, 209) It is now protected on display in a museum in a dark room with special lighting behind sealed glass to minimize damage from light and air.
The plot of the tapestry
The tapestry tells the story of the Norman conquest of England. The two combatants are the Anglo-Saxon English, led by Harold Godwinson, recently crowned as King of England, before that a powerful earl, and the Normans, descendants of the Vikings, (Baker 1) led by William the Conqueror. The two sides can be distinguished on the tapestry by the customs of the day. The Normans shaved the back of their heads, while the Anglo-Saxons had moustaches.
The main character of the tapestry is William the Conqueror. William was the illegitimate son of the Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy, and Herleva, a tanner's daughter. She was married off to another man and bore two sons, one of which was the Bishop Odo. When Duke Robert was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he was killed. William gained his father's title at a very young age and was a proven warrior at 19. He prevailed in the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and captured the crown at 38. William knew little peace in his life. He was always doing battle putting down rebel vassals or going to war with France. The king was married to Matilda of Flanders; they were distant cousins. (Barclay 31) William was 1.78 m (5 ft 10 in). Matilda was 1.27 m (4 ft 2 in), so they made an interesting couple.
The tapestry begins with a panel of King Edward, who has no heir. Edward decides to send Harold Godwinson, the most powerful earl in England to his cousin William of Normandy to tell William he has been selected as the next King of England. As Harold is in transit across the channel, he is caught in a storm and sent off course. Harold is taken prisoner by Guy, Count of Ponthieu. William sends two messengers to demand his release, and Count Guy of Ponthieu quickly releases him to William. William, perhaps to impress Harold, invites him to come on a campaign with him to relieve a castle under siege. On the way, just outside the famous monastery of Mont St. Michel, two soldiers become mired in quicksand, and Harold saves the two Norman soldiers. The two comrades manage to chase the attackers of the castle away, and force them to surrender. William and Harold celebrate their victory together, and Harold pledges on the bones of saints (holy relics) to support William in securing the English throne. Harold leaves for home and meets again with the old king Edward. Edward then, under duress or otherwise, pledges the throne to Harold.
Some months later a star with hair appears: Halley's Comet. (The first appearance of the comet would have been 24 April, nearly four months after Harold's coronation). Comets, in the beliefs of the Middle Ages, warned of impending doom. On the other side of the channel in France, William hears that he has been betrayed and vows to take England. William builds a fleet of ships, but cannot cross because of strong opposing winds. They are able to move down the coast a bit, and then eventually, in a D-day invasion in reverse, head across the channel. The Norman invasion force consisted of approximately 7,000 men. The invaders reach England, and land unopposed. William orders his men to pillage, to bring Harold down faster, who is involved in a battle with another contender for the throne of England, the Norwegian Harald Hardraada, whom he defeats. Harald Hardraada led the last Viking invasion of England and was known as great warrior. His defeat came as a surprise. Still, the Norwegians weakened the English forces. The Normans didn't waste any time, and built a castle to protect themselves. Some homesteads are torched. William prepares for battle when he hears that Harold is coming.
Finally, the famous day dawns: October 14, 1066. The Battle of Hastings took place 105 km (65 mi) from London. Harold forced his troops to march the distance in just three days, (from Stamford Bridge, (Yorkshire) where the battle against Harald Hardrade had taken place), which further exhausted his troops. Both armies were evenly matched. When they clash in battle, the bowmen advance to about 100 yards and loose, but to little effect as the English soldiers have established an effective shield-wall. So the knights charge into battle. Soon the Normans fall back in retreat, and some of Harold's men defy orders and follow them. Harold wanted them to stand fast for defense. William's horse is killed in the battle and a rumour goes through the ranks he is dead. He removes his helmet and says, "Look at me well! I am still alive and by the grace of God shall still prove the victor!" As the day goes on, the English begin to lose strength. Norman knights move in and kill Harold. After their leader dies, the English flee. The Normans are victorious.