For many generations, the Bayeux Tapestry has been sewn into our collective consciousness.
The 950 year-old artwork features 58 scenes, and tells the story of William the Conqueror’s dramatic accession to the English throne in 1066.
The Tapestry is a staggering 70-metres in length and features 626 human figures as well as 731 birds and animals. Fables and Christian imagery intertwine a noble Norman narrative of righteous conquest.
The ancient procession of extraordinary, elongated figures is immediately recognisable, although perhaps not widely understood.
On a recent visit to the Bayeux Museum, the Tapestry was unfurled from a dusty corner of my subconscious and brought into vivid high definition.
Talking with Fanny Garbe, I was struck by the many misconceptions and mysteries that continue to surround this iconic artwork.
Firstly, it’s not from Bayeux…
I should probably point out that the Bayeux Tapestry wasn’t made in Bayeux.
Noting the high quality needlework and Anglicised Latin inscriptions, many historians believe it was produced in Canterbury, England around 1070 AD.
Anglo-Saxon embroiderers, particularly those in Canterbury, were known to be highly skilled and their needlework was famed throughout Europe.
Whilst likely produced in England, the Bayeux Tapestry has spent most of its life in France. The first definitive evidence we have for its whereabouts is its inclusion in the inventory of the Bayeux Cathedral in 1476.
…and it’s not a tapestry
Awkward, but true. Technically this artwork is an embroidery.
Tapestries are created by weaving together material to create an image or pattern within the fabric. Here, however, woollen yarn has been embroidered, or sewn, onto linen cloth.
Arguably then, we’re not actually looking at the Bayeux Tapestry, but more accurately the Kent Embroidery.
Mind-blowing (there’s a reason we’re called History Bombs).
Who commissioned it?
Many historians believe it was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux.
This theory is given further credence by the fact that Odo himself appears in many important scenes, often at William’s side.
So why would Odo choose to commission such an expensive piece of public art?
In all likelihood, this was intended as a piece of powerful propaganda at a time when the Normans were facing a rash of Anglo-Saxon rebellions across England.
The use of clear imagery and basic Anglicised Latin would suggest an intention to convince skeptical Anglo-Saxons that William, a Duke from Normandy who didn’t speak English, was absolutely, definitely, the rightful heir to the English throne!
And William really was the rightful heir…wasn’t he?
Edward the Confused
The story goes that England’s King, Edward the Confessor, named his cousin, William of Normandy, as his rightful heir.
On his deathbed however, Edward changed his mind, choosing his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson instead.
It’s fair to say Edward didn’t handle the matter of his succession absolutely perfectly.
William’s claim rested on the fact that Edward had chosen him first, and furthermore, whilst in Bayeux, William claimed Harold had sworn an oath on sacred relics to support William’s claim.
On this basis, William’s claim sounds fairly legitimate, although it excludes one important fact; under English law, Edward the Confessor didn’t officially have the right to choose his own successor.
For that, you required the approval of the Witan.
What was the Witan?
The Witan was the king’s council in Anglo-Saxon England, and comprised some of the country’s most powerful and prominent figures.
Most of the time, the Witan made decisions on taxation, legal and security matters, but the council were also responsible for officially electing England’s monarchs.
When Edward the Confessor died childless, the Witan convened a meeting, known as a Witenagemot, and selected Harold Godwinson as the next King of England.
Whilst historians still debate how much power the Witan really had, the council’s decision arguably made Harold England’s rightful monarch, and invalidated William’s claim.
When William defeated Harold and became King of England, he quickly abolished and replaced the Witan. He also seized the power to name his own successor.
Tellingly, the Bayeux Tapestry, which includes 626 human figures, does not include a depiction of the Witan.
An unlikely ‘bromance’
One curiosity of the artwork is the suprisingly positive depiction of Harold Godwinson.
Apart from the scenes in which Harold accidentally betrays his oath to William by becoming King of England, and then being killed at the Battle of Hastings, the remaining Harold scenes are genuinely heroic!
In 1064, Harold was shipwrecked and washed up in Northern France. Whilst initially captured and taken prisoner, Harold was handed over to William, and the two men apparently became great pals.
Within the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is shown fighting alongside William’s men in a successful battle against the Duke of Brittany. Before this battle, Harold is even depicted gallantly saving two of William’s soldiers from quicksand at Mont Saint-Michel. What a guy.
As suggested by Dr Michael Lewis, the reason for Harold’s generally positive depiction may be a reflection of the precarious nature of Norman power, and fear of an English uprising.
Dr Michael Lewis
“Politically, it didn’t make sense for Odo to antagonise the English by rubbing their noses in their defeat with a triumphalist account of the Conquest. So it may have been fear – fear of an English uprising – that resulted in the Bayeux Tapestry upsetting centuries of tradition and painting the vanquished in a favourable light.”
One in the eye?
One of the most eye-catching questions raised by the tapestry is whether Harold Godwinson was actually shot in the eye with an arrow at the Battle of Hastings.
Historians taking aim at this question have typically duelled over two main points of contention; the figure of Harold, and the authenticity of the arrow.
Firstly, which figure is Harold? Within the final Battle of Hastings scene, there are two possible candidates.
The first appears directly beneath the inscription, ‘Harold’, and is seen clutching an arrow that has struck his eye. Ouch. The second contender is falling after being struck down by a Norman horseman.
Generally, the consensus is the falling figure is most likely to be Harold. This clearly has an important bearing on the reading of this scene.
Secondly, it appears that the arrow in the eye of the standing character was added during 19th century repairs to the Tapestry.
Also, if you look really closely at the falling figure, there are 17 empty stitch-holes in a straight line from the figure’s head. Was an arrow added here too, and later removed?
It’s a fascinating conundrum for historians, however it doesn’t much change the outcome for poor Harold. Whether struck in the eye, or hacked to pieces by horsemen, the grim outcome and historical significance are much the same.
70-metres might sound like a pretty long embroidery, but historians believe the final scenes are actually missing.
William’s coronation in London is considered the likely finale, providing a suitable counterpoint to the opening scene which features Edward the Confessor on the throne.
Will we ever find the remaining scenes? It’s unlikely, but it would be pretty amazing if it was found in the vault of a long-forgotten church or stashed in a chest in an ancient French chateau. Only time will tell!
The next chapter
The story of how the Bayeux Tapestry has navigated recent centuries is truly fascinating in its own right.
In 1792, it it was almost used to cover military wagons during the French Revolution. Then, in 1944, it was on the verge of being relocated to Berlin on the instruction of Heinrich Himmler, until Allied forces liberated the Louvre in Paris just days before it was moved.
In 2026, the Bayeux Tapestry will undergo yet another journey, although this one will be a little less dangerous!
The Bayeux Museum will be undergoing a significant refurbishment in order to bring the Tapestry to life for a modern audience. The new design, opening in 2026, promises to bring a fresh perspective to this extraordinary object.
Visit the Bayeux Museum to see this fascinating object for yourself!
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