The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the Battle of Hastings, in which William, Duke of Normandy, defeated (and killed) King Harold II of England. From that day in October 1066 until the succession of the Tudor Dynasty, England was ruled by Norman French monarchs.
The Bayeux Tapestry is actually not a tapestry at all. It is an embroidery. Embroidery is the stitching of an image into cloth, unlike tapestry that uses the technique of weaving. Embroidery dates from the fifth to third centuries BCE. It is interesting that the same stitching techniques used then are still used today. Throughout history, embroidery has been a sign of high social status.
Embroidery was the important needlework of medieval England. Called Opus Anglicanum, English work was known and admired throughout Europe. Although there are few extant examples, embroidery flourished during the Anglo-Saxon period. Most surviving pieces were designed for liturgical use. The stitching was most often placed on linen cloth by two different types of stitches. Stem stitch (or backstitch) was a technique of backward stitching that formed lines or outlines of objects and figures. Couching (or laid work) involved laying the stitch across the surface of the cloth and fastening it with small stitches, often in a contrasting color. Couching created the fillings of objects and fillers.
From the Anglo-Saxon era until the reign of Henry VIII, embroidery was done in the English convents. During the Tudor period, lay workshops were established to produce commissioned works, leading to the needlework chapter of the Guild System. A Vatican Inventory of 1295 lists 113 English pieces ordered by Pope Innocent, who was impressed with the vestments of the English priests.
The most outstanding example of Anglo Saxon embroidery is, of course, the Bayeux Tapestry. Commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the tapestry is believed to have been completed during the decade of the 1070’s. Odo was the half-brother of William (the Conqueror) and after the Conquest, was made Earl of Kent, a position that he held in addition to his bishopric in Normandy.
On the surface, the narrative of the tapestry takes a distinctly Norman slant. The scenes depict Harold, Earl of Wessex and the most powerful nobleman in the kingdom, journeying to Normandy to pledge fealty to William as the rightful heir to the English throne upon the death of King Edward. As the narrative moves along, we are told of the death of Edward and the immediate coronation of Harold as the next Anglo Saxon king. William, upon hearing of this usurpation, prepares his troops to invade England and claim his rightful crown. The Battle of Hastings ensues at which Harold is killed and William is victorious over the Anglo Saxon troops. This is the Norman story, and the narrative makes it very clear that Harold has claimed what is not his and must pay the consequences, including his very questionable burial. But those images and borders that run both above and below the narrative have caused scholars speculation and consternation for all these centuries. Many art historians believe that the borders provide a hidden side to this story, making the point that Harold may not have been so much at fault.
Harold of Wessex was the son of Earl Godwine. Upon his father’s death in 1053, Harold became Earl of Wessex. In 1043, Harold had married Ealdgyth (Edith) Swannesha. She was heiress to Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, and Essex. The marriage was conducted as a more danico (in the Danish fashion), similar to the old Celtic “handfasting.” It was not recognized by and did not receive the blessing of the church. Harold’s sister, also an Edith, married Edward the Confessor, Anglo Saxon king.
In 1063, King Edward sent Harold to Normandy to meet with William. The Brits will tell you that this meeting was for the purpose of ransoming members of Harold’s family being held hostage by William. The French (and the tapestry) are certain that Harold was sent by the king to reaffirm the pledge of passing the English crown to William. How odd that Edward would send the first contender for the English throne to reaffirm the crown to someone else! We do know that Harold made some sort of pledge while in Normandy, but there is no acknowledgement (including the narrative of the tapestry) that Harold was pledging his fealty to the next king of England.
The Bayeux narrative depicts a scene in which Edward, on his deathbed, commends the care of his Queen, Harold’s sister, and his kingdom to Harold. Edward died and is ceremoniously buried in Westminster Abbey. The narrative them shows us the Witenagemot, who chooses Harold to be the next King of England. Herein perhaps lays a major flaw in the Norman version of the Conquest.
The Anglo Saxon Witenagemot (the “meeting of the wise men”) function from the seventh to eleventh centuries as the major advising body to the king. Composed of the major aristocrats, both secular and ecclesiastical, the Witenagemot had the power to choose the next king upon the death of the monarch. Anglo Saxon England did not embrace the concept of primogeniture; first son inherits all, including the kingdom. The Witenagemot of 1066 freely chose Harold of Wessex as the next king. This is affirmed by the Anglo Saxon Chronicles.
As the narrative continues, Harold is crowned by the archbishop. The scene shows Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, crowning Harold. Stigand had been excommunicated by the pope due to lack of approval of his appointment. English writings from the period, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles among them, state that Harold was crowned by Ealdred, Archbishop of York, who was, of course, in the good graces of the pope. Nevertheless, the pope supported William in his quest for the English crown. At Harold’s crowning, we find the appearance of Halley’s Comet, a very bad omen for all things medieval. The Battle of Hastings depicts the horror of combat, Harold’s death, and William lifting his helmet in victory. As the narrative concludes, the English army (on foot) flees, chased by the Normans, of course, on horseback!
The Bayeux Tapestry reflects the legend that Harold was killed by an arrow piercing his eye. Whether that indeed was the death blow is uncertain, but we do know that Harold’s body was so mutilated and disfigured that his wife was called to the battleground to identify his body by a birthmark. Although Harold’s mother offered to pay William her son’s weight in gold, she was not given the body for burial. Harold’s body was given to William Malet, uncle of Ealdgyth Swannesha (Harold’s wife) and close companion of William.
An interesting side note to this saga is that Ealdgyth was educated at Wilton Abbey, as was Queen Edith, Harold’s sister. Gunhild, daughter of Ealdgyth and Harold was also educated there and was known for her fine embroidery work, a major activity of the Abbey. The Bayeux Tapestry was sewn in England, not in France. Originally in nine panels, the tapestry was sewn together after the embroidery was completed. Many scholars assert that these panels were farmed out to nunneries, each convent receiving the cartoon for a specific portion of the narrative. A well substantiated legend places Gunhild working on a panel at Wilton Abbey and having to endure the grief and humiliation of her father’s death and desecration at Hastings.
Bishop Odo is seen fighting in the battle. He carries a mace rather than a sword. Clergy were not allowed to draw blood, but no law prohibited them from battering a soldier to death with a club! Odo commissioned the work for his cathedral in Bayeux, dedicated in 1077. The tapestry has sustained a colorful history. During the French Revolution, it was confiscated as public property and used to cover military wagons! Today, the tapestry resides in the Cathedral Museum.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a visual document of a monumental event. Whether or not the events are entirely factual, it provides a study in medieval clothing, arms, and political/ceremonial events. The tapestry is 68.38 metres long by 0.5 metres wide, and is in surprisingly good condition.
Whether you believe that the Norman Conquest was a good thing or that Harold of Wessex was usurped by William (the Bastard) Duke of Normandy, the Bayeux Tapestry remains one of the treasures of medieval art. It is a testament to warfare and to the Anglo Saxons. And then, there’s Odo with his mace, his bishopric, his earldom, and his tapestry! Perhaps he was the only winner in all of this!