5 Bayeux Tapestry facts: what is it, why was it made and what story does it tell?

The French president Emmanuel Macron recently announced that the Bayeux Tapestry is to go on display in the UK. But what exactly is the tapestry, how old is it, and why is it important?

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman invasion of 1066. The majority of historians now agree that the tapestry was probably commissioned by Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of Duke William. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

David Musgrove, publisher of BBC History Magazine, brings you five need-to-know facts about the Bayeux Tapestry…

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What is the Bayeux Tapestry and what story does it tell?

The Bayeux Tapestry tells one of the most famous stories in British history – that of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, particularly the battle of Hastings, which took place on 14 October 1066.

The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry at all, but rather an embroidery. A tapestry is something that’s woven on a loom, whereas an embroidery is thread stitched onto a cloth background. The tapestry is some 68m long and is composed of several panels that were produced separately and then eventually sewn together to form one long whole. In one case the joining of the panels is inexpertly done, as the marginal lines don’t match up precisely.

The tapestry tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. The action actually starts a couple of years before the set-piece battle of Hastings, with a discussion between England’s King Edward, the Confessor, and his leading noble (who was also his brother-in-law), Harold Godwinson. The upshot of that conversation is that Harold sets off on a ship to France. He is shipwrecked and captured by a local nobleman there, and then is transferred into the hands of the powerful Duke William of Normandy. Curiously, they then head off together on a military adventure in Brittany, which Harold seems to enthusiastically take part in.

Harold’s time in Normandy ends with him making an oath to William on holy relics. The tapestry does not explain precisely what the nature of the oath is, but other Norman-inclined sources tell us that Harold was swearing to be William’s man in England and to uphold his bid to be king on Edward’s death.

Harold then goes back to England and has another meeting with Edward the Confessor. We don’t know what they talk about, but it’s presumably discussing his stay in Normandy. Then Edward dies, and Harold is declared king by the English nobles. A comet shoots through the sky, which is deemed to be a bad omen for Harold.

Then the action swings back to Normandy. William hears of Harold’s accession and immediately starts building a fleet. The ships cross the Channel and the Norman army establishes itself on English soil. They are shown pillaging, feasting and fortifying their position. Then we get to the battle of Hastings itself, which is portrayed in considerable detail. The upshot of course is that King Harold is slain, with the defeated Englishmen being shown fleeing the field in the last scene of the tapestry.

The ending is abrupt and many people have pondered on whether the tapestry was not actually finished, or has lost its final frames at some point over the centuries. If so, the end panels might have shown William being crowned king of England, as that was the ultimate consequence of the Conquest.

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Who was the Bayeux Tapestry made for?

This is a question that has been much discussed by historians over the years. Given the fact that the tapestry broadly celebrates and sanctions William’s Conquest of England, for a long time it was considered to have been the work of his Queen Matilda, and the ladies of her court. That view is out of favour now, and the majority of historians would agree that the most likely patron was Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of Duke William. Odo was a key supporter of the duke and a substantial landowner in both England and Normandy after 1066, as well as being the bishop of Bayeux.

The biggest pointer towards Odo’s likely patronage of the tapestry is that he has a disproportionally large role in the events portrayed, compared to his appearance in other historical accounts of the Conquest. It seems that the designers are going out of their way to stress the importance of Odo in the narrative. On top of that, the key oath scene in which Harold swears to William is depicted in the tapestry as having taken place in Bayeux (Odo’s bishopric), which conflicts with other documents that say the event happened elsewhere in Normandy. Plus, aside from the main historical figures, there is the curious mention of several otherwise insignificant characters in the tapestry, and their names match those of men we know to have been Odo’s retainers.

Other candidates are also in the frame, though: Edward the Confessor’s widow, Queen Edith, has been suggested. She also features in the tapestry and would have had cause to want to show herself in a good light to William after the Conquest, so what better way than commissioning a tapestry that supports his claim to the throne?

Alternatively, it might have been made on the orders of William himself. Clearly he would have been keen to have a permanent record of his victory and his right to have claimed the throne.

Whoever ordered the creation of the tapestry, the follow-up question is – who actually made it? There are a lot of indications to suggest that it was most likely produced in England by English embroiderers. The Latin textual inscriptions above the story-boards use Old English letter forms, and stylistically the work has parallels in Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscripts. Plus, some of the vignettes in the tapestry appear to be based on designs that we know were found in manuscripts held in the library of a monastery in Canterbury, so there are those who argue that it was actually made not just in England, but more precisely in Canterbury.

King Harold's foot soldieres with spears and battle axes, Bayeux Tapestry, Normandy, France, Europe
The battle scenes in the Bayeux Tapestry have taught military historians about fighting techniques in the 11th century. (Photo by Walter Rawlings/Robert Harding/Getty Images)
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When was the Bayeux Tapestry created and why is it important?

We do not have a precise date for when the Bayeux Tapestry was created but the academic consensus is that it must have been produced very soon after the events it depicts. This means that it is a key primary source for students of the Conquest period.

The tapestry contains a considerable amount of information not only about the political events surrounding the Conquest story, but also about other aspects of military, social and cultural history. Historians of clothing have gleaned much about Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman garment styles and fashions from the depictions shown in the tapestry, while academics interested in early medieval ship-building, sailing and carpentry have likewise learnt much from the sections dealing with the construction and voyage of William’s invasion fleet.

Military historians have studied the arms and armour shown in the tapestry and analysed the battle scenes to learn more about military techniques and practice at the time. Architectural experts have also been able to interrogate the tapestry for information about building types and materials in the 11th-century from the portrayals of the various structures shown in the story.

So the tapestry is a rich source of information on many aspects of Anglo-Norman life, society, culture and history. But more than that, it’s an astounding and amazing survival of a work of art that is almost 1,000 years old. Its significance derives as much from that as from what it tells us when we study it.

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Is the Bayeux Tapestry a reliable source of information?

Is any historical primary source of information entirely reliable? No – unless you understand the context of the time in which it was produced, and the motives of those producing it. That’s why the question of who had the tapestry made is critical in helping us to interpret what it tells us. As discussed above, the most likely candidate as the patron of the tapestry is the Norman nobleman Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror. However, layered on top of that is the likely fact that the actual design and embroidery work was probably done in England, by English hands.

So, although the tapestry is on the face of it a work of art designed to celebrate and legitimise William’s conquest of England, there is also an undercurrent of sympathy to the defeated Anglo-Saxon cause running beneath it. In some ways, the tapestry appears to agree with the Norman narrative of events, as described in the work of writers such as William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers. However, it is also surprisingly respectful of William’s enemy, King Harold II, who is shown as a great and brave lord, rather than just a deceitful usurper.

What’s important to note is that as a source of information on the political events to the Conquest period, the tapestry actually offers very limited definitive evidence. The Latin inscriptions that run above the pictorial narrative are terse and limited in number. This ambiguity means we do not know, for instance, what Edward the Confessor and Harold are discussing in the first scene of the story. Nothing is said other than ‘King Edward’ above the frame, so we are entirely in the dark about the meeting and must infer from other sources as to what the designers are trying to tell us. That is a problem that persists throughout the tapestry, where we are constantly invited to infer what is happening from the pictures, rather than being told what is happening with words.

Men at work on ships, detail of Queen Mathilda's Tapestry or Bayeux Tapestry depicting Norman conquest of England in 1066, France, 11th century.
Maritime historians have learnt much about ship-building from the scenes in the Bayeux Tapestry depicting William’s fleet under construction. (Photo by DEA/M. Seamuller/Getty Images)
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What was the Bayeux Tapestry used for?

This is a difficult question to answer, if we are focusing on the immediate post-Conquest period, because we have no evidence whatsoever to call upon. Assuming that the patron of the tapestry was, as is widely accepted today, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, then it may have been used to decorate the cathedral that he had constructed in Bayeux during his lifetime. It may even have been designed as an ornament for the consecration of that building in 1077, though some historians dispute that.

Presumably whoever did have the tapestry made would have wanted others to come view it and share in the story it tells, as well as be impressed by the magnificence of both the patron (for being the benefactor of such a great work), and of Duke William himself for orchestrating his victory. How that would have happened is not clear – if it was displayed in a cathedral, illumination would have been dim to say the least.

The tapestry could perhaps instead have been displayed in a secular building, or it could have been displayed temporarily and then stored away, maybe being brought out for particular gatherings, when there was someone on hand to tell the story in person as well.

What we do know is that from at least 1476 onwards, the tapestry was held in Bayeux Cathedral (we don’t know where it was prior to that) because it’s detailed in an inventory of that date. It was traditionally brought out for display in the cathedral at a certain point in the year, and then stored away. This helps to explain why the tapestry survived at all – it wasn’t on permanent view and thus not subject to the risks of being regularly exposed to the elements.

As we move forward into more recent times, the tapestry has continued to have a propaganda purpose. Napoleon considered it important when he was readying his plans to invade Britain at the start of the 19th century and had it brought to Paris for display. In the Second World War it was again deemed a useful tool by the Nazis, where it was studied as part of a research project to demonstrate the Germanic origins of European culture (and moved to Paris for safe-keeping).

David Musgrove is the publisher and former editor of BBC History Magazine.

Will the Bayeux Tapestry actually come to Britain? Our panel of six experts offer their opinion here…

Join us for a day of talks and discussion with five experts on the Bayeux Tapestry at St Anne’s College, Oxford on Sunday 17 June 2018. Our speakers will explore the tapestry and the era that created it, and share the latest ideas and research about the monumental embroidery. The talks will be followed by audience Q&As and book signings and the ticket price also includes refreshments and a buffet lunch.

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