The making of the Bayeux Tapestry: who made it, how long did it take, and how has it survived?
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. But who made the tapestry and how long did it take? What materials were used and how was it stitched? And how has the tapestry survived for nearly 1,000 years?
Here, Dr Alexandra Lester-Makin explains the making of the Bayeux Tapestry…
Who made the Bayeux Tapestry? How many people were involved in its making?
We have no sources to tell us who made the Bayeux Tapestry; however, most scholars agree that it was made in Norman England, probably by Anglo-Saxon embroiderers. At present we do not know how many people were involved in creating the Tapestry. We can say it would have been embroidered by women because all the surviving evidence demonstrates that only women in early medieval England embroidered.
Men could have created the design, however – there is a famous example where Ӕthelwynn, a 10th-century noblewoman known for her embroidery work, wrote to Saint Dunstan (c924–88) asking him to design an embroidery pattern for a priest’s stole that she and her girls could embroider in gold. Also, monks were well versed in drawing and transferring images onto manuscripts for illumination, so it is not unlikely that men were involved in this part of the process.
Women in Anglo-Saxon England were famed for their embroidery skills. Documentary sources tell us that embroidery was considered a commendable occupation for women in elite circles, while the Domesday Book and the 12th-century chronicle Liber Eliensis both highlight women who embroidered as a profession. Written sources for embroidery production in Normandy point to it being a “worthy occupation” for high-ranking Norman women.
Previously nuns or elite women were thought to have made the Bayeux Tapestry. However, recent research I have undertaken studying the embroidery’s technical attributes as seen on the reverse of the hanging shows the embroidery was stitched to a set standard, indicating a certain level of training. Meanwhile, certain motifs were worked to set formulas – for example, the castles can be divided into three groups: outlines stitched first, then fillings; blocks of colour stitched from left to right and top to bottom; or simply different colours stitched from left to right. This all points to the possibility of three workers (or groups of workers) completing all the castles featured in the tapestry. This, combined with the fact that each of the eight panels of ground fabric was embroidered before they were joined together, means that they could have been worked simultaneously and leads to the conclusion that a sophisticated level of overall organisation was required.
It can therefore be hypothesised that a ‘manager’ was in charge of the production process. This person would have needed knowledge of embroidery working practices, so it is likely that it would have been a professional embroiderer who was familiar with training and organising others and had experience working on large commissions. This level of organisation would need to have taken place in a professional workshop-like setting. Anglo-Saxon charters give examples of possible workshops – for instance, one dating to the ninth century records Bishop Denewulf of Worcester giving an embroiderer named Eanswitha an estate as payment for looking after and making textiles for the church. This estate most likely housed some form of workshop, much as other central estates are known to have done for textile production.
My research, too, has highlighted archaeological evidence for possible embroidery workrooms. Such places would need to have been clean so that dirt could not contaminate the embroidery, and they would also have needed access to good light. Larger and more elaborate pieces of the tapestry would have been attached to a slate frame (a large rectangular frame made of four pieces of wood that slot together), so generous space would have been required. Space would also have been needed to store materials (even if the materials were not being bought in bulk), and for workers to move around and work comfortably. It may be that in good weather, embroidery was undertaken outside under a canopy, much like the illustrations of women weaving depicted in the Utrecht Psalter.
Who commissioned the making of the Bayeux Tapestry?
There is no direct evidence for who commissioned the tapestry. A number of candidates have been postulated including Queen Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor; William the Conqueror; or the monks of St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury. However, most researchers support the suggestion that Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, is the most likely person. However, Elizabeth Carson Paston, Stephen White and Kate Gilbert explored this theory in 2014 and concluded there is no real evidence to support it.
Who was its intended audience?
The answer to this question changes when we consider where the Tapestry was meant to be displayed. If we take recent arguments put forward by Gale Owen-Crocker and Chris Henige, the Tapestry would have been hung in a room in a castle keep, which Henige suggests is Dover Castle. In this case the audience would have consisted of Norman nobles and their families; guests and other dignitaries; and servants/slaves who would have most likely been Anglo-Saxon. Therefore a cross-section of people would have viewed the Bayeux Tapestry.
When and where was the Bayeux Tapestry made? How did it end up in France?
There is no concrete evidence for when the Tapestry was made, nor how it ended up in France. Currently the agreed date for its creation is sometime before the end of the 11th century. Scholars agree that the first positive record of the tapestry in France is the Bayeux Cathedral inventory of 1476. At present we do not know what happened to it between these dates.
Professor George Beech has argued that the tapestry could have been made in France, but most scholars believe it was made in Anglo-Saxon England, with the most likely centre being in or around Canterbury. This is because the artistic style of the tapestry’s design is a type known to have developed in Canterbury during the 11th century, but its precise name is unknown.
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How long would it have taken to make the Bayeux Tapestry?
It is difficult to say how long it took to make and there has been no specific research on this. The answer would depend on how many women were working on the embroidery simultaneously; the size of the building(s) in which it was being made; access to light and access to materials. Any estimation of the time taken to make the tapestry would need to take into account the time taken to manufacture the required materials; plus the time involved in the production of the design itself; plus other logistics. From an embroiderer’s perspective, the stitches employed (more of this anon) are not particularly time-consuming to work.
What is the Bayeux Tapestry made of? What renovations and restoration work have been carried out on the tapestry?
The base textile (ground fabric) of the Bayeux Tapestry is linen. It was stitched with wool threads dyed with natural dyes. A small number of linen threads were also sporadically used.
Over the intervening centuries a number of linen textile patches were added to the back of the tapestry to cover tears and holes. During the 19th century, areas of the missing embroidery were re-stitched with wool thread dyed with chemicals – on the front of the hanging these appear more garish than the original threads. On the reverse, the level of stitch-work is not as neat or precise as the original.
Running along the top of the tapestry is a strip of linen fabric. The French conservators who studied the tapestry during its 1982 conservation thought the strip was old, but they were not sure how old. An early backing was lost during restoration work on the tapestry in the 19th century, therefore a new lining was attached.
The Bayeux Tapestry is not really a ‘tapestry’ at all, but rather an embroidery. Can you explain further?
Correct, the Bayeux Tapestry is actually embroidery. A tapestry is a woven textile where the design is woven into the fabric as the textile is being created on the loom. Embroidery, on the other hand, is stitched onto a piece of textile that is already woven. The design is often, but not always, drawn onto the ground fabric for the embroiderer to follow.
When you view a tapestry the design and the ground fabric appear meshed together because they were created at the same time, whereas when you look at embroidery the stitching often stands proud of the ground fabric. This is particularly true of the Bayeux Tapestry.
What embroidery techniques were used? What can you tell us about the specific ‘Bayeux stitch’ used to make the Bayeux Tapestry?
Four embroidery stitches – stem stitch; split stitch; chain stitch; and laid work – were used on the Bayeux Tapestry. Stem stitch was predominately used as an outline stitch (i.e. for the lettering and as an ‘open’ filling stitch to emulate chain mail). It was occasionally worked more densely to fill in small areas such as a horse’s cheek. Split stitch and chain stitch were used rarely – both were worked as independent lines for objects such as the handle of a spear; ship’s rigging; or to add depth to some letters. All three of these stitches are worked in single and double rows.
Laid work, sometimes called ‘Bayeux Stitch’, is the most predominant stitch. It is used for nearly all fillings throughout the hanging. Variations of this stitch were also popular in 17th-century crewel-work embroidery [a type of surface embroidery using wool]. All the stitches used in the Bayeux Tapestry were popular during the medieval period, with stem stitch, split stitch and occasionally chain stitch being worked in wool and silk threads. Laid work does not survive as well, but there are examples from fragmented hangings discovered in Viking contexts, all worked in wool threads.
Which section(s) of the Bayeux Tapestry do you think would have been the most difficult to make?
This is a difficult question to answer. With regard to the embroidering process it would depend on how the design was divided for each worker (or group of workers). I think that, to begin with, the most difficult sections would have been where complex embroidery covers the seams – for example, the horses depicted in the final battle sequence at seams 5, 7 and 8 (there are a total of eight seams joining nine pieces of ground fabric together which make up the surviving length of the tapestry). Here, the technical evidence shows that workers finished the embroidery on one panel some way short of a seam, while starting it slightly further in at the beginning of the next panel. It is probable that each panel was not worked consecutively or even by the same embroiderer, so each worker would have had to establish how much space to leave in order for the seam to be constructed and to make sure the finished design looked right.
Once the panels were ready to be sewn together, the design would have been matched up but a space would have been left. Once the seam was completed an embroiderer would have finished stitching the design over the completed join. This would have required forethought, vision and creativity, and would likely have been rather an intense mental process. Eventually, of course, it would have become second nature to the embroiderers.
Is it true that the final scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry are missing? If so, what happened and what might they have depicted?
Yes, the final scene (or scenes) are missing. We know that from 1476 onwards, at no time was the tapestry displayed indefinitely, and at other times it was stored in a wooden chest – and much later on a large roller. When textiles are stored and displayed only occasionally, their edges tend to get handled more often – because people need to hold and hoist them as the textile is being taken out of storage, moved into position, hung, tweaked and then later taken down and put back into storage. This leads to more degradation at the edges. It is also possible that when the tapestry was stored in the wooden chest mentioned above, the final scene(s) were laid on top, making them more vulnerable to damage. In fact, we are lucky any of the Bayeux Tapestry survived at all!
Most scholars believe the final scene(s) of the tapestry would have depicted the lead up to and the coronation of Duke William as king of England, as a fitting end to the story being told. It would also make sense from design a perspective: Gale Owen-Crocker has shown that if the tapestry was hung in a square room of a secular building (possibly a castle keep, as suggested above), the layout design is geometric, with particular motifs mirroring each other across the display space. As such, the coronation of William would mirror the first scene in which King Edward is seated on his throne.
How has the Bayeux Tapestry survived over the centuries?
The Bayeux Tapestry has survived due to a fortunate set of circumstances. Although we do not know how or when the hanging arrived at Bayeux Cathedral, the fact that it did is an important part of its survival story. Stored in a religious setting and given special status, the tapestry was likely displayed only occasionally. As such it was handled less frequently than other hangings that would have adorned secular buildings, meaning there was less opportunity for damage, loss or destruction.
The Bayeux Tapestry has also, through history, become an icon for different political personalities such as Napoleon and the Nazis who studied and kept it safe in order to highlight their political messages (of French military might over the English; and German pan-nationalism respectively).
Finally, the Bayeux Tapestry’s importance as a cultural artefact has ensured that it has been kept safe and well-looked after – particularly in the modern era, by a trained and knowledgeable multi-disciplinary team at the Bayeux Museums Department.
If the Bayeux Tapestry comes to Britain, as has been suggested by the French president Emmanuel Macron, how would it be transported? Would it survive the journey? And how might it be displayed?
This is a question best answered by the conservators and curators in Bayeux – they know and understand the needs of the tapestry better than anyone else and I believe the final decision as to whether the hanging can and should be moved should lie with them. They are able to assess all aspects of the tapestry’s needs – from its vulnerability as an almost 1,000-year-old textile; the logistics involved in its transportation; what sort of container would be required; and, if they deemed it safe to travel, how it should be displayed in Britain. None of these are easy questions to answer.
At present the Bayeux Tapestry is displayed in a strictly controlled environment: bullet-proof glass; climate control inside the casing; and strict protocols about who can access the tapestry. These conditions would have to be replicated during transit and also in its new display space in Britain. The tapestry’s fragility means that how it is handled, packed and later displayed needs careful consideration in order to prevent further deterioration.
What does the future hold for the Bayeux Tapestry?
I believe the future of the Bayeux Tapestry is exciting. There are plans for a purpose-built museum in Bayeux to house and look after the tapestry and to develop its material context, which is such an important aspect of its story. Personally, I hope there will opportunities for further non-intrusive technical study of the embroidery during its conservation. For me, this would offer an opportunity to study by eye and microscope the way the stitching was constructed and how threads were utilised, and to look for working as seen on the reverse of the tapestry. I would also like to analyse the embroidery in tandem, from the obverse and reverse, to see if individual workers can be identified. I believe this will tell us more about how the tapestry was created and also the working methods and organisation employed in the production of embroidery during the early medieval period more generally.
Alexandra Lester-Makin has a PhD in early medieval embroidery from the University of Manchester and is also a professional embroiderer. To read more about the Bayeux Tapestry, click here.
This article was first published on History Extra in October 2018