Bayeux unravelled: the scenes behind the threads

It is the most significant and widely studied record of the tumult of 1066, yet its threads still hold mysteries for the modern historian. Gale R Owen-Crocker unravels the stories behind some of the tapestry's key scenes.

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This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The Story of the Normans’ bookazine, first published in August 2016

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On 14 October 1066, the Normans triumphed at the battle of Hastings. In doing so they wiped out many men of the ruling class of Anglo-Scandinavian England, and through the subsequent Conquest they brought drastic changes, including in the ownership of land, organisation of the church and language.

Events leading up to the battle, and the conflict itself, are depicted in the Bayeux tapestry, a 68-metre-long embroidered frieze probably made within 20 years of the Conquest. The largest surviving non-architectural artefact from the Middle Ages, the tapestry tells the story as a conflict between two powerful rivals for the English throne: Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king, and William, duke of Normandy.

Surprisingly, since the tapestry largely reflects the viewpoint of Norman historians, the narrative begins with King Edward and Harold, about two years before the battle. Since the last part of the tapestry is lost, its story now also ends with Harold, killed on the battlefield, after which the English flee. Perhaps originally William reappeared, possibly for his coronation in London on Christmas Day 1066, thus balancing the opening scene of King Edward enthroned. The tapestry has many such anticipations and echoes.

The Bayeux tapestry was probably designed in England, since several scenes are copied from illuminated manuscripts in the libraries of St Augustine’s Abbey and Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury. It may also have been made in England, since English embroidery was already prestigious. It has been in Bayeux since at least 1476, when it was being used as a hanging in Bayeux cathedral once a year. The likely connection that took it from Canterbury to Bayeux is Odo, half-brother of William. He was both Earl of Kent and Bishop of Bayeux.

Despite the attention it has received, the tapestry still presents puzzles. Here we will examine three scenes and three longer sections and discuss the questions they raise.

Harold says farewell to King Edward

What was the aged ruler saying to the future king?

Détail Tapisserie de Bayeux

Détail Tapisserie de Bayeux

The opening scene depicts Edward the Confessor, (1) a mature ruler (he was about 61 in 1064) of a wealthy kingdom: his clothes are gold-trimmed and his palace grand. The man facing him, evidently taking leave of the king, is probably his brother-in-law and most powerful subject, Earl Harold Godwinson (2), and the next scene (not shown here) names him setting off on a journey. We are not told where Harold intended to go, nor why. Is the king’s finger-to-finger gesture (3) one of support or disagreement? Is Harold heading for Normandy, taking a message from King Edward to confirm that Duke William is his designated heir; or to attempt to recover his brother and nephew who have been held hostage in Normandy since 1051? Perhaps, though, he is simply setting off on a hunting trip, since he takes hounds and a hawk with him (shown in subsequent scenes).

The Ponthieu digression

What did the designers think of Harold’s captor?

Wherever Harold meant to go, his journey goes horribly wrong when his ship lands in Ponthieu, northern France, and he is captured by the local count, Guy (1). Humiliated and stripped of his sword (2), Harold is rescued when a messenger reports his plight to Duke William who sends his thuggish-looking envoys to threaten or bribe Guy (3) to hand over his prisoner.

The tapestry designer appears particularly hostile to Guy of Ponthieu (who, incidentally, enjoys more costume changes than anyone else in the tapestry). He keeps a frivolous court – we see what is probably a jester, in a fringed costume (4), and a dwarf (5); his dubious sexuality is implied by him clasping a sword by the blade (is it blunt?) (6), his effete stance and the ‘half-men’ in the upper border (7). He rides a horse with ass’s ears (8) for his meeting with William – the implication being that Guy is a fool.

Harold’s oath to Duke William

A pledge made in bad faith or under duress?

Harold and William have come to an agreement and Harold has joined William’s campaign against Brittany. William has rewarded him with armour, a doubtful honour since it makes Harold a vassal of the duke of Normandy. Probably counting himself lucky to get away in one piece, Harold is on the brink of embarking for England when William demands he take an oath, as shown above.

The tapestry is the only historical source that places the oath-taking in Bayeux. We are not told what Harold had to promise, but he looks unhappy about it, as his right hand makes a gesture of oath-taking on a portable reliquary (1) and his left rests on a reliquary on an altar (2). Norman historians later called him a perjurer for reneging on his oath to William and taking the throne of England for himself. William watches, in authoritative pose; the animal head on his seat (3) smiles smugly.

The death of King Edward

Who did the Confessor intend as his successor?

Edward died, childless, on 5 January 1066. The tapestry scene corresponds to the deathbed described in the contemporary Life of King Edward: Queen Edith weeping at the king’s feet (1), the archbishop of Canterbury (2) and Harold (3) present. Again Edward and Harold touch hands. The Life says the dying king entrusted queen and kingdom to Harold, but what did that mean? Was Harold to be regent until William arrived? Or until the king’s great-nephew Edgar grew up? Or did Edward mean Harold to become king?

The tapestry later shows councillors offering Harold the crown, and his subsequent coronation. Did the king make a deathbed gift of the kingdom to his brother-in-law, the capable man on the spot as invasion threatened? If so, should that have overruled a promise made to his Norman cousin in 1051? Indeed, did Edward really make that promise to William?

The Normans prepare to invade

Trees are felled and boats are loaded up for war

When news arrives in Normandy that Harold has taken the throne, William (1), advised by his half-brother Odo (2), bishop of Bayeux (who many think was the commissioner of the tapestry), plans invasion. The designer ignores the larger council that William consulted and makes it a family affair. Borrowing scenes indirectly from Trajan’s Column in Rome and from an illustrated biblical manuscript in Canterbury (the ship-builders are copied from Noah building the ark) (3), the designer conveys the enormity of the preparations. The servants pulling the cart make traditional gestures of puzzlement (4) (“Shouldn’t oxen be doing this? They do on Roman sculptures!”).

Adopting the daring tactic of embarking horses so they can fight as cavalry, the Normans set off to cross the Channel  (5) overnight, landing in Pevensey on 28 September 1066. Harold was in the north, having won a decisive victory against the forces of the king of Norway and his own brother Tostig at Stamford Bridge on 25 September. The tapestry ignores this triumph.

The battle of Hastings

Is it Harold with an arrow in his eye?

Despite Harold’s forces being tired and depleted by their campaign in the north, they held their own for some time in the long battle of Hastings. Norman horsemen are shown tumbling horribly at a fortified ditch (1), and William (2) is forced to lift his helmet and show his face to prove that he still lives. His brother, Bishop Odo (3), gallops onto the battlefield brandishing a club, to rally the troops.

The famous arrow in Harold’s eye is a modern repair. Whether the tapestry originally showed an arrow (4), or something else, such as a spear, is disputed, also whether this figure represents Harold or another warrior. The tapestry doesn’t usually show a person twice in the same scene. Clearly, though, Harold is cut down by a sword and killed (5), hic Harold rex interfectus est. This was the deciding factor in the battle, marking the end of the Anglo-Saxon era and the beginning of the Norman.

Gale R Owen-Crocker is professor emerita at the University of Manchester, specialising in Anglo-Saxon culture and medieval textiles. She is the author of The Bayeux Tapestry: Collected Papers (Ashgate, 2012)

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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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