Why is Harold a hero of the Bayeux Tapestry?

In the wake of the announcement that the celebrated embroidery will be loaned to Britain in 2022, Michael Lewis asks why this exquisite account of the Normans' triumph of 1066 is so sympathetic to the vanquished English

Harold Godwinson is proclaimed king of England in the Bayeux Tapestry. It may have been commissioned by a Norman but this magnificent artwork repeatedly acknowledges the English leader’s piety and courage. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Social media, 24-hour news channels and the printed press have all been abuzz at the announcement that the Bayeux Tapestry is coming to Britain in 2022. And rightly so. Not only is this 70-metre-long embroidery one of the most celebrated of all medieval works of art, it also illustrates the best-known date in English history. 1066 will always be remembered as the year in which England’s relationship with continental Europe was utterly redefined – though, in this instance, not by choice.

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Two-and-a-half centuries ago, William Stukeley, secretary of the Society of Antiquaries of London, described the tapestry as “indubitably the noblest monument of English antiquity abroad”. This came as a shock to French antiquarians, who had long believed that the embroidery was made in Normandy. They thought it was commissioned by Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, as a lasting legacy to her husband’s defeat of the usurper Harold Godwinson. Today, most scholars side with Stukeley. They contend that the tapestry was made on the orders of William’s half-brother, Odo, bishop of Bayeux – and worked by English hands in England.

Odo was certainly a man with the resources and the incentive to commission the tapestry. Domesday Book tells us that he possessed landed wealth in the newly conquered Norman territory second only to the king. And what better way for Odo to burnish his reputation than by immortalising his role in the conquest of England? Sure enough, the Bayeux Tapestry depicts Odo playing a critical role in William’s victory over the Anglo-Saxons.

Made in England

But, given that Odo was a high-ranking Norman – and probably had the tapestry designed for the consecration of his great cathedral in Bayeux in 1077 – why are experts so confident it was made in England?

One clue lies in its style. The tapestry’s designer almost certainly consulted English manuscript illuminations for inspiration (the human figures in the tapestry have the same vitality as those in Anglo-Saxon illuminations). Tellingly, these manuscripts – such as the Old English Hexateuch, now in the British Library – probably resided in Canterbury. This marks the Kentish town out as a firm contender for being the tapestry’s birthplace.

Further supporting evidence is provided by fact that Odo’s henchmen appear in the Bayeux Tapestry, and these were known to be men who had influence in Kent. What’s more, the tapestry’s Latin spellings betray an English hand: it contains English spellings of words, and there is the occasional use of Old English letter forms.

Another reason that experts believe the tapestry was made in England is the sheer quality of Anglo-Saxon embroidery in the late 11th century. Even the chronicler William of Poitiers – not known for his fondness of Anglo-Saxon England – accepted that “the women of the English people are very skilled in needlework and weaving gold thread”. If a man like Odo was to commission an elaborate, conspicuous celebration of his countrymen’s finest hour, then it would only make sense to employ the best embroiderers that money could buy.

The embroiderers’ nationality isn’t the only surprise contained within the Bayeux Tapestry. It’s a well-worn cliché that history is written by the victors – and rarely in medieval history did the victors waste any time in trashing their vanquished foes’ reputation, damning them as villains well deserving of their fate. Yet this doesn’t happen in the Bayeux Tapestry. Its creators seemingly went out of their way to cast the Anglo-Saxons in a sympathetic light.

The chief beneficiary of this apparent generosity is the aforementioned Harold Godwinson (later King Harold II), who would famously lose his life at the battle of Hastings. From the moment the English nobleman is shown in the tapestry’s early scenes praying at Bosham Church in Sussex (a sign of his piety), he is given a surprisingly favourable hearing.

Shortly after his church visit, Harold embarks on an expedition overseas on the orders of his king, Edward the Confessor. The tapestry does not tell us what that expedition was, but it appears it was to negotiate a treaty with Duke William of Normandy. Whatever the nature of Harold’s mission, it soon goes horribly wrong, for the English earl is shown steering off course as he crosses the Channel and being captured by Count Guy of Ponthieu. Yet even when he is handed over to William as a prisoner, Harold maintains – in the tapestry’s version of events, at least – the trappings of power.

Harold was now living as a guest of his future nemesis, the man who would end his life. But the tapestry is in no rush to rubbish him. On the contrary, it depicts Harold rescuing two men from the river Couesnon while supporting William on a military campaign against Conan, a rebellious Breton lord. William was, it seems, grateful – which is perhaps why the tapestry depicts him conferring arms on the English earl.

A sacred oath

Soon after, we arrive at one of the most intriguing scenes of the entire tapestry – one in which Harold is shown swearing a sacred oath upon holy relics. This image has inspired one of the great unanswered questions of English history: did Harold promise to stand aside and let William have the English crown on King Edward’s death? William of Poitiers was in no doubt as to the answer. In his account of the Conquest, the Norman chronicler records that Harold “pronounced clearly and of his own free will… that he would be the agent of Duke William at the court of King Edward for as long as the king lived, that he would try with all his authority and power to ensure him the possessions of the kingdom of England on Edward’s death…”

You might expect the Bayeux Tapestry to take a similar line to William of Poitiers, and accuse Harold of making a promise he had no intention of keeping. But it doesn’t. In fact, if a scene showing a meeting between King Edward and Harold on his return home is anything to go by, the tapestry is more aligned with the English version of events.

That scene seems to depict Edward admonishing Harold. Again, the narrative is light on detail, but the visual depictions appear to match an account by the English historian Eadmer, in which Edward says to Harold: “Did I not tell you that I knew William, and that your going [to Normandy] might bring calamity upon the kingdom.” The inference of this quote is clear: Edward did not send Harold across the Channel to offer Duke William his throne.

Whatever Harold did or did not promise William during his sojourn in Normandy, the two were set on a collision course by the death of the ageing English king, Edward, in January 1066. The tapestry’s coverage of this momentous event is complex, the narrative moving from right to left in order to establish a direct visual connection between Edward’s death and Harold’s coronation. First, we see Edward’s burial at Westminster Abbey, one of the earliest Romanesque buildings in England, and a church that the king himself had built. Next, we are shown Edward’s death on the upper level of a two-storey building. Among the companions gathered around the ailing king is his queen, Edith. But it is not his wife to whom Edward holds out his hand. That honour is bestowed on Harold.

Norman chroniclers suggest that Edward was delirious at the point of death, his words frightening those around him. Once more, the tapestry takes an alternative view. Its imagery better parallels the account served up by the Vita Edwardi Regis, a manuscript commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, in c1067. Edward, we’re told, “addressed his last words to the queen… and stretching forth his hand to his governor, her brother, Harold, he said: ‘I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection.’”

What exactly does this mean? As far as the English were concerned, Edward had an heir, Edgar Ætheling. But he was just a boy, and probably considered too young to rule. So perhaps Edward had meant that Harold would ‘govern’ in Edgar’s stead.

But there’s a problem with this scenario. In the late 11th century, a strong ruler was critical to a kingdom’s prosperity – whether or not he was a direct successor to the deceased king. With rival claimants to the throne circling in Normandy and Norway, this was especially true of England in 1066.

All that may have persuaded Edward that Harold was an excellent candidate for the job – and not as a mere regent. After all, Harold had earned Edward’s trust. He was a skilled negotiator. He had ousted his brother Tostig as Earl of Northumbria to protect Edward’s kingdom from rebellion. And he had proven himself in battle, particularly in dealing with the Welsh.

Stormy times ahead

We’ll never know Edward’s true intentions as he lay on his deathbed, but the tapestry tells us what happens next: after being elected to the throne by the English witan (ruling assembly), Harold is crowned in Westminster and declared “Rex Anglorum”. But there’s a warning. As Harold is proclaimed king, a fiery star (Halley’s Comet) is sighted in the skies. To many contemporary observers, this could only mean one thing: stormy times ahead.

That storm broke over Anglo-Saxon England in the summer and autumn of 1066 as William assembled a huge fleet, led it across the Channel and confronted an English army just outside Hastings. As these events unfold, Harold appears less frequently in the tapestry than before. But its creators still seem to be at pains to portray him as a skilled military leader, clearly depicting him directing the English during the battle.

According to the tapestry, the battle is a close-run thing. As a rumour sweeps through the Norman ranks that William has been killed, some of the younger mounted knights are shown fleeing the battlefield, only to be rallied by the heroic Odo.

The Bayeux bishop’s intervention is, it seems, telling. The tide soon turns in the Normans’ favour and, shortly after, Harold is shown apparently with an arrow in his eye. His demise is confirmed in another scene showing him being hacked down.

Fighting to the end

Harold’s was a brutal death. But not a shameful one. In late Anglo-Saxon tradition, it was a noble thing to die in battle – and the English king had stood to face his fate rather than run for his life.

Ironically, had Harold fled the battlefield, the Norman Conquest might not have happened. William needed a decisive victory more than Harold (who could conceivably have run away to fight another day). Perhaps, then, Harold’s courage – a quality with which he is imbued throughout the tapestry – was his greatest failing on 14 October 1066.

But one question remains: why exactly was the tapestry’s creators eager to laud the English leader’s qualities, when many Normans’ instinct may have been to do the exact opposite?

Perhaps the answer lies in the events of Christmas Day 1066 when, following his advance on London, William was crowned king of England in Westminster Abbey. When those inside the church shouted their acclaim for the newly crowned king, the Norman guards outside – fearing that the cries heralded an English uprising – began setting fire to houses in the vicinity. This should have been the conqueror’s moment of triumph but, thanks to the guards’ frayed nerves, it ended in chaos.

This misunderstanding shows that, even after the annihilation of much of the English aristocracy, the Norman regime was by no means secure. It was haunted by the prospect of an English revolt.

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.

Dr Michael Lewis is an expert on the Bayeux Tapestry and a member of the Bayeux Tapestry Scientific Committee. He works at the British Museum.

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. Tickets are on sale now and BBC History Magazine subscribers can enjoy a discount – click here to buy.

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This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine