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.

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.

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