The Bayeux Tapestry, a Breathtaking Window into Medieval History

By Mona Kreidl-Dear

What is the Bayeux Tapestry?

The Bayeux Tapestry is an enchanting piece of medieval art that is visually pleasing and brings the story of the Norman invasion of England to life with palpable passion. The most important features of the tapestry are the brilliantly detailed and spirited description of the conquering of England by the Normans and the depiction of everyday medieval life. These features are depicted via expressive characters combined with allegories and fables. The viewer is able to interpret these events through the stunning craftsmanship of the Anglo-Saxon embroiderers who used great detail and vivid colors in order to animate the tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry is impressive in size, measuring over two hundred feet long, and twenty inches in width.

Scenes from famous medieval events

The stories of the Norman invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings are significant and familiar parts of medieval history. Illustrated within the tapestry are several important events that led up to the Battle of Hastings as well as the visual preservation of medieval life.

Some of the most significant events exhibited within the tapestry are Duke Harold Godwinson usurping the crown after the death of Edward the Confessor, the voyage and preparation for battle by William the Conqueror, the Battle of Hastings itself, and the famous episode of the death of Duke Harold that resulted in the Norman victory. Due to the discovery and preservation of the Bayeux Tapestry, one is able to easily comprehend the importance of the Battle of Hastings.

A specific date for the completion of the Bayeux Tapestry is not known. The first written recording of its existence was in 1476 in a written inventory of the treasury of Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry was most likely commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, and made around 1077.

Using the word “tapestry” is a misnomer. It is actually large-scale embroidery that was sewn by hand rather than created on a loom. The Bayeux Tapestry is impressive in size, measuring over two hundred feet long, and twenty inches in width. In order to craft such a large masterpiece in a relatively short period of time, it would have been easier and faster for the seamstresses to embroider larger panels of fabric.

The tapestry is made up of nine sections that were sewn together after each panel was embroidered. The seams were skillfully stitched in order to hide the join lines and were added after the embroidery was completed. Moreover, the use of trees, long human forms, and pillars helped to further conceal the seams.

Certain embroidered fables in the tapestry symbolized a classic moral lesson; one must be true to one’s promises or reap the consequences.

Techniques used in the tapestry

There were ten colors used in the Bayeux Tapestry, including two shades of red, two shades of yellow, three shades of green, and three shades of blue. The use of these different tones helped to emphasize depth, shadow, and variety within all the characters that creates the feeling of animation within the piece. In addition to varying tones of color, the tapestry has a border above and below each scene that works like the frame of a painting.

Each border consists of fables, animals, people conducting various activities, and various flora. Certain embroidered fables in the tapestry symbolized a classic moral lesson; one must be true to one’s promises or reap the consequences. Furthermore, the embroidered fables help to display the foreshadowing of the end of the Anglo-Saxon reign. This is shown via the modifications of the shapes of the animals and their habitat within the borders. This change in shape is allegorical, which perhaps represents the impending victory of the Normans.

Filled with action

The tapestry has several key events that aid in the dynamism of the piece and gives the viewer a window into the events prior, during, and at the end of the Battle of Hastings. The first event that ignited the Norman invasion of England was Duke Harold Godwinson betraying his oath to William the Conqueror and receiving the crown of England.

This elaborate scene shows both the death of Edward the Confessor on January 6, 1066 and then the crowing of Duke Harold Godwinson the next day. Also, one can see Halley’s comet appear, which was considered a bad omen. Since this was a piece of art that was presented from a pro-Norman perspective, the comet could have represented the foreshadowing of victory.

Additionally, there are empty ominous ships in the border below that symbolize and foreshadow the eminent invasion of the Normans. Now, King Harold’s discontent is seeing this omen as he tries to look away from the comet, almost as if he were reassuring his people that it would not affect his reign. Unfortunately, the next scene of the tapestry is the climactic point in which William the Conqueror learns of Harold’s treachery and decides to invade England and take back the crown that was promised to him.

The viewer is given a window into medieval life, which shows the various steps required for shipbuilding during the Middle Ages.

Many preparations were made prior to the invasion of England. The viewer is given a window into medieval life, which shows the various steps required for shipbuilding during the Middle Ages.

It is not coincidence that the ships are reminiscent of the Viking long ship. Two different types of ships are shown in the tapestry, one for transporting men and the other for horses. The historian Lucien Musset explains the sea transportation of the time: “Most of the ships carry men (it is not possible to distinguish soldiers from sailors), but some carry not only men but also horses (up to ten).”

Not only was shipbuilding incredibly laborious, the production of weaponry and armor was as well. This is also shown in the following scene that demonstrates the preparation for battle, which includes the loading of weapons, horses, and a generous supply of wine. The tapestry then shows a rather congested sea of ships in a small body of water. T

he ships are overcrowded with soldiers and horses, which do not appear calm. This portrayal gives the viewer a sense of discomfort and tension. Furthermore, these scenes on the sea utilize several panels that represent what would have been a long and difficult journey across the channel.

In the next scene, one can see the preparation rituals of feasting and battle practice during the medieval era. The steps of preparation are presented in great detail including a wooden castle as the temporary home of the Normans in the background. Additionally, the facial expressions of the Normans depict their pride, bravery, and jovial attitude in the face of eminent danger.

The Battle of Hastings

The Battle of Hastings took place on October 14, 1066. This important and decisive event is the most detailed rendering of all the scenes within the tapestry. The scenes are crowded, colorful, and tense. The beginning of the battle in the Bayeux Tapestry shows the cavalry advancing.

The horses are displayed with all the available colors in order to distinguish each Norman soldier as an individual as they advance towards their enemy. The tapestry portrays William the Conqueror as a valiant commander, rousing his army for the attack. The Norman soldiers are illustrated on giant mounts with heavy armor, broad shields, and advanced weaponry versus the infantry of the English. Arrows are flying throughout the battle scenes giving the sense of motion, action, and fear. We also see the soldiers succumbing to their fates as their body parts consume the bottom border.

The portrayal of the abhorrent realities of war is manifested via the amazing needlework, magnificent detail of each soldier and animal, and intense colors that appear to correspond to the atrocities of war. It is necessary to artistically exaggerate these effects within this art form in order to relay the carnage and strife of war: “the extent to which some of the details of arms and armour derive from conventional artistic templates rather than the real battle is debated.

Nevertheless it is undeniable that the artist captures the essence of the contest in a flowing series of brilliant and memorable pictures.” Ultimately, the viewer is transported into this climactic scene and the tension and rapid movement of battle is noticeable.

Another important scene within the battle is that of William revealing his face to his soldiers. During battle, a nasty rumor was spread that William had been killed during the siege. This was not accurate. In the tapestry, William exposes his face to his soldiers, giving them the motivation to move forward.

This section of the tapestry would have been important to the Normans as it symbolically predicts the eminent victory of William. Furthermore, it is Bishop Odo who incites the moral of the Norman army to keep moving forward. “The central figure of this scene is Bishop Odo whose intervention is highlighted by the caption: ‘Here, Bishop Odo, holding his staff, encourages the lads.’ A rumour was spreading that Duke William had been killed or seriously wounded.” Duke William and Odo represent the allegory of victory and the need to persevere and win at all costs.

One of the most controversial scenes described in the tapestry is the death of King Harold in the battle. Amatus, a monk at the abbey of Monte Cassino, first wrote the first description of Harold dying due to being shot in the eye by an arrow.

The death of King Harold

It has been suggested that within the tapestry the two Anglo-Saxon figures portray the progression of the death of King Harold; first he was shot in the eye with an arrow, fell to the ground, and then ultimately was killed by a sword. The art historian Carola Hicks appears to concur with this assessment: “The next caption, Here King Harold was Killed spans two figures, the familiar mail-clad warrior clutching the arrow that has penetrated his helmet, and then a second being cut down by the sword of a mounted Norman.” Nevertheless, the death scene of King Harold leads to the end of the tapestry and the Norman victory is undoubted with the retreat of the Anglo-Saxons.

The final panel of the tapestry depicts the last of the Anglo-Saxons fleeing. Unfortunately this portion was badly damaged due to poor storage of the tapestry for many years. The repairs to the end portion of the tapestry were poorly executed, thus it has an almost unfinished appearance. The colors are not as vivid nor the shadowing as bold. Presumably, the final section would have been the crowning of William the Conqueror as King of England on December 25, 1066. The tapestry appears to have made the Anglo-Saxons smaller than the Normans, which perhaps is symbolic of their triumphant victory.

Ultimately, the Bayeux Tapestry is an extraordinary relic that visually transports the viewer to the medieval world. In addition, the Bayeux Tapestry is almost akin to an early graphic novel that is easy to follow and understand. The use of intense colors, superb craftsmanship, detailed characters, the epic story of the Battle of Hastings, turbulent battle scenes, and the depiction of medieval life can be smoothly imprinted into one’s mind.

Notes

1. Musset, Lucien. The Bayeux Tapestry (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2005).
2. Bloch, R. Howard. “A Stitch in Time.” In A Needle in the Right Hand of God : The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making of the Bayeux Tapestry, 81-82. New York: Random House, 2006.
3. “Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry.” Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry at the Museum of Reading. Accessed November 10, 2013, http://www.bayeuxtapestry.org.uk/.
4. Bridgeford, Andrew. 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry (New York: Walker, 2005).
5. Hicks, Carola. The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece (London: Chatto & Windus, 2006).
6. “The Death of Harold.” The Bayeux Tapestry. Accessed November 22, 2013. http://www.bayeux-tapestry.org.uk/deathofharold.htm.

About the Author

Mona Kreidl-Dear

My name is Mona Kreidl-Dear and I was born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I am 38 years old and obtained my BA in European Studies from the University of New Mexico in 2015. I studied European history extensively as an undergraduate and am passionate about the history of France and England, especially gender related issues. I am pursuing my MA in Education with the hope of becoming an educator of social studies. I feel strongly that history can be taught in a fun and highly informative manner that breaks the notion that it is boring. Understating the past in order to either repeat the good aspects or stop the abhorrent ones is essential for the planet to survive, and I will contribute what I am able in order to fulfill that wish.

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