1066 and the Bayeux Tapestry

It’s famed as one of the most striking and important pieces of medieval art but the Bayeux Tapestry also happens to be a leading primary source for the events of 1066.

Making the Bayeux Tapestry 

Strictly speaking the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t a tapestry, it’s a linen embroidery made of nine panels which were sewn together. It measures an impressive 68 metres in length (about 223 feet) and is half a metre high.
Originally the Tapestry’s linen canvas was grey in colour but due to overexposure to daylight, it has changed to an off-white shade. This has, however, created the perfect backdrop for the array of colours used in the decoration of the Tapestry. These colours were derived from fermenting three plants – Woad, Madder and Dyer’s Rocket. Although they have faded over the centuries, I can testify to how bright and amazing the Tapestry still is.

Who Made the Bayeux Tapestry?

It was once believed that the Tapestry was commissioned by Queen Matilda and was painstakingly produced by her ladies. Historians, however, now believe that it was made at the request of Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother to Duke William. He intended it to hang in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux, which was consecrated in 1077.

Historians disagree on exactly who made it and where it was made. Many argue that it was made in England, perhaps in Canterbury or Winchester, while others believe it was stitched in France. Either way, its mysterious origins continue to attract scholars but they aren’t the only tantalising part of the Tapestry….

Controversy In the Bayeux Tapestry

In the Tapestry, the story of 1066 is told through a series of illustrated scenes which are annotated in Latin. They are surrounded by an intricately embroidered border, both above and below, filled with pictures of animals, mythical creatures, scenes of daily life in the Middle Ages and, rather controversially, some scenes of an explicit nature.
Take, for example, the scene where Harold, the future king, is captured by Guy and taken to Duke William. In the border below is the image of a naked man holding a pair of reins with a large erection. His arms are open wide to a naked woman, shamefully covering her genitalia (see image).

Yes, you read that right, and this is just one of many scenes which have baffled historians. Some have argued that this border scene is used to draw attention to the treachery that Harold is about to commit; swearing on holy relics that he will help to secure the throne for Duke William. Or perhaps a metaphor for the ‘trap’ that awaits Harold.

The Bayeux Tapestry, housed in the Bayeux Tapestry museum, is an invaluable source for the events of 1066 but even now, a thousand years later, it still has a few secrets of its own.

For evidence that the Tapestry is a piece of Norman propaganda, look no further than the scene of Harold’s oath to William. Everything about this scene justifies William’s invasion of England and  legitimises his claim to the throne. From first glance, the scene is depicted not as a private arrangement between two men, but as a splendid formal ceremony with numerous witnesses. This is not just any promise, this is a sacred oath sworn in front of an altar and over holy relics. Even the positioning of this scene emphasises its importance; the oath appears as the main event in Harold’s stay in Normandy, as the first climax in the events of 1066.

Fables in the Tapestry

As mentioned in the previous blog post, there are many animal illustrations in the Tapestry’s border scenes. Historians have identified many of these as depictions of Aesop’s fables. These fables were popular and well-known among all classes of medieval society and trusted sources of social, political and religious communication. Studies of the Tapestry have revealed that seven of Aesop’s fables appear underneath the depiction of Harold’s visit to Normandy and reinforce the idea that the Tapestry is a piece of Norman propaganda. As H. E. J. Cowdrey has argued, the predominant theme which emerges from the cluster of fables is “hidden danger to the unwary by the crafty and deceitful.” Is Harold this crafty and deceitful figure?

The Real Purpose Of The Tapestry?

Interpreting the Tapestry as a piece of Norman propaganda may be misleading because historians are still unsure about its purpose. Was it intended to be a historical document or, maybe, a piece of entertainment for the new Anglo-Norman aristocracy? Or, did Bishop Odo hope that some moral lessons could be learned from 1066?
One thing is certain: the Bayeux Tapestry is as complex and as fascinating as the events it portrays.
Kaye Jones
Read more in 1066 In An Hour