The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry


The Bayeux Tapestry is due to travel to England on loan from Bayeux Museum, located in Bayeux, Normandy in 2020, leaving France for the first time in 950 years. While it hasn’t been decided for sure, it has been suggested the tapestry will be relocated to the British Museum when it makes its visit. An important historical document and artwork, the tapestry holds an important place in the history of England-France relations as it displays the link between our two countries. While famously labelled a ‘tapestry’, the design was embroidered onto the cloth, thus making it an embroidery. A tapestry is woven on a loom, while the Bayeux design was sewn onto a linen ground material.  

It is not the first time Britain has shown interest in displaying the tapestry. In 1953 a request for a loan in order to be displayed for the Queen’s coronation was rejected, and in 1966 a second request was denied. The news of France’s change of heart has caused an element of excitement among British scholars who are hoping they will be able to uncover some of the mysteries surrounding it. While there are plenty of theories about the origins of the tapestry, its first written record was in 1476, 400 years after it was thought to have been commissioned. The fragility of the 950 year old tapestry, justifies France’s reluctance to move it and historians and scientists will be conducting tests to discover if the loan will still be possible. It also offers original information independent of other historical sources, and gives historians key insights into not only the events of 1066, but also of elements of social history.

The 70-metre-long tapestry tells the tale of the struggle for the throne after Edward the Confessor’s death on the 5th January 1066. Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson was crowned King much to the outrage of the other claimants to the throne, one of whom was William Duke of Normandy. William declared that Edward had promised him the throne prior to his death, and Harold Godwinson had allegedly promised to aid his rise to the throne. The Battle of Hastings, now on most schools’ history curriculum, raged for just one day on the 14th October, resulting in Harold’s death and William’s coronation on Christmas Day 10 weeks later. The tapestry gives a detailed account of this battle, conveying the chaos of battle in a way that can be understood and enjoyed even if you can’t read Latin. At the time of its commission, this would have meant that the illiterate masses could learn about France’s victory over Britain.

While it is thought that the tapestry was initially displayed in the Bayeux Cathedral, it now presides in the Bayeux Museum. The tapestry has been shown outside Bayeux on a couple of occasions to show patriotism during times of conflict. In 1804 Napoleon put it on display in Paris in anticipation of his impending invasion of England. During the French Revolution it was confiscated to cover military carts. It returned to Paris in 1944 during World War Two. History also speaks of Hitler’s deputy Heinrich Himmler’s interest in the tapestry in August 1944, which he called an ‘Aryan masterpiece’. The Normans were descended from the Vikings, and a perfect example of what the Nazis felt to be a ‘master race’. An artwork created by people who belonged to the ‘superior’ race was incredibly valuable to them. Fortunately, British code-breakers were able to notify the resistance, who drove away the Nazis when they arrived at the Louvre to steal the tapestry and take it back to Germany.

It is believed that the tapestry was made in Winchester or Canterbury, due to the typical English needlework style, which differed according to various areas of England. However its length and size suggests it was custom built for the Bayeux church. It has been suggested that William the Conqueror’s Queen made the tapestry as a gift with the help of her ladies in waiting,and  it is a widely accepted theory that it was embroidered over a period of ten years by skilled nuns from noble families. In 2012 a new theory was brought to light by Alexandra Makin from the University of Manchester, whose research suggests that a group of what we would call professional embroiderers worked on the tapestry.

Eight basic colours of thread are used in the tapestry, brightly coloured dyes were more expensive, and so wine, salts, bark, plants and insects were commonly used to create colour, which was then used to colour the thread. Thread was most commonly made of wool which was washed and spun with a spindle. The employment of embroidery can be dated back to ancient Egypt, with Tutankhamun’s tomb revealing one of the oldest surviving examples of embroidery. Many cultures around the world believed embroidered clothes to be a show of wealth and status throughout history.

Although the tapestry clearly depicts the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, parts of it are still shrouded in mystery. One scene that has baffled historians shows a man and a woman, captioned UBI UNUS CLERICUS UND ÆLFGYVA, which can be translated to ‘Where a certain cleric and Aelfgyva’. It shows a man and woman standing together, with the man reaching out towards her face, yet lack of clear facial expression in both figures makes it unclear what the scene is trying to depict. The cleric’s body language encourages speculation, as his movement could be interpreted as romantic, but also violent. It has been said that the identity of this Aelfgyva must have been well known at the time, as viewers of the tapestry where expected to understand the story and context of her appearance from just one vaguely captioned scene.

In a scene during the depiction of the Battle of Hastings captioned ‘HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST’ (‘Here King Harold has been killed) an Anglo-Saxon soldier is shown with an arrow in his eye. Experts are torn as to whether this soldier is, in fact, Harold or whether one of the other dying soldiers around him is more likely to be the king. However, historian Chris Dennis argued in an article for ‘The Historian’ that the reason for the ambiguousness is that William the Conqueror potentially did not want to be implicated in Harold’s death, due to the instability of his own claim to the throne. Scholar Maggie Kneen said on Good Morning Today “From what I believe the actual arrow was a Victorian addition”, thus bringing the generally accepted theory of the nature of Harold’s death into question.

Whether you’re a historian or just someone who vaguely remembers learning about the Battle of Hastings at school, the arrival of the tapestry in England will surely bring a huge piece of history right to our doorstep. Also known as the first ever comic book, seeing the tapestry in reality rather than from photos will surely spark an interest in the history of Britain and bring the events of the past to life.

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