The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most valuable historical records available to us. Created as a celebratory work shortly after the conquest of England by Duke William of Normandy in 1066, the tapestry (in fact not a tapestry but an embroidery) documents the events surrounding the conquest.
What it Tells Us
As an historical source the Bayeux Tapestry tells us much. First and most obvious it shows the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings as well as the course of the battle and its outcome. However, we should bear in mind that this is all from the point of view of the victors, the Normans, and is therefore open to a degree of bias.
For example, Harold Godwineson is depicted as a heroic character, aiding Duke William in his campaign into Brittany in 1064, and is shown to pledge that he would support William’s claim on the English throne, then betraying him when he himself became king following the death of King Edward the Confessor.
What Eludes Us
This is not necessarily the truth. It has been argued that Harold may have been tricked or forced into swearing loyalty to Duke William, having essentially been his prisoner. Swearing an oath under duress is not possible as it has to be made freely, or else is not legitimate. It seems unlikely that Harold would have supported a foreign claim to the English throne, so it may be that the Normans twisted facts and omitted details to support their cause.
Arms and Armour
Few examples of contemporary weapons survive. However the Bayeux Tapestry illustrates the types of arms and armour that both the Anglo-Saxons and Normans used. Normans and the English can be distinguished by their different hair styles (the English have longer hair and some have moustaches, whereas the Normans have close-cropped hair) as well as the different types of weapons held by the figures in the scenes.
While both sides are shown as having kite shields, chainmail and similar helmets, the Norman knights are portrayed as having swords and lances whereas the English have axes and spears.
The depiction of the Saxons using kite shields is a mistake however, as round shields were widely used and other contemporaneous sources support that. Further, the depiction of Norman mail-equipped cavalrymen is also incorrect. The type of mail illustrated was of English design, and if worn would have caused considerable discomfort to both rider and horse.
The case can be made that the Bayeux Tapestry is sympathetic to the English to a degree, suggesting that the patron could see both the English and Norman points of view. Further, the names Wadard, Vital and Turold are mentioned for no clear reason in the embroidery. From other sources we know that they held lands in Kent following the Conquest.
Mistakes in the illustration suggest that the embroidery’s designer had little material to work from in relation to arms and armour. Though these points do not suggest any one person in particular to be the patron of the work, they all give weight to the argument that the Bayeux Tapestry was created in southern England rather than in Normandy.
While there are discrepancies in the embroidery it does illustrate well how the events of the Battle of Hastings took place, as well as the logistical preparations taken by the Normans. Large portions of the embroidery are dedicated to depicting these details, thereby giving us an idea of just how much time and effort must have gone into the preparations.
In the Bayeux Tapestry King Harold is depicted twice where he meets his demise: one illustration with an arrow through his eye and one being slain by a Norman knight, though here the arrow is no longer present.
It appears that the arrow in the first illustration was added at a later date, replacing what may have been needlework representing a lance. Whether or not Harold was in fact shot through the eye, the embroidery nevertheless reinforces William’s claim for the throne. In Medieval times the punishment for perjury was to remove the offender’s eye or eyes, so it is clear that Harold is being portrayed as a perjurer.
Throughout the Bayeux Tapestry there are depictions of animals, many symbolising some of Aesop’s Fables. The fox and the crow, the wolf and the lamb, and the fox and the goat among others are depicted in the embroidery’s margins.
Some of the fables may reinforce the messages of deceit, betrayal and greed of Harold. Others however may simply be present for decoration, having no apparent connotation to the illustrations they appear next to.
In addition to the characters of Aesop’s Fables there are also images of dying, dead and naked characters in sexually explicit poses. Along with the themes of betrayal and vengeance, considerable battle scenes and initial depiction of Harold as being a heroic character there is a strong argument that the Bayeux Tapestry was not made for ecclesiastical display, but rather as a secular epic as historians such as Dodwell have suggested.
Missing End Section
The Bayeux Tapestry tells of the conquest of England, however it does not tell the whole story – the end section is missing. There are eight segments sewn together to form the embroidery, with the third through seventh segments being between 6.6-8.35 metres long. The last segment measures 5.25 metres and finishes abruptly with the English routing following the Battle of Hastings.
If we assume that the missing portion measures between 1.35-3 metres then it is possible that the embroidery may have originally concluded with the fall of London to the Normans along with William’s coronation on Christmas day 1066.
There is something less obvious that the Bayeux Tapestry also tells us. A replica – currently on display in the Reading Town Hall – was begun in 1885 by thirty-five women of the Leek Embroidery Society, taking about a year to produce. The copy differs from the original in that naked figures have not been reproduced, however it is the same size as the original and was created in the same manner, therefore giving an insight into how long the original may have taken to create.