I first saw the Bayeux Tapestry 50 years ago. I vividly remember looking at it, but nothing about getting there or who else was present. On this trip people like to tell me about it. It was in the Bishop’s palace then, I am told more than once. Thank you, I know. I remember the room, walking slowly around the walls on which the famous tapestry was displayed. It’s much smaller than you think. Thank you, yes, I’ve seen it before. Why do they still say that Harold was killed by an arrow in his eye? That was disproved a long time ago. I did know this had been challenged, but it is a compelling image. History is written by the victors, you know. Yes I know.
A visit to Bayeux
So what am I doing writing about the Bayeux Tapestry on a book blog? I’ll make the case that the tapestry is as good as a book. It tells a good story and there are good stories to be told about it too. In June I spent a few days in Normandy in northern France and the highlight of the trip was the visit to Bayeux.
The story of the Bayeux Tapestry (1)
The story told by the tapestry is an historical account of the conquest of Anglo-Saxon England by William of Normandy. The cast of characters are strong: holy King Edward, Duke Harold who fought two major battles in a matter of months and Duke William the Bastard. The story is told that King Edward, being without a son, decides to recommend that William of Normandy will succeed him. Harold, an English duke, sails to France to tell William, but is captured and rescued by the William. Harold swears to support William on Edward’s death, but breaks his promise soon after. William creates a navy and sails across the Channel with his army and defeats Harold in the Battle of Hastings.
The story of the Bayeux Tapestry (2)
Who made the tapestry and why? The conventional story is that Odo, bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William, made it to celebrate the conquest in which he had taken part. It is thought that it was made in Canterbury, probably in the last years of the 11thcentury. The first authenticated reference is not until the 15thcentury, when it was reported that it was displayed annually in July in the Cathedral at Bayeux. The tapestery survived fire at the cathedral, pillaging in the 100 years war, and an attack on the cathedral by the Huguenots in 1562. Napoleon sent it to his museum, later the Louvre. It returned to Bayeux in 1804 where it remained until 1941 when it taken to safety in the Louvre again. It is said that the Germans planned to transfer it to Berlin – perhaps because it was a good example of defeating the English – and were on the point of doing this immediately after the D Day landings in 1945. The plan was detected by the decoders at Bletchley, the Resistance were warned and sent armed men to guard it. It was returned to Bayeux in 1945, and is now housed in a former seminary, converted into a tourist centre for those who want to view it today. There is a copy on display in Reading Museum, made by Victorian embroiderers. President Macron has agreed to lend it to the British Museum, probably in 2022 when the Bayeux museum will be refurbished.
The Bayeux Tapestry
It is not a tapestry at all – tapestries are created on frames. This would be better described as an embroidery – the designed made by stitching in wool on canvas.
The story is told in one long bande desinee, 68.5 metres long; the central panel that tells the story is about 33cms high and has been numbered to 58, probably in the 18thcentury. The central panel is decorated top and bottom with friezes of about 7 or 8 cms. It has been damaged and repaired over the years.
Some details of the Bayeux Tapestry
As we say, history is written by the victors. Women did not feature. There are only 4 women on the tapestry, three of them in the main panel.
- One woman is being abused or chastised physically. It is not clear what is happening in this episode, nor even who Aelfgifu was or why she was being cuffed by the cleric. Or what the man below her is doing.
- When Edward died, it was recorded elsewhere that Queen Edith was present, and an unnamed woman is depicted kneeling and weeping in the tapestry (see above).
- Later we see a woman leading a small boy as they escape a manor set alight by William’s men.
- There is a tiny naked woman with a tiny naked man on the lower frieze below the meeting of Harold and William in France (panel 13). According to my book, it is ‘an erotic scene, the significance of which is a mystery here’.
My favourite detail, among the many beautiful and historically useful illustrations, are the bare legs of the men as they wade in the sea, load horses, build ships, launching, land and so forth. At other times leggings are worn.
There are theses to be written about the illustrations in the friezes. We do not know the significance of the animals, some mythical, birds, snakes, naked men, artisans, farmers, centaurs, amputated limbs, archers, weapons, shields and so forth. The layer under the battle is particularly violent, while the upper row depicts bird after bird interspersed with indeterminate beasts, some of which seem to be shouting at the warriors.
So when I say it’s as good as a book, I mean there is a strong plot, lots of detail, some characterisation of the main players and plenty to argue about. The details of the telling test my O level Latin: most people can understand ET HIC DEFUNCTUS EST. The words are less important than the pictures. Everyone has seen the pictures.
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