Bayeux Tapestry

From Academic Kids

The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry (French: Tapisserie de Bayeux) is not actually a tapestry (that is, a weaving), but is embroidery, and dates from 1077. It is currently to be found in a special museum in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It was made in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and commemorates the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings.


History of the tapestry

The Bayeux tapestry, as it is commonly referred to, is a fascinating piece of work. It is a piece of art that doesn’t just include one scene- it tells an entire story. This famous tapestry used to be attributed to Queen Matilda, William’s wife, but it was probably commissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William of Normandy’s half brother, who is featured often in the tapestry. The tapestry was completed in 1077, 11 years after the famous battle of 1066. The borders of the tapestry are filled with mythological figures, lions, dragons, and scenes from fables, and is 77 yards (roughly 70 meters) long. The tapestry has text in Latin describing what is happening in the scenes. (Setton 207) This work of art includes 623 humans, 202 horses, 41 ships, 2000 Latin words and 8 different colors of yarn. (Baker 275)

The tapestry has a history in and of itself, not to speak of what it depicts. The tapestry was most likely first put on display in the Church of Notre Dame, built by Bishop Odo in 1077. (Baker 275) Then, no mention of it is found for the next 300 years. Then, it was mentioned in 1750 when it was referred to in a book by the name of Palaeographia Britannicus. Soon afterward, the people of Bayeux, who were fighting for the Republic, needed cloth to cover their wagons. As such, the tapestry was removed from the cathedral and used to cover an ammunition wagon. A lawyer saved the tapestry by replacing it with another cloth. In 1803 Napoleon seized it and transported to Paris. Napoleon wanted to use the tapestry as inspiration for his planned attack on England. When this plan was cancelled, the tapestry was returned to Bayeux. The townspeople wound the tapestry up and stored it like a scroll. (Crack 1) The tapestry spent World War 2 wound up in the Louvre. (Setton, 209) Now it is stored in a museum in a dark room with special lighting to avoid damaging it.

Experts now generally concur that the tapestry was made in England. Bishop Odo, William's half brother who also commissioned the work, was based in England. England at this time was known for their excellent embroideries, specifically the town of Canterbury. Also, the text the embroidery includes is Anglo Saxon derived Latin. It is sometimes said to have been made by William's queen, Matilda of Flanders, and her ladies. Indeed, in France it is occasionally known as "La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde" (Tapestry of Queen Mathilda). The embroiderers used wool which had been tinted with vegetable dyes. The colours of muted brick, rust, mustard yellow, olive-green, dark brown and off-white can be found in cloth traditionally woven in the region.

Scholars are divided on who constructed the tapestry. Some historians speculate that youngsters may have helped stitch it based on some of the needlework. (Setton 207) Earlier, it was believed that Queen Matilda constructed the entire tapestry, but this is unlikely. It is certain that there is an artistic flow to the entire piece, which lends credence to the theory that one artist designed it. However, most scholars believe that the designer was a man. The tapestry depicts many bloody battles, and in-depth information on the tactics used during the invasions, such as how the ships were beached, how arrows were fired, etc. The main artist must have been a Frenchman, and a veteran at that. He probably had female seamstresses to assist him, judging but the stitching in some of the sections. Still, the tapestry includes a flashback, and many scenes that could not have been seen by just one man. There was probably a group that got together to recount the narrative. There are eight strips of linen that make up the tapestry, and it is unknown whether they were done in chronological order. (Crack 1)

The tapestry tells the story of the conquest of England by the Normans. The two combatants are the English, led by Harold Godwinson, a powerful earl, and the Normans, descendents of the Vikings, (Baker 1) led by William the Conqueror. The two sides can be distinguished on the tapestry by the customs of the day. The Normans shaved the back of their heads, while the Anglo-Saxons had mustaches.

The main character of the tapestry is William the Conqueror. William was the illegitimate son of the duke of Normandy and a tanners' daughter. She was married off to another man and bore two sons, one of which was the Bishop Odo. When Duke Robert was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he was killed. William gained his father’s title at a very young age and was a proven warrior at 19. He prevailed in the battle of 1066 and captured the crown at 38. William knew little peace in his life. He was always doing battle putting down rebel vassals or going to war with France. The king was married to Matilda of Flanders-they were distant cousins. (Barclay 31) William was 5 feet ten inches. Matilda was 4 feet two inches, so they made an interesting couple.

Missing image
William, Duke of Normandy, accompanied by Eustatius, Count of Boulogne, and followed by his Knights in arms.--Military Dress of the Eleventh Century, from Bayeux Tapestry said to have been worked by Queen Matilda.

Several of the scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry are thought to have had a great impact on the English language. More than 10,000 new words of French and Latin origin are thought to have been added from the tapestry. Among these words are, pharmacy, library and marriage. It is considered by some to have had a greater impact on the English language than any other historical document.

The story of the tapestry

The tapestry begins with a panel of King Edward, who has no heir. Edward decides to send Harold Godwinson, the most powerful earl in England to his cousin William of Normandy to tell William he has been selected as the next king of England. As Harold is in transit across the channel, he is caught in a storm and sent off course. There, the Gauls hold him as a prisoner until Norman spies tell William of the prisoner. William sends two messengers to demand his release, and Count Guy of the Gauls quickly releases him to William. William, perhaps to impress Harold, invites him to come on a campaign with him to relieve a castle under siege. On the way, just outside the famous monastery of Mont St. Michel, two soldiers become mired in quicksand, and Harold saves the two Norman soldiers. The two comrades manage to chase the attackers of the castle away, and force them to surrender. William and Harold celebrate their victory together, and Harold pledges on the bones of saints, holy relics, to support William in securing the English throne. Harold leaves for home, and meets again with the old king Edward. Edward then, under duress or otherwise, pledged the throne to Harold. Then, a star with hair appears; Halley’s Comet. Comets, in the middle ages, warned of impending doom. On the other side of the channel in France, William hears that he has been betrayed and vows to take England. William builds a fleet of ships, but cannot cross because of strong opposing winds. They are able to move down the coast a bit, and then eventually, in a D-day invasion in reverse, head across the channel. The Norman invasion force consisted of approximately 7000 men. The invaders reach England, and land unopposed. William orders his men to pillage, to bring Harold down faster, who is involved in a battle with another contender for the throne of England, the Norwegian Harold Hardraada, whom he defeats. Harold Hardraada led the last Viking invasion of England and was known as great warrior. His defeat came as a surprise. Still, the Norwegians weakened the British forces. The Normans don’t waste any time, and build a castle to protect them. William knows that Harold is compassionate for people, and so orders the homes of people burned. William prepares for battle when he hears that Harold is coming. Finally, the famous day dawns; October 14 1066. The battle took place 65 miles from London. Harold forced marched his troops to get there in 3 days, which further exhausted his troops. Both armies are evenly matched. When they clash in battle, the bowmen advance to about 100 yards and fire-no effect-the soldiers have shields. So the knights charge into battle. Soon the French fall back in retreat, and some of Harold’s men defy orders and follow them. Harold wanted them to stand fast for defense. William's horse is killed three times, in the battle and a rumor goes through the ranks he is dead. He removes his helmet and says, "Look at me well! I am still alive and by the grace of God shall still prove the victor!” As the day goes on, the English begin to lose strength. French knights move in and kill Harold. After their leader dies, the English flee. The Normans are victorious. (Setton 206-251)

Mysteries of the tapestry

The tapestry contains several mysteries. There is a panel with what appears to be a clergy man striking a woman. No one knows the meaning of the inscription above this scene. Historians speculate that it may represent a well known scandal of the day that needed no explanation. (Setton 125) The second mystery of the tapestry is that at least 2 panels of the tapestry are missing, perhaps even another 7 yards worth. This missing yardage would probably include William’s coronation. A modern artist, Jan Messent, has attempted a reconstruction of this [1] (

The identity of Harold II of England in the vignette depicting his death is disputed. Some recent historians disagree with the traditional view that Harold II is the figure struck in the eye with an arrow. The view that it is Harold is supported by the fact that the words "Harold Rex" or King Harold appear right above the figure's head. The tapestry also contains a representation of a comet, which is likely to be Halley's Comet, that appeared around the coronation of King Harold. While political propaganda or personal emphasis may have somewhat distorted the historic accuracy of the story, the Bayeux tapestry presents a unique visual document of medieval arms, apparel, and other objects unlike any other artifact surviving from this period that has been found. However, it has been noted that the warriors are depicted fighting with bare hands, while other sources indicate the general use of gloves in battle and hunt.

The aftermath

William was crowned king of England on Christmas day. When the people were asked if they would accept William as king. They answered with such a load yea that the Norman knights outside thought they were attacking William. As a diversion, they burned the houses around the church. In the chaos, William was crowned with no one in the church. Matilda was crowned 17 months later. After capturing London, William returned to Normandy, and then came back to continue subduing the people of England. He got no rest as king, always battling. William even imprisoned Odo in 1082. William bled to death while campaigning when his horse stumbled and threw him against his saddle. As he was greatly overweight, it caused a fatal rupture.

The tapestry has been parodied in later embroidery and artwork, particularly those involving invasions. A full-size replica was finished in 1886 and is exhibited in the Museum of Reading in Reading, Berkshire, England.


  • "The Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings 1066" by Mogens Rud, Christian Eilers Publishers, Copenhagen 1992 contains full colour photographs and explanatory text
  • "900 Years Ago: the Norman Conquest" by Kenneth M Setton, National Geographic Magazine (August 1966): 206-251, explains the Norman invasion and reproduces the tapestry in color; photographed by Milton A Ford and Victor R Boswell, Jr.

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