Key Facts & Summary
- The Bayeux tapestry, also known as the tapestry of Queen Mathilde or the Telle du Conquest, is an embroidered fabric made in Normandy or in England in the second half of the XI century.
- It depicts the key events relating to the Norman conquest of England (1066), culminating in the battle of Hastings.
- About half of the images also represent events prior to the invasion itself.
- The tapestry aims to create a peaceful coexistence between Normans and Anglo-Saxons. In fact, it seeks to heal the trauma resulting from the invasion and to encourage the integration between the Normans and the English.
- The Bayeux Tapestry’s total length is 68.30 meters.
- In 2007, the UNESCO included it in the Memory of the World Register.
The Bayeux tapestry consists of the juxtaposition of nine pieces of linen. The threads used in the embroidery are nine.
The tapestry depicts 126 main characters and each scene is accompanied by a brief description in Latin. The final part of the tapestry (which measured around 90-200cm) is missing, and it probably depicted the crowning of William.
In total, in the Bayeux Tapestry, there are represented: 626 people, 202 horses and mules, 505 other animals, 37 buildings, and 49 trees.
Below is a description of what happens in each scene:
- King Edward the Confessor instructs Harold to inform William, Duke of Normandy, that he will be his successor to the throne of England.
- Preceded by his pack of dogs, Harold heads for the coast.
- In the Church of Bosham Harold asks for protection during his journey and consumes his last meal before embarking on a ship.
- Harold embarks on the ship.
- The wind pushes the ships on the land of Guy I, Count of Ponthieu.
- Guy orders his men to take Harold.
- Holding a falcon, Guy leads Harold, his new prisoner, to Beaurain.
- Harold’s ransom is discussed.
- Informed of Harold’s misfortune, William sends emissaries to the Count of Ponthieu with the order to release him.
- Two knights dressed in their shining armours go to Beaurain.
- William gives precise orders to his messengers.
- Guy finally releases Harold thanks to William.
- Harold reaches the entrance of William’s castle.
- The official negotiations between William and Harold start.
- William’s daughter, Aefgyve, is betrothed to Harold.
- William asks Harold to fight with him against Conan, Duke of Brittany, who had declared war on him.
- The two cross the river Couesnon, and men and horses sink into quicksand.
- The Norman army invades their enemy’s territory and Conan is obliged to flee.
- Rennes and Dinan are assaulted.
- The Duke of Brittany surrenders and assigns the keys of the city to the Duke of Normandy.
- William knights Harold and together they go to Bayeux.
- Harold takes an oath of allegiance to William.
- Harold spalls back to England.
- Harold tells the king about his deeds in Normandy.
- King Edward is led to the Church of St. Peter.
- Edward expresses his last wishes. He subsequently dies: priests and servants bury him.
- Harold is crowned king and receives the sword and sceptre.
- Astrologers report the appearance of a comet, an omen of misfortune for Harold.
- Norman spies inform William about the events that happened after the death of Edward.
- William orders the building of a fleet that would sail to England.
- The fleet is built.
- Ships are launched.
- Weapons and wine are loaded on ships.
- William embarks.
- William’s fleet sails to England.
- The fleet arrives in Pevensey.
- Men and their horses get off the ship.
- Norman knights head towards Hastings.
- Once arrived, one of William’s men, Wadar, supervises the cooks who prepare the food.
- The meat is cooked and served.
- During his Feast of Honour, William is surrounded by his Barons and by Bishop Odo who blesses the food.
- A fortified camp is built.
- A sentinel approaches William and warns him of Harold’s movements. A house that could hinder the army’s movement is burnt down.
- William meets Harold.
- The Normans prepare for the battle.
- William is informed that the Saxon army is approaching.
- Harold is informed that the Norman army is approaching.
- William prepares his troops.
- He urges his men to fight heroically.
- The English army is attacked.
- The Saxon infantry is depicted.
- The Clash between Saxons and Normans begins.
- King Harold’s brothers, Lewine and Gyrd, are killed.
- The battle becomes more and more intense for both parties.
- The bishop of Bayeux, Odo, William’s brother, encourages the combatants.
- Harold’s army is defeated.
- An arrow hits Harold in one eye, killing him.
- On October 14, 1066, having won the battle of Hastings against the Saxons, William Duke of Normandy becomes William the Conqueror, King of England.
The oldest direct reference to the tapestry dates back to 1476: an inventory of the cathedral of Bayeux’s assets mentions its existence and specifies how it was hung along the perimeter of the nave of the cathedral for a few days each summer. In 1562 some religious people warned of the imminent arrival of Huguenot soldiers, hid the sacred objects, including the tapestry, to save them from pillaging.
At the end of the XVII century, the tapestry began to arouse the interest of scholars. Among them were Antoine Lancelot (1675-1740), a member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, and Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741), a historian and Benedictine monk. At that time, the tapestry was preserved either in the cathedral, in the archbishop’s palace, or in the city library. It was exhibited during the visit of illustrious people.
The French Revolution almost led to the destruction of the tapestry: in 1792, someone proposed to use the tapestry preserved in the cathedral as a tarp for one of the supply wagons. However, police commissioner Lambert Léonard Leforestier arrived just in time to prevent its destruction. In 1794, under the pressure of a movement anxious to preserve the artistic assets from the violence perpetrated during the Terror, the tapestry was declared a public good and placed under the protection of the National Commission for the Arts and kept in a national warehouse.
In November 1803, when planning the invasion of England, Napoleon wanted the tapestry in Paris for propaganda purposes and ordered its exposure in the Musée Napoléon. During this time, the artefact received the nickname “tapestry of Queen Mathilda”. Apparently, being fascinated by a coincidence, Napoleon studied the tapestry thoroughly: on December 6, 1803, in the midst of the preparations for the invasion, a luminous celestial body (probably a bolide) with a south-north trajectory appeared at Dover and allowed auspicious comparisons with the comet appeared in 1066. The tapestry returned to Bayeux in February 1804.
The number of scholars interested in the tapestry increased, as did the concerns in regards to its preservation: in 1842 it was moved to a public library and exposed to the public protected by a glass plate. In the second half of the nineteenth century Elisabeth Wardle, wife of a wealthy English merchant, financed the creation of a copy of the same size currently preserved in Britain at the Museum of Reading. The tapestry was again hidden during the Franco-Prussian war and during the Second World War. After being subjected to restoration in 1982-83, it is now exhibited at the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant, in Bayeux.
It is not clear who was the client or the tapestry manufacturing site.
Bernard de Montfaucon, who introduced the tapestry to the scientific community in the XVIII century, attributed the work to William the Conqueror’s wife, Queen Mathilde. He based his theory on a local legend which claimed that Anglo-Saxon women were talented in the creation of sophisticated weaving works.
This hypothesis remained unchallenged for almost a century, when in 1814 the abbot Gervais de La Rue, a scholar exiled in England after the French Revolution, attributed it to another Mathilde, the empress of the Holy Roman Empire, great-grandchild of William the Conqueror.
Therefore, such hypothesis dates the tapestry back to the beginning of 1162: if the artefact had been made prior to this date, it could not have survived the fire of the Bayeux cathedral of 1106.
The XIX century refused to attribute the composition to a woman, and a new hypothesis was spread. The archbishop Odo of Bayeux started to be considered one of the possible creators: In fact, after William the Conqueror and the main characters (Harold II and King Edward), Odo is the most important figure in the narration of the tapestry. Moreover, according to some historians, Odo was one of the few who had the financial means to commission a work of this kind. It has thus been hypothesized that Odo commissioned the tapestry to decorate the nave of the rebuilt Bayeux cathedral, inaugurated in 1077.
As a consequence of the different hypotheses on the origin, the supposed dates of the tapestry’s realisation vary greatly between the decade immediately after the conquest, up to over a century later. If it was created by Queen Mathilde, the tapestry would date prior to her death in 1083; if it was commissioned by Odo for the cathedral, it would date back to 1077; if it was commissioned by the empress Mathilde, it would date to a century after the Conquest.
[1.] Bernstein, D. J. (1986). The Mystery of Bayeux Tapestry. Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
[2.] Bloch, R. H. (2006). A Needle in the Right Hand of God: the Norman conquest of 1066 and the making and meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry. New York: The Random House Publishing Group.
[3.] Mason, E. (2004). The House of Godwine: the history of a dynasty. London: Hambledon and London.