by Dr. Lori Verderame
When I lecture about the Bayeux Tapestry, people are most confused by the fact that the Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry and that it is a great artifact of the Vikings. Yes, the Vikings! The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidery, not a tapestry and it depicts humans, animals, birds, creatures, buildings, ships, and Latin words numbering close to one thousand figures to chronicle the events of the Battle of Hastings which took place in October of 1066 as well as some events leading up to that famous battle.
The original Bayeux Tapestry made of linen panels embroidered (similar to needlework samplers) with dyed woolen yarns depicts the events and history of the Norman conquest of England. The tapestry tells the account of William the Conquerer, of Viking lineage and King Harold of England, who led the Norman and Saxon armies respectively in 1066. William’s defeat of Harold (and Harold’s battlefield death) at the Battle of Hastings prompted the Norman invasion of England. The Bayeux Tapestry chronicles the journey to Normandy of King Edward the Confessor and King Harold as well as King Edward’s death and King Harold’s crowning as king. It also shows William’s attack, the feast of the armies, the Battle of Hastings, and the death of King Harold among other happenings.
The Bayeux Tapestry is a work of textile arts like samplers, early American quilts, antiques rugs and carpets, and other works of art. Specifically, it is an embroidery in wool yarns on linen panels. It measures approximately 224 feet long and nearly 20 inches wide consisting of nine panels. The embroidery work was commissioned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and performed in Kent, England where he served as Earl. The type of stitchery done on the Bayeux Tapestry is similar to that made in Kent at that time. The work took place during the early 1090s and the tapestry, as it is called, was actually an embroidered work on linen and not a tapestry or other type of woven piece made on a loom. Documents state that the Bayeux Tapestry was in existence in the Bayeux cathedral’s treasury in 1476. In 1724, a new lining was added to protect the tapestry on the reverse side and in 1860, restoration work took place whereby the piece was repaired with dyes, reinforced darning, and patchwork. A Victorian replica of the Bayeux Tapestry was made in 1885 which is on display in the Reading Museum in Reading, England.
How to read the Bayeux Tapestry
The artisans who made the Bayeux Tapestry made distinctions so the viewers could understand the history and recognize the characters easily. For instance, kings wear crowns, sit with their knees spread apart as high ranking nobles and monarchs did in the medieval period, and soldiers carry weapons and wear uniforms. Specifically, William the Conqueror is shown carrying a staff in battle. English soldiers wear mustaches and long hair whereby Continental soldiers wear short hair. Civilians like carpenters and woodcutters working on ships are depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Clerics are recognized by their tonsures or shaved scalps lacking hair. Latin inscriptions throughout the Bayeux Tapestry show names and basic words like “hic” for here and “rex” for king.
When I discuss the Bayeux Tapestry, I point out that the scenes show movement across lands or travel as well as characters staying in one particular place, or fights between warring factions. Beginnings and ends of scenes are marked by trees, buildings, or monuments making natural markers. The same character like the King may appear in multiple scenes. Specific scenes in the Bayeux Tapestry include Harold’s journey to Ponthieu, meeting with William, traveling to Brittany, Harold’s coronation as king, the death of King Edward, a soldier’s feast, and the Battle of Hastings. Principle scenes are larger in size and secondary scenes are smaller as both provide background information to tell the battle story.
Characters in the Bayeux Tapestry
Some of the major figures in the Bayeux Tapestry are Edward the Confessor, the King of England from 1042 to 1066 and the commissioner of Westminster Abbey, King Harold, the King of England from January to October of 1066, and William the Conquerer, the victor, among others.
King Edward lived in Normandy and married the daughter of the Earl of Wessex. He returned to England and asked his Norman friends to join him. Edward and his wife, Edith had no children so when it came time to choose a successor, King Edward and his Saxon earls chose Harold Godwinson to take the throne. King Edward died in January of 1066.
The new King Harold ruled from January to October of 1066. In an effort to take over the throne, William of Normandy brought his army to England and Harold and his two brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were killed. The Bayeux Tapestry shows the event when a Norman soldier mounted on a horse kills the King.
After King Harold’s death, William, Duke of Normandy who was of Viking blood became the King of England. He reigned from 1066 to 1087 AD. He was from the lineage of the Viking hero, Rollo, who invaded France in 911 AD. William led his army at the Battle of Hastings where King Harold was killed. William the Conqueror gave Norman barons land and in return they supported the war. William later died from injuries suffered while fighting in France in 1087 AD.
William’s brother, Odo, was only 19 years old when he was made Bishop of Bayeux, now in France, which was the site where he commissioned the building of the Bayeux cathedral. He was a dutiful brother. He was made the Earl of Kent, received extensive plots of land, served in battle with his brother using only a club since clergy could not spill blood, and prayed for victory. Odo commissioned the making of the Bayeux Tapestry from textile artisans in Kent and later he put it on display in the cathedral of Bayeux sometime around 1092 AD. William the Conquerer’s wife, Matilda, was said to have an hand in the production of the tapestry as well.
Other figures in the Bayeux Tapestry were Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was important in the coronation of King Harold. Other characters depicted are: Guy of Ponthieu; Conan, Duke of Brittany; Robert, Count of Mortain; Turold; Wadard; Vital of Boulogne; Aelfgvva, finacee of Harold; Gyrth, brother of Harold; Leofwine, brother of Harold; Edith, wife of King Edward; altar boys and aristocrats.
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