The Bayeux Tapestry

Whilst in the Minster Gate Bookshop in York a few months back I found an incredibly unique book about the Bayeux Tapestry. Its rareness lies in the fact it’s an illustrated pull out book with the entire tapestry included and explained in English, French and German subtitles.

The actual tapestry is over 70m long and currently resides in Northern France at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux. Additionally a replica was created in England in the 1880s by Elizabeth Wardle and volunteers, and is located at the Reading Museum and Art Gallery. The tapestry starts in 1064, and follows the critical events that lead to the 1066 Battle of Hastings between William Duke of Normandy and King Harold II of England. This battle is one of the most well known in English history, and marked the beginning of the Norman dynasty. It is assumed that the tapestry was commissioned a few years into William the Conqueror’s rule by his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, although this is debated. Either way, it was not unusual for monarchs and their supporters to create impressive works of art to celebrate their successes, for example Elizabeth I and the Armada Portrait which celebrated her defeat of the Spanish naval invasion in 1588.

The events of the tapestry begin with King Edward (popularly known as Edward the Confessor) sending one of his leading nobleman Harold Godwinson to seek out William in Normandy. During Harold’s journey he was kidnapped and ransomed, with William helping to free him. Once together they negotiated and a marriage was proposed between William’s daughter and Harold. Additionally they fought together against the Duke of Brittany resulting in William knighting Harold. These events suggest a close comradeship or at the very least an alliance between the two men. Yet this was not to last. Edward died childless in January 1066, with William believing that Edward had promised the English crown to him, with Harold an important ally who was aware of this arrangement. However, Harold betrayed William and usurped the throne for himself. In retaliation William built a naval force in which to invade England, and take what he believed was rightfully his. The energy required for such a mission is documented in the tapestry, as it includes images of the ships being built, supplies being taken aboard, the fleet landing in England and a fortification being built.

This leads on to the battle itself, in which the tapestry records the visual horrors of medieval warfare. The tapestry ends with the demise of Harold, famously believed to have received an arrow to the eye, and the victory of William now forever known as William the Conqueror. Yet there was an argument made in 2014 by Peter Burke that Harold did not die, and that instead he survived living for another few decades but this argument has not been widely accepted. Harold’s brutal fate was thought by some to have been predicted by a comet that was seen after his coronation. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported how, “then it happened that all through England such a sign in the heavens was seen as no man had seen before. Some men said that it was the star, ‘Comet’, that some men call the long-haired star”. The tapestry is an amazing historical work of art and truly “is the only masterpiece of its kind in the world”.

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Sources:

BBC News, King Harold ‘may have survived Battle of Hastings’ Claim <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-29612656> [accessed 21 October 2016]

Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry at Reading Museum, The Original Bayeux Tapestry <http://www.bayeuxtapestry.org.uk/BayeuxInfo.htm> [accessed 21 October 2016]

The Bayeux Tapestry: A Guide, Who made the Bayeux Tapestry? <http://www.bayeux-tapestry.org.uk/whomadethetapestry.htm> [ accessed 21 October 2016)

Cavendish, Richard and Pip Leahy, Kings & Queens: The Story of Britain’s Monarchs from Pre-Roman Time to Today (Cincinnati: David and Charles, 2006)

Savage, Anne, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: The Authentic Voices of England, From the Time of Julius Caesar to the Coronation of Henry II (Surrey: CLB Publishing Limited, 1995)

Tapisserie de Bayeux

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