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The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the best surviving primary historical accounts of the Battle of Hastings and the events leading up to the Norman Conquest of Anglo Saxon England in 1066 A.D. The Bayeux Tapestry, which is not truly a tapestry at all, but rather a piece of embroidery, is almost a thousand years old and is an extremely rare specimen. It is especially uncommon for its time period because of its depiction of secular events in contemporary history rather than traditional Christian scenes form the Bible. The tapestry has many attributes which strengthen the understanding of the Norman Conquest. It is a primary source for military tactics, material culture, and early medieval art. The Bayeux Tapestry increases its credibility as a historical source by thoroughly depicting the Normans events that led up to the Battle of Hastings, by remaining intact over the centuries, and by agreeing with other contemporary historical accounts. The Bayeux Tapestry is a key that unlocks greater knowledge of the Battle of Hastings and Norman Conquest, but those who view it should do so with discernment, for in its strengths also lie its weaknesses.

The Tapestry shows accurate depictions of early medieval military tactics and weaponry that agree with artefacts and other accounts of warfare from that time. The unknown designer of the tapestry shows a great understanding of early medieval military tactics on both sides, but especially those of the Norman cavalry. The designer shows such a great knowledge in the scenes that it could very well be that he was an eye witness to many of the events depicted, further strengthening the tapestry’s credibility as a primary source. The tapestry shows the Normans on horseback in battle scenes, and they are mostly armed with bows and arrows. The Anglo-Saxons on the other hand are usually shown on foot with round shields and are armed with battle axes. The tapestry also depicts the infamous Anglo-Saxon battle tactic of the shield wall. These differences between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans help the viewer differentiate the two sides in confusing battle scenes. The tapestry also highlights different fashion trends on the sides of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons. Most of the Normans are depicted with shaved back hairstyles, while almost all of the Anglo-Saxons sport moustaches. This adds what the designer considered to be cultural trends to each side during the battle. The Bayeux Tapestry is praised for its authenticity in the depiction of the weaponry used in battle sequences, and it does not shy away from the harsh and gory reality of war during the Norman Conquest. The tapestry allows the viewer to see a small glimpse of what an early medieval battle looked like from a primary source.

A weakness of the Bayeux Tapestry as a historical source is that there is no documentation for who had the tapestry made or why. Since the commissioner of the Bayeux Tapestry is unknow, that only allows us to analyse what is shown on the fabric itself and not the creator or their intent, though one can hypothesize. The tapestry was first thought to be a gift to William the Conqueror from his wife, Queen Mathilda. There is a documented history of Mathilda giving gifts to her husband, yet there is no direct mention of her giving the gift of a tapestry. If she was indeed the one to create the tapestry with her ladies in waiting, they would have been working for quite a time on this magnificent and long piece of embroidery. It would be implausible that there would be no mention of this if it indeed occurred, which leads scholars to believe the Mathilda hypnosis is just a story. Most historians believe Odo, William’s maternal half-brother, the Bishop of Bayeux, had the tapestry commissioned for the consecration of the Bayeux Cathedral just a few years after the Battle of Hastings in 1077. Many scenes showcase Odo and reinforce his impact upon the narrative. This would lead one to believe that Odo or someone close to him was fundamental in the Tapestry creation. Yet, not knowing and simply theorising who had the tapestry made is a drawback because it casts a certain kind of light onto it which no one can confirm to be correct.

The Bayeux Tapestry’s size is simply stunning, and it is amazing that so much of the tapestry has survived so well over the centuries. Today it is considered one of the best pieces of early medieval artwork, and is a masterpiece in its own right. Its size and technique are unparalleled in any known work of medieval art.  The Bayeux Tapestry is a primary source for early medieval art during the Norman Conquest. There are few other pieces that could even hold a candle to the Bayeux tapestry in terms of craftsmanship and historical importance. Due to the skill that went into the tapestry’s creation, it can be analysed not just for what it depicts but also for what it physically and undeniably is: a work of art in the early medieval period and record of English textile history. This adds to the understanding of the material culture of art and fabric during the time of the Norman Conquest in England.

England was known for its work in textiles during this period, and the Bayeux Tapestry truly encapsulates the skill for which England was known. Made out of linen and woollen thread that was coloured with natural dies, the tapestry is a wonderful source for textile history. Two main stitches were used in creating the tapestry. An outline stitch was used to outline the figures and then a laid-and-couch stitch was used for filling in the outlines with colour. This particular type of couch stitch is generally referred to as the Bayeux stitch as it appears to be unique to the tapestry. The tapestry is made of nine long strips of linen, and it is currently sixty-eight meters long. Originally the Bayeux Tapestry was even longer, but the last panel is severely damaged and parts of it are missing. It is speculated that the end of the tapestry showed William the Conqueror’s coronation at Westminster Abby. The fact that the tapestry no longer appears in its entirety is a weakness. This beautiful and famous tapestry does have its drawbacks when it comes to telling the full story of what happened during the time of the Norman Conquest. Not only is it missing the ending of story it depicts, it is also dominated by one perspective.

History is dominated by the victor, not just on the field, but also for posterity. This is true in the case of the Bayeux Tapestry as the victor’s point of view is the one that comes across the strongest. The tapestry is told from the Norman point of view. The informative account that the tapestry gives of the events leading up to the conquest sets the tone for the invasion. William’s attack on England is depicted as just and indeed necessary punishment for Harold, since Harold broke his promise to support William’s assentation to the English throne. All of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings are from the Norman point of view. Some important events from the English perspective are excluded from the tapestry’s narrative. Nothing is said of the Norwegian invasion of northern England that the Anglo-Saxons had to subdue before going to fight the invasion of the Normans at Hastings. The tapestry consistently shows the Normans as acting justly with no hint of criticism. It is also undeniable that William wins the battle, even if he is not shown being crowned king in Westminster Abbey.  

The Tapestry generally depicts scenes that are supported by other contemporary sources. The scene where William lifts his helmet to show his troop that he is still alive, the scene where Edward admonished Harold on his return to England from Normandy, and the account of King Edwards death bequest for Harold to rule even though Edward had previously promised the kingdom to William can be found in similar form in other English sources of the period. This increases the tapestry’s credibility as an accurate account and a primary historical source. But the tapestry does have its flaws. In at least one instance the tapestry is at odds over some details concerning the Breton Campaign. Some details that depict the Breton Campaign in the Bayeux Tapestry do not match William of Pointer’s account of the Breton Campaign, another contemporary record. While the details of the two sources do not match, it is not a complete unravelling of the tapestry’s historical authority, just a discrepancy worthy of note.

The Tapestry’s age is both a strength and a weakness. Its age makes it is one of the best surviving primary source documents of the Battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest; however, with age comes denigration and disrepair. The Bayeux Tapestry has survived well but not unscathed. It is almost certain that the Bayeux Tapestry is victim to several restoration errors. The most noted errors are the identification of Eustace during the battle scene when William tips back his helmet. In 1067 Eustace rebelled against William and was disgraced at court until 1077. The portion of the tapestry that today bears the name Eustace had at one point been severely damaged and was restored in 1818.  Another restoration error can be found in Harold’s death scene. It is most likely that Harold was hacked to death rather than dying from an arrow in the eye. It looks like there are needle holes showing a spear rather than an arrow, which were missed during a restoration. The earliest accounts of Harold’s death are of him being hacked to death, but there are later documents which hold the account that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye. It would be very easy to assume that some of the repairs made in the nineteenth century had to have been influenced by historical hindsight, and therefore some details may have been restored in ways that distort the original designers’ intentions. This is an incredible weakness for the Bayeux tapestry as it functions as a primary source, for it has been tampered with, which complicates its authority.

The Bayeux still has far many more strengths then weaknesses, as it is one of the best surviving primary historical accounts of the Battle of Hastings and the events leading up to the Norman Conquest. The tapestry’s age, large amount of depiction, and insights into early medieval life are strengths that far outweigh any restoration error or detail discrepancy. The tapestry has many attributes which strengthen our understanding of the time period of the Norman Conquest. When studied, keeping in mind its weaknesses, it is one of the most powerful accounts the world has for understanding the time period in which it was made.

Sources:

Grape, Wolfgang. The Bayeux Tapestry: Monument to a Norman Triumph. Prestel, 1994.

Bates, David. 1066 In Perspective. Royal Armouries, 2018.

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