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The Bayeux Tapestry might be called Western Civilization's first graphic novel. Like today’s epic, book-length comic books, it’s got action, heroism and even an origin story. It’s a work of art that tells the story of British and French history—and, by extension, the history of the West—over the last millenium.
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The Bayeux Tapestry is a nearly 1,000-year-old documentation of the invasion and conquest of England in 1066 by Normans living in northern France. As the most famous example of Nordic tapestry from the Middle Ages, it consists of some 70 scenes showing us a contemporaneous account of the Norman Conquest. Sparked by the Battle of Hastings, the Norman Conquest ushered in the reign of William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England.
Historical importance aside, what about the tapestry itself? The Bayeux Tapestry is a masterpiece of decorative Anglo-Saxon art housed in the Bayeux Museum (Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux) in Bayeux, Normandy, France. Believed to be made by nuns in England in the 1070s and 1080s, it’s technically an embroidery; while a tapestry is woven on a loom, an embroidery has threads sewn on a "ground fabric" to create a picture.
The Bayeux Tapestry illustrates the Norman buildup to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, one of history’s most famous battles. It’s the story of the exploits of William the Conqueror, King of England until his death in 1087, and his opponent Harold Godwinson (the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England), whose reign ended with the Battle of Hastings.
Since history is written by the victors, this particular tale is told from the perspective of the Normans. Normans were essentially Vikings, or Norsemen, who had settled in northern France (the duchy of Normandy), from whence they set out to conquer and colonize places from southern Italy and Sicily to England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
The story starts with Edward the Confessor. Edward was the second-to-last Anglo-Saxon king of England, known as “the Confessor” because of his deep piety. Edward’s family was exiled in Normandy after the Danish invasion of England in 1013, but returned the following year and negotiated his father’s reinstatement as King.
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Power in England changed hands a few times, but by 1042 Edward was king and peaceful times (more or less) were enjoyed by his subjects. There was, however, a problem ...
Edward had lived most of his life in Normandy, not on English soil. He didn’t have the military background that an English king generally needed to rule the aristocracy there. In an era when invasion from Scandinavia was a real threat, this was seen as a weakness.
Into this power vacuum we find the real power behind Edward’s throne: his father-in-law, Godwine, Earl of Wessex. Edward and Godwine butted heads over the years and the power struggle between them set the stage for the Norman conquest to come.
Godwine and his family were forced to leave England after leading a failed coup against Edward. Edward is said to have appointed William (the not-yet Conqueror) to be the next king. William, a distant cousin of Edward the Confessor, had been a part of Edward’s court when the promise was made.
Meanwhile, Godwine’s son, Harold (a.k.a. Harold Godwinson, or “Godwine’s Son”) took over many earldoms and eventually succeeded his powerful father as Earl of Wessex in 1053, giving him control over all of Southern England. For reasons that are lost to history, Edward sent Harold to hostile Normandy, where Harold was promptly kidnapped and held for ransom.
William paid the ransom, but he didn’t do it as a favor to anyone. Harold swore an oath to support William’s bid to become king of England after Edward's death; Harold later said that he only did so under duress.
So, did Harold support William becoming king of England or not? We know that Harold was the most powerful man in England when Edward died in 1066, and upon his death Edward had named Harold his successor.
Harold took the throne. William started making plans to invade England.
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King Harold was busy fighting off a rebellion led by his own brother (that’s another story), who was in cahoots with the king of Norway. He put down the rebellion, but the celebration only lasted a few days. On the southern coast, the Norman forces—led by William—had landed at Hastings.
On the morning of 14 October 1066, the two great armies between 5,000 and 7,000 men each faced off. The English soldiers formed a “shield wall” (a wall of shields held by standing close together) to fend off cavalry. William’s Norman, Breton and French forces included archers, infantry and mounted knights.
With trumpets blaring on both sides, the Normans repeatedly assaulted the English ridge, hoping to use archers and infantry to break through the shield wall and allow the cavalry to ride through.
Harold’s forces, although on foot, were successful at first. His housecarls, the elite troops of their age, faced off against William’s 2,000–3,000-strong mounted cavalry force. But their two-handed battle-axes could cut a horse in half, and Harold’s troops held off the Norman surge
The Normans began to scatter and fall back in retreat. This caused the English defensive line to break as they began to pursue their enemy. William (who had three horses killed beneath him during the day) rode out in front of his men, leading a counter-charge that threw the momentum back to the Normans. With their formation broken, the Norman cavalry seized their opportunity to attack. The Normans used crossbows to push back against the English ranks.
At some point a Norman arrow flew into King Harold’s head. As the sun went down, the hillside was covered with thousands of dead and dying, among them Harold and all the English commanders. William was victorious. He commemorated the victory by building Battle Abbey over the spot where Harold was killed.
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Following The Battle of Hastings, William marched to London and was crowned King of England on Christmas Day. In the years and decades that followed, the Normans went on to transform every aspect of English government and culture. Norman high society took over the country’s lands. The Church was restructured and Romanesque cathedrals erected.
To secure Norman power, castles—many of which stand today—sprang up all over England.
Norman feudalism (in which King William owned all of the land) became standard. This new power structure was based on royal strength. This meant only William could decide who to lease the land to. He gave some to barons who fought for him, who in turn gave some to the knights then received some land from the barons. The villeins (serfs), who worked the land for the knights and barons, paid taxes and relinquished a portion of the crops to the nobles.
Meanwhile, the English language as it existed at the time became a little more like what we are familiar with today, absorbing Norman/French words, changing the Anglo-Saxon language forever.
All of these cultural changes began with the events depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which has all the elements of great stories: Heroism, intrigue, great battles, death, villains and heroes. All of it is laid out in dramatic visual form, embroidered by the hands of diligent, pious nuns some 1,000 years ago.
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We’ve looked at the story behind The Bayeux Tapestry, including the events leading up to the Norman Conquest and the 1066 Battle Of Hastings. Now let’s look at who created this important historical record and where the public can see it these days.
Although It was long thought to have been commissioned by Queen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, the tapestry was probably made not long after the Battle of Hastings for William’s half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who features prominently in it. Odo was part of his brother William’s invasion force at Hastings and he even supplied 100 ships to transport the invaders. As a bishop, his official role was to pray for the combattants, but the Bayeux Tapestry shows him among the fracas.
If The Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by Bishop Odo, who actually made it?
There is evidence in the tapestry’s technique that English seamstresses, perhaps in Canterbury, were responsible for the Bayeux Tapestry. It is known that Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) women living in England in the centuries leading up to the Norman Conquest were skilled embroiderers. Norman women across the English Channel (or “La Manche”) may have also played a role.
Although it is called the Bayeux Tapestry, the work is not a true tapestry. The images and inscriptions are not woven into the cloth; instead, they are embroidered using wool yarn sewed onto linen.
By the late Middle Ages, the tapestry was displayed at Bayeux Cathedral, which was built by Odo and dedicated in 1077, but its size and secular subject matter suggest that it may have been intended to be a secular hanging, perhaps in Odo’s hall.
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The word tapestry is widely used to describe a range of textiles, including needlepoint and mechanically woven fabrics, but historically it refers to weft-faced textile woven by hand on a loom.
The Bayeux Tapestry is embroidered using the crewel technique. This form of surface embroidery is commonly used to decorate curtains and other household items with thick wool thread. The principle action of the Tapestry was embroidered on linen fabric with worsted wool with couched stitches to provide outlines, and stem stitch for detail and lettering. The worsted wool used for the embroidery may have come from the Norfolk village of Worstead.
When William the Conqueror conquered England in 1066, the people of Normandy spoke a range of Gallo-Romance langues d'oïl, including “Old Northern French" and “Anglo-Norman French.” While Anglo-Norman was the spoken language of medieval England (at least among the wealthy), the Bayeux Tapestry’s embroidered inscriptions are in Latin, the primary written language during the Middle Ages.
The Bayeux Tapestry is displayed on the ground floor of the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux (Bayeux Tapestry Museum), in a former seminary near Bayeux cathedral.
The Romanesque Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy may have been the original home of the artwork. The Cathedral was completed during the reign of William the Conqueror.
A professor of Art History at the University of York discovered the tapestry fits perfectly in a lost area of the Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy. Research based on mathematical calculations, analysis of the linen fabric, and of surviving architectural details, all of which showed that the embroidered cloth was designed to be hung along the north, south and west sides of the cathedral between the west wall and choir screen.
“It has always been the case that the simplest explanation is that it was designed for Bayeux Cathedral,” he wrote in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. “This general proposition can now be corroborated by the specific evidence that the physical and narrative structure of the tapestry are perfectly adapted to fit the nave of the 11th-Century cathedral.”
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In 1204, Normandy became part of the Kingdom of France. It was a prosperous city, dominated by the church.
Nothing definitive is known of the Tapestry’s location until a 1476 inventory of the Bayeux Cathedral mentions “a very long and narrow hanging of linen, on which are embroidered figures and inscriptions comprising a representation of the conquest of England.”
The Bayeux Cathedral was ransacked by the Huguenots in 1562, and the tapestry was again threatened during the French Revolution, who tried to destroy it along with other artifacts of the monarch's rule. Thankfully, townspeople and a local arts council foiled those plans.
In all, the Tapestry probably spent seven centuries in the Treasury of Bayeux Cathedral before being moved to various locations in the city and throughout France. Napoleon put the tapestry on display in Paris in 1804, while he was planning an invasion of England. It was exhibited in Paris again during World War II by the Nazis.
The Tapestry can now be found in the former Seminary of Bayeux ,where it has been on display since 1983. Visitors to the Musée De La Tapisserie De Bayeux will find the Bayeux Tapestry presented in a darkened space. Audio-guide commentaries are available in 16 languages, including versions for children and scenes in 3D relief for the visually impaired. The museum houses a permanent exhibition about the creation of the Tapestry and an overview of the historical context.
There have been many failed attempts by England to borrow the Tapestry, in 1931, 1953, 1966 and 1972. The requests were rejected by the city of Bayeux or by the French government. The fragility of the textile was cited as the main reason.
City of Bayeux, France. Image credit: Dan Flying Solo
In 2022, the Bayeux Tapestry may leave France for the first time since it was made. The British are awaiting the results of an assessment that helps determine if it’s safe to move the tapestry for a temporary loan to The British Museum.
Weavers in the Middle Ages were often commissioned to weave tapestries with religious themes. These were then used as hangings for churches and cathedrals. Popular in the later Middle Ages were mille fleurs tapestries designs, with countly tiny flowers and pastoral scenes. Verdures were landscape tapestries depicting orchards, forests, waterfalls and woodland animals.
The finest Medieval tapestries were made by the Gobelins Tapestry Royal Factory and the Beauvais factory, both in Paris. Other important tapestry producers were in Arras, Tournai, Brussels, Aubusson and Felletin.
Mille fleur tapestry. Image credit: photobotanic.com
Medieval tapestries were popular in home interiors as symbols of wealth and luxury. Tapestries were often used to line a chamber wall. On a practical level, they provided warmth and insulation, but also impressed visitors with dramatic and colourful images, often showing off the exploits (real or imagined) of their owners.
By the mid-15th century French Loire Valley was home to as many as 15,000 weavers. They used either a vertical loom (high-warp) or a horizontal loom (low-warp) to produce images of religious stories from the Old and New Testaments, and (later on) secular scenes of battle and legendary hunts.
The process of creating a tapestry began with designing a pattern (also known as the cartoon) traced onto the warps, the set of yarns stretched in place on a loom before the weft is introduced during the weaving process. The pattern was hung either behind the craftsman or folded underneath the warp threads.
Another technique was weft-faced weaving, in which threads remain hidden as the craftsman interlaces each weft in a particular part of the pattern.
Weft-faced weaving. Image credit: The Weaving Loom
As discussed, tapestries indicated wealth and opulence. They also kept homes warm in the winter. Another benefit that might not be so obvious was their portability. Paintings were more difficult to move from one place to another, so kings and other nobility would simply roll up their tapestries and take them with them when they traveled.
In addition to The Bayeux Tapestry, there are four well-known medieval tapestries to know about:
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The Lady and the Unicorn is a series of six wool and silk tapestries that date to around 1500.They depict five senses (taste, hearing, sight, smell, and touch), while sixth tapestry is mysteriously labeled "À mon seul désir" (“To my only desire”). Each tapestry shows a noble lady with a unicorn and a lion. The tapestries are created in the mille-fleurs ("thousand flowers") style popular at the time. The masterpieces of French medieval tapestry art are on display in the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris.
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This series of seven tapestries depicts a group of noblemen hunting a unicorn through a flowering forest. The creature is killed, taken to a castle, and, in the famous final panel, resurrected. Each panel is 12 feet tall and up to 14 feet wide and is woven in wool, metallic threads, and silk. Thought to be created around the turn of the sixteenth century, one theory is that the tapestries show pagan and Christian symbolism. The origin of the mysterious artworks is not known.
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The oldest French medieval tapestry is the Apocalypse Tapestry, now on display at the Chateau d'Angers. The story is divided into six parts and relates the biblical end times as told by St. John in the New Testament. Brightly colored (the artists used vegetable dyes of the red, blue, and gold woolen threads), the artworks were commissioned by Louis I and produced between 1377 and 1382.
Image credit: vam.ac.uk
In the Middle Ages, nobles were passionate about hunting. The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, made between 1430–1450, show hunting scenes featuring boars, bears, swans, otters, deer and falcons. Originally owned by the Dukes of Devonshire, the tapestries can now be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they remain.
Reproductions of famous woven masterpieces of Middle Ages include:
The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, is an iconic 15th century altarpiece in Ghent (Belgium). As one of the most complex and sophisticated artworks in European history, the Ghent Altarpiece is attributed to the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck.
This beautiful work of art was produced originally as an oil painting by Jan van Eyck in 1434 and is rightfully called one of the most beautiful and sophisticated masterpieces of the Western painting tradition. It features Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife after their wedding in Bruges. The painting is now exhibited in the National Gallery in London.
This gorgeous Lady of Shalott was originally featured in the iconic 1888 painting by John William Waterhouse. Based upon Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, it is now on display at the Tate Gallery in London. A gifted Pre-Raphaelite painter, Waterhouse masterfully captured the beauty and grace of the lady who embarked on a journey to Camelot, which turned out to be fatal for her.