1066 – The Bayeux Tapestry and the Weaving of History

The Norman Invasion fleet

On this blog I tend to speak mainly about ancient history and mythology because those are the periods and subjects in which I have been writing for the last few years.

However, this blog is about bringing the ancient and medieval worlds to life. So, this week, we’re going to step forward in time to the Middle Ages.

In truth, my love of history began with the Middle Ages, especially the period from the Norman Conquest to the death of King John in A.D. 1216. This period has it all – the Norman invasion, the Crusades, the Domesday Book, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, Robin Hood etc. etc. The list goes on!

One of the things that really sparked my curiosity about this period was the Bayeux Tapestry.

The first time I saw the Bayeux Tapestry was during the opening crawl of the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

I can still conjure the feeling I had as the movie started to roll and the tapestry started to show on the screen to the thrilling soundtrack by Michael Kamen (CLICK HERE to listen to the music online). To me, it was history and movie magic!

I loved seeing the scenes of Norman ships sailing across the Channel, the Norman cavalry with their unique kite shields bearing down on the axe-wielding Saxon forces – that one work of embroidered art fired my interest in an age.

Norman cavalry charge

Norman cavalry charge

Of course when I was seeing these images for the first time, I had no idea what I was looking at. My research began immediately at my local library where I took out books on the castles of England, medieval warfare, and the Bayeux Tapestry itself.

But what is the Bayeux Tapestry exactly? Who commissioned it? When was it made?

The tapestry is actually a work of embroidery that depicts events leading up to, and including, the Norman invasion of England and the defeat of the last Saxon King, Harold Godwinson, by William Duke of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. From then on, William was known as ‘William the Conqueror’, the first Norman king of England.

Hastings Abbey and Battlefield

Hastings Abbey and Battlefield

The Bayeux Tapestry is generally thought to have been commissioned in the 1070s by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, later Earl of Kent. This famous piece of embroidered cloth is a whopping 70 metres long (230 ft.) and is housed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in France.

One theory states that the creators of the tapestry were inspired by Trajan’s Column on a trip to Rome. This seems reasonable as the Bayeux Tapestry illustrates the events of a conquest over a certain period of time. Just as Trajan’s Column depicts that emperor’s conquest of Dacia, so does the tapestry depict the Norman conquest of England.

Works of art like the Bayeux Tapestry (and Trajan’s column) were created not long after the actual events, and because of this contemporaneity we have much more knowledge of events, people, places, arms and armour. However, as with most historical sources, we need to keep in mind that these were created by the victors of these conflicts.

Trajan's Column in Rome

Trajan’s Column in Rome

But the Bayeux Tapestry is unusual in that it does not try lambaste the Saxons or Harold. In fact, it shows Harold being crowned King of England, and the Saxons fighting bravely on the battlefield against the heavy Norman cavalry.

Below is a fantastic video in which the creators have animated the Bayeux Tapestry from start to finish. It’s a fantastic new way to look at this work of art. You can watch the video below or click HERE.

A nice touch the creators of this video added was the comet flying over the length of the tapestry. In the middle ages, comets were thought to be ill-omened, and the one seen prior to the Battle of Hastings was, some believe, Haley’s Comet.

Whatever the meaning, it seemed that even though both Harold and William had claims to the English throne, God was on the Conqueror’s side that day in 1066.

The Death of Harold

The Death of Harold

What are your thoughts on the Bayeux Tapestry? Have you seen it yourself?

Be sure to click on ‘Leave a comment’ below, under the social media buttons, to let us know your thoughts!

Thank you for reading!

 

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5 thoughts on “1066 – The Bayeux Tapestry and the Weaving of History

  1. Thank you for a really interesting post. Here in Reading Museum there is a copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, embroidered by a group of ladies about a hundred years ago. It inspires local schoolchildren and there are many projects on the Saxons and Normans.

    • That sounds wonderful, Beth! Did the group reproduce the entire tapestry? That’s quite an achievement. Are there pictures of it on-line? I’ll have a look. As a former museum educator, I can definitely see how that would really be an inspiration for school children. Fantastic! Cheers for your comment, and thank you for reading 🙂

  2. The first reference to the tapestry is from 1476 when it was listed in an inventory of the treasures of Bayeux Cathedral. It survived the sack of Bayeux by the Huguenots in 1562; and the next certain reference is from 1724.

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