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The Bayeux Tapestry (French: Tapisserie de Bayeux, IPA: [tapisʁi də bajø], Norman: La telle du conquest) is an embroidered cloth—not an actual tapestry, which is instead woven—nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.
According to Sylvette Lemagnen, conservator of the tapestry,
The Bayeux tapestry is one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque ... Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous ... Its exceptional length, the harmony and freshness of its colors, its exquisite workmanship, and the genius of its guiding spirit combine to make it endlessly fascinating.
The tapestry consists of some fifty scenes with Latin tituli (captions), embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarns. It is likely that it was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William's half-brother, and made in England—not Bayeux—in the 1070s. In 1729 the hanging was rediscovered by scholars at a time when it was being displayed annually in Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry is now exhibited at Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.
French legend maintained the tapestry was commissioned and created by Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror's wife, and her ladies-in-waiting. Indeed, in France it is occasionally known as "La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde" (Tapestry of Queen Matilda). However, scholarly analysis in the 20th century concluded it was probably commissioned by William's half-brother, Bishop Odo, who, after the Conquest, became Earl of Kent and, when William was absent in Normandy, regent of England.
The reasons for the Odo commission theory include: 1) three of the bishop's followers mentioned in the Domesday Book appear on the tapestry; 2) it was found in Bayeux Cathedral, built by Odo; and 3) it may have been commissioned at the same time as the cathedral's construction in the 1070s, possibly completed by 1077 in time for display on the cathedral's dedication.
Assuming Odo commissioned the tapestry, it was probably designed and constructed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists (Odo's main power base being by then in Kent); the Latin text contains hints of Anglo-Saxon; other embroideries originate from England at this time; and the vegetable dyes can be found in cloth traditionally woven there. The actual physical work of stitching was most likely undertaken by skilled seamsters. Anglo-Saxon needlework, or Opus Anglicanum, was famous across Europe.
Alternative theories exist. Carola Hicks has suggested it could possibly have been commissioned by Edith of Wessex; and Howard B. Clarke has proposed that the designer of the tapestry was Scolland, the abbot of St Augustine's Abbey, because of his previous position as head of the scriptorium at Mont Saint-Michel (famed for its illumination), his travels to Trajan's Column, and his connections to Wadard and Vital, two individuals identified in the tapestry. Wolfgang Grape has challenged the consensus that the embroidery is Anglo-Saxon, distinguishing between Anglo-Saxon and other Northern European techniques; Medieval material authority Elizabeth Coatsworth contradicted this: "The attempt to distinguish Anglo-Saxon from other Northern European embroideries before 1100 on the grounds of technique cannot be upheld on the basis of present knowledge." George Beech suggests the tapestry was executed at the Abbey of St. Florent in the Loire Valley, and says the detailed depiction of the Breton campaign argues for additional sources in France. Andrew Bridgeford has suggested that the tapestry was actually of English design and encoded with secret messages meant to undermine Norman rule.
In common with other embroidered hangings of the early medieval period, this piece is conventionally referred to as a "tapestry", although it is not a true tapestry in which the design is woven into the cloth; it is in fact an embroidery.
The Bayeux tapestry is embroidered in crewel (wool yarn) on a tabby-woven linen ground 68.38 metres long and 0.5 metres wide (224.3 ft × 1.6 ft) and using two methods of stitching: outline or stem stitch for lettering and the outlines of figures, and couching or laid work for filling in figures. Nine linen panels, between fourteen and three metres in length, were sewn together after each was embroidered and the joins were disguised with subsequent embroidery. At the first join (start of scene 14) the borders do not line up properly but the technique was improved so that the later joins are practically invisible. The design involved a broad central zone with narrow decorative borders top and bottom. By inspecting the woollen threads behind the linen it is apparent all these aspects were embroidered together at a session and the awkward placing of the tituli is not due to them being added later. Later generations have patched the hanging in numerous places and some of the embroidery (especially in the final scene) has been reworked. The tapestry may well have maintained much of its original appearance—it now compares closely with a careful drawing made in 1730.
The main yarn colours are terracotta or russet, blue-green, dull gold, olive green, and blue, with small amounts of dark blue or black and sage green. Later repairs are worked in light yellow, orange, and light greens. Laid yarns are couched in place with yarn of the same or contrasting colour.
The tapestry's central zone contains most of the action, which sometimes overflows into the borders either for dramatic effect or because depictions would otherwise be very cramped (for example at Edward's death scene). Events take place in a long series of scenes which are generally separated by highly stylised trees. However, the trees are not placed consistently and the greatest scene shift, between Harold's audience with Edward after his return to England and Edward's burial scene, is not marked in any way at all.
The tituli are normally in the central zone but occasionally use the top border. The borders are otherwise mostly purely decorative and only sometimes does the decoration complement the action in the central zone. The decoration consists of birds, beasts, fish and scenes from fables, agriculture and hunting. There are frequent oblique bands separating the vignettes. There are nude figures, some of corpses from battle, others of a ribald nature. A harrow, a newly invented implement, is depicted (scene 10) and this is the earliest known depiction. The picture of Halley's Comet, which appears in the upper border (scene 32), is the first known picture of this comet.
The end of the tapestry has been missing from time immemorial and the final titulus "Et fuga verterunt Angli" ("and the English left fleeing") is said to be "entirely spurious", added shortly before 1814 at a time of anti-English sentiment. Musset speculates the hanging was originally about 1.5 metres longer. At the last section still remaining the embroidery has been almost completely restored but this seems to have been done with at least some regard to the original stitching. The stylised tree is quite unlike any other tree in the tapestry. The start of the tapestry has also been restored but to a much lesser extent
In 1724 a linen backing cloth was sewn on comparatively crudely and, in around the year 1800, large ink numerals were written on the backing which broadly enumerate each scene and which are still commonly used for reference.
In a series of pictures supported by a written commentary the tapestry tells the story of the events of 1064–1066 culminating in the Battle of Hastings. The two main protagonists are Harold Godwinson, recently crowned King of England, leading the Anglo-Saxon English, and William, Duke of Normandy, leading a mainly Norman army, sometimes called the companions of William the Conqueror.
William was the illegitimate son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy, and Herleva (or Arlette), a tanner's daughter. William became Duke of Normandy at the age of seven and was in control of Normandy by the age of nineteen. His half brother was Bishop Odo of Bayeux.
King Edward the Confessor, king of England and about sixty years old at the time the tapestry starts its narration, had no children or any clear successor. Edward's mother, Emma of Normandy, was William's great aunt. At that time succession to the English throne was not by primogeniture but was decided jointly by the king and by an assembly of nobility, the Witenagemot.
Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex and the most powerful noble in England, was Edward's brother-in-law. The Norman chronicler William of Poitiers recorded that Edward sent Harold to tell William that Edward had decided William should succeed him as king of England upon his (Edward's) death. However, other sources dispute this claim.
The tapestry begins with a panel of Edward the Confessor sending Harold to Normandy.(scene 1) Later Norman sources say that the mission was for Harold to pledge loyalty to William but the tapestry does not suggest any specific purpose. By mischance, Harold arrives at the wrong location in France and is taken prisoner by Guy, Count of Ponthieu.(scene 7) After exchanges of messages borne by mounted messengers, Harold is released to William who then invites Harold to come on a campaign against Conan II, Duke of Brittany. On the way, just outside the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel, the army become mired in quicksand and Harold saves two Norman soldiers.(scene 17) William's army chases Conan from Dol de Bretagne to Rennes, and Conan finally surrenders at Dinan.(scene 20) William gives Harold arms and armour (possibly knighting him) and Harold takes an oath on saintly relics.(scene 23) Although the writing on the tapestry explicitly states an oath is taken there is no clue as to what is being promised.
Harold leaves for home and meets again with the old king Edward, who appears to be remonstrating with him.(scene 25) Harold is in a somewhat submissive posture and seems to be in disgrace. However, possibly deliberately, the king's intentions are not made clear. The scene then shifts by about one year to when Edward has become mortally ill and the tapestry strongly suggests that, on his deathbed, he bequeaths the crown to Harold.[note 1] What is probably the coronation ceremony[note 2] is attended by Stigand, whose position as Archbishop of Canterbury was controversial.(scene 31) Stigand is performing a liturgical function, possibly not the crowning itself. The tapestry labels the celebrant as "Stigant Archieps" (Stigand the archbishop) although by that time he had been excommunicated by the papacy who considered his appointment unlawful.
A star with a streaming tail then appears: Halley's Comet.[note 3] Comets, in the beliefs of the Middle Ages, were a bad omen. At this point the lower border of the tapestry shows a fleet of ghost-like ships thus hinting at a future invasion.(scene 33) The news of Harold's coronation is taken to Normandy, whereupon we are told that William is ordering a fleet of ships to be built although it is Bishop Odo shown issuing the instructions.(scene 35) The invaders reach England, and land unopposed. William orders his men to find food, and a meal is cooked.(scene 43) A house is burnt, which may indicate some ravaging of the local countryside on the part of the invaders.(scene 47) News is brought to William.[note 4] The Normans build a motte and bailey at Hastings to defend their position. Messengers are sent between the two armies, and William makes a speech to prepare his army for battle.(scene 51)
The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 less than three weeks after the Battle of Stamford Bridge but the tapestry does not provide this context. The English fight on foot behind a shield wall, whilst the Normans are on horses.[note 5] Two fallen knights are named as Leofwine and Gyrth, Harold's brothers, but both armies are shown fighting bravely. Bishop Odo brandishes his baton or mace and rallies the Norman troops in battle.(scene 54)[note 6] To reassure his knights that he is still alive and well, William raises his helmet to show his face. The battle becomes very bloody with troops being slaughtered and dismembered corpses littering the ground. King Harold is killed.(scene 57) This scene can be interpreted in different ways, as the name "Harold" appears above a number of knights, making it difficult to identify which character is Harold. The final remaining scene shows unarmoured English troops fleeing the battlefield. The last part of the tapestry is missing but it is thought that story contained only one additional scene.
Tituli are included on many scenes to point out names of people and places or to explain briefly the event being depicted. The text is in Latin but at times the style of words and spelling shows an English influence. A dark blue wool, almost black, is mostly used but towards the end of the tapestry other colours are used, sometimes for each word and other times for each letter. The complete text and English translation are displayed beside images of each scene at Bayeux Tapestry tituli.
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. Antoine Lancelot sent a report to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres concerning a sketch he had received about a work concerning William the Conqueror. He had no idea whether the original was a sculpture or painting though he mooted it could be a tapestry. Despite his further enquiries he discovered no more. However, the Benedictine scholar Bernard de Montfaucon made more successful investigations and found that the sketch was of a small portion of a tapestry preserved at Bayeux Cathedral.
In 1729 and 1730 he published drawings and a detailed description of the complete work in the first two volumes of his Les Monuments de la Monarchie française. The drawings were by Antoine Benoît, one of the ablest draughtsmen of that time.
The tapestry was first briefly noted in English in 1743 by William Stukeley, in his Palaeographia Britannica. The first detailed account in English was written by Smart Lethieullier, who was living in Paris in 1732–3, and was acquainted with Lancelot and de Montfaucon: it was not published, however, until 1767, as an appendix to Andrew Ducarel's Anglo-Norman Antiquities.
During the French Revolution, in 1792, the tapestry was confiscated as public property to be used for covering military wagons. It was rescued from a wagon by a local lawyer who stored it in his house until the troubles were over, when he sent it to the city administrators for safekeeping. After the Terror the Fine Arts Commission, set up to safeguard national treasures, in 1803 required it to be removed to Paris for display at the Musée Napoléon. When Napoleon abandoned his planned invasion of Britain its propaganda value was lost and it was returned to Bayeux where the council displayed it on a winding apparatus of two cylinders. Despite scholars' concern that the tapestry was becoming damaged the council refused to return it to the Cathedral.
In 1816 the Society of Antiquaries of London commissioned its historical draughtsman, Charles Stothard, to visit Bayeux to make an accurate hand-coloured facsimile of the tapestry. His drawings were subsequently engraved by James Basire jr., and published by the Society in 1819–23. Stothard's images are still of value as a record of the tapestry as it was before 19th-century restoration.
By 1842 the tapestry was displayed in a special-purpose room in the Bibliothèque Publique. It required special storage in 1870 with the threatened invasion of Normandy in the Franco-Prussian War and again in 1939–1944 by the Ahnenerbe during the German Occupation of France and the Normandy landings. On 27 June 1944 the Gestapo took the tapestry to the Louvre and on 18 August, three days before the Wehrmacht withdrew from Paris, Himmler sent a message (intercepted by Bletchley Park) ordering it to be taken to "a place of safety", thought to be Berlin. It was only on 22 August that the SS attempted to take possession of the tapestry by which time the Louvre was again in French hands. After the liberation of Paris, on 25 August, the tapestry was again put on public display in the Louvre, and in 1945 it was returned to Bayeux where it is exhibited at Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.
The inventory listing of 1476 shows that the tapestry was being hung annually in Bayeux Cathedral for the week of the Feast of St. John the Baptist and this was still the case in 1728 although by that time the purpose was merely to air the hanging which was otherwise stored in a chest. Clearly, the work was being well cared for. In the eighteenth century the artistry was regarded as crude or even barbarous—red and yellow multi-coloured horses upset some critics. It was thought to be unfinished because the linen was not covered with embroidery. However, its exhibition in the Louvre in 1797 caused a sensation with Le Moniteur, which normally dealt with foreign affairs, reporting on it on its first two pages. It inspired a popular musical La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. It was because the tapestry was regarded as an antiquity, rather than a work of art, that in 1804 it was returned to Bayeux where in 1823 one commentator, A. L. Léchaudé d'Anisy, reported "there is a sort of purity in its primitive forms, especially considering the state of the arts in the eleventh century".
The tapestry was becoming a tourist attraction with Robert Southey complaining of the need to queue to see the work[note 7] In the 1843 Hand-book for Travellers in France by John Murray III a visit was included on Recommended Route 26 (Caen to Cherbourg via Bayeux) and this guidebook led John Ruskin to go there describing it as "the most interesting thing in its way conceivable". Charles Dickens was not impressed: "It is certainly the work of amateurs; very feeble amateurs at the beginning and very heedless some of them too".
The tapestry contains several mysteries:
The Bayeux Tapestry was probably commissioned by the House of Normandy and essentially depicts a Norman viewpoint. However, Harold is shown as brave and his soldiers are not belittled. Throughout, William is described as "dux" (duke) whereas Harold, also called dux up to his coronation, is subsequently called "rex" (king). The fact that the narrative extensively covers Harold's activities in Normandy (in 1064) indicates that the intention was to show a strong relationship between that expedition and the Norman Conquest starting two years later. It is for this reason that the tapestry is generally seen by modern scholars as an apologia for the Norman Conquest.
The tapestry's narration seems to place stress on Harold's oath to William although its rationale is not made clear. Norman sources claimed that the English succession was being pledged to William but English sources gave varied accounts. Today it is thought the Norman sources are to be preferred. Both the tapestry and Norman sources named Stigand, the excommunicated Archbishop of Canterbury, as the man who crowned Harold, possibly to discredit Harold's kingship; English sources suggested that he was crowned by Ealdred, Archbishop of York and favoured by the papacy, making Harold's position as legitimate king more secure. Contemporary scholarship has not decided the matter although it is generally thought Ealdred performed the coronation.
While political propaganda or personal emphasis may have somewhat distorted the historical accuracy of the story, the Bayeux tapestry presents a unique visual document of medieval arms, apparel, and other objects unlike any other artifact surviving from this period. There is no attempt at continuity between scenes either for individuals' appearance or clothing. The knights carry shields, but show no system of hereditary coats of arms—the beginnings of modern heraldic structure were in place, but would not become standard until the middle of the 12th century. It has been noted that the warriors are depicted fighting with bare hands, while other sources indicate the general use of gloves in battle and hunt.
Tapestry fragments have been found in Scandinavia dating from the ninth century and it is thought that Norman and Anglo-Saxon embroidery developed from this sort of work. Examples are to be found in the grave goods of the Oseberg ship and the Överhogdal tapestries.
A monastic text from Ely, the Liber Eliensis, mentions a woven narrative wall-hanging commemorating the deeds of Byrhtnoth, killed in 991. Wall-hangings were common by the tenth century with English and Norman texts particularly commending the skill of Anglo-Saxon seamstresses. Mural paintings imitating draperies still exist in France and Italy and there are twelfth century mentions of other wall-hangings in Normandy and France. A poem by Baldric of Dol might even be describing the Bayeux Tapestry itself. Therefore, the Bayeux Tapestry was not unique at the time it was created—rather it is remarkable for being the sole surviving example of Middle Ages' narrative needlework.
There are a number of replicas of the Bayeux Tapestry in existence. Through the collaboration of William Morris with textile manufacturer Thomas Wardle, Wardle's wife Elizabeth, who was an accomplished seamstress, embarked on creating a reproduction in 1885. She organised some 37 women in her Leek School of Art Embroidery[note 8] to collaborate working from a full-scale water-colour facsimile drawing provided by the South Kensington Museum The full-size replica was finished in 1886 and is now exhibited in the Museum of Reading in Reading, Berkshire, England. The naked figure in the original tapestry (in the border below the Ælfgyva figure) is depicted wearing a brief garment because the drawing which was worked from was similarly bowdlerised.
Ray Dugan of University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, completed a stitched replica in 1996. Since its completion, it has been displayed in various museums and galleries in Canada and the United States.
A hand-painted full-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry is at the University of West Georgia, Carrollton, Georgia, United States. It is displayed in the third floor atrium of the Humanities building as part of an art gallery. Dr. E. D. Wheeler, former judge and former dean at Oglethorpe University, commissioned the work and donated it to the university in 1997.
An approximately half scale mosaic version of the Bayeux Tapestry is on display at Geraldine, New Zealand. The mosaic of 1.5 million pieces of spring steel was created by Michael Linton over a period of twenty years from 1979.
The 7 mm2 steel pieces are off-cuts from patterning disks of knitting machines and are affixed to a blackened background. The pieces have been enamel-painted one by one over several years in one of eight colors in keeping with the original tapestry's color scheme. The complete mosaic is displayed as 32 sections, weighing a total of 230 kg. The work includes a hypothetical reconstruction of the missing final section of the Tapestry up to William The Conqueror's coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, 1066.
Similarly, other modern artists have attempted to complete the work by creating panels depicting subsequent events up to William's coronation, though the actual content of the missing panels is unknown. In 1997, the embroidery artist Jan Messent completed a reconstruction showing William accepting the surrender of English nobles at Berkhamsted (Beorcham), Hertfordshire, and his coronation. In early 2013, 416 residents of Alderney in the Channel Islands finished a continuation including William's coronation and the building of the Tower of London.
The tapestry was cited by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics as an example of early narrative art and Bryan Talbot, a British comic book artist, has called it "the first known British comic strip".
Because it resembles a movie storyboard, is widely recognised and, by modern standards at least, is so distinctive in its artistic style, the Bayeux Tapestry has frequently been used or reimagined in a variety of different popular culture contexts. It has inspired many modern political and other cartoons, including the 15 July 1944 cover of the New Yorker magazine marking D-Day; and George Gale's pastiche chronicling the saga leading up to Britain's entry into the European Economic Community, published across six pages in The Times's "Europa" supplement on 1 January 1973.
The tapestry has also inspired modern embroideries, notably the Overlord embroidery commemorating the Normandy landings invasion, now at Portsmouth; and the Prestonpans Tapestry, which chronicles the events surrounding the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745.
A number of films have used sections of the tapestry in their opening credits or closing titles, including: the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Anthony Mann's El Cid, Zeffirelli's Hamlet, Frank Cassenti's La Chanson de Roland, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Richard Fleischer's The Vikings.
The tapestry is referenced in Tony Kushner's play Angels in America. The apocryphal account of Queen Matilda's creation of the tapestry is used, perhaps in order to demonstrate that Louis, one of the main characters, holds himself to mythological standards.
The tapestry is also featured in a couch gag of the animated TV series The Simpsons in the 10th episode of the 19th season, titled "E Pluribus Wiggum". The couch gag shows a parody of the Bayeux Tapestry where Ned Flanders and his family steal the Simpson family's couch. The Simpsons then take it back and kill the Flanderses.
The tapestry was featured in a Detour challenge on the 2nd season of The Amazing Race Canada, in which contestants had to place images from the tapestry in order to match the story.
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