The Bayeux Tapestry
One of the great historical records of the Middle Ages in Britain lies, not in a library, and not even in Britain, but in a specially-built tourist centre in Bayeux, France. The Centre Guillaume le Conquerant (for the linguistically challenged that translates as "The William the Conqueror Centre") houses the Bayeux Tapestry, one of best sources of information on early Norman dress, armour, castle-building, boat-building, hunting, and other facets of daily life.
The Bayeux Tapestry, despite its name, is not actually a tapestry at all! It is embroidery, using coloured wool, on 8 long strips of bleached linen which have been stitched together to form a continuous panel about 20 inches high and 230 feet long. We don't know the exact length of the original tapestry, because the final strip is tattered, although its present length fits pretty closely around the nave of Bayeux Cathedral, suggesting that it was custom-built for that church.
Who made it?
The Bayeux Tapestry tells the tale of William the Conqueror's invasion of England through pictorial panels. We do not know for certain who commissioned the tapestry, though the likeliest candidate is William's half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux from 1050-1097, or one of Odo's followers.
Although the story is told from a Norman point of view, the style of the needlework indicates that the tapestry was actually made in England. For many years a pleasant tale told of William's wife, Queen Matilda, and her ladies making the tapestry as a gift for her victorious husband, though this now seems little more than pleasant romantic fiction.
So what does the tapestry show? It begins with Edward the Confessor sitting in regal splendour with Earl Harold Godwinson. Harold then sets sail for Normandy, where he lands, perhaps by accident, in the domains of Count Guy of Ponthieu.
Count Guy takes Harold to Duke William and the Duke brings Harold with him on a campaign against the Bretons. Harold fights bravely and receives armour from William. At Bayeux, Harold makes an oath (of uncertain nature) to William and is freed to return to England.
In England, Edward dies after some unspecified deathbed words to his advisors, and Harold is crowned king. When William hears the news he prepares an invasion fleet. The fleet lands near Hastings in Sussex and meets Harold's troops in a fierce battle. After heavy losses Harold is killed and the Saxons flee. The tapestry ends there, though we may surmise that a final panel showing William on the throne may have existed, corresponding to the original panel of Edward.
Much of the story shows events in Normandy. We can only guess that the tapestry was meant to show Edward sending Harold (the obvious Saxon choice as his successor) to William to cede the crown to the duke.
Harold is shown as William's vassal (receiving arms from William) and the oath he swore is presumed to be an act of forswearing his right to the crown in William's favour. The deathbed scene may represent Edward telling his advisors that William was his choice as successor.
Harold's very legitimate claims to the throne are ignored in this heavily slanted Norman account. History, as we are constantly reminded, is written by the victors.
The tapestry was not executed in a continuous sequence. The first two strips were clearly made separately; the margins are spaced differently and do not match. There are also differences in the way Normans and Saxons are portrayed between panels.
One of the most famous scenes in the Bayeux Tapestry purports to show the death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings. One of the Saxons appears to receive an arrow in or about the right eye.
For centuries this was interpreted as meaning that Harold died from an arrow in the eye. Many historians now believe that the man depicted is one of Harold's knights, not Harold himself. Contemporary Norman accounts say only that Harold fell in battle, so we do not actually know if the "arrow in the eye" story is true.
The tapestry was the victim of a well-meaning restoration attempt in the last century, which resulted in modern stitching filling in the gaps in the fabric, with dubious accuracy. For all its faults, both material and in historical "truthfulness", the Bayeux Tapestry remains one of the true treasures of the Norman period in English history.