Bayeux Tapestry

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bayeux tapestryThe story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, as seen from the Norman perspective, is depicted in this unusual and unique object, the Bayeux Tapestry. Although it is more than 900 years old, the images portrayed are still gripping. It is 70 metres of coloured embroidery. It is full of vivid action but also much more that is unexplained and enigmatic.
In the lower and upper margins there are short running captions in Latin and a rich wealth of activity.

The very heart of the story is the struggle between Harold Godwinsoin and duke William of Normandy to succeed Edward the Confessor as King of England.

The masterpiece was clearly designed by an artist who was capable of detailed and close observation. A good example of this was, the tapestry shows how the Normans and English could be identified straight away by their haircuts. The Normans were clean shaven, and their hair was cut dramatically high at the back, whereas the English had shoulder length hair and moustaches and no beards. In Anglo – Saxon England only priests were clean shaven fully. This explains the story when King Harold’s scouts first clapped eyes on the Normans camped outside Hastings, they reported back that “they have sent an army of priests”.

William of Normandy never accepted Harold as a rightful King. One French chronicler wrote Harold was only a “pseudo-King” The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story from this point of view.

The tapestry’s first half is devoted to a journey Harold took to France, where William is shown treating him in an honourable way and Harold is depicted swearing an oath to William on holy relics. It is assumed that this said oath involved a promise to support Williams claim to the kingship of England. According to the story in the tapestry shortly after Harold’s return to England he perjures himself in a spectacular way, disregarding his oath and seizing the throne for himself.

In February 1066, after Harold had been on the throne for less than 2 months, a comet appeared in the sky. In the Middle Ages, the appearance of a comet meant a great change was about to occur. This may be why in that period a comet was called “the terror of kings”. We now know this comet as Halley’s Comet.

The tapestry shows Duke William making his preparations, gathering supplies, building a fleet and mustering troops. Williams fleet is shown sailing 70 miles to the Sussex coast, with its dragon headed ships reminding us of the Norman’s Viking ancestry. Harold sure had reason to fear. Once landed, the Normans showed they weren’t messing about, building two castles within a fortnight, one at Hastings and one at Pevensey and also ravaging the surrounding countryside. The tapestry shows a woman with her child fleeing a burning house.

Harold was being challenged on his own ground, his family, the Godwinsoins’s had origins in Sussex.

The tapestry’s depiction of the Battle of Hastings is the fullest pictorial record of a medieval battle in existence. The English were on foot, occupying the ridge standing shoulder to shoulder, protected by their large oval shields and many armed with huge axes.

Fighting began around nine o’clock on that October day. The Normans first attack was repulsed, with the English chasing them downhill. A rumour Duke of William had been killed spread. However, as the tapestry illustration showed he pulled off his helmet, revealing his face and said ‘I live and with God’s help will conquer yet’ His men rallied and killed the English who followed them down.

The Normans repeated this process, pretending to retreat to lure the English. The Battle went on all day. Odo bishop of Bayeux, half brother of William the Conqueror was displayed deep in battle. He was forbidden to draw blood so carried a club instead. The caption above him explains @Here Bishop Odo, holding his club, encouraging the boys’ Some say he ordered the making of the tapestry hence his prominent position in the story.

The decisive moment in the battle was the death of Harold. Two early accounts say he was struck in the eye by an arrow. There has been a long debate as to whether this displayed in the tapestry. The caption ‘Here King Harold has been killed’ but if they apply the figure directly below or to the men on the right being cut down by a Norman horseman.

14th October 1066 the King along with his two brothers died. The English fled, pursed by victorious Normans. The next day William set off on the March to London where on Christmas Day he was crowned King of the English in Westminister Abbey, the glorious new church where Harold’s coronation was less than 12 months prior.

The end of the tapestry has been lost, however I can imagine the final scene was the triumphant coronation of the Conqueror.

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