It’s not really a tapestry. It’s technically embroidery; in case you were wondering. Still: it’s a 1000-year-old embroidery! In graphic-novel style, it tells the story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and the beginning of the Norman conquest of England.
The Bayeux Museum houses the tapestry. The display of the 70-meter-long (230 feet) tapestry is simple, clear, approachable.
As you step into the long dark room, the portable audio guide starts. The narrator helps you see the story that the tapestry tells. While our visit day was not a crowded one, there was a little clump of visitors just ahead of us. I wanted to pause my audio guide to let them move a few panels ahead. The audio guide doesn’t have a pause or stop button. Clever. You just have to keep moving. “Keep on moving folks, there’s plenty to see here!”
Even with the visitors right in front of us, inspecting the tapestry with the help of the audio guide engrossed us. We kept thinking about the creation of this fabric work a millennium ago. It also brought to life this significant moment of European history. It’s quite like a comic book — sorry — graphic novel. Full of lively characters, clothes and buildings of the day, and wry or gruesome asides (like decapitated soldiers, and fallen fighters whose armor is being pulling off).
After our stroll down one side of the tapestry display and back, we were so taken by the experience that we wanted to do it again. We asked if we could go through again; we’d pay for another ticket, no problem. But there were almost no other visitors there at the moment, so the staff just waved us through. There’s so much story that even twice through isn’t enough.
It’s a good story, full of action and betrayal! In a nutshell, this is it:
- Edward the Confessor, King of England, sends his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson to Normandy in order to offer his cousin William, Duke of Normandy, the succession to the English throne.
- Harold is taken prisoner in Normandy, but William facilitates his release and return to England.
- King Edward dies.
- Harold ignores Edward’s wishes and makes himself king, rather than William.
- Back in Normandy, William is pissed.
- William gathers his forces, crosses the English Channel, and attacks the English forces.
- Harold is shot in the eye with an arrow. He dies.
- William is king.
For those of you who would like to dig into the details further, we’ve included more at the end of this post.
When you think about seeing something like this old embroidery work, the facts are interesting, for sure. But the experience of following the flow of the tale right in front of you is engaging and exciting. There’s so much life in the illustrations. Because it’s all stitched, there’s a cartoony feeling, which makes it approachable. The colors are wonderful — after 1000 years! Did we say that already? There’s action, and many many little side events and characters. When you have the chance to visit here, give yourself a little time to immerse yourself in this work of art.
There’s more to Bayeux. Let’s walk around a bit, have some lunch, and then some dinner.
Bayeux’s streets, squares and parks are charming.
The cathedral was an impressive surprise as well.
The Notre Dame Cathedral of Bayeux, a masterpiece of Norman Romanesque and Gothic architecture, is at the heart of the old town’s conservation area. Its history is as grand as the two towers which flank its facade. The cathedral was consecrated on 14 July 1077, in the presence of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England, and his wife Matilda. All that survives from the construction of this period is the crypt, the towers at the western end and the first level of the nave.
The rest of the cathedral was built in the Gothic style, from the 12th to the 19th centuries. (source)
A little lunch…
Restaurant La Table du Lion
Every dish was beautiful to the eye. However, to the palate, not so much. Not bad flavors, just a lack of flavors. So: just because a dish looks all chef-fy and fancy, it doesn’t mean that its tastes will live up to its face. Fortunately, though, the wines and cheeses and desserts were fabulous.
About the tapestry itself:
The Bayeux Tapestry was probably made in Canterbury around 1070. Because the tapestry was made within a generation of the Norman defeat of the Anglo-Saxons, it is considered to be a somewhat accurate representation of events. Based on a few key pieces of evidence, art historians believe the patron was Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. Odo was the half-brother of William, Duke of Normandy. Furthermore, the tapestry favorably depicts the Normans in the events leading up to the battle of Hastings, thus presenting a Norman point of view. (source)
What’s so special about the Norman conquest of England?
The Norman conquest of England, led by William the Conqueror (r. 1066-1087 CE) was achieved over a five-year period from 1066 CE to 1071 CE. Hard-fought battles, castle building, land redistribution, and scorched earth tactics ensured that the Normans were here to stay. The conquest saw the Norman elite replace that of the Anglo-Saxons and take over the country’s lands, the Church was restructured, a new architecture was introduced in the form of motte and bailey castles and Romanesque cathedrals, feudalism became much more widespread, and the English language absorbed thousands of new French words, amongst a host of many other lasting changes which all combine to make the Norman invasion a momentous watershed in English history. (source)
Who were these Normans?
Norman, member of those Vikings, or Norsemen, who settled in northern France (or the Frankish kingdom), together with their descendants. The Normans founded the duchy of Normandy and sent out expeditions of conquest and colonization to southern Italy and Sicily [an upcoming blog post will delve into this target of the Normans] and to England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland….
Despite their eventual conversion to Christianity, their adoption of the French language, and their abandonment of sea roving for Frankish cavalry warfare in the decades following their settlement in Normandy, the Normans retained many of the traits of their piratical Viking ancestors. They displayed an extreme restlessness and recklessness, a love of fighting accompanied by almost foolhardy courage, and a craftiness and cunning that went hand in hand with outrageous treachery. In their expansion into other parts of Europe, the Normans compiled a record of astonishingly daring exploits in which often a mere handful of men would vanquish an enemy many times as numerous. An unequaled capacity for rapid movement across land and sea, the use of brutal violence, a precocious sense of the use and value of money—these are among the traits traditionally assigned to the Normans. (source)
Who, for that matter, were the Anglo-Saxons?
Anglo-Saxon is a term traditionally used to describe the people who, from the 5th-century CE to the time of the Norman Conquest (1066), inhabited and ruled territories that are today part of England and Wales. The Anglo-Saxons were descendants of Germanic migrants, Celtic inhabitants of Britain, and Viking and Danish invaders. (source)
It helps to know who the main characters of this story are:
WILLIAM, DUKE OF NORMANDY (William the Conqueror)
William, seventh Duke of Normandy, is the main protagonist in the story as told by the Tapestry. Named the Conqueror after his coronation in England on 25 December 1066, he was one of the most powerful monarchs in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Born in Falaise in 1027, he was the illegitimate son of Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy, his illegitimacy earning him the nickname William the Bastard. He succeeded his father in 1035, when he was only 8 years old. In 1050 he married Matilda, the daughter of Count Baudouin V of Flanders, a distant cousin. He died in 1087 at the age of 60.
HAROLD, THE ANGLO-SAXON
At the beginning of the story told in the Bayeux Tapestry, the elderly Anglo-Saxon King Edward the Confessor is sitting on his throne, talking to Harold (1022-1066), his brother-in-law from the powerful Godwin family of Wessex. By the end of Edward’s reign, Harold had gradually become the strong man of England and the standard-bearer of those opposed to the Normans. On 6 January 1066, Harold was crowned King in place of William of Normandy. On the 14 October 1066, at Hastings, as battle was raging against the troops of William, who had come to reclaim his throne, Harold was killed in combat after being hit in the eye by an arrow, a symbol of punishment for his act of perjury.
EDWARD THE CONFESSOR
King Edward, known as the Confessor because of his great piety, was the son of the Anglo-Saxon King Ethelred II and of Emma, William’s great-aunt. He was crowned in 1042 and married Edith, daughter of the Count of Godwin and his Danish wife Gytha, as a way of seeking reconciliation with the Anglo-Danish clan. He remained very attached to Normandy, where he had spent 30 years in exile, when he was banished by the Danish conquerors. In 1064, in England and still childless, Edward naturally turned to William, his first cousin once removed, to succeed him on the throne. So he decided to send his brother-in-law Harold to Normandy to deliver his message to William…
ODO, BISHOP OF BAYEUX
Odo is one of the characters who is named several times in the Bayeux Tapestry. Odo and William the Bastard had the same mother, and Odo owed his appointment as head of the Bayeux diocese in 1050 to William. Loyal to the Duke, he took part in the plans to invade England and fought alongside his half-brother during the Battle of Hastings. It is generally supposed by historians that Odo had the Bayeux Tapestry made to embellish his new cathedral at its consecration in 1077. Exhibiting the Tapestry in a consecrated building provided legitimacy for the Norman conquest of England.
Now, here’s a panel-by-panel list of the story elements, with some of the photos we took. You can find even more detail, and complete images, at the museum’s very good web site: https://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/the-bayeux-tapestry/discover-the-bayeux-tapestry/
|1||EDVVARD RЄX |
|King Edward the Confessor talks to his brother-in-law Harold, Earl of Wessex in 1064. |
The first scene shows the journey to Normandy in 1064. King Edward the Confessor is talking with Harold, Earl of Wessex, who then departs for his family estate in Sussex with his hunting dogs and followers.
|2||VBI hAROLD DVX ANGLORVM ET SVIMILITЄS ЄQVITANT AD BOShAM|
Where Harold, an earl of the English, and his soldiers ride to Bosham
|Harold Godwinson’s journey to Normandy. |
Harold prays at a church for a safe voyage before eating his final meal with his companions. They then board their ships and set sail with the dogs and falcons.
|4||HIC hAROLD MARЄ NAVIGAVIT|
Here Harold sailed the sea
|5||ET VЄLIS VЄNTO PLЄNIS VЄNIT IN TERRAM VVIDONIS COMITIS|
And, the wind full in his sails, he came to the country of Count Guy
|Harold lands in Ponthei. |
On landing in Ponthei, Harold encounters the fierce Guy of Ponthieu who orders his soldiers to seize the Earl.
|7||hIC APRЄhЄNDIT VVIDO HAROLDUM|
Here Guy arrests Harold
|8||ЄT DVXIT EVM AD BЄLRЄM ET IBI ЄVM TENVIT|
And led him to Beaurain and kept him there
|Harold is taken prisoner by the Normans. |
Harold is taken prisoner, but is allowed to ride up front with his hawk as they make their way to Beaurain. Harold then speaks with Guy.
|9||VBI hAROLD ET VVIDO PARABOLANT|
Where Harold and Guy talk
|10||VBI NVNTII VVILLELMI DVCIS VENERVNT AD VVIDONЄM TVROLD|
Where the messengers of Duke William came to Guy Turold
|Duke William of Normandy and Harold ride with soldiers to Rouen. |
Two messengers ride furiously to bring a message to Count Guy – Duke William of Normandy wants Harold to be released.
The messengers of William
|12||† HIC VENIT NVNTIVS AD WILGЄLMVM DVCEM|
† Here came a messenger to Duke William
|Guy takes Harold to Rouen. William is told that Guy has been taken prisoner. |
Guy obeys WIlliam, who is his overlord, and brings Harold to him.
|13||HIC WIDO AD DVXIT hAROLDVM ADVVILGЄLMVM NORMANNORVM DVCЄM|
Here Guy brought Harold to William Duke of the Normans
|14||HIC DVX VVILGELM CVM hAROLDO VЄNIT AD PALATIUM SVVM|
Here Duke William came with Harold to his palace
|Duke William of Normandy and Harold ride with soldiers to Rouen. |
Harold and William ride together to Rouen where the Duke listens to Harold. William’s daughter Aelfgifu is then betrothed to Harold.
|15||VBI VNVS CLЄRICVS ЄT ÆLFGYVA|
Where a certain cleric and Ælfgyva
|16||HIC VVILLEM DVX ЄT ЄXЄRCITVS EIVS VЄNЄRVNT AD MONTЄ MIChAЄLIS|
Here Duke William and his army came to Mont St Michel
|William, Harold and the Norman soldiers travel together to fight Duke Conan of Brittany. |
William and Harold set off together to fight Duke Conan of Brittany. As they journey past Mont St Michel a few soldiers get stuck in quicksand, but are rescued by Harold.
|17||ЄT HIC TRANSIЄRVNT FLVMЄN COSNONIS |
HIC hAROLD DVX TRAhЄBAT ЄOS DЄ ARЄNA
And here they crossed the river Couesnon
Here Duke Harold pulled them out of the sand
|18||ЄT VЄNЄRVNT AD DOL ЄT CONAN FVGA VЄRTIT|
And they came to Dol and Conan turned to flight
|Duke Conan escapes. |
William and his soldiers attack the Dol, but Duke Conan manages to escape down a rope.
|19||hIC MILITЄS VVILLЄLMI DVCIS PVGNANT CONTRA DINANTЄS|
Here Duke William’s soldiers fight against the men of Dinan
|William honours Harold Godwinson with a gift of arms. |
Conan surrenders to the Normans who catch up with him at Dinan. He uses the point of his lance to pass over the keys of the town. The battle consolidates William and Harold’s relationship and William honors him with the gift of arms.
|20||ET CVNAN CLAVЄS PORRЄXIT|
And Conan surrendered the keys
|21||hIC VVILLЄLM DЄDIT hAROLDO ARMA|
Here William gave arms to Harold
|22||hIЄ VVILLELM VЄNIT BAGIAS|
Here William came to Bayeux
|Harold returns to England. |
After returning to Normandy and swearing an oath to William on holy relics, Harold sails back to England.
|23||VBI hAROLD SACRAMЄNTVM FECIT VVILLELMO DVCI|
Where Harold made an oath to Duke William
|24||hIC hAROLD DVX RЄVERSVS EST AD ANGLICAM TERRAM|
Here Duke Harold returned to the English country
|King Edward is ill.|
On his return, Harold talks to King Edward, who appears to be ailing.
|25||ET VЄNIT AD EDVVARDVM REGEM|
And came to King Edward
|26||hIC PORTA TVR CORPVS EADVVARDI RЄGIS AD ЄCCLЄSIAM SANCTI PETRI APOSTOLI|
Here the body of King Edward is carried to the church of St Peter the Apostle
|The King dies.|
Edward the Confessor dies and is taken to his new church – Westminster Abbey. Before he dies he talks to his followers from bed. Harold is offered the crown and axe – symbols of royal authority. He accepts and becomes king.
|27||hIC EADVVARDVS REX IN LЄCTO ALLOQVIT FIDELES|
Here King Edward in bed speaks to his faithful followers
|28||ET HIC DЄFVNCTVS ЄST|
And here he is died
|29||hIC DEDERVNT hAROLDO CORONAM REGIS|
Here they have given the crown of the king to Harold
|William plans an invasion after hearing of Harold’s coronation.|
When news travels to William about Harold’s coronation, the Duke is furious. He believes he has a right to the throne and organizes an attack on England.
|30||hIC RЄSIDET hAROLD RЄX ANGLORVM|
Here sits throned Harold, King of the English
|32||ISTI MIRANT STELLA|
These men marvel at the star
|34||hIC NAVIS ANGLICA VЄNIT. IN TЄRRAM VWILLELMI DVCIS|
Here an English ship came to the country of Duke William
|The Normans prepare for the invasion.|
The Normans prepare to invade by cutting down trees and using the wood to make boats. These are then dragged to sea.
|35||HIC VVILLЄLM DVX IVSSIT NAVЄS EDIFICARE|
Here Duke William ordered ships to be built
|36||hIC TRAhVNT NAVЄS AD MARЄ|
Here ships are hauled to the sea
|The ships are loaded.|
The boats are stocked with helmets, swords, chainmail and lances.
|37||ISTI PORTANT ARMAS AD NAVЄS ЄT hIC TRAhVNT CARRVM CVM VINO ET ARMIS|
These men carry arms to the ships, and here they pull a wagon with wine and arms
|The Army sets Sail.|
The army is led onto the boats by William and they set sail with their horses.
|38||† hIC VVILLELM DVX IN MAGNO NAVIGIO MARЄ TRANSIVIT ET VENIT AD PЄVЄNЄSÆ|
† Here Duke William in a great ship crossed the sea and came to Pevensey
|The Normans cross the channel.|
Many warships travel to England, carrying horses and soldiers. William’s ships was bought for him by his wife Matilda.
|39||hIC ЄXЄVNT CABALLI DE NAVIBVS|
Here the horses leave the boats
|The Army Lands.|
On the 28 September the army lands at Pevensey in the south of England. The Normans disembark and ride towards Hastings.
|40||ЄT hIC MILITЄS FESTINAVERVNT hЄSTINGA VT CIBVM RAPERENTVR|
And here soldiers have hurried to Hastings to seize food
|41||HIC EST VVADARD|
Here is Wadard
|The Duke enjoys a banquet.|
William’s cooks prepare a banquet, including a cauldron with stew and chicken cooked on an open fire. Bishop Odo says grace and everybody eats.
|42||hIC COQVITVR CARO ET hIC MINISTRAVЄRVNT MINISTRI|
Here the meat is cooked, And here it has been served ; The servants
|43||hIC FECЄRVNT PRANDIVM ET hIC EPISCOPVS CIBVM ET POTVM BENEDICIT|
Here they made a meal, And here the bishop blesses the food and drink
|44||ODO EPISCOPVS VVILLEM ROTBERT|
Bishop Odo, William, Robert
|The Normans prepare for battle.|
The Norman invaders build their camp, including a motte at their base in Hastings. William is brought news of Harold’s army by a messenger.
|45||ISTE IVSSIT VT FODERЄTVR CASTELLVM AD HESTENGA CEASTRA|
This man has commanded that a fortification should be thrown up at Hastings
|46||HIC NVNTIATVM EST VVILLELM DE HAROLD|
Here news is brought to William about Harold
|47||hIC DOMVS INCENDITVR|
Here a house is burned
|48||hIC MILITES EXIERVNT DE hESTENGA ET VENERVNT AD PRЄLIVM CONTRA hAROLDVM REGЄ|
Here the soldiers went out of Hastings and came to the battle against King Harold
|The Normans ride into battle.|
Before the battle William, dressed in full armour, prepares to mount his horse and go into battle. The Norman cavalry rides out to meet the Anglo-Saxons.
|49||HIC VVILLELM DVX INTERROGAT VITAL SI VIDISSЄT EXERCITVM HAROLDI|
Here Duke William asks Vital whether he has seen Harold’s army
|William leads the Army.|
William appears both on a dark horse leading his troops and in a conversation with Vital, one of Odo’s followers.
|50||ISTE NVNTIAT HAROLDVM RЄGEM DE EXERCITV VVILLILMI DVCIS|
This man tells King Harold about Duke William’s army
|Harold prepares for battle.|
Harold is warned of the advance by a look-out, and William gives a battle speech to his men.
|51||HIC VVILLELM DVX ALLOQVITVR SVIS MILITIBVS VT PREPARARENT SE VIRILITER ET SAPIENTER AD PRELIVM CONTRA ANGLORVM EXERCITVM|
Here Duke William exhorts his soldiers that they prepare themselves manfully and wisely for the battle against the army of the English
|The Normans attack.|
The battle begins as the Normans attack on horseback.
|52||hIC CЄCIDЄRVNT LEVVINE ЄT GYRÐ FRATRES hAROLDI REGIS|
Here were killed Leofwine and Gyrth, the brothers of King Harold
|The English are attacked on all sides.|
Arrows and lances fill the air while men fall to the ground. The Anglo-Saxons create a wall of shields but the Normans attack from all sides. Harold’s brothers are killed in battle as soldiers spear each other to death.
|53||hIC CЄCIDERVNT SIMVL ANGLI ЄT FRANCI IN PRELIO|
Here at the same time English and French fell in battle
|The slaughter continues.|
The lower section of the tapestry show the bodies of men and animals killed in battle. Bishop Odo stand in the midst of the fighting urging the Normans on while waving a club.
|54||HIC ODO EPISCOPVS BACVLVM TЄNЄNS CONFORTAT PVEROS|
Here Bishop Odo holding a wand encourages the young men
|55||hIC EST DVX VVILLELM|
Here is Duke William
|William’s horse falls.|
William falls off his horse but he lifts his helmet to confirm he is still alive. Newly encouraged, the Normans attack viciously.
|56||hIC FRANCI PVGNANT ET CЄCIDЄRVNT QVI ЄRANT CVM hAROLDO|
Here the French fight and have killed those who were with Harold
|Harold is shot in the eye.|
The Normans appear to be winning when King Harold is shot in the with an arrow. The tapestry also shows a figure being trampled by a horse, who could also be Harold.
|57||hIC Harold REX INTERFЄCTVS EST|
Here King Harold has been killed
|The Normans are victorious.|
Harold’s death brings an end to the battle and the English flee from the battlefield. The Normans pursue them.
|58||ET FVGA VERTERVNT ANGLI|
And the English have turned to flight