What is in the name
A tapestry is now generally understood to be woven so the Bayeux is not what we now understand as a tapestry. However, a tapestry is also defined in many dictionaries as meaning a ‘decorated fabric'. Although the Bayeux is an embroidered wall-hanging, it is universally known as a tapestry so it makes sense to continue to refer to the work by the name by which is is traditionally know in the English speaking world.
Why was it made?
Evidence of other examples of decorated fabric from this time is scarce but we have reports of at least one other wall hanging, created by the wife of Bruthnoth. This was made after his heroic defeat by the Vikings at Maldon a century before. Creating such a memorial might well have fitted into a tradition to record exceptional events. In an age when reading was a skill reserved for a minority, it made sense to record history in pictures and poems. The Bayeux would have fitted into such a tradition of recording history.
Over the following two centuries, England became the centre of fine embroidery. Indeed, the style of work became known as opus anglicanum, or English work and was exported all over Europe. The skill displayed by English workers in handling gold was particularly famous. Gold thread was silver wire covered in a layer of gilt. The technique of laying the threads used by the makers of the Bayeux has survived for gold work while later embroiders tend to use a wider range of stitches. Indeed laid work stitches are only discussed in about half of modern books on embroidery.
Laid stitching is economic with the tread, so is particularly important when thread was expensive. With this type of work the thread is laid on the surface and only pierces the fabric when it changes direction. With many stitches there is almost as much thread behind the fabric as on the visible surface.
The implication is that the cost involved in creating thread, made it an item that needed to be used economically. Anybody who has combed, picked and spun a strand of a prepared fleece, before winding several stands into a working thread, will recognise the need for economy.
Economy might also account for the way opus anglicamum evolved. During the 11th century, it appears that it was normal to apply the designs over the cloth leaving extensive areas of the background cloth visible. Over half of the background cloth is visible on the Bayeux Tapestry. However, opus anglicanum, usually covered the whole of the cloth. Perhaps thread became gradually cheaper and a fully embroidered surface would have been suitable for special garments such as clerical vestments.
So it appears that the Bayeux emerged from a tradition and skill base that would continue to develop during the coming centuries. England was a relatively prosperous and stable land which supported an expanding governing class, including many religious orders. Indeed, the name ‘cleric’ betrays the origin of the religious calling. In medieval times, those who could read and make records were vital to the development and management of estates and the economy.
One footnote about the workforce. It is generally agreed that it was the women who undertook the embroidery although there is little solid evidence for this. It is interesting to note that when opus anglicanum became a business, it employed men and women.
Who commissioned the tapestry?
The debate about the person who commissioned the work, and their motives, is still the subject of active debate. During the 20th Century some exceptional investigation and debate allowed England to be identified as the likely place where the Tapestry was designed and worked. Many scholars now believe that the work was commissioned by William’s half brother, Odo, bishop of Bayeux and later the temporarily Archbishop of Canterbury.
Odo sponsorship is implied by the fact that the work ended up in his cathedral in Bayeux. Several of his men are also displayed in the work. Odo is always favourably portrayed and has a variety of weapon and some exotic armour so he appears to have had some influence on the design . Given the way the story has developed during the last century, it is wise to keep an open mind about the origin of the tapestry.
However, it is possible that the prominence given to Odo might reflect his role as the intended recipient of the work rather than its sponsor. Odo was a vain man and would have enjoyed seeing his role enhanced. But this does not prove that he was the person who commissioned the work. Had Odo been the sponsor of the tapestry, one might have expected to see his overlord, William, portrayed in a flattering fashion. But William’s roles and actions are invariably ambiguous. Was this the product of some sibling rivalry or might the design team have been pandering to the vanity and ambition of Odo as the intended recipient?
If this line of argument is accepted, a good case can be made that the work was commissioned by Eustace, the Count of Boulogne. He was beholden to Odo after his attempt to seize Dover, part of the land gifted to Odo after the conquest, in 1067. This ill-conceived coup against Odo put the count in a difficult position. The gift of a tapestry, in which Eustace’s own role alongside William and Odo in the heat of the battle might help ensure the rift could be healed quickly.
There is one other serious contender as the sponsor of the work. The abbey of Saint Augustine in Canterbury was fighting to maintain its independence in the increasingly centralised organisation of the Normans. This abbey was unique in that it was not subject to the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury. They had the wealth, skills and also had a strong motive to produce the design and fund the work. Their motive was to court favour with those who might help them to maintain their independent status.
The threat to the abbey was real and would lead to riots, hangings, floggings and the eventual subjugation of the abbey. It is attractive to see the Tapestry as an example of an English resistance movement. The story that is told in the tapestry is not unfavourable to the English. In this context, William would not be as highly favoured in the narrative since he was the patron of the rival party at Christ’s Church Cathedral.
A very strong case has been made that the designer was from Saint Augustine in Canterbury. Many of the images have been shown to derive from manuscripts held by the monks in Canterbury. It was this evidence that determined that the tapestry originated in England rather than Normandy. The inspiration of many of the images within the Tapestry design can be found in the ancient texts that were in the possession of Canterbury.
The designer has been called a snob and misogynist. Women are certainly excluded from the crowd scenes and appear only 3 times in the main story, compared with 157 men plus there is one naked lady in the margin. However, the designer was almost certainly a monk or someone who lived a monastic life with limited contact with women. Whether it was lack of experience, instructions from the patron or a matter of choice one will never know.
The designer certainly overlooks the inclusion of ordinary French infantry in the design of the battle but this could be explained if the designer was English. This omission could be attributed to some social censorship but the invading foot soldiers do not form an important part of the battle narrative. However, many other humble activities are included in the work so the charge of snobbery is harsh. The prominence given to noblemen is not unusual then or now. Media still has the rich and powerful as its focus. The tapestry designer can indeed be complimented for the range of rank and activity that have been incorporated into the tapestry design.
The designer would also be following the tradition of working from the old towards the new. The ideas and templates for many of the images would have come from the texts that were available for copying in the monasteries. Art researchers have left little room for doubt that the designer used the text held at Canterbury as the inspiration for many of the characters. There are several strange images where the dress is from the biblical lands. The incorporation of these images is taken to imply that the design team were involved in tracing the image from these sources. It is a fascinating piece of art detective work and it is hard to argue with this conclusion.
There is some scope to speculate on whether some of the marginal material was supplied by the embroiderers themselves, or the chief designer. The practicalities of working a hanging of this dimension dictate that the central panel is worked first. If the edges were worked first, they would have been damaged by arms and elbows as the central portion was embroidered later. The style and content of the margins are not themselves revealing. Some experts do detect different styles and it would be safe to assert that less control was exercised over the marginal embroideries as there are a number of inconsistencies in the layout of the bars that divide up the images.
It is not fanciful to imagine that the borders were designed after the main body. The embroiderers might therefore have worked with less supervision which allowed them to incorporate their few pictorial comments on the theme displayed in the central panel.
The design includes much that is ambiguous. Part of this can be ascribed to problems that inevitably attach to the interpretation of images or indeed words. However, another interpretation is that these were very political times. Not only was there a struggle for complete domination for the soul of the English but across the Channel, there were challengers pressing in on the land of the Normans. Like many resistance movements, the designer understood the dangers of overt propaganda. A much safer route was to allow scope for some individual interpretation.
When was it made?
The project was probably commissioned soon after the battle. It would have taken some months to gather the material so work probably could not start till late in 1067. It was probably completed within 2 years because events and personalities, including Odo himself, would soon fall from favour.
Convents would be overfull with the widowed and dispossessed, Anglo-Saxon noble women who fell at Hastings. Convents were a recognised place of sanctuary for young girls and widows. Monasteries and convents were well endowed by noble families as an insurance and the Godwinson family had been particularly generous.
A small clue to the working of the tapestry is provided by the way the text was added. Two features are of interest. The text looks like an afterthought. It is wrapped round the scenes where the figures take precedence. Could the explanation been added at the end for the benefit of those who might not understand the symbolism. If so, it must have been for the benefit of the limited number who could read ecclesiastical Latin. Perhaps the item was not designed for ‘export’ and the captions were added to help the foreigners. Those adding the text would not have been popular with William, whose name is spelt in several different ways as is Edward. However, the names of the few English people named are spelt in the Saxon fashion using the single symbol to represent ‘eth’.
The subsequent history
It might have been a gift from Odo for William’s queen who was based at Rouen. When William was mortally injured after a riding accident, his property was quickly looted and he was abandoned, stripped naked, to die. Odo was at the time languishing in prison at Rouen having planned to purchase the Papacy but was quickly released when his half-brother died.
The tapestry is first mentioned in the inventory of the cathedral at Bayeux in 1476 so it is possible that he quickly recovered his tapestry for his own treasury. Perhaps it was because Odo had stolen his tapestry back that it is not mentioned in the inventory earlier. It might have been put away in a safe place until a suitable occasion arose to reveal it. Odo’s star was soon eclipsed along with the Tapestry. Odo died on crusade.
Nothing is known about the fate of the Tapestry during the almost 300 years that is was forgotten in storage. During that time, the exposed outer fringes, and part of the final panel, rotted. However, the storage conditions must have been reasonable as 95% of the masterpiece survived.
In 1728 the Tapestry was taken out of storage and a full size engraving was made. It was almost lost in 1792 when revolutionaries wanted to use it to cover their wagons. It was saved by a local lawyer who returned it to the city 2 years later after the worst of the revolutionary troubles were over. However, in 1794 someone had the bright idea of cutting the tapestry up to decorate the pageant floats celebrating the revolution. However, in the same year it was noted as a national treasure and in 1803, Napoleon summoned the tapestry to Paris. It was soon returned into the custody of the municipality of Bayeux although the cathedral did petition unsuccessfully for it to be returned to them. The ecclesiastical authorities were out of favour after the revolution.
In 1818 Charels Stothard, an English antiquarian, employed by the Society of Antiquarians had another engraving made and coloured which was published in 1819. Until 1842, the tapestry could be handled by visitors after which it was put in a glass case. The tapestry had to take refuge for a short time when the Prussians threatened to overrun France.
In 1871 the British were back this time to photograph the tapestry. The prints, made by E Dossetter, were hand coloured by Walter Wilson and these are still in the possession of the V & A. It left Bayeux for a short time after the allied landings in 1944 but is now displayed in the former palace of the bishop’s of Bayeux.
There was a tradition at the time the tapestry was made of chanson de geste. These told epic tales and were performed after feasting. There was a parallel tradition of epic poems among the Norse from whom the Normans were descendents.
The central panel carries the key political message of the tapestry. The message was ‘Harold, the usurper of the English throne, was an oath-breaker and who owed his allegiance to William.’ At each stage, William is shown as the lord and Harold as his vassal. The second message is ‘Odo is a powerful warrior and cleric and all-round good chap even if he is a bit of a lad’.
The content is definitely secular and it is hard to see that it was intended for display in a church. There are two scenes of nudity and lewd behaviour and very little of high moral tone. The tapestry would be suitable for display among the ladies back home where the tales of the conquest could be re-told.
There is some debate about the propaganda value of the piece and many have looked for a Norman bias. However, the design includes the burning of English houses and the forced labour of the local population. The oath-taking includes element to allow both sides to interpret it favourably. The English can clearly see that Harold is acting under duress. Harold is not armed or armoured during the early part of his visit and earns the trust of William through his brave deeds which might imply that he was being held more as a hostage than an honoured guest.
Similarly, one cannot separate the 2 sides in the battle based on their deeds. Both fight and die bravely. There is more space devoted to the Normans, partly because they are often shown mounted. Although the design is clearly Norman there is strong circumstantial evidence that the design was executed by English hands who either altered or influenced the design to ensure it was fair to both parties.
The top seam is sometimes artistically invaded by the main narrative but the patterns, sometimes called ‘tents’ are inconsistent giving an indication that the panels were being made in different location. The space is reserved for heraldic beasts which are hard to interpret at this distance.
The lower border is full of animal fables that reinforce the moral of betrayal. But there are also various domestic scenes and some that are not always easy to interpret. There can be little doubt that the embroiders were able to provide much of this content.
The size and scale of the tapestry make it essential for display in a great hall. The surviving length of 230 ft, 10 ½ inches (70.34 metres) would go round all walls of a 70 x 50 ft hall of which there were a number in eleventh century Normandy. The scale of the lettering and key figures would make it ideal for display at eye level.
It is about 19 inches (50 cm) wide but this does vary between the lengths of cloth. Some are 20 inches and other 18. The variation in width is in some opinions, more a function of the treatment the material has received and possibly a function of the slight variations in spinning and weaving techniques.
The first 2 lengths are significantly longer than the others. Both are 451/4 ft (13.79 m). The others are about 25 ft (7.62 m) but it is interesting that among the shorter six sections, the longer ones are also the narrower ones, supporting the idea that they had stretched a bit.
The join is only obvious in the first 2 pieces. The other sections were joined and then embroidered over. As the work progresses, the joins are done so well that they are hard to spot. It is impossible to say if the pieces being joined were already embroidered. Jan Messant has inspected the joins carefully and believes that there is evidence of some sophisticated managements of the work to ensure the sections fitted together after the crude joins of the first sections.
If the design had been well developed it would be possible for the piece to be prepare with space left to integrate the design at either end and this is what probably happened. Perhaps the design was not sufficiently complete when the first sections were begun to allow for such refinement as embroidering the design to cover the joins.
There are some chronological mistakes such as King Edwards demise. The ailing Edward is seen welcoming Harold back, then the scene shows the completion of the abbey, followed by his funeral procession. But then we return to his last illness and death. This is such an obvious ‘error’ that there must have been some motive for the sequence adopted.
There have been several theories to explain why the messengers arrives to demand the release of Harold from Guy of Ponthieu before the scene where the messengers bring the news of Harold’s capture reaches William. The argument is that the panels would be too repetitive if the sequence was preserved. The designer either had some artistic licence or he was told to make the cuts and paste by Odo.
Some work is substandard. Was this caused by the designer, the tracer or the embroider. With many hands at work and probably some tight schedules to keep, a few mistakes are not surprising. It is interesting that they were not reworked and presumable not deemed to detract from the overall impression.
How was it worked
Central panel was worked first as the edges would be damaged if they were worked first. The borders show signs of being added once the main narrative was in place. The top seam is inconsistent and often poorly worked. The embroiders would have been working upside-down and might have been used as a training ground for novices. There is no consistent pattern along the top edge.
The lower border is full of animal fables that reinforce the narrative above.
It was worked in small teams, half working at the top and half at the bottom. There are several examples of letter that have been formed in the fashion that someone working upside down might do.
Where was it made
Six nunneries have been identified in Wessex at Shaftesbury, Wilton, Amesbury, Wherewell, Romsey and Nunnaminster as possible places where teh work might have been undertaken. The last was the largest as it was in Winchester, the city that had held the most important treasury in England since the time of Alfred the Great.
There was a myth that Mathilda, the wife of William, embroidered the work - This is why it sometime referred to in France as ‘the tapestry of queen Mathilde’. I doubt if either William or his Queen ever set eyes on the tapestry as they would not have lived the ambiguous messages it contains. The ambitious Odo would soon find himself imprisoned by Duke William.
There is also a copy in the Reading art gallery. This project was undertaken by the Leek Embroidery Society from 1885 and took over a year to complete. The subsequent tour was not a financial success and reading rescued the promoter by purchasing the copy.
The missing panel that rotted during the early storage was designed by Jan Messant who lived near York until recently. Sponsored by Madera threads, she designed and executed the missing portion and created a memorable book about the project. The ‘missing piece’ is now on display at the James Cook Memorial Hospital in Middlesborough.
Story of repairs and samples taken