10 Facts About the Bayeux Tapestry | History Hit

10 Facts About the Bayeux Tapestry

Chris Smith

18 Nov 2021
One of the most decisive scenes portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry as then King of England, Harold Godwinson is slain at the Battle of Hastings (1066), circa 1070.
Image Credit: Myrabella

Though neither a tapestry nor in all likelihood produced in Bayeux, the Bayeux Tapestry is one of Britain’s most cherished historical artefacts, a medieval embroidered cloth chronicling the Norman Conquest of England.

The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the period from 1064 to 1066 when the English throne passed from Edward the Confessor to Harold Godwinson, and then to William the Conqueror following the Norman Conquest.

In addition to depicting the build-up to, and events of, the Battle of Hastings, the tapestry provides rich insight into 11th-century Britain and Anglo-Norman cultural history. It has proven to be an invaluable source of insight and information.

Here are 10 facts about the Bayeux Tapestry. 

A scene depicting the Norman invasion of Britain from the Bayeux Tapestry, c. 1070.

Image Credit: Profzucker

1. It’s not a tapestry

Strictly speaking, the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidery as it was created by sewing thread onto cloth and not woven with a loom.

9 separately produced linen panels were embroidered with wool yarn and then sewn together into one continuous piece. It is 68.38 metres in length and 0.5 metres in height.

2. The Bayeux Tapestry is thought to be incomplete

The Tapestry provides plenty of background to the Norman Conquest. It begins in 1064 with Edward the Confessor and his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson’s private conversations.

And yet it ends abruptly after Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings without any reference to William’s coronation as King of England. This has led many historians to assert the Bayeux Tapestry may never have been finished or that at least one panel may have been lost.

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3. It is almost 1000 years old

The precise date of the Bayeux Tapestry’s creation is unknown but historians widely agree on it being produced shortly after the events it depicts: ending with the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, the artefact was probably created sometime between then and the end of the 11th century.

If, as suspected, the Bayeux Tapestry was created soon after Norman Conquest, that would make it around 950 years old.

4. It was likely commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother

It is not known who commissioned the Tapestry but a likely candidate is William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who became Earl of Kent following the successful Norman invasion of England.

As Bayeux Cathedral was built in 1077, it’s plausible to suggest the Tapestry was intended to adorn its walls. Furthermore, historians have highlighted the disproportionately large role Bishop Odo is given on the Bayeux Tapestry.

A Bayeux Tapestry scene showing William the Conqueror (centre) and his two half-brothers, Odo of Bayeux (left) and Robert, Count of Mortain (right), c. 1070.

Image Credit: archer10 (Dennis)

5. The Bayeux Tapestry might have been produced in England

Despite residing in France for most of its history, the artefact is believed to have been made in England. Canterbury is considered a credible location for a number of reasons. Namely, it had a famous tapestry school producing work in a very similar style to the Bayeux Tapestry.

As for the specific artists behind the tapestry, it is likely that nuns were responsible: their convent lifestyles enabled them to become the most experienced and talented embroiderers of the period.

6. Centuries of the Bayeux Tapestry’s history are unaccounted for

The first reference to the Bayeux Tapestry was in the 1476 Bayeux Cathedral inventory, around 300 years after it was likely produced. The listing noted the cloth was hung annually in the cathedral for the week of the Feast of St John the Baptist.

While the Bayeux Tapestry was briefly noted in William Stukeley’s 1746 Palaeographia Britannica, it took until 1767 for the first detailed account to appear in English in the appendix to Andrew Ducarel’s Anglo-Norman Antiquities written by Smart Lethieullier.

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7. Aesop’s Fables feature in the borders

While the central sections detail the Norman Conquest, the Bayeux Tapestry’s upper and lower borders are filled with mythological figures, animals and Aesop’s Fables. Four separate fables have been identified: The Fox and the Crow, The Wolf and the Crane, The Wolf and the Kid and The Wolf and the Lamb.

One interesting theory for the fables’ inclusion suggests they are subversive messages from the presumed Anglo-Saxon creators of the Tapestry, commissioned to depict the Norman Conquest but perhaps bitter about the events.

8. Halley’s Comet is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

In February 1066, less than two months after Harold had seized the English throne following Edward’s death, Halley’s comet appeared in the sky. Contemporary superstition held that this was an omen of great transformation, perhaps an epic downfall or regime change. For that reason, comets were referred to as ‘the terror of kings’ during the Middle Ages.

To represent the imminent doom which awaited Harold who met his death at the Battle of Hastings, Halley’s Comet appears on the Bayeux Tapestry.

The scene from the Bayeux Tapestry which shows Halley’s Comet passing in the sky as a portent of Harold Godwinson’s doom, c. 1070.

Image Credit: ancientartpodcast.org

9. The Nazis planned to seal the Bayeux Tapestry

During Germany’s occupation of France in World War Two, staff of Nazi think-tank The Ahnenerbe moved the Tapestry from Bayeux Cathedral to a Juaye-Mondaye abbey, then to the Château de Sourches, before the Gestapo eventually housed it at the Louvre.

As Germany prepared to withdraw from Paris following the city’s liberation in August 1944, SS leader Heinrich Himmler sent a coded message ordering his troops to take the Tapestry to Berlin. However, British codebreakers intercepted the message and informed their French counterparts who regained control of the Louvre and possession of the Bayeux Tapestry. It is currently held at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.

10. Britain has twice failed to loan the Bayeux Tapestry

In recent years, Britain has made a habit of unsuccessful requests to borrow the Bayeux Tapestry. The first occasion was in 1953 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. France initially agreed but conservation concerns led to them to renege.

On the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1966, Britain was again denied due to objections from Bayeux and France’s Inspector General of Historical Monuments.

The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 between the Norman-French army of William, the Duke of Normandy, and an English army under the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson, beginning the Norman conquest of England. It took place approximately 7 miles (11 kilometres) northwest of Hastings, close to the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, and was a decisive Norman victory.
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Chris Smith