The Bayeux Tapestry
There are short running captions in Latin and a wealth of fantastic activity in the upper and lower margins. The heart of the story is the struggle between duke William of Normandy and Harold Godwinsoin to succeed Edward the Confessor as king of England.
It was clearly designed by an artist capable of detailed and close observation. For example, the Tapestry shows how Normans and English could be identified immediately by their haircuts. The English have shoulder-length hair and moustaches but no beards, while the Normans are clean-shaven and have their hair razor-cut dramatically high at the back.
In Anglo-Saxon England it was only the priests who were fully clean shaven. This explains the legendary story that, when King Harold's scouts first saw the Normans camped outside Hastings, they reported back that "they have sent an army of priests!"
William of Normandy never accepted that Harold was a rightful king. As one French chronicler put it, Harold was only a "pseudo-king". The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story from this point of view.
The first half of the Tapestry is devoted to a journey that Harold took to France, where William is shown treating him honourably and fairly, and Harold is depicted swearing an oath to William on holy relics. It can be assumed that this oath involved a promise to support William's claim to the kingship of England.
Not long after Harold's return to England, according to the story in the Tapestry, he perjures himself in a spectacular way, disregarding his oath and seizing the throne for himself.
Nature itself is disturbed by this wickedness. In February 1066, after Harold had been on the throne less than two months, a comet appeared in the sky (we now know this as Halley's comet). For the people of the Middle Ages, the appearance of a comet meant some great change was about to occur, perhaps the downfall of a regime. This was why, in this period, a comet was called "the terror of kings".
And Harold had reason to fear. The Tapestry shows Duke William making his preparations: building a fleet, gathering supplies, and mustering troops. William's fleet, with its dragon-headed ships reminding us of the Normans' Viking ancestry, is shown sailing the 70 miles to the Sussex coast.
Once landed, the Normans began as they meant to continue, building two castles within a fortnight, one at Pevensey, one at Hastings, and ravaging the surrounding countryside. The Tapestry shows a woman and her child fleeing a burning house. The Godwinson family had its origins in Sussex, so Harold had been challenged on his own ground.
The Tapestry's depiction of the Battle of Hastings is the fullest pictorial record of a medieval battle in existence. The English occupied the ridge, standing shoulder to shoulder, many armed with huge axes and protected by their large oval shields. They were on foot. English aristocrats certainly rode, and used horses to get to the scene of battle, but they were not trained in cavalry warfare.
Fighting began about nine o'clock on that October day. The first attack of the Normans was repulsed, and some of the English chased them down the hill. A rumour spread that duke William himself had been killed. As the Tapestry's illustration shows, he pulled off his helmet to reveal his face, and cried out, "I live, and with God's help will conquer yet!" His men rallied and killed the English who had followed them down.
Having seen what happened when the English broke ranks to pursue them, the Normans now tried the same thing on purpose, pretending to retreat in order to lure the English into a more vulnerable position, where the Norman cavalry could cut them down.
The battle went on all day. The Tapestry shows the confusion and desperation of the fighting. The captions identify Odo, bishop of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror, deep in the battle. Because he was a bishop, he was forbidden to shed blood, so, instead of a sword or lance, he carries a huge club. That way he could break a few arms or heads without any bloodshed.
The caption above him explains what he is doing "Here bishop Odo, holding his club, encourages the boys". Many people think that it was Odo who ordered the Tapestry to be made, hence his prominent position in the story.
The decisive moment in the battle was the death of Harold. Two early accounts of the battle say that the king was struck in the eye by an arrow. There has been long debate about whether the image in the Tapestry shows such a scene.
The words "Here King Harold has been killed" run along the top of the Tapestry, but do they apply to the figure directly below or to the man on the right being cut down by a Norman horseman? And, indeed, is the arrow in the eye really an original feature of the Tapestry, or a piece of guesswork restoration from the long centuries between the creation of the Tapestry and modern times?
Intriguing though such questions are, what really mattered on 14 October 1066 was that the king - along with his two brothers - was dead. The English fled, pursued by the victorious Normans. Next day William set off on the march to London, where, on Christmas Day, he was crowned King of the English in Westminster Abbey, the glorious new church that had been the scene of Harold's coronation less than twelve months before. The end of the Tapestry is lost but a good guess is that its final scene was this triumphant coronation of the Conqueror.
Professor Robert Bartlett presents The Normans, starting on BBC Two 4 Aug at 21:00
- The image is from the replica of the Bayeux tapestry on display at the Museum of Reading, who have added the Reading tapestry to our site.
- For more on the Normans and Norman objects see our Normans page. Or find out more about the season of programmes on BBC Two and BBC Four.