In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy set sail for England. On October 14, he defeated the Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. By the end of the year, the Duke of Normandy had been crowned King William of England.
Unknown artists crafted a piece of embroidery that depicts the Norman conquest of England on an elaborate tapestry. Nine strips of linen make up the Bayeux Tapestry. Stitched together, it measures more than 68 meters (223 feet) in length. Embroidered on the linen is a pictorial depiction of the Norman conquest of England consisting of individuals, buildings, ships, animals, and objects. Guiding the narrative is a Latin inscription that runs across the tapestry.
1. Mysterious Origins of the Bayeux Tapestry
What’s in a name? The Bayeux Tapestry emerged in the inventory of the Bayeux Cathedral in 1476 CE and took its name from the location of its discovery. But was the Bayeux Tapestry made in Bayeux, Normandy, France? Why was it made at all? And who did the embroidering? Over the years many theories have been submitted to answer these questions. Many scholars are convinced that William the Conqueror’s brother, Bishop Odo, initiated the project as a form of medieval propaganda, showcasing the downfall of the Anglo-Saxons and the triumph of the Normans. It is suggested that Anglo-Saxon women completed the embroidery. One scholar believes that the dimensions of the Bayeux Tapestry match the Bayeux Cathedral’s nave and the embroidery was made specifically for the cathedral.
2. Major Players
The main characters of the Bayeux Tapestry’s saga are symbolized by the style of their clothing and described by the Latin text next to them. The three main characters are the three men who held the throne of England: Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson, and William the Conqueror. The easiest means of identifying Edward and Harold is to search for crowns in the Bayeux Tapestry. Edward the Confessor was the pious king of the Anglo-Saxons from 1042 to 1066 CE. He married Edith, a noblewoman from the powerful Anglo-Danish Godwin family. After over two decades of marriage, Edward and Edith lacked an heir to the throne. Edward thought his first cousin once removed, William, Duke of Normandy, could do the job.
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King Edward sent his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson to ask William to become his heir. But Harold and many other Anglo-Saxons were opposed to inviting the Normans to take over England. Instead, Harold decided he would make a better king of England. He was crowned in January 1066 CE soon after Edward’s death. While Edward and Harold are marked by their royal regalia, William is the only character embroidered with tassels. William the Conqueror was born to Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandy, and Arlette in 1027 CE. His father died at age eight, leaving him to take over the title and management of the duchy of Normandy at a young age. He married Mathilda of Flanders in 1050 CE and began angling for England the following decade.
3. The Three Women of the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts a medieval military conquest; thus, it is not that surprising that there are more depictions of men than women. In fact, there are just three women embroidered on the tapestry. One woman appears in the scene that illustrates the death of Edward the Confessor. The woman mourning beside Edward the Confessor’s death bed is believed to be Edith, wife of one king and sister to his successor.
In another scene, William the Conqueror’s troops set fire to a structure as they make their way through Hastings. Another woman appears in this panel. She stands beneath the building being set alight. It is unclear if she is trapped inside the building or is escaping the building.
The third woman to appear on the Bayeux Tapestry is named Aelfgyva. Though unique in the twenty-first century, Aelfgyva was a common Anglo-Saxon name. As yet, no medieval manuscript has been discovered that reveals a prominent Aelfgyva or her role in the Norman conquest of England. In her scene, Aelfgyva stands under a doorway. A man reaches out to her face and seems to remove the veil that frames her face. The Latin text above Aelfgyva introduces her, but gives little additional information, reading simply: “…where a clerk and Aelfgyva…” Historians continue to debate Aelfgyva’s identity with suggestions including a noble and a scandalous woman.
4. Horsing Around
By count, there are over 700 animals embroidered on the Bayeux Tapestry. Included in this tally are over two hundred horses. The Anglo-Saxons were not known for their ability to fight on horseback. In fact, their deficiencies on horseback were seen as their major weakness on the battlefield. On the Bayeux Tapestry, Normans are depicted on horseback far more frequently than Anglo-Saxons. Many of the depictions of Anglo-Saxons on horseback appear to be of Harold Godwinson.
William the Conqueror and his Norman warriors appear on horseback more frequently. The Normans’ horse-riding skills were held in higher regard by contemporaries and by historians. Estimates vary but William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel with a fleet that contained thousands of horses. The Bayeux Tapestry shows Norman seamen poling a ship onto the coast, laying a mast down, and guiding horses into Anglo-Saxon waters. Transporting so many animals across the water was no little accomplishment and the horses proved critical in William’s conquest of Anglo-Saxon England.
5. The Bayeux Tapestry: A Guide to Medieval Warfare
It took more than horses for the Normans to defeat the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, and King Harold’s men did not go down without a fight. The Bayeux Tapestry shows a variety of weapons used in the battle for England. The embroidery repeatedly shows Anglo-Saxon warriors wielding long-handed battle axes, shields, spears, and swords.
The Normans are also armed with spears, shields, and swords, but scenes depict them with other weapons that may have offered a strategic advantage on the battlefield. The embroidery shows several Norman archers, but just one Anglo-Saxon archer. The Normans also arrived on horseback in armor with lances under their arms, giving them a significant advantage over the Anglo-Saxons, who marched into battle on foot. Innovative martial technology proved essential to the Normans when William sought to attain the crown offered to him by his late cousin.
6. Sailing Technology
Some scholars, (who probably lack experience with embroidery themselves), have criticized the artists of the Bayeux Tapestry for a lack of consistent detail. However, the range of details provided on the ships, while inconsistent in some ways, offers insight into medieval sailing technology.
Harold Godwinson sails under a sail that is square and supported by ropes held by Anglo-Saxon seaman. In another scene, Harold’s ship is operated by oars. The ships engaged in the battle for Anglo-Saxon England were prepared for an assault as seen by the shields fixed to the ship’s interiors. The embroidery also indicates that ships were not simply transportation, they were decorated in intricate detail in scenes depicting the Anglo-Saxon and Norman fleets.
7. The Vikings Loomed Large
On the face of it, the Battle of Hastings did not concern the Vikings. Details in the Bayeux Tapestry hint at the historical relationship between the Norse, the Anglo-Saxons, and the Normans. Queen Edith was born to the Earl of Godwin and his wife Gytha (also spelled Gyda). Gytha hailed from the Danish Vikings who previously had invaded and settled in England. Her brother was Canute (or Cnut) the Great’s brother-in-law. Born a Danish prince, Canute ruled England, Denmark, and Norway in the early eleventh century CE, taking the Norman Emma as his wife. The major characters of the Bayeux Tapestry retained ancestral ties to the Vikings, though the Norse did not join the combat. Their ships were another matter. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts longships in the Viking style with sails and ornate stems. In small details, the Bayeux Tapestry shows that the Vikings cast a long shadow on those they had invaded for centuries.
8. Medieval Feasting
Another panel depicts the preparation and consumption of a grand feast by William of Normandy and his troops. Cooks are shown rotating chickens that are skewered over a fire. Others prepare a stew over an open fire and other food in an outdoor oven. The food is then spread onto a table that appears to be round, where the Normans dine. Studies of residues on pottery suggest that the cuisine of medieval England underwent some changes after the Norman conquest. Anglo-Saxon England consumed more beef, lamb, mutton, and goat, while Norman England showed a preference for pork. However, the rest of the diet in England appears to have been unchanged by the Norman conquest.
9. The Star of the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry is a one-of-a-kind work of art that depicts events that would have been unique to the medieval artisans who crafted it. One panel shows a group of men staring and pointing at something that soars above them. The accompanying text reads: “These men marvel at the star.” The star is Halley’s Comet, which appears on Earth’s horizon approximately once every 76 years. As yet, its appearance on the Bayeux Tapestry represents the famous comet’s earliest known depiction. However, it was documented in texts of ancient Babylonia, China, Japan, India, the Middle East, and Europe. Historical chroniclers saw the comet as a bad omen. For Harold Godwinson, the comet may very well have signaled bad news, but for William the Conqueror, Halley’s Comet may have portended the grand triumph immortalized by the Bayeux Tapestry.