I reproduce the text of my talk yesterday at the University of North Georgia. I’ll post some pictures later.
The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry, nor was it made in Bayeux, but history is full of such misnomers. It is a remarkable survival – anything organic, and especially anything made of fabric, tends to disintegrate over time, but the vast majority of the original Tapestry can still be seen today in the Norman town of Bayeux. Its survival would be interesting enough, but the subject matter is even more significant: the Tapestry was produced to justify the Norman claim to the throne of England, and to celebrate the vindication of that claim. As every English schoolboy knows, Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in October of 1066. William the Conqueror was crowned King William I of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of that year, and all subsequent monarchs are numbered starting with him – 1066 in many ways is “year zero” in the history of England, and English people are proud to claim that this was the last successful invasion of their country. They are less likely to celebrate the effects of that invasion: William and his French-speaking Norman cohort dispossessed the native English landowning aristocracy, sometimes quite violently, and introduced a sharp linguistic distinction between rulers and ruled. By the time that English reemerged as a written language in the fourteenth century it had undergone a great deal of change under the influence of French. Even today words that derive from French are often seen as more refined than their Germanic synonyms: consider “dog” vs. “canine,” or “think” vs. “ponder,” or the fact that in English the name of the animal is often Germanic, while the name of its meat is French – as in “cow” and “beef,” or “sheep” and “mutton,” pointing to a certain medieval linguistic and class division: the English peasants got to raise the animals, the French lords got to eat them.
All this would not have come to pass had King Edward, now known as “Edward the Confessor,” actually done his job and provided the kingdom with an heir. Edward was the son of King Aethelred II of England and Emma, sister to Duke Richard II of Normandy. Edward took refuge in Normandy in 1016 following the death of Ethelred, and remained there for the next quarter century while the Danish King Cnut, followed by his two sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, ruled over England. When the last of these died in 1042, the Witan (an assembly of the king’s counselors) recognized Edward as king, although he had to accept the protection of the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex, marry Godwin’s daughter Edith, and promote Godwin’s sons Harold and Tostig to earldoms. Throughout his reign Edward employed considerable cunning to escape this family’s influence, including by spending as much time away from his wife as possible – thus the reason why he produced no heir. His latter days were occupied with the reconstruction of Westminster Abbey, slightly upriver from London, where he was buried following his death on January 5, 1066. Since there was no obvious heir, fighting over the kingdom began: Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson seized the throne, while King Harald Hardrada of Norway claimed it through his relation to King Harthacnut, and William, duke of Normandy also claimed it through his great aunt Emma, and on the premise that Edward had promised it to him (perhaps due to his cultural Normanness, and his dislike of Godwin and his family). Harold Godwinson defeated an invasion led by Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire in September of 1066, but was defeated and killed by William the following month at Hastings in Sussex. Among William’s followers was his half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux, who was named earl of Kent following the invasion, and who became a powerful and trusted royal advisor.
Odo, it is widely believed, was the one who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry (which of course is really an embroidery – the design is stitched into a linen backing, not woven directly into the fabric on a loom, as is a true tapestry). In his capacity as earl of Kent, Odo would have been in a position to patronize a school of needlework at Canterbury. The Tapestry would then have been shipped back across the channel to serve as decoration for Odo’s cathedral at Bayeux, which was consecrated in 1077, and indeed the Tapestry was displayed around the interior of the building annually until the eighteenth century. It measures 20 inches by 230 feet, and is meant to be read as a long comic strip, with different panels labeled with simple Latin captions. It is fairly easy to follow, although the Tapestry occasionally alludes to events that are now forgotten, and occasionally highlights what appear to be inconsequential details. At the top and bottom of the Tapestry, two narrow borders feature secondary decorative elements that may comment on the action taking place in the main frieze; sometimes the action of the frieze overflows into the borders, especially during the most dramatic scenes.
It is a cliché that history is written by the winners; in this case it was certainly embroidered by them. Throughout the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is portrayed as a usurper, and William justified in his claim. The action begins when Edward the Confessor sends Harold across the channel, presumably to promise the throne to William; Harold is then captured by Guy, count of Ponthieu, and then rescued by William of Normandy. Together Harold and William travel to Brittany to bring Conan, duke of Brittany, to heel. They are successful, and for his help in this expedition, William bestows arms on Harold, and before departing for England, Harold gives an oath to William, presumably to uphold William’s claim to the throne of England. When Edward dies, Harold is immediately crowned king, although he subsequently is disquieted by the appearance of Halley’s Comet. When William finds out about these events he springs into action, gathering troops and materiel, transporting them across the channel, digging in at Hastings, and defeating the English (and killing Harold) in a superior display of horsemanship. The final panels are missing, but presumably they would have recorded the coronation of William as king, in a parallel image to King Edward enthroned at the beginning. Here is an envisioning of that scene produced recently on the Channel Island of Alderney.
So we can see that Harold deserved it. According to the Tapestry, Harold violated the wishes of King Edward, and he violated his oath to William, in addition to being ungrateful for his rescue from Guy and for the arms William bestowed on him. Other sources confirm this narrative with greater force and in greater detail. William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges, two Norman historians, claim that Edward had made William his official heir as early at 1051, when William visited England. Harold’s mission to Normandy was to confirm this promise, and Harold’s acceptance of William’s arms was a declaration of homage, meaning that not only did Harold unjustly seize the crown, he did so in direct contravention of his feudal ties of loyalty. Furthermore, these chroniclers remind us, William’s invasion had the blessing of Pope Alexander II, who gave William a banner signifying the holiness of the campaign against a wayward English church. No wonder Harold lost.
But is all this actually true? Is there another side to this story? Of course there is, and one does not have to look too hard in English chronicles to find it. William of Malmesbury, writing some sixty years after the Conquest, reported that some people believed that Harold had gone out fishing in the Channel, when a storm arose and blew him to the continent accidentally, where he was captured. Eadmer of Canterbury, writing around the same time, reports that Harold was forced to give an oath to William as a condition of his release, and was reproved for this upon his return to England. Sources closer to the events in question, most notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of John of Worcester, claim that King Edward bequeathed the kingdom to Harold on his deathbed, an action ratified by the Witan and consecrated by a coronation ceremony performed by Aldred, archbishop of York (not the excommunicated Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, as the tapestry portrays it). John of Worcester claims that Harold “protected churches and monasteries, cherished and reverenced bishops, abbots, monks and clerks, and showed himself kind, humble, and courteous to all good men, while to malefactors he used the utmost rigour.” At the battle of Hastings he “defended himself with such courage and obstinacy, that the enemy almost despaired of taking his life, but when numbers had fallen on both sides, he, alas, fell at twilight.” After his victory, “William laid waste to several counties, and ceased not from burning villages and slaughtering the inhabitants” something his troops continued to do even after he signed a peace treaty with the leading nobles of the realm. In other words, Harold was good, and William was bad, and had no legitimate claim to the throne, and only won because “God granted him victory for the sins of the English nation,” as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it.
So, as ever, and as with many other events in history, we have conflicting accounts, and the historian is left to puzzle out where exactly the truth lies. And as with many other events in history, we will probably never know with certainty. Moreover, the more we look at it, the more the Bayeux Tapestry seems to embrace the ambiguity. Superficially, it does celebrate William’s conquest. But it never spells out the reason why Edward sent Harold to the continent, or what exactly the meaning of William’s bestowing arms on Harold was, or what the content of Harold’s oath to William was. Harold is shown rescuing two of William’s knights from a river in Brittany, he is shown being offered the crown by two people (presumably members of the Witan) as opposed to grabbing it himself, and he is designated “King” Harold after his coronation. In other words, this is no blunt-instrument propaganda piece. In fact, the ambiguities and extraneous details inspired a recent book to propose that the Tapestry’s English designers and seamstresses inserted hidden pro-English messages into it, beneath the noses of their French patrons, in order to undermine them. That is probably going too far, but Howard Bloch’s idea that “the Tapestry is a weaving together of the disparate cultures after the trauma of 1066, and a treaty of peace and a social contract between the warring parties of a great territorial dispute” probably has some merit. In this sense the Bayeux Tapestry acts like the cult of Edward the Confessor, who was venerated at Westminster and canonized as a saint in 1162. (A perception had formed that his childlessness was not because he disliked his wife, but because he was so holy that practiced a chaste marriage with her!) Ostensibly this celebration of an Anglo-Saxon king was a rebuke to the Normans, a reminder of the good old days before they came over. Yet one must also remember that the Normans traced their legitimacy to Edward, who possessed a good deal of Norman blood and culture himself. Thus the cult of St. Edward, like the Tapestry itself, became a space of reconciliation between disparate groups. This is especially true if we accept Elizabeth Pastan and Stephen White’s recent theory that Odo did not commission the Tapestry at all, that it was the work of St. Augustine’s monastery at Canterbury under its new Norman abbot Scolland.
None of this addresses the question, why was it embroidered on fabric in the first place? Why does the Tapestry not exist as an illuminated manuscript, or as a wall painting? That it is an embroidery does support Pastan’s theory of an ecclesiastical origin – even today churches often use fabric in their decoration. The long, thin strip, when hung around the interior of a room, allows people to follow the action fairly easily and at a uniform height (unlike, say, with the spiral narrative that runs all the way up Trajan’s column). As an object the Tapestry is portable, and can be displayed in different places, or put up and taken down for specific occasions. Fabric may be delicate, but in this case the occasional use of the Tapestry may have been one of the things that saved it, by limiting its exposure to light and smoke. Of course, it has also meant its near-loss on a couple of occasions (once during the French Revolution, when it was requisitioned to cover military wagons, and once during the German occupation of France in World War II, when it was of great interest to the SS). But luck or fate intervened, and now the Tapestry is displayed in conditions of the utmost security and climate control in the Bayeux Museum. One wonders just how many other embroideries did not make it, the victims of fire, looting, or disintegration, and we can be thankful for this lone survival. And imitate it. Because it is unique, it has a unique style, eminently suitable to portraying other invasions or whenever one wants an amusing juxtaposition of the medieval with the modern.