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The Bayeux Tapestry

The vicissitudes that it has endured makes the survival of the Bayeux Tapestry perhaps miraculous. One would have to search far to find a more amazing survival story of an historical artifact. It ranks as one of the wonders of the world in my estimation.

I quote from Dawson for the tale of the Bayeux Tapestry's discovery and survival:
The earliest recorded mention of the existence of the (Bayeux)tapestry occurs in the inventory of the Cathedral of Bayeux in the year 1476, and again in 1563. From that time forward we hear nothing of it down to the year 1729, the time of its discovery to the archaeological world. It had long been the custom to exhibit the embroidery, on the Feast of Relics and its octaves, hung around the nave of the Cathedral of Bayeux; and at other times it was kept in a press in a chapel on the south side of the cathedral. The interest aroused by its discovery, of course, led to a more frequent and casual exhibition of it; and, as no proper method was adopted for its preservation, it no doubt suffered considerably. During the anarchy of 1792 it was suddenly requisitioned as a covering for a military cart in need of canvas, from which peril it was rescued by a Commissary of Police; but again, in 1794, it was in danger of being cut up and used as a decoration during a civic festival, from which fate it was happily once more rescued. In 1803 it was taken by order of the First Consul Napoleon for exhibition in Paris, but returned to Bayeux the next year. When, in 1814, Mr. Hudson Gurney saw it, it was coiled round a winch, or, as he described it, "A machine like that which lets down buckets into a well" and was exhibited to visitors by being drawn out over a table. Mr. Dawson Turner, writing two years later, said that the necessary rolling and unrolling was performed with so little attention that the tapestry would have been wholly ruined in the course of half a century if left under its then management. He describes the tapestry-roll as being injured at the beginning and very ragged towards the end, where several figures had completely disappeared, and adds that the worsted was unravelling in many intermediate parts. Later on the end is described as a mere bundle of rags.
-- The Restorations of the Bayeux Tapestry Charles Dawson London 1907

The discovery story of the Bayeux Tapestry is well described by M. K. Lawson:
The earliest surviving drawing of the Bayeux Tapestry, which is coloured but covers only the first thirty feet, was found among the collections of N.-J. Foucault, governor of Normandy between 1689 and 1704, following his death in 1721. It is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and may be the work of his daughter Anne, who was born in 1687 and is known to have been possessed of some skill in drawing. It was brought to the attention of the French historian Antoine Lancelot, who....introduced it to his fellow academicians because he believed it to be contemporary with the Conqueror himself, but acknowledged that he had been unable to discover the nature or whereabouts of the original from which it had been taken....At this point the famous French classical scholar Bernard de Montfaucon intervened. Being then engaged in assembling for publication a collection of artistic and archaeological sources for the history of medieval France, he wrote to Dom Romain de La Londe, prior of St Stephen's, in the hope of discovering the original upon which the Foucault drawing was based. La Londe knew of nothing like it within the abbey, but was advised by the oldest of his monks to make enquiries in Bayeux, and accordingly passed Montfaucon's letter to Dom Mathurin L'Archer, prior of the monastery of St Vigor. On 22 September 1728 L'Archer replied that the item in question was a tapestry which belonged to the cathedral of Bayeux and which tradition reported to be the work of the Conqueror's wife Matilda....Montfaucon sent the draughtsman Antoine Benoît to Bayeux to produce an accurate copy of the rest of the hanging. Benoît's drawings...were engraved for publication in [the second volume of Montfaucon's Les Monumens de la Monarchie Françoise in 1730].
--M. K. Lawson The Battle of Hastings 1066 Appendix pages 231 to 233.

Lancelot published engravings at about the same time as Montfaucon's second volume appeared; and they differ is some details from the Benoît drawings. And when much later (in 1818) Charles Stothard rendered the first full-length color version for the Society of Antiquaries (published in 1819), further differences in details appeared. Until modern times, his were the best color renderings; the first photographic rendering of the Bayeux Tapestry was made by E. Dossetter in 1871-2.

It is interesting to note, that comparisons between all of these extant "versions" of the Tapestry show differences: so that considering the Tapestry as a straight forward visual source of the truth may not be strictly accurate nor so simple.

My first contact with "the world's oldest and most complete comic-strip" was when, as a child, I saw in the National Geographic some plates included in one of those medieval articles. Later I received as a Christmas present "The Age of Chivalry" wherein was reproduced the Bayeux Tapestry in full. The crudeness of the figures offended my youthful taste for the photographic and realistic. Still, something there caught my imagination and has never gone away. For a long time very critical with my artist's eye ("those legs are too long, the horses look ridiculous, we have skinny giants and midgets standing together, that one is holding his lance like a spastic" - and so forth), I now consider the survival and restoration of the Bayeux Tapestry almost as a personal favor. I never tire of looking at it. As a child, and for many years, I had no real appreciation for the medium used. The idea in an age of photography of using thread to make pictures was almost an alien concept: but now the detail is the one thing about the Bayeux Tapestry I love most.

My favorite screen-saver is, of course, the entire Bayeux Tapestry parading majestically by.

Many of its details continue to baffle me. But I know enough to raise some odd or unique questions and possibly offer some answers; I think I have noticed some details that others have either overlooked or at least not published to my knowledge. This examination of the Bayeux Tapestry is mainly for my own pleasure. I will be bringing up things not usually, or ever, raised whenever this magnificent original source is expounded upon: artistic things, tiny things overlooked or perhaps not very important to anyone else: but interesting things.

The scanned sections used here are taken directly from the Bayeux Tapestry frieze book. The images, to my understanding, are already in the public domain (at least I have seen them so claimed in more than one place on the Net before now). I am not turning a buck here; just enjoying a hobby and hopefully shared interest with some of you. If I don't hear otherwise, then I guess the curators of the Bayeux museum agree.

The Latin has in several instances been restored - sometimes heavily. Nevertheless, I will borrow the translation as given in the National Geographic volume "The Age of Chivalry."


The entire story of the Norman conquest was intimate knowledge of that generation of Englishmen and their families. I doubt that they talked of much else but the great changes which were all around them since they had lost their country to the invaders. So the terseness of the opening scene sufficed. By the time the Tapestry was commissioned (some time shortly after the coronation of William - probably within a very few years, or even months) everyone was only too familiar with the story of how king Edward had failed his people by refusing to provide them with an heir. The last of the "right line of Cerdic" died as celibate as a monk. But at the moment, he is still the good old king, and he is giving his main man - subregulus earl Harold Godwinson - the royal sendoff. Whether or not Harold actually had his king's blessing for the forthcoming voyage, the Normans believed it, as the Tapestry clearly shows in this opening scene. Edward is gigantic compared to the two earls - a device used often to show superior status and authority: Harold and the king touch index fingers, a sign of royal approval for the coming embassy to Edward's cousin, duke William of Normandy. It is late spring of 1064.

I find the earls' manner of dress interesting. How much of the Tapestry's details accurately show the differences between Anglo-Saxon/Dane and Anglo-Norman/French? Were they essentially identical by the time bishop Odo commissioned the Tapestry? I tend to think they were. And the artists would have most likely sewn details which were familiar to them. It is the considered opinion of most students of the Tapestry that its creation was likely in Canterbury where Odo was lord. So we can take as a given that the details are familiar ones to the craftsmen (the idea that only women sewed the Tapestry is absurd) of that period and place. All throughout the middle ages, artists only depict their subjects in the arms and armor and clothing of their own time; historical niceties of distinction are a modern phenomenon, hardly extending further back than the mid nineteenth century. It is this wealth of consistent detail with the eleventh century which clearly dates the Tapestry better than any other evidence. It is likely that the artists depicted the styles prevailing at the time amongst their rulers - the Norman/French aristocracy. Therefore, the arms and armor might more accurately show what was currently in vogue, rather than what had been typically English at the time of the battle of Hastings. It seems also evident - and natural - that the ruling class wished to be thought of as legitimate: they were not mere bandits, come to England to squat down upon their fiefs and exploit their peasants into oblivion. Their style of dress and speech soon enough adopted the English fashions. By the same token, English freemen - and former thegns - would often "ape" their new masters in matters of dress and behavior. The melding together of foreign ways must have begun even with the first generation of the conquest.

The earls bending Edward's ear are in civilian dress. They do not even carry swords. They are obviously well-dressed and their hair and mustaches are trim and neat. There is nothing of the rustic "Teuton" about them. (However, the subject of mustaches is problematic: since Dawson claims that these, at least, were added in the 1842 restorations. Therefore, any conclusion that mustachios posivitely identify the English in the Tapestry must be suspect.)

The very first Latin here - "Edward Rex" - is a restoration. "Eadwardi" (or Eadwardus) would have been the correct form of the king's name; and originally (if at all) on the left side of his head and not the right: the lettering was apparently all coming to pieces early in the eighteenth century, and the "DI" of Edward's name was possibly changed to "UBI." (see "The Restorations of the Bayeux Tapestry" Charles Dawson London 1907). Among the earliest drawings of the Tapestry, done for Montfaucon by Benoît, show no words before the "REX".

The first technical detail which strikes me is the high cantles of the saddlery. Is this accurate for Anglo-Saxons before the French came? I think not. The Normans and other French knights used this saddle for making mounted close combat attacks. It is certainly going against all the other evidence to say that the English fought mounted like the knights of continental Europe. This must be a "Norman" detail. However, in eleventh century English art - pre-conquest art - cavalry is shown using saddlery designed with breast and hindquarter straps; and the warriors are using stirrups and spurs; but the high cantles are missing. All of these Englishmen are sporting mustaches. Earlier English art shows mostly clean-shaven faces; indicating, perhaps, a change in fashions brought about by the Danish occupation. Certainly, the king's forked beard (and those seen later in the Tapestry) are old-fashioned. It is possible, however, that the diehard English went about deliberately sporting "English" fashion as a statement of their discontent with the Norman regime.


The detail stitched into this building tells me that the place was well-known. I understand the parish church in "Bozzam" (David Howarth - "Year of the Conquest" page 89) is the original as depicted in the tapestry. I doubt time or the Normans improved its appearance very much.

The architecture of the great hall where Harold and his companions are feasting is interesting because it looks decidedly Romanesque. It has a tile roof in an age when thatch was the usual. The feasting is in an upper room. This building is anything but the wattle and log walls and thatched roof of the old Saxon mean hall. Since Bosham was originally a Roman town, it seems possible that Harold owned the ancient hall of the lord. Roman-built structures tend to last.


The man standing beside the stairs to the great hall is throwing a stick into the Channel to test the tide. It is going out and Harold and his party embark. They carry their dogs and hawks aboard, planning for diversion in France. "The Fox the Crow and the Cheese" by Aesop is in the lower border.

Although four largish ships are depicted (see following scene), I believe he only sailed in one, or possibly two: the multiplicity of ships is a device used to convey the passage of time and location. These vessels show a maximum of 20 rowing benches (later, the return ship has that many: the largest in these scenes is a sixteen-bencher). Weapons are conspicuous by their absence, but there is a veritable phalanx of shields along the gunwales. These announce the occupants as warriors, but they are not going to war. "The Wolf and the Lamb" might be depicted in the lower border - and any amount of speculation as to imagery can be advanced, in light of what happened because of this fateful voyage. "The Pregnant She-wolf" and "The Wolf and the Crane" follow.