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The Bayeux Tapestry

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The Bayeux Tapestry is unique and invaluable as an artefact of its time. It is not as simply as appears however and it is essential that we define its provenance and date. We must also understand the idiosyncrasies of its design if it’s to take its place as a ‘major authority for the events of the Norman conquest.’

A point that must be addressed at the start of this essay is that the Bayeux Tapestry finishes rather abruptly after Harold is slain and his army routed. The start of the Tapestry is bordered on three sides, so it’s likely the end would have been the same. It is almost universally believed that the end of the Tapestry is missing. It could be presumed that the Tapestry finished as it started – with a rightful king seated upon his lion throne. However, these panels were either lost or never existed and as such the tapestry is not useful at all as a source for the events after the Battle of Hastings and certainly offers no information on William’s systematic conquest of England in the next decade.

French folklore attributed the Tapestry to Matilda, William’s wife. Its creation is now attributed to Bishop Odo, although French historians do still try as much as possible to connect her in some way or form to the Tapestry because it is ‘both more gallant and more poetic.’

There are several clues that allow us to connect the tapestry to Odo. Firstly he is afforded prominence in the Tapestry out of sync with other contemporary accounts. He appears as advisor to the King, at one stage appearing to even suggest the invasion of England. He appears as a spiritual leader at the ‘last meal’ and as a warrior rallying the troops. H.P. Brooks and D.J. Berstein both note parallels between the portrayal of Odo at the meal scene and Christ’s last meal scene in St. Augustine’s Gospels. Berstein remarking;

It is Bishop Odo who dominates the scene. Looking directly at the viewer while all the diners, with one exception turn towards him, Odo commands our attention and theirs. Where is William?

Also, the Tapestry is very much a story of great men – Edward the Confessor, William, Harold – and only four characters of unimportance are given names in the inscriptions; Ælfgyva, Turold, Wadard and Vital. The first figure, Ælfgyva, is one of the mysteries of the tapestry and we know nothing about her, or her reason of inclusion. Turold, Wadard and Vital are peculiar in that they performed no great deeds of note in the conquest and are conspicuous in there naming. Investigation of the Doomsday book has shown that these three characters were in fact vassals to Odo and all held lands from Odo in Kent. Vital was specifically known as ‘Vital of Canterbury.’

The final clue is that the oath scene in the Tapestry is set in Bayeux. The oath is absolutely crucial to the Norman justification of William’s right to the throne, but where it took place is not known. Poitiers places it at Bonneville and Orderic Vitalis places it at Rouen.

If we accept that Odo did commission the Tapestry, we can attempt to date it. It is assumed that the tapestry was at least commissioned between 1066 and 1082, the date of Odo’s fall from grace in England. If the Tapestry was created in France then there is a possibility that it could have been made after these dates but evidence points to it not only being created in England, but in St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury and designed by an educated, supremely talented English cleric.

St. Augustines Abbey enjoyed favourable relations with Odo. Additionally two of the knights – Wadard and Vital – held lands of St Augustine’s. It was also a centre renowned for its excellence in drawing. Brooks points out that images in the Tapestry bear direct resemblance to images that can be found in the documents and illuminations residing in St. Augustines and her neighbour Christ Church at the time. Bernstein’s work goes into much greater and convincing detail than I can include here. His studies certainly show a phenomenal amount of parallels between the Tapestry and what was available to see at the Abbeys, from important scenes to minutia details within the borders. One of many examples is the meal scene mentioned above.

In addition this the tapestry includes no vines, a feature of Norman art at the time. The handwriting upon the manuscript is blocky, Anglo-Saxon in style. Importantly also, Duke William’s name is spelt fifteen times as it would be spelt in Anglo-Saxon, as opposed to three times as it would in French. Finally, where the storyteller departs from Norman accounts it does in ways that are only told in the manuscripts at the Abbey at the time.

I am inclined to believe in Brook’s assessment that;

‘The designer of the Tapestry was an artist of the first order who portrayed the story he was commissioned to tell with accuracy, economy and power.’

I am inclined also to believe that the designer was English cleric, and an Englishman not entirely happy with the new Norman order. This is important because it casts a different light upon the Bayeux Tapestry and as historians we must be acutely aware of this. The fact that an Englishman, most probably a cleric, designed the Tapestry does not polarise its perspective as you might expect. Instead it becomes much more complex. Within the Tapestry lies not only the Norman account of the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings – but also a distinctly English perspective of the events. This is especially useful in analysing the events surrounding the Norman invasion of England, making the Tapestry doubly useful. Let me analyse two issues within the Tapestry in detail; Firstly, Harold’s trip to Normandy and the subsequent oath of fealty he made to William. Secondly, Harold’s death at Hastings.

Events in the Tapestry from the beginning to Harold pledging fealty to William at Bayeux compare well with Norman contemporary sources apart from the knighting, which appears in no other sources. While this sequence of events in the Tapestry clearly support the Norman version of events and puts appropriate emphasis upon the central idea that Harold swore the kingdom to William, it can also be interpreted as the English version of the tale.

The English monk Eadmer writing around 1110 suggests that Harold departed for Normandy to save his brother Wulfnott and his nephew Hakon. There is support of this theory in the Tapestry. Eadmer records that Harold asked for leave and the King grudgingly gave it and then ‘Harold trusting his own judgement rather than the Kings,’ sailed for Normandy. Eadmer then goes on to recount a similar tale to that in the Tapestry, but casts William as a much more imposing and dominating figure. Eadmer also suggests that Harold took the oath not willingly, but as a last resort.

‘Harold perceived that there was danger whatever way he turned. He could not see any ways of escape without agreeing to all that William wished. So he agreed.’

If you study this scene in the Tapestry it is noticeable that no actual details of the oath are in the inscription. William also appears overbearing and Harold appears anything but confident. This scene subtly provides an interpretation recognisable by English eyes, whilst not detracting at all from the scene a Norman might expect. When Harold returns to England he visits King Edward. While a Norman might interpret Harold’s hunched back and lowered head as a pose of reverence, an Englishman might have seen it as a pose of guilt. He might also interpret Edward’s pose as one of anger – pointing at his subject, possibly shouting as Eadmer suggests;

‘Did I not tell you that I knew William and that your going might bring untold calamity in this kingdom?’

In this case the tapestry can be interpreted as both Poitiers and Eadmer suggest. The Tapestry did not need to spell out every detail, because the events surrounding the Norman Conquest were enshrined in strong oral tradition at the time. We know this because of the mysterious scene between the clerk and Ælfgyva; clearly strong enough in oral tradition at the time to not be explained, but unexplainable to us today. Bearing this in mind it appears the artist had expertly weaved his own version of events into the Tapestry in an attempt to justify Harold’s claim to the throne. It is also worth noting that Harold is clearly and openly granted the kingdom of England at Edward’s deathbed, something that is mentioned by Poitiers only scathingly and as an aside.

Throughout the Tapestry Harold is certainly held in high regard. He is given the opening title of ‘Dux Anglorum’ He acquits himself well in the campaign to Normandy, so much that he is knighted. This portrayal of Harold as someone great who falls from grace is attributed by Brooks to the fact that the Tapestry is a ‘tale with a moral.’ However, it all links in with this idea that the artist wanted Harold portrayed as a great figure, not the figure who William apparently thought ‘unworthy of burial as his mother wished.’

My second example concerns Harold’s death upon the battlefield. Some sources say four knights – including William – bore down upon him and hew him into four pieces. Poitiers simply mentions Harold was found dead, identified not by his face but by the marks on his armour. Some historians – such as Ian Walker – have taken this to mean his face was beyond recognition which might correspond with an arrow striking him in the face. No other contemporary sources concur with the Tapestry apart from William of Malmesbury, writing in the early twelfth century. However, he gives an account so similar to the Tapestry that Brooks argues he must have seen it before writing.

Did Harold die from an arrow piercing the eye? There are many interpretations. One could argue that the figure with the arrow in his head is not actually Harold, but another figure standing nearby. It does appear strange that Harold would appear twice in the same scene, but I believe there is plenty of evidence to suggest both figures are Harold. The inscription above the figure is clearly arranged over both figures. Also, when his brothers die they are both portrayed for a second time, falling into the border.

There is also the question of whether the arrow in the eye is a symbol. William decreed in the ’10 Articles of William the Conqueror,’

’10. I also forbid that anyone shall be slain or hanged for any fault, but let his eyes be put out and let him be castrated.’

Does this explain the strikes firstly to the eye and then to the thigh – this limb associated at the time with sexual potency. Berstein explores this scene in particular detail, explaining how the Normans saw the blind as victims of divine intervention. There is also the idea that the arrow striking Harold in the face was God’s will and the knight running Harold through is the human element making its impact.

Alternatively from an English perspective this could be Harold’s last stand. He is struck by an arrow, yet he stands tall showing absolutely no signs of wilting removes the arrow and carries on fighting like an Anglo-Saxon Boromir. This is all the more potent a point because a figure is seen slain by an arrow to the head within the border just prior to Harold’s death. Unstoppable by one mere arrow, bearing in mind the Tapestry’s liberal attitude towards depiction of time Harold could have carried on fighting for any amount of time after being stricken by the arrow.

In a way the Tapestry here brings us no closer to telling us how Harold died. It seems to confuse matters even more and illustrates a marked point that the Tapestry as dangerous to take as standalone than any other source.

More worryingly, detailed analysis of this scene shows that the second Harold has stitch marks protruding from his eye. It is not known whether these are left from the original Tapestry or are the mistake of a nineteenth century restorer. It is known that the Tapestry went under restorative work in the nineteenth century, and usually it is easy to distinguish restorative thread because of the vivid colours. However, we don’t actually have any copies of the Tapestry from the eleventh century and we don’t know if any other restorative work was undertaken over the past 900 years. How much of the Tapestry is original and how much is the work of restorers – possibly with wanting to tell their own story.

In some ways the Bayeux Tapestry is invaluable – as a portrayal of armour and equipment at the time and as a piece of extraordinary craftsmanship. However, as a source depicting the events surrounding the Norman Conquest it is no more or no less valuable than any other contemporary account at the time. Only by combining the reports of men such as Poitiers, Juminges, Oderic Vitalis and Eadmer with the Tapestry can we guess at the real historical truth of the events.

What is more interestingly raised by the tapestry – after we know its provenance and date – are the two versions of events that resided in oral tradition among the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. The Tapestry is as expertly crafted full of symbols and meanings as a sixteenth century Holbein, but it brings us no closer to the crucial point of whether Edward really did send Harold to William to give him the crown, and whether Harold did actually pledge the kingdom to the Duke.

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