The Bayeux Tapestry is probably the most famous "monument" in the history of the Middle Ages. Indeed it is highly unusual for a work in such a fragile material to come down to us from such a distant past. The story in pictures, along with a few words of commentary, shows graphic invention that is enough to arouse our admiration; but not only is the work of great interest, it also provides a wealth of information, about both characters and events, as well as about a great many aspects of everyday life at the time of the Conquest of England by William the Conqueror.
Although it has passed into posterity as the Bayeux "Tapestry", it is in actual fact an embroidery, done using dyed woollen thread on linen canvas. It was made, not as legend would have us believe by Queen Matilda to recount the exploits of her glorious husband, but in all likelihood under the authority of William's half-brother, Odo of Conteville, the bishop of Bayeux.
After the victory, Odo was endowed with the county of Kent where Anglo-Saxon craftspeople, steeped in Nordic influences, were employed in crafting the work. Beyond its obvious purpose of celebrating William's victory, the Tapestry serves to provide a religious justification for the conquest, not forgetting to highlight the role played by the ambitious bishop of Bayeux.
Displayed each year in the chancel of Bayeux Cathedral, the Tapestry offered the faithful a moral example as to the fate awaiting those who break their oaths. Harold is welcomed to the court of William of Normandy, bound to the duke as his warrior companion during the expedition to Brittany of 1064, and is finally attached to his person through oaths sworn over the cathedral relics, whose authenticity and efficaciousness are thus proclaimed. For in seizing the crown of England, Harold becomes a tragic hero, punished by the Almighty for having forsaken his sworn allegiance.
The central scene of the Tapestry is of course the Battle of Hastings, the third and final pitched battle William fought in his career, after Le Val-es-Dunes in 1047 and Varaville in 1057. It is portrayed as God's last Judgement in favour of William of Normandy, fully vindicating his claim to the English throne. The story in pictures is confirmed by the "propaganda" of contemporary chroniclers among the duke's entourage, without it always being possible to say who was influenced by the other.
Against this backdrop, countless studies have been devoted to various aspects of the work : the legitimacy of the claims of the two heroes, certain episodes in the account, the identity of minor characters, the documentary resources of this "11th century reportage", and also possible comparisons to be made between the work of the embroiderers and that of the carvers and illuminators of the period. There are plenty of highly improbable interpretations as well, including regular and unsubstantiated questionings of the authenticity of a work that has still not unlocked all of its secrets thus the enigmatic little scenes embroidered as a counterpoint to the main narrative.
The Bayeux Tapestry, 11th c.