The grand tale concerns the succession of the English throne, which culminates in the legendary Norman conquest at the Battle of Hastings. Around 1064, the childless King Edward sent his brother-in-law, Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, to Normandy. The reason for this mission is unclear from the tapestry, but historical accounts from the time argue that Edward had previously named his distant relative William, Duke of Normandy, as his heir, and charged Harold with cementing this pact.
An enthralling story of loyalty and deceit unfolds. While in Normandy, the two men develop a mutual respect; Harold even fights in William’s military campaigns. Later, Harold accepts arms from William, symbolically pledging his loyalty to the Duke and swearing an oath on sacred relics, interpreted by scholars as a gesture of support for William’s claim to the English throne. After Harold returns home, he accepts the crown for himself upon Edward’s death, breaking his oath to William and to God. The Duke promptly amasses his forces, invades England, and kills Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The rest is history.
It is not known who made the tapestry, or where, or exactly when. The most likely patron was William’s half-brother, the wealthy and extravagant Bishop Odo of Bayeux (who is pictured in the tapestry), though for centuries it was believed to be William’s queen, Matilda, who both commissioned and embroidered it. Historians generally agree that it was the work of artisans or noblewomen in the south of England or in Normandy; the fact that there is still argument around which one underscores how the tapestry exemplifies a critical moment of European cross-pollination.
Read as a pro-Norman piece of art, it is fair, frank, and impressively complex. The supposed usurper, Harold, is portrayed as a brave, tragic hero with conflicted loyalties and ambitions who simply makes the wrong choice. (The tapestry implies that on his deathbed, Edward conveys a second silent message to Harold; perhaps his dying wish is for Harold to take the throne.)