The Bayeux Tapestry Chronicles the Epic Ancient Battle for England
An incredible array of facts and figures precedes any artistic appreciation of the famous Bayeux Tapestry—an early medieval piece of embroidery chronicling William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066. The tapestry, which dates back to the 11th century, is 230 feet long; it depicts 626 people (all but a handful of whom are men) and 762 animals; and has 58 inscriptions. A recent study by an Oxford academic has even added a count of 93 penises—5 human and 88 equine—to the list of notable statistics.
It’s a monumental artwork that both Napoleon and the Nazis wheeled out of its long-time home in a Normandy cathedral in the small town of Bayeux to serve as propaganda for their prospective invasions of the United Kingdom. This year, it made the news again, with French president Emmanuel Macron’s overtures of loaning the work to Britain, a proposition that would see the tapestry’s first journey across the English Channel in over 900 years. This physically huge object wields tremendous symbolic and political power—especially between the ever-rivalrous French and English—but it also holds a significant place in art history as the first great narrative epic in the European tradition.
At a time when the medieval-inspired fantasy Game of Thrones is the most popular show on television, the work seems freshly accessible and appealing. The Bayeux Tapestry has it all: war and peace; political strategy; flawed heroes and valiant enemies; and a sweep of everyday life, but also of the astrological and cosmic realms. In one scene, men point in awe as Halley’s Comet, construed as an omen, burns through the heavens in the upper border; in another, God’s hand can be seen penetrating the weft of the sky during the funeral of the Anglo-Saxon king Edward the Confessor.
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.)
Just as the embroiderers didn’t minimize Anglo-Saxon bravery, they also didn’t sugarcoat Norman cruelty. There’s plenty of pillaging and petty infighting: William’s troops can be seen burning an English home, from which a mother and child flee; the soldiers on the blessed, victorious Norman side also aren’t above hitting each other with spades. At every opportunity, the artists use their skills to emphasize the moral ambiguities of war. In the tapestry’s borders—which often show either decorative or allegorically potent images—those fallen in battle seem trapped in some sort of underworld, footnotes to whatever glory is being attained by the living. Their heads and limbs have been severed as the surviving men strip them and squabble over their armor.
Around the deeds of the designated great men—earls, dukes, and kings—life goes on, and it bustles. With novelistic detail, men are shown holding shields over their heads while fording a river, or, in gestures of touching vulnerably, pulling up their tunics to prevent them from getting wet as they wade towards their boats carrying their hounds and oars. During moments of respite, soldiers use their shields as makeshift dinner tables. One can see that their bodies ache as they carry their heavy armor, epitomized by one man who holds his head to his shoulder.
Even though it was created during the so-called “Dark Ages,” the Bayeux Tapestry is a forward-thinking, almost humanist epic that stands up to more “enlightened”
The groundbreaking nature of the tapestry is also evidenced by many of the artistic techniques it employed, which would only become widespread centuries later. There are admirably early attempts at perspective: The ships in William’s vast fleet, for instance, appear foreshortened, so that vessels further away seem to recede in the background; horses’ inner legs are depicted in different colors to the ones closest to the viewer, creating a realistic shadow effect.
The embroiderers’ inventive use of line and space also conveys contrary motion. The sea is represented by scant, spread-out blue, yellow, and red threads, giving the viewer an impression of undulating waves in a vast ocean, spiriting the boats that are stitched on top of them. Sails billow fluidly one way while oars point another.
And then there is all the pointing. Figures’ literal gestures indicate to the viewer who is supposed to be speaking or where the action is, but also create compositional interest. Physical contact between characters creates convergences of lines at points of thematic punctuation within the narrative. Just as in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, where God reaches his finger towards Adam’s in order to show an eternal bond, King Edward touches his finger to Harold’s, as a lord to his faithful servant. This configuration repeats again when Harold swears on the relics, and when Edward is on his deathbed.
Despite its unusual scale and advanced artistic techniques, the tapestry was hardly seen by anyone until it was rediscovered by 18th-century antiquaries. It couldn’t possibly have influenced general artistic development, yet it seems to have placed itself, unbidden, in a lineage of magnificent historical narrative works that includes The Battle of San Romano triptych (ca. 1435–60), Triumphs of Caesar (1484–92), 24-painting Marie de’ Medici cycle (1622–25), and even The Migration Series (1940–41).
When the tapestry was brought to public attention in the 1700s, Bernard de Montfaucon, a Benedictine monk and early archaeological pioneer, was tasked with placing the work into an existing art historical timeline. He compared it to prestigious classical works like Trajan’s Column from the 1st century, in which a continuous frieze commemorating that emperor’s military victories snakes around the triumphal monument.
The truth is, the Bayeux Tapestry bears similarities to any work of huge storytelling ambition. Yet it is also unlike any other work of art. Not only is it the only piece of narrative embroidery to have survived from the early medieval era, French-English polymath Hilaire Belloc, writing in 1914, called the tapestry a “document unique in Europe. There is no other example, I think, of a record, contemporary or nearly contemporary, of an event so remote in the story of Christendom….It represents so faithfully and so thoroughly one of the half-dozen acts essential to the remaking of Europe.”
The tapestry, it is important to add, is not made from gold cloth—a standard material used for vestments and any other finery embroidered at that time—but coarse wool on linen. This textile fittingly reflects its humble and practical depiction of medieval events, and, crucially, contributed to it not being stolen or destroyed by radical Protestants over the years.
Great art isn’t only determined by its creative vision and technical execution, but also in the choice—conscious or fortunate—of a great subject. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the exact moment of change that would affect the next thousand years of European history, thoughthe artists couldn’t possibly have known the event’s far-reaching implications. In our contemporaryage of Brexit, this vital document shows not only the bloody, contentious history between Britain and the continent, but also the resplendent art that can be produced by their conflict and convergence.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the date of Trajan’s Column. It was erected in the 2nd century, not the 1st.