The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered strip of linen depicting the Norman Conquest of England. Consisting of a series of connected panels, the strip is about 231 feet long and about 20 inches wide. While the early panels of the Tapestry provide information on the relationship between Harold and King Edward and initial battles fought by William of Normandy, the focus of this paper will be on later events involving battle between William and Harold for the throne of England. In scene 12, William and Harold are returning to Normandy.
When they get to the town of Bayeux, for which the tapestry is named after, Harold swears an oath to William on holy relics. It is not absolutely clear what the oath meant, but it can be assumed that Harold was promising to be an ally to William. Whatever the reason, once Harold gives this oath to William, he is allowed to return back to England. In scene 14, the death of King Edward is depicted. However, it is done in reverse. His funeral procession to Westminster Abbey is shown first; his death is shown second.
The last scene of the panel shows Harold being offered the crown and axe, the symbols of royal power and authority. In short, he is being offered the throne, and he accepts. In scene 15, Harold is crowned King of England on the same day that King Edward was buried: January 6, 1066. The scene shows the newly crowned Harold sitting on the throne, surrounded by noblemen and the archbishop. On the far right of the scene is depicted Halley’s comet, which people view as an evil omen, and rightly so. Harold is told about the comet, and underneath him is the image of a fleet of ships, a hint of the invasion that is to come.
In scenes 17 and 18, William is preparing to invade England. Trees are cut down and shaped into planks, which are used to build boats that are taken down to the sea. Military supplies, such as weapons, coats of chain mail, and helmets, are taken and loaded onto the boats. They are also loaded with food and drink for the trip across the English Channel. In scene 22, William and his army have arrived on the coast of England. Once there, they prepare a huge feast. After the food is blessed by Bishop Odo, they all begin to eat and drink.
Following the feast, in scene 23, William has a meeting with his brothers, most likely discussing what strategy they are going to use to defeat King Harold. The scene also shows the building of a motte, a type of castle, to strengthen William’s position at Hastings. While this goes on, William is brought a message concerning Harold and his army. At the far right, there is an image of a house being burnt, and a woman with her child fleeing from it. Towards the end of the Tapestry is the actual Battle of Hastings. It begins with the Normans charging the army of King Harold.
The Norman archers shoot arrows while the horsemen fight with their lances. The English army is on foot, but protects themselves by standing close together and using their shields to form a wall against the arrows. At the bottom of the image are the soldiers who have been injured or killed in the fighting. The fighting goes on, with two brothers of King Harold being killed in the process. Bishop Odo joins the battle, using a club instead of a sword as his weapon. At one point in the battle, William falls from his horse.
However, he takes his helmet off to reveal his face, showing his men that he is alive. This makes them continue fighting, and soon the Normans have the upper hand. There is a scene depicting the death of King Harold. However, the manner of death is not completely clear. It seems to show him being killed twice: first, from an arrow to his eye, and then from being cut down by a Norman knight. However, legend goes with the former. Regardless of this ambiguity about his death, once Harold is dead, the battle is effectively over. However, the last scene of the Tapestry has been lost.
Therefore, it is unknown what it would be depicting. The logical thing would be that it shows William being crowned King of England, thus matching the first scene of the Tapestry, with King Edward sitting securely on his throne a mere two years earlier. As previously stated, the Bayeux Tapestry was made as a record of the events leading up to and including the Battle of Hastings. Painstakingly created in the years following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Tapestry can be a historical resource simply because it depicts real people and events.
It is not simply words on a piece of paper, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but rather actual images showing all the events that took place. However, it must be remembered that the Bayeux Tapestry was created not just to present a record of these events, but also as a piece of propaganda that was meant to give extra justification to William of Normandy being crowned King of England. William claimed that King Edward named him as his heir while on his deathbed. Yet there is no actual evidence supporting this.
Therefore, it can be assumed that some of the events, particularly in regard to the battle itself, were slightly exaggerated in order to make William look more legitimate to the English people, as well as to other realms watching these events unfold. Along with serving as a historical document of sorts, the Bayeux Tapestry serves as a display of other aspects of medieval society. The first aspect concerns that of the role of the church. Throughout the Tapestry are images of various religious figures serving not only as spiritual guides to the monarch, but also as political advisors.
Thus, the Tapestry is showing how closely intertwined the medieval church was with political events that occurred in the various realms. The second aspect involves part of what was considered an aristocratic lifestyle. In the early scenes of the Tapestry, there are depictions of hunting dogs and hawks. Owning a hawk or having hunting dogs was a symbol of wealth and status. Knowing this fact makes it a little easier to understand why Harold is traveling to his estate in Sussex with a hawk on his wrist. Most likely, he was out hunting/hawking prior to returning to his home.
Thus, he was engaged in a practice that was common for the time period and for his station in society. The final aspect the Tapestry depicts is the hierarchy that existed within medieval society. There was a somewhat rigid order concerning the place each person had with the medieval world. Furthermore, being a member of a particular class determined how well or how poorly one was treated. This is proven in early scenes of the Tapestry showing Harold being taken prisoner by Count Guy of Ponthieu. Regardless of being a prisoner, he is still treated with respect because of his high rank within the medieval hierarchy.
Had he been some common man, he would have been treated as such. Clearly then, the Bayeux Tapestry is not just a record of political and military events concerning a pivotal period in English history. It is also a demonstration of medieval life and society as a whole. Therefore, the Bayeux Tapestry is an important and irreplaceable historical source that must be respected and treasured.
Source: Anonymous. (2000-2004). Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry at the Museum of Reading. Retrieved April 17, 2009 from http://www. bayeuxtapestry. org. uk/BayeuxContents. htm.