The Bayeux Tapestry: Subject & Technique

The Bayeux Tapestry: Subject & Technique
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  • 0:01 The Bayeux Tapestry
  • 1:55 The Participants
  • 2:42 Pledge of Harold Godwinson
  • 3:46 Battle of Hastings
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a visual record of the Battle of Hastings and the events that led up to it. It is meant to justify William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066 CE. Learn how it was constructed, the history behind it and how the story unfolds through a long series of images.

The Origin of the Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is a piece of embroidered fabric 1 1/2 feet wide and over 200 feet long. It depicts the Battle of Hastings and the events that led up to it, all of which are meant to justify William the Conqueror's invasion of England. The fabric itself is linen, while the threads consist of eight colors of wool yarn. It was created as several large panels, which were eventually sewn together into a single work of art.

Because it is embroidered, having the design stitched onto it by hand, it is not actually a tapestry, which has its design woven into the fabric. Regardless, it is always referred to as a tapestry due to the fact that it hangs on a wall like a tapestry. However, it is so large, it has to be wrapped around multiple walls of most rooms, including Bayeux Cathedral, which has been its primary home.

Embroidery was an art form employed entirely by women. As such, this is one of very few pieces of famous, pre-modern art not created by men. There is some debate as to who actually embroidered the tapestry. Traditionally, the stitching has been credited to Queen Matilda, wife of William, and her ladies. However, it's more likely to have been sewn by nuns. Its type of stitching and use of words suggest it was made in England. If that's the case, it would have been sent back across the English Channel to Bayeux Cathedral in France when finished.

The tapestry was most likely commissioned by Williams's half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux Cathedral in France.

piece of tapestry showing odo of bayeux

Here, he rides into battle with a club rather than a sword. Clergy were not supposed to spill blood, but a blunt weapon was acceptable.

While there are some Latin phrases included, the tapestry communicates most of its message through images. This is not unexpected at a time when most people could not read or write. However, at times it limits our understanding of depicted events.

The Participants

The story of the tapestry focuses on three characters. The first is Edward the Confessor, King of England until his death in 1066 CE. The second is Harold Godwinson, a powerful English noble and brother-in-law to Edward. He becomes king after Edward's death.

The third is William of Normandy, who becomes known as William the Conqueror after he kills Harold at the Battle of Hastings and takes his place as king later in 1066. Here, he is accompanied by his half-brothers, Bishop Odo and Robert.

William of Normandy with his half-brothers
william of normandy with his half brothers

Rulership is something normally passed from one king to another, most often from father to son. You can't just kill a king and claim the crown without explanation. The Bayeux Tapestry justifies William's conquest by explaining why he was the rightful king of England.

The Pledge of Harold Godwinson

Edward the Confessor had no children, so it wasn't clear who would inherit the crown from him. William was a cousin, and according to him, anyway, Edward had named him as his heir.

The tapestry starts with Edward sending Harold to meet William in Normandy, France. After joining William in battle, Harold swears oaths on holy relics. The common understanding of this image is he's promising to recognize William as Edward's heir. Oaths were taken very seriously, particularly when sworn on holy objects. To go back on such an oath was an affront to God himself.

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