History of the Bayeux Tapestry

Learning About The Historically Significant Tapestry of Bayeux

What Is The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is an important historical textile artifact, an embroidery made of linen cloth with woolen thread. It provides insight into the Anglo-Norman period, and chronicles the significant story of the events surrounding William, Duke of Normandy, during the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. While it does feature much of the conquest, it left out other battles from the year, such as the ones that took place in northern England. The tapestry pays tribute to the role the Vikings played with regards to who would be King of England.

It was more than likely created shorty after the conquest and was probably commissioned by Odo Bishop of Bayeux, in the 1070’s, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. It is a massive linen rectangle that is roughly 231 feet long and 19.5 inches wide. The supportive linen background and the colored wool yarn embroidery has browned with age, but it remains vibrant and beautiful.

The Bayeux Tapestry by Nazmiyal Antique Rugs

The Bayeux Tapestry

Why is the Bayeux Tapestry so important?

The Bayeux tapestry is important because it is one of only a few surviving works of art from the medieval period that depicts the historical events that took place during the Norman Conquest, and the subsequent impact of Norman rule on England, in a relatively detailed manner. It is also significant because it provides valuable insight into the clothing / fashion, types of weaponry and even the military tactics employed during this time.

Bayeux Tapestry As A Masterpiece Of Romanesque Art

The Bayeux Tapestry is also considered a masterpiece of Romanesque art. It is over 70 meters long and 50 centimeters tall and is embroidered on linen with woolen thread. The intricate detail and skillful composition of the tapestry are a testament to the artistic and technical achievements of the time.

Textile artwork is a unique and beautiful form of art that has existed for millennia. One of the most renowned textile masterpieces is the Bayeux Tapestry. This stunning piece is called a tapestry due being a fiber based image, but technically, it is embroidery. Unlike traditional tapestries that are woven as one single piece, the Bayeux Tapestry uses wool yarn to embroider / sew an image onto a pre-woven piece of cloth.

In addition to being a valuable form of artwork, it also provides helpful historical insight. It depicts the Norman Conquest of England, a landmark historical event. Historians believe the tapestry dates back to medieval times, with many theorizing that it was made in 1077 to commemorate Bayeux’s cathedral consecration. Since at least 1476 CE, the tapestry has resided in Bayeux France.

Where Is The Bayeux Tapestry Now and Can People View It?

The Bayeux Tapestry is still displayed in Bayeux Museum where people can visit and view it today. The museum itself is located in “Bayeux” which is located in Normandy, the Calvados department to be precises, which is in northwest France. During the French Revolution on 4 March 1790, 83 “departements” were formed in France in application of the law of 22 December 1789. The “Calvados” is one of those original 83 “departements”. It has been a part of the museum’s permanent exhibition since its establishment.

Partial Overview Bayeux Tapestry Nazmiyal

A partial overview of the Bayeux tapestry.

What Materials Were Used To Make The Bayeux Tapestry?

The Bayeux Tapestry was made using linen as the background canvas with the embroidered patterns made from naturally dyed wool threads. The linen would have been woven in narrow strips which were later on sewn together to create the full width. The embroidered designs and patterns were rendered using a wool threads in a variety of colors. The design itself was probably traced onto the linen, creating a an outline for the embroiderers to follow.

The woolen thread was most likely dyed with natural dyes, which were made from various plants and insects. The colors used in the Bayeux Tapestry are still remarkably vivid after almost a thousand years, which is a testament to the skill of the embroiderers and the quality of the materials used.

What Does The Bayeux Tapestry Depict?

The vivid and descriptive imagery makes the Bayeux Tapestry a hallmark representation of 11th century Romanesque artistic culture. It depicts 70 different historical events that took place during the Norman Conquest. Latin text provides commentary on the different scenes, and the decorative top and bottom borders provide a visual motif to unite and perfectly frame the imagery. Most of them feature the Duke of Normandy, William, and the King of England, Harold.

The beginning imagery sets the stage by depicting King Harold visiting France while the last visible scene shows English soldiers running off the Hastings Battlefield. The five feet containing the tapestry’s final scene, which many speculate showed William being crowned, only exist in historical record as the actual segments of the tapestry were lost several centuries ago.

Bayeux Tapestry King Harold Nazmiyal

King Harold depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Who Is The Person Depicted In The Bayeux Tapestry That Was Shot In The Eye?

According to legend and as depicted in the Bayeux tapestry, it was King Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, who was shot in the eye. This happened at the Battle of Hastings, after a long and bloody battle against William the Conqueror’s Norman forces.

Bayeux Tapestry Depiction Of King Harold's Death - Who Was Shot Through The Eye by Nazmiyal Antique Rugs

Bayeux Tapestry Depiction Of King Harold’s Death – Who Was Shot Through The Eye By William The Conqueror’s Norman forces During The Battle Of Hastings

How Was The Bayeux Tapestry Made?

As previously mentioned, the Bayeux tapestry is constructed as a wool embroidery on a linen backing. The pattern is embroidered / sewn onto over 9 woven linen sections that were later sewn together to create the full size.

There are two primary methods of stitching used in the Bayeux tapestry are:

  • Stem stitch (also referred to as “Bayeux stitch”): used for outlines and lettering.
  • Couching stitch: used to fill in the figures.

*Couching is a technique that involves laying yarn across the linen and then using tiny stitches to fasten the long strands in place.

Primarily, the tapestry’s imagery is created using soft gold, blue, red / orange, olive green and some dark blue, deep green and black colors are also included mostly as outlines. The linen pieces were embroidered individually before being joined together. Most of the embroidery focuses on the middle section where King Edward the Confessor, Harold Godwinson, and the Duke of Normandy (later called William the Conqueror) interact. However, even the decorative borders are intricately designed with animals, rural scenes, astronomical events and hunting scenes worked into the bands along the top and bottom.

There have been some changes since its initial construction. Repairs and re-stitching were done with yellows, oranges, and light greens. A backing cloth was sewn onto the linen in the mid 1720’s to support the delicate and aging fabric.

The final words of the tapestry are an inscription saying: “Et fuga verterunt Angli,” (“And the English fled”). These words were added a few decades later as an attempt at masking the missing end.

Bayeux Tapestry Et Fuga Verterunt Angli Nazmiyal

“Et fuga verterunt Angli” embroidered on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Where Was The Bayeux Tapestry Made?

Most scholars and historians believe that the tapestry was made in England. Specifically the workshops around Canterbury and Winchester which were especially renowned for their embroidery works and highly skilled women embroiderers.

There are two main reasons why most experts believe that the tapestry was woven in England:

  • The facts that the spelling of the names are in the English style of Latin.
  • The fact that the specific types of vegetable dyes used in the tapestry yarn were popular with Anglo-Saxon embroiderers and the Latin inscriptions which use Anglo-Saxon techniques.

Why Does The Bayeux Tapestry Stand Out From Much Of Northern European Medieval Embroidery Work?

While that vast majority of medieval embroideries feature religious themes, the Bayeux tapestry is historical in nature.

When was the Bayeux tapestry first mentioned?

The first time it is referenced is in 1476 – the year when it was included in a Bayeux Cathedral inventory (but it is most likely much older).

Theories About The Making / Commissioning Of The Bayeux Tapestry

Most historians believe that it was most likely commissioned by Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, in the late eleventh century. As the Bishop of Bayeux in Normandy, he governed the cathedral where the tapestry was first found. Odo was made the Earl of Kent and moved to England following the conquest, so it is likely the tapestry was made in England.

Who Actually Made the Bayeux Tapestry?

As noted above, historians believe that the Bayeux Tapestry was most likely ordered by Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. That said, Bayeux oral legend claims that the tapestry was actually commissioned by Queen Matilda, the wife of William the Conqueror.

In France, the tapestry is still often referred to as “La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde” (“The Tapestry of Queen Matilda”).

But which is one of the origin theories is correct? Perhaps one day we will know for sure but so now, at least, this questions will go unanswered and will remain somewhat of a mystery.

Why Is There Controversy Surrounding the Bayeux Tapestry?

The controversy of the Bayeux tapestry surrounds the fact the historians are unable to come to some sort of consensus about the true origins and the actual original intent behind its creation.

Bayeux Tapestry Battle of Hastings Nazmiyal

The Battle of Hastings depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Who Are The Women Depicted In The Bayeux Tapestry?

Since only 3 women are depicted in this tapestry, out of a total of 626 human figures, it serves as a great example of how the roll of women has been downplayed and marginalized in Norman Conquest story.

The three women seen in the Bayeux tapestry are:

  • Edith of Wessex, Edward the Confessor’s queen is the most easy to identify. She can be seen at the size of her husband’s deathbed.
  • The second woman is possibly Edith Swanneck who was King Harold’s first wife.
  • The third, and probably the most intriguing, woman figure of all is identified as ‘Ӕlfgyva’. Commissioned by Bishop Odo, the tapestry depicts Ӕlfgyva in a doorway, where a priest is reaching out and touching her cheek. Written in Latin above her head is the inscription: “Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva”. But who was Ӕlfgyva in actuality? That is just one of the facinating mysteries of this iconic tapestry.

Was The Bayeux Tapestry Left Unfinished?

The fact that the tapestry does not depict the coronation of William the Conqueror and ends abruptly after the battle of Hastings leads most to believe that the piece was left unfinished. But this is only a theory and hypothesis since much of the tapestry’s origins are showered in mystery.

Where Has The Bayeux Tapestry Been Displayed?

The tapestry was proudly displayed in the first few centuries after its construction, but eventually it was lost to time. After a mention of the tapestry in 1476, it is not referenced again in any historical record until 1724. In 1724, Antoine Lancelot wrote to the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres about a drawing he had received depicting scenes from the tapestry.

However, he did not know if the source of the drawing was a tapestry, painting, or even sculpture. Scholar Bernard de Montfaucon then made investigations and found the tapestry in Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry was displayed annually on a feast day for St. John the Baptist. But Bayeux residents were not aware of its historic significance. Montfaucon made an extensive study of it, copied and documented all parts of the tapestry and published a comprehensive study on the tapestry.

The piece then managed to survive several decades of political upheaval in France. During the French Revolution, it was almost destroyed, before officials decided to use the fabric as a covering on military wagons. A local Bayeux lawyer then rescued it and returned it to the city after the Revolution.

The Fine Arts Commission then took control of the Bayeux tapestry in the early 19th century, 1803, as part of a national program to safeguard French art. It was briefly moved to Paris before being returned to Bayeux after Napoleon’s plans failed. Bayeux built a room just to house the tapestry in 1842 and to ensure it would be preserved.

The Nazis captured the tapestry when they occupied France during World War II. It was supposed to be shipped to Berlin, where a lot of priceless art was lost. But luckily, France took back control of Paris just three days before it was scheduled to be removed.

The Bayeux tapestry was displayed in the Louvre for a year before being returned to Bayeux, where it has resided ever since.

Bayeux Tapestry Display Nazmiyal

The Bayeux Tapestry on display.

Is Halley’s Comet Really Depicted In The Bayeux Tapestry?

It is believed that Halley’s comet is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Halley’s Comet As Seen In A Section Of The Bayeux Tapestry By Nazmiyal Antique Rugs

Halley’s Comet As Seen In A Section Of The Bayeux Tapestry That Shows King Harold And A crowd Of Fearful Englishmen Watching It Streak Through The Sky

The most famous appearance of Halley’s comet coincided with William’s Norman Conquest of England in 1066. In the months before William the Conqueror set sail for England.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle note:

“a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens.”

The “long-haired star” was seen as a bad omen for King Harold II of England. The unfortunate prophecy came to pass when William defeated and killed King Harold II during the Battle of Hastings. Halley’s comet can bee seen in a section of the tapestry that depicts King Harold along with a crowd of Englishmen who are watching the comet as it streak through the sky.

Reproductions of the Bayeux Tapestry

Those interested in examining the scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry have several reproduction options to choose from:

  • William Morris, renowned English artist, poet, author, carpenter and textile designer, made a full sized copy of the Bayeux tapestry in the 1880’s. This copy of the tapestry can be viewed in Berkshire, England. Morris worked with textile manufacturer Thomas Wardle, Elixabeth Wardle and thirty other English embroiders to create this stunning hand embroidered copy.
  • Professor Ray Dugan also made a full-size, stitched replica of the Bayeux tapestry in 1996 that is on display throughout Canada and the USA.
  • Dr. E.D. Wheeler commissioned a hand-painted, full size version of the tapestry in 1997.
  • There is also a mosaic, half-sized version made by Michael Linton. This mosaic took 20 years to create from 1979 to 1999, and it depicts a hypothetical version of the missing piece of the tapestry.

These replicas of the Bayeux tapestry are a valuable historical record. They reveal details on the tapestry that may be lost as the material degrades over the years. They also exemplify just how much the Bayeux tapestry has permeated public consciousness and infected future generations of artists.

Learn about: Learn How To Hang A Tapestry Or Rug On The Wall | What Are Historical Tapestries? | Historical Biblical Tapestries | Gobelin Tapestry History| Kesi: The History of the Chinese Tapestry | William Baumgarten & The Aubusson Tapestries | History of the Beauvais Tapestries | Barberini Tapestries Reborn from the Ashes | Green Tapestries Vogue 2017 Home Decor | Alighiero Boetti Tapestries | What Are The Unicorn Tapestries?

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This rug blog about the history of the Bayeux Tapestry was published by Nazmiyal Antique Rugs.

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