In 1066, William the Conqueror invaded England and defeated the army of King Harold in the famed Battle of Hastings. About ten years later, a rare example of secular artwork was produced which captured the events leading up to Norman Conquest of England, as well as the pivotal battle itself. This artwork is today called the Bayeux Tapestry, after the city in France where it was found.
The Bayeux Tapestry is in fact not a tapestry, which is made with a loom, but rather an embroidery, which is made using various stitching techniques such as couching which consists of leaving long strands of loose thread that are later fastened with more thread (Little). It was probably made in an embroidery workshop under the precise instruction of one designer who drew the desired images and probably wrote the Latin text that accompanies them. The embroiderers, who were very likely women, used only six different colours of woollen thread stitched onto a linen base, making a 200 feet long and 2 feet wide masterpiece (Laynesmith).
The main source of intrigue surrounding the Bayeux Tapestry is the speculation concerning the identities and roles of some of the characters represented in this work. Until recently it has been more or less accepted that it was commissioned by Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror (Laynesmith 43). If Bishop Odo had commissioned the embroidery, being the half-brother of William the Conqueror, he would certainly have made it an apparent glorification of the Norman victory. However, many elements of the tapestry, such as the impartiality of the text and images, as well as the subversive Anglo-Saxon nuances, suggest that it was commissioned by a completely different and less biased person (Bridgeford 305).
Before diving into the identity of the person responsible for the creation of tapestry, it is first necessary to understand the political background of the time period. During the 11th century, England was characterized by turmoil. The Danes had invaded in 1016 and then, when they found themselves heirless in 1042, had invited Edward the Confessor back from his exile in Normandy to rule the country (Bridgford 55). During his time in Normandy, Edward became close to his distant cousin, Duke William, and may have presented him with the possibility of ruling England if he himself remained childless (55). Before his death in 1066, it is believed that he did indeed promise the throne to William and sent Earl Harold Godwinson, the son of a tremendously influential English nobleman and the brother of Edward's wife Edith to bring this news to the Norman Duke (Musset). However, when Edward died in 1066, Harold became King, provoking the Norman invasion.
From this context one would assume that the Bayeux Tapestry is just a simple, one-sided celebration of the Norman victory over England. However after more research it becomes evident that this could not be farther from the truth. In fact the impartiality of the tapestry's narrative, that does not inflict blame or praise on any person, visibly suggests an unbiased patron. As Lucien Musset states in his book, "there are no obvious ethnic prejudices evident in the drawings. Victors and vanquished alike appear as men of valour, and indeed look almost the same" (242). Furthermore he writes that, neither Harold nor William have clearly distinctive attributes apart from Harold's falcon which doesn't even appear consistently. Indeed, the embroidery is primarily a work of military history, identifying the only difference between Englishmen and Frenchmen as being respectively moustachioed foot-soldiers and clean-shaven cavalrymen (44).
An even more interesting argument is the presence of clues that suggest Anglo-Saxon messages. Harold is not in any way represented as a hateful and deceitful usurper. Firstly, the Latin text of the tapestry lays no blame whatsoever on him. When he is crowned, it merely says, "Here they gave Harold the king's crown" (Bridgeford 146). The artist does not restrict himself to this apparent justification of Harold's actions; in fact, there is a section of the embroidery in which he is essentially glorified. At some point after the oath, William and Harold ride to Mont-Saint-Michel and get caught in quick sand. The Latin text reads, "Here Duke Harold pulled them out of the sand" while the image depicts a heroic Harold carrying two small men childishly clinging to him (146). There is no reason why Bishop Odo would have decided to include this scene that portrays Harold as both physically and morally good.
The embroidery’s impartial nature and inclusion of Anglo-Saxon messages lead to the theory that the Count of Boulogne, Eustace II, is the patron of the tapestry (Musset 248). Since the count was a Frenchman but not a Norman, he may have been unbiased and more open to the English interpretation of events and is more likely to have allowed ambiguity. In addition, the fact that Eustace II has a significant presence in the embroidery lends credence to this theory. He appears in the battle as a commander of William's army and is possibly the Frenchman who delivers the blow that kills King Harold (195). Lastly, Eustace II had been in conflict with Odo following the conquest of England and perhaps wanted to make peace with him by commissioning the commemorative tapestry. This situation would also explain why Odo also plays such an important role in the narrative of the embroidery (Bridgeford 305).
It has been said that conquerors write history and, without fail, spin it in their favour: demonizing the conquered and deifying themselves. The Bayeux Tapestry does not follow this modus operandi, a characteristic that truly makes it exceptional. It seems likely that its patron was in fact Eustace II of Boulogne since this theory explains more of the work’s content than the assertion that Bishop Odo, who was very partial to the victor, commissioned the tapestry. Today it is up to us to simply examine it, and, in awe of the beauty and intricate complexity of the narrative art, and ponder the events of 1066.
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Freeman, Edward Augustus. William The Conqueror. London: Macmillan and Company, (1888). eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 24 March 2013.
Heslop, T. A. "Regarding The Spectators Of The Bayeux Tapestry: Bishop Odo And His Circle." Art History 32.2 (2009): 223-249. EBSCOhost. Web. 10 April 2013.
Laynesmith, J.L. "A Canterbury Tale." History Today 62.10 (2012): 42-48. EBSCOhost. Web. 23 April 2013.
Little, Frances. "An Exhibition of English Embroidery." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 24.10 (1929): 261-266. JSTOR. Web. 24 April 2013.
McNulty, J. Bard. The Narrative Art of the Bayeux Tapestry Master. New York: AMS Press, (1989).
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