The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry at all but an exquisite embroidery, using thread of eight different colours stitched, not woven, in woollen yarns onto linen. Visitors are prepared for its length – the surviving section is 230 feet long – but often surprised that it is only 20 inches deep: the first, and most famous, historical cartoon strip.
Scholars agree on very little about the Tapestry, when and why it was made and how reliable it is as a source of what happened in the decade or so leading up to 1066, the most famous year in English history. Told from a Norman perspective, the Tapestry portrays Harold as a usurper who gets his just desserts at the Battle of Hastings, having forsworn an oath to support Duke William’s candidature to succeed Edward the Confessor as King of England.
The Tapestry may have been created in Canterbury and commissioned as early as 1069 by Count Eustache of Boulogne, intending it as a gift to patch up his quarrel with Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror. As its patron Eustache is given a disproportionately heroic role at Hastings, even depicted as the Norman knight who dispatches King Harold with an axe after he had been disabled, struck in the eye by an arrow. It would seem that the Tapestry’s designer devoted two adjacent scenes to Harold’s death, and was well ahead of his time in using the techniques of animated cartoons to portray fast moving events.
William had three horses killed under him during the battle, and his fleet of tiny ships, more like war canoes, might never have survived the crossing to England in normal October weather. As historian Harriet Harvey Wood observes in her “‘The Battle of Hastings” (Atlantic Books, 2008), the Duke, disparagingly known throughout Europe as William the Bastard, might have been more accurately described as William the lucky bastard.
Death of King Harold
© Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux
Main room - Bayeux Tapestry