The Bayeux Tapestry: A Lasting Question

Panel 70 of the Bayeux Tapestry can be seen as the epitome of what went on during the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (Wilson 194).  Bloodshed emanates from every inch of the cloth.  While it is clear that many men, as well as the British King Harold, are losing their lives, certain details still are not understood.  The basic who’s who in the tapestry can be discerned by historical hints based on weaponry and garb or by textual clues around the images.  Small events of the battle may still be unknown due to the lack of inscription or the loss of records.

plate

(Plate 70, Wilson 194. Infantrymen and archers are dying all around.)

In the center of the panel is a man on horseback cutting down an enemy soldier.  Carnage envelops him on both sides.  The panel prior to the soldier shows him and his fellow cavalrymen charging the opposing infantry.  To highlight the butchery, it also contains an inscription reading, “Here the English and the French fell at the same time in the battle,” (Hicks 17).   The charge seems to be a synergistic attack between the cavalry and a group of archers.

In the bottom border, under the horseman, the archers have the angle of their bows held high, raining down arrows on their adversary in the next frame.  It seems that they have hit their mark in frame 71.  A man lies on the ground dying, while also having his leg hacked at by a horseman.  Next to him is his weapon, a battle-axe.  Also, the dead man seems to be wearing different, more vibrant colors than those around him.   This is a clue about his status.

Earlier in the tapestry Harold, Earl of East Anglia, is shown meeting with King Edward of England.  The man announcing Harold to the King is holding a battle-axe.  This is the first time that an Englishman is seen sporting an axe in the tapestry (Rud 55-56).  This sets a precedence in the coming panels of the piece in that a soldier seen wielding an axe is most likely an Englishman.  This allows the viewer to be able to discern who is who in the mass of soldiers in panel 70.  It also gives a great clue about the man dressed so fancily in the next panel.

It is known that in the final stages of the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror told his archers to aim high to rain down arrows on Harold (Rud 86).  This is interesting when one considers panel 70.  As said above, the archers in the bottom border were aiming high.  This is not a coincidence when one takes into account the man dying in panel 71.

Both the angle of the archers bows in panel 70 and the standout in color of the man’s clothes point to one thing.  The man dying in panel 71 is Harold, King of England.  One final thing that supports this is the inscription above this man.  It clearly says in Latin, “Here King Harold has been killed,” (Wilson 173).  Together, these three clues; be they text, coloring, or interpretation from earlier imagery, tell the viewer that panels 70 and 71 diagram the death of King Harold and many of his men.  Not all things in the Bayeux Tapestry are this easily deciphered though.

Detailed plate (pictured below) shows a Norman horseman cutting down an Englishman with a round shield.  The thing that makes it odd is that the man on horseback is sitting on the neck of his horse instead of in the saddle.  Seemingly all other cavalrymen in the tapestry are presented fighting firmly in their saddles.  This presentation is not a mistake.  It is most likely that this frame refers to a specific event during the course of the battle (Wilson 194-195).  Although this is reasonable to assume, the modern viewer cannot be sure whether this is the case, and if it is, which event is it.

detailed plate

(Detailed plate, Wilson 194. Notice the man is sitting on the neck of his horse)

The reason for this is that there is no known account of this specific event that survives (Wilson 195).  Perhaps it is sensible to infer that the audience at the time of the tapestry knew what this small abnormality meant.  However, today one cannot assume.  Certain details either are not transcribed or are lost in translation.  This is one of the constraints that one faces when trying to interpret classical and middle aged art.

The Bayeux Tapestry contains a world of information to the modern viewer.  Panel 70 gives a look into the final stages of the Battle of Hastings.  The archers narrowing in on King Harold and the carnage around them give the observer a look into the past.  While some things can be interpreted, others cannot.  The tapestry leaves modern man to wonder about things such as specific events that may have been known at the time.  Through both the known and the unknown, the Bayeux Tapestry has lent an air of excitement to scores of generations as well as many to come.

 

Works Cited

Hicks, Carola.  The Bayeux Tapestry:  The Life story of a Masterpiece.  London:  Vintage books, 2006. Print

Rud, Mogens.  The Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings 1066.  Copenhagen:  Christian Ejlers, 2002. Print.

Wilson, David M. The Bayeux Tapestry. London:  Thames and Husdon, 1985. Print.

 

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