The Bayeux Tapestry is thought to have been made in England for William’s half-brother, Odo. Odo happened to be the bishop of the Bayeux -hence the name of the tapestry- and Earl of Kent. Speculators believe that the tapestry was made in Canterbury in a workshop that was associated with St. Augustine’s Abbey (Laynesmith).
The Bayeux Tapestry portrays William the Conqueror and how he took hold of England back in the 1060’s. In my specific piece, it is supposed to portray the death of King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. However, there is a lot of debatable matters when it
comes to this scene in the Bayeux Tapestry. Before diving in though, let me explain the difference in the soldiers. Historically, King Harold’s army was almost entirely infantry with the exception of a few archers. The Normans, on the other hand, were about half infantry, a quarter cavalry, and another quarter of archers (Battle of Hastings). Because of this, we can figure out that any of the horses in the tapestry (There is only one, in my case) are part of the Norman cavalry.
Looking at the tapestry, it is hard to determine which figure is King Harold. we can rule out that the person on the horse is not King Harold, because only he Normans had cavalry. So it is really left to two figures in the image; the one directly behind the horse, and the one being trampled by the horse. Because we don’t know in this context, we can look at how King Harold died. According to World Monarchies and Dynasties, Harold had been shot in the eye with an arrow, then mistakenly wandered into enemy lines half blind where he was killed (Middleton 376). Unfortunately, that does not solve any issues, because both figures could describe certain parts of King Harold’s death. In the 1st figure, it looks to be that there is an arrow in the eye of the figure. that perfectly matches up with the story given. However, because this photo is a photo of the replicated tapestry, we should see what other forms of the tapestry have. Bayeux-tapestry.org.uk goes into this, and points out that different replications of the tapestry show different things. For example, the Le Thieuller 1824 copy shows that the figure is holding a dotted line. In the Montaucon 1730 engraving, it just shows that the figure is holding something. It is not indicative of an arrow or a spear, but we don’t know what else it could be. Another thing to point out is that the first written mention of Harold dying by being shot in the eye with an arrow appears 14 years later; written by Baudri in a poem. Some speculators say that there is really no way to know how Harold died, because of the lack of detail in the primary sources. It really comes down to the interpretation of two sources; Carmen, then the Bayeux Tapestry itself (Bradbury 206)
The second figure also seems to match up with the story given by John Middleton. After being shot in the eye, he wandered into enemy lines and was slaughtered. The tapestry is indicative of that, except for the fact that the arrow is missing from the figure’s eye. However, if you look closely at the second figure’s head, you will see that there seems to be missing stitches leading to the second figure’s head. Why were the stitches put there, and why were they removed? These are both critical questions that unfortunately can’t be solved, and further deepen the mystery into figuring out which figure is the real King Harold.
An attempt to try and analyze the location of the title a certain figure also fails, because the title, “Harold Rex Interfectus Est,” stretches above both figures, “Harold” being closer to the first figure, and “Interfectus est” being closer to the second figure.
In my own speculation, I think that it is very possible that both of the figures could be King Harold. It is somewhat apparent that the -most likely Anglo-Saxon- artist(s) did not know how to divide the different scenes, therefore making it look like the Normans were attacking themselves in some part of the tapestry. I think that this is another one of those situations. If my speculation is true, it shows that Harold was shot in the eye, and then immediately after was killed by the Norman cavalry. This opinion is supported by David Bernstein, who was the first to point out the missing stitch marks leading to the second figure’s head (Bradbury 207).
Despite the pitfalls in using the Bayeux Tapestry as a 100% accurate source for the Battle of Hastings, it does give us some insightful cues on what the Battle of Hastings was like, even if it is not completely accurate. An example would be the bottom part of the tapestry in the scene, “Harold Rex Interfectus Est.”
Here we can see people stripping the valuables off of the dead soldiers and peddling their newfound loot for money. While there seems to be no other source that mentions this happening after the battle of Hastings, it seems likely that it did happen.
There are some problems when it comes to using the Bayeux Tapestry as a source though. There was an absolute bias of the art itself. The embroidery was made with the idea of showing the victory of William the Conqueror and his army, and was probably made for Bishop Odo, who was William’s half brother. Also, because of the lack of worded description on what the artist was trying to convey, it is mostly up to the artist to interpret what actually happened during the Norman conquest. That is disadvantageous because of people’s variance of views and opinions.
As mentioned before, the embroidery doesn’t offer us 100% accuracy of exactly what happened, or at least we can not assume that. However, it does bring a resourceful and interesting perspective of what did happen. We may never know which figure was supposed to be King Harold.
Middleton, John. World Monarchies and Dynasties. Routledge. 2015. pp. 375-376. EBSCOhost. Accessed 11/15/2018. https://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?nobk=y&vid=2&sid=87f8a57e-8a79-45a4-a864-feb5286a
“the Death of Harold.” Accessed 11/15/2018. http://www.bayeux-tapestry.org.uk/deathofharold.htm
Bradbury, Jim. The Battle of Hastings. Sutton Publishing. 1998. pp. 206-207.
Lawson, M.K. “Observations upon a Scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Battle of Hastings and the Military System of the Late Anglo-Saxon State.” James Campbell. 2000. DRM_PETER. “Observations upon a Scene in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Battle of Hastings and the Military System of the Late Anglo-Saxon State.” De Re Militari. 10/02/2017. Accessed 11/16/2018. https://deremilitari.org/2017/10/observations-upon-a-scene-in-the-bayeux-tapestry-the-battle-of-hastings-and-the-military-system-of-the-late-anglo-saxon-state/
“Bayeux Tapestry.” Wikipedia. Accessed 11/22/2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayeux_Tapestry
Laynesmith, J. L. “A Canterbury Tale.” History Today, vol. 62, no. 10, Oct. 2012, pp. 42–48. EBSCOhost, hal.weber.edu/login?url=https://search-ebscohost-com.hal.weber.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=82392810&site=ehost-live.