The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth around 230 feet long, 20 inches tall, and recounts the story of the conquest of England by the Normans, specifically William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex (Carter 24). The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story from the perspective of the successful invading Normans, but it is agreed upon now that it was created in England. The tapestry was supposedly commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother, a few years after the battle had reached its conclusion some time in the 11th century, sometime around the 1070s (Carter 24). The tapestry was then lost to history until it was discovered in 1729 when scholars of the time found it while it was being displayed in the Bayeux Cathedral. This tapestry tells a long story spanning many years, but how reliable can one consider this tapestry to be?
Plán bitvy u Hastingsu, anonymous, public domain, This graphic represents the battle of Hastings, the main battle represented in the tapestry
The purpose for the creation of the tapestry is probably where the biggest reason for skepticism comes in. As previously said, this tapestry was created a few years after the conquest had ended and was commissioned by Bishop Odo. This means that it was most likely created with approval of the church as a sort of commemorative work of art. It was most likely used to help bring the story of William’s conquest to all those who would see it. This was meant to help establish that William was went to win because God was with him, or at least that his claim to the throne was true in the eyes of God (Anderson 254). Proof of this can be seen in the fact that it was on display in a church. Since this was meant to celebrate William and his conquest, some details are likely to be embellished or polished up.
Another reason for skepticism is that the entire thing is from the perspective of the invaders. History is written by the victors after all. This leads to a one sided view of the conquest that obviously favors William. This ties into the previous point about a retelling being improved to help the victor appear better, but for a different reason.
Despite these negatives, the tapestry is practically a miracle. The entire length of it was able to survive for hundreds of years before scholars were able to find it. The colors and cloth are still extremely vibrant and clear allowing for easy reading and interpretation of the needlework. With the piece being commissioned by Bishop Odo, someone present in the stories, this leaves the possibility that this is a recording of the story from a primary source in the form of Odo himself.
Photo taken from The Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings 1066 by Mogens Rud
In this scene, we can see the end of the actual battle of Hastings and the actions of William and his armies during the aftermath. The bottom left of the scene shows the dead body of Harold with an arrow through his eye, identifiable by the cause of death as well as his unique shield shape. Also along the bottom you can see scenes of archers firing on the retreating army along with what appears to be a decapitated peasant. Along the middle we can see conflict between across a diverse range of parties. From left to right we see conflict between foot soldiers fighting foot soldiers, foot soldiers vs cavalry, and a foot soldier vs a peasant based upon his dress. The shields of the soldiers along the left are covered in arrows and we can see at the bottom right of the scene that archers shown previously are most likely the reason for it. Along the middle we also see a Latin inscription that when translated reads “Here the French fight and have killed those who were with Harold” (Rud). A note that perfectly describes what is happening in the scene. Finally, along the top we see animals that have been present along the length of the battle. This scene is the clean up that comes after defeating an enemies commander. A good comparison for this scene would be cutting the head off a cockroach. The cockroach won’t know what to do or how to move, but it will still run around even without that knowledge. Eventually it may will stop moving and die, but unlike the cockroach the army can get a new head, a new commander. So they decided not to wait for that possibility and kill those that were traveling with Harold, those most likely to be able to take control.
As this is a memorial piece, some of the details are most likely embellished, polished, or omitted altogether. But even with that, this easily one of the best source of medieval history around today with its clear artwork, close to primary source account, and its creation point near the time of the event. It gives the history of William’s conquest of England before the attacks, during, and the aftermath. As a source for what happened, you most likely won’t find a better source, just remain a bit skeptic.
Bloch, R. Howard. “Speculum.” Speculum, vol. 81, no. 2, 2006, pp. 493–494. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20463736.
Carter, John Marshall. “Doing What Historians Do: Using the Bayeux Tapestry to Discover the Past.” The Clearing House, vol. 70, no. 1, 1996, pp. 24–25. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/30189228.
Anderson, John D. “The Bayeux Tapestry: A 900-Year-Old Latin Cartoon.” The Classical Journal, vol. 81, no. 3, 1986, pp. 253–257. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3297235.
Noxon, Gerald. “The Bayeux Tapestry.” Cinema Journal, vol. 7, 1967, pp. 29–35. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1224876.
Rud, Mogens. The Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings 1066. Christian Ejlers, 2008.