The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the world’s great art works, never failing to impress however many times you see it. Almost a century old, it’s an astonishing visual narrative of the events around the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Remarkably it’s domestic as well as heroic, showing everyday life in the Middle Ages as well as one of history’s great battles.
The Bayeux Tapestry is housed in the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant in a 17th-century building in the center of Bayeux. It was included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2007.
What the Bayeux Tapestry shows
The Tapestry gives a wonderful and detailed account in 58 different scenes of the momentous events of 1066.
25 of the scenes are set in France and 33 are in England of which 10 take up the Battle of Hastings itself. It’s a tale of double-dealing by the English King Harold, of warfare and conquest, and most importantly of all, of William the Conqueror defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings. It was the start of a new, Norman, golden age for England.
The tapestry starts with the years before 1066. The events that led to William invading England are all portrayed and the main characters: Edward the Confessor, Harold, Earl of Wessex and William, all appear at the beginning of the tale.
The scene above shows Edward the Confessor, King of England, talking to his brother-in-law Harold, Earl of Wessex in 1064. Two years later Edward died, on Jan 6, 1066 and the play for the throne of England began.
Here’s Harold swearing his oath to support William’s claim to the English throne. He is touching two altars as William looks on.
It was September 1066, when the ships set sail from St Valery-sur-Somme with 7,000 men and around 2,000 horses on board. What followed was to change the face of English history forever, setting William on the path to becoming one of the most powerful monarchs in Western Europe.
It wasn’t until October 14 that the battle took place. What the tapestry doesn’t include is the Battle of Stamford Bridge which the English army fought against the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada on September 25. The weakened English then had to march down to Hastings in Sussex to face the Normans. But why let the facts get in the way of a cracking good story?
The Bayeux Tapestry shows the battle in wonderful detail. The facts are fairly straightforward: the Normans attack and are decisive, Harold is hit in the eye by an arrow and dies and the English retreat.
But the depiction is something you have to see to appreciate. The figures may seem a little wooden, but somehow they come to life, full of energy and movement. Everyone looking at it gets immersed in the story.
The dramatic story unfolds
It’s easy to follow using the excellent audio guide which relates the events and the background to them as you walk slowly past the tapestry stretched out in a horseshoe-shaped display.
The characters are easily recognizable: the English have moustaches and long hair; the Normans hair is cut typically short; the clergy are distinguished by their tonsures and the women (only 3 of them) by their flowing dresses and veiled heads.
There are three panels and the main story takes place in the central one.
The smaller upper and lower panels are just as absorbing. They provide a window into the Middle Ages.
The panels depict everyday scenes from farming to hunting, from people making bows and arrows to others fishing. You see how the ships were constructed and the tools used. You see real animals as well as mythological creatures: manticores (a Greek beast with the head of a man, the body of a lion and the tail of a scorpion), female centaurs, winged horses, dragons and more. Mythical beasts have as much of a presence on land in the tapestry as weird and wonderful sea creatures do on the maps of the time.
It’s an excellent exhibition for children who are fascinated by the simplicity of the scenes and the story. The Bayeux Tapestry has been called the world’s first comic strip; watch children working out what’s happening and the comparison becomes very real.
Tapestry or Embroidery?
The Tapestry is not technically a tapestry which is woven, but a band of linen embroidered with ten different colored threads. Produced in the 1070s, the scale is impressive. It’s huge: about 68.3 metres/224 ft long and 70cms/20 inches wide. What’s also extraordinary are the colours which are faded but not badly. After nearly a century that’s quite something.
Where did the Bayeux Tapestry come from?
In the 18th century the tapestry was attributed to Queen Matilda, William’s wife, but it is now believed to have been commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and William’s half brother just after the Battle of Hastings. It was probably embroidered at Canterbury in Kent.
Much of the evidence points to Bistop Odo being the person who commissioned the tapestry. Three of the bishop’s followers mentioned in the Domesday Book make appearances and it was found in Bayeux Cathedral which Odo built in the 1070s. It’s likely he commissioned the tapestry at the same time as the building so that both would be completed at the same time. On July 14, 1077, the cathedral was consecrated in the presence of William the Conqueror and his wife Mathilde. Hanging the tapestry in the new cathedral would cement William’s victory for all to see (and emphasise Bishop Odo’s importance).
Bishop Odo appears in the tapestry, seemingly encouraging the troops from the rear, though he is wielding a club. Church and state and therefore warfare were inextricably mixed, making a few problems for the church.
The dichotomy was best summed up by American historian and writer William Stearns Davis: “Bishop Odo of Bayeux fought at Hastings before any such authorized champions of the church existed…That bishops shall restrain from warfare is really a pious wish not easily in this sinful world to be granted.”
The Bayeux Tapestry is a magnificent piece of propaganda as well as a jewel of Romanesque art; you come out incensed with the apparent treachery of Harold. He had taken the throne on the death of the saintly King, Edward the Confessor who died childless. Harold had sworn to hand the throne over to William but…
There’s more to see at the Bayeux Tapestry Museum
On the first floor the exhibition gives more information on the Bayeux Tapestry itself as well as placing it in the Middle Ages with models of ships, scenes from everyday life and the Norman influence in buildings like the Tower of London and Winchester Cathedral.
The film on the second floor shows a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings.
Rue de Nesmond
Tel: + 33 (0)2 31 51 25 50
Open Mar 1 to Oct 31: 9am-6.30pm; Nov 1 to Feb 28 9.30am-12.30pm & 2pm-6pm
Closed December 24th at 12:30pm-December 26th at 2pm December 31st at 12:30pm to January 2nd at 2pm
Admission Adults €9.50 euros, concessions €7.50; students €5. Free for children under 10 years. Free in May on the Night of the Museums 8pm to midnight; September Heritage days. 80 euros, under 10s free
PLEASE NOTE: If you’re visiting in summer 2020 please check the website before you go. The Covid-19 crisis means that opening times might vary.
Tip: Don’t be pushed along by the crowds in the main exhibition; this really is a piece of art to linger over. Buy the William the Conqueror Activity Booklet in English for children (aimed at 7 to 12 year olds). It’s 3 euros at the excellent shop, and in other tourist attractions in the area. (It’s a very good short introduction for adults as well!) It gets crowded during the peak summer season, so get there as early as you can.
More to discover in Normandy
Normandy D-Day Landing Beaches from Utah to Sword
Here are suggestions of places to stay near the Normandy Landing Beaches.
Also check out the budget hotel chains in France for more suggestions on where to stay.