If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine the value of France’s Bayeux Tapestry, a 70-meter-long cloth embroidered with 58 scenes depicting the events leading up to William the Conqueror’s invasion of England and the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Nearly 1,000 years old and likely commissioned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and William’s half-brother, and who appears several times in the tapestry, it was displayed each year in the Bayeux Cathedral during the Feast Day of the Relics (first week of July) to provide the mostly illiterate population with the details of the story of the hero and the traitor, or of two heroes, depending on one’s interpretation of the artwork. Today the entire length of the tapestry is laid out behind protective glass and under dim lighting for visitors to view in the horseshoe-shaped room, while audio guides relay the adventure unfolding and the symbolic details embroidered into the linen, scene by scene, until the last tableau, which is unfortunately damaged.
The tapestry is a remarkable feat, using ten woolen thread colors and four different stitches to tell the epic tale with movement and depth. Hair flies in the wind; horses go from walk to trot to gallop in a cavalry charge. Observe the standard kit for soldiers in western Europe. Compare the Norman army’s cavalry and archers to that of the Saxon army’s foot soldiers with swords and two-handed battleaxes. Characters from Aesop’s Fables, well known at the time, appear in the upper and lower bands for additional understanding, as do scenes from daily 11th-century rural life.
The Bayeux Tapestry Museum has had the tapestry on display since 1983. Here is the story in a nutshell:
In 1064, Edward the Confessor, King of England, was an old man with no heir to the throne. He decided that his cousin, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, should succeed him, and he sent his brother-in-law, Harold, Earl of Wessex, to go to Normandy to inform William of the decision.
His ship blown off course, Harold arrives in Guy de Ponthieu’s territory instead of in Normandy, and is taken prisoner. William receives news of Harold’s imprisonment and forces Guy to release him. Harold then joins William in a war expedition against the Duke of Brittany, after which William knights Harold, and Harold swears allegiance to William.
Harold returns to England. Edward, the King of England, dies in 1066 and Harold has himself crowned King, betraying his allegiance to William. William sets sail to England with a fleet to confront Harold. Harold is killed in the battle, known as the Battle of Hastings, and William becomes King of England.
The Bayeux Tapestry is listed by UNESCO as a Memory of the World. Click here for a more detailed description of the tapestry with artistic commentary.
While in Bayeux:
• Leave time to visit other exhibits of the Bayeux Museum besides the tapestry. There is also a short film reenacting the Battle of Hastings playing in the museum’s cinema.
• Bayeux is a good home base for visiting the D-Day beaches of 1944 and sites dealing with the Battle of Normandy.
• The MAHB is another worthwhile museum to visit, covering the history of European art, from archaeology to Modern Art.
• Don’t miss Bayeux’s Notre Dame Cathedral dating back to the 13th century (replacing Bishop Odo’s 11th-century cathedral that was lost to fire). This masterpiece of Norman Gothic architecture sits above a Romanesque crypt from the 11th century, which was rediscovered in 1412 when digging a grave for a Bishop.