Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth on display in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, in Bayeux, Normandy.

In all it measures 230 feet long and 20 inches tall and shows 70 scenes depicting the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. In particular, it features the Battle of Hastings in September 1066 when the forces of William, the Duke of Normandy, defeated the forces of Harold Godwinson to later become king of England.

Bayeux Tapestry

Why it was made

The tapestry was believed to have been commissioned by Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William, sometime in the 1070s. Odo himself was believed to have been in the battle and is depicted in the tapestry along with William and Harold.

The first record of the tapestry was in 1476 when it was listed in an inventory of the treasures of the Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry itself was usually kept hidden and only displayed in the cathedral for a week on the occasion of the Feast of St. John the Baptist. It was only in 1729 when scholars recognized its significance and decided it belongs in a museum.

The tapestry throughout history

In 1792, French revolutionaries took the tapestry and used it –of all things– to cover military wagons. It was saved by a lawyer who kept it hidden until the revolution was over before handing it over the authorities.

It was displayed in the Louvre in 1797.

In 1803 it was taken to Paris supposedly to be displayed in the Museum of Napoleon, but when the emperor decided not to pursue his plan to invade Britain it was returned to Bayeux where it was once again displayed.

In an odd twist of fate it would be the Gestapo, the secret police of the Nazis, who brought the tapestry back to the Louvre in 1944, during the occupation. It was only after World War II in 1945 that the tapestry would finally be returned to Bayeux.

Why the Bayeux Tapestry is important

The tapestry is considered important in the sense that it is a remarkable work of art for its period in history, and also because it is an important source for information on events that happened in the 11th century.

Interesting facts about the Bayeux Tapestry

  • Experts say it’s technically not a tapestry but an embroidery, because the designs on it are embroidered and not woven.
  • Despite having the name Bayeux Tapestry, it was believed to have been finished in England before being sent to France.
  • The tapestry is set to be loaned to the British Museum for public display after 2020.
  • The tapestry is believed to be an unfinished piece because of the many empty spaces.
  • The embroiderers at the time didn’t have access to a lot of colored thread. They did their best with terracotta, blue-green, dull gold, olive green, and blue thread.
  • The tapestry has two items believed portrayed for the first time in history; a farm implement called a harrow and a comet.
  • The comet in the tapestry is believed to be Halley’s Comet.
  • When it was first put on display, the public was scandalized by the gaudy-colored horses depicted on the tapestry.

Why were tapestries so common during the 11th century?

Tapestries were a great way to record events and tell stories to a largely illiterate public.

How was the tapestry kept in good condition all these centuries?

When not put on display in the Bayeux Cathedral just once a year, it was kept in a chest and well taken care of.

Is the tapestry a military document?

Because the tapestry thoroughly chronicles the events surrounding Harold before the Battle of Hastings, historians believe the tapestry is a form of documentation defending and justifying Norman actions in England, rather than just a record of their military conquests.

Who designed the tapestry?

Scholars believe the designer is likely to be Scolland, the abbot of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury.

Is the Bayeux Tapestry the only one in the world?

For its era, yes. However, modern artists, embroiders, and weavers have made several copies of the tapestry to be displayed around the world.