THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY
The Bayeux Tapestry is preserved and well displayed in Bayeux, Normandy, France. Curiously, it is neither a tapestry, nor was it made in Bayeux. There are no specific known facts about its origins, as the first record only appears in a 1476 inventory. The definition of tapestry is 'something woven' and the Bayeux Tapestry is actually not: it consists of eight strips of linen totaling 70 m long and a half-metre wide. On this background the border is embroidrered in woolen yarn and the 'pictures' are stiched in eight different colours. The Bayeux Tapestry is a unique historical document, as no other such record exists in the world. What it records, probably at Bishop Odo's direction in c1070 (he was William's step-brother), is not the 1066 invasion or battle (although both are shown in detail), but Harold Godwinsson swearing his oath with his hand on religious icons in 1064 and the punishment that follows a broken oath sworn to God.
The tapestry was probably made for Odo's cathedral, which was opened at Bayeux in 1077. Since Odo was one of William's chief advisors he was perhaps concerned to help legitimise the Norman conquest and William's accession as king. The Tapestry would serve that purpose.
Propaganda or History?
This was then still an age when most people could not read. The great churches were built at the same time and their pictorial windows (and the graphic Tapestry), told the stories for all to see. This was also an age of high religious feeling and many of the 1066 characters joined in the later crusades. The tapestry itself is a marvelous source of the details of eleventh century life. We see details of clothing, architecture, personal hair styles (the Normans cut their hair short and shaved the back-half of the heads , while the English Saxons wore mustaches). We see the use of stirrups (essential to mounted cavalry) and we are provided the only historical image of a Viking ship's dragon-head prow. (Despite Hollywood, no archeological confirmation exists of the dragonheads, although written confirmation validates the Tapestry depiction.)
The tapestry is well displayed in Bayeux. The original Tapestry shows 626 human figures, 190 horses, 35 dogs, 506 other birds and animals, 33 buildings, 37 ships and 37 trees or groups and trees, with 57 Latin inscriptions. The scenes are impressively deceptive in that there is key data in the top and bottom friezes. It seems nearly certain that an (unnamed) Englishman from Kent designed and directed the Tapestry construction in England.
Most of the mixed Saxon thanes and Norman knights wear mailed pants. Mailed pants were typically worn by the Saxons who rode to battle, dismounted, and then dressed in their armour. The Normans rode into battle mounted and fought on horseback; Riding a horse would not be advisable for men wearing mailed pants! The Normans are known to have then worn a hauberk, or mailed cloak, which fell to the knees. Since this would have been commonly known amongst Normans, the English are suspected of making the tapestry.
Edward was the Son of the Saxon King Ethelred (the Unready) and Emma, sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy. Emma later married Cnut, King of Denmark. Cnut became King of England and Edward was sent to live in exile in Normandy (1013- 1041). Edward's reign continued the disintegration of central royal power in England in favour of the aggrandisement of the great territorial earls. Apparently Edward was a weak king and clearly Godwin, Earl of Wessex, gained in power at Edward's expense.
The Saxons had earlier recovered England under the leadership of the Wessex kings, notably Alfred the Great, and the Saxons had recognised several kingdoms in England. Those earlier kingdoms had migrated into powerful earldoms. Edward was perhaps acknowledging the earlier tradition, however, Edward's ability to defend England had become conditional upon support from a very few powerful men.
When Cnut died in 1042 his son Harthacnut was made King of England. But Harthacnut died without leaving an heir so Edward became King in 1042 and was crowned at Winchester in 1043. He ruled with the help of the powerful Saxon earls and married Edith, daughter of Godwin. Edward invited many of his Norman friends to come to England (Sir Other FitzOthoere was one); he gave them important jobs and land. He ordered the building of Westminster Abbey.
Because Edward had no children, his succession was a state issue and there were many potential claimants to the throne. One was Harold, Earl of Wessex, Edward's brother-in-law: another was Harald Hardrada King of Norway, and a third was William, Duke of Normandy. The best claim was from a fourth claimant, Edgar Aetheling, Edward's great nephew who had been raised by Edward since 1057. The Normans claimed that Edward had promised the throne to William, but Harold Godwinsson was chosen to succeed Edward by the English witan (council), when Edward died in January 1066.
Harold had no hereditary claim on the throne: he was not of royal birth. He was the son of Godwin, who had been the most powerful Saxon Earl of Wessex. Harold's sister, Edith, had been married to Edward the Confessor and Harold had at least 5 brothers. The tapestry shows us that Harold journeyed to Normandy, was shipwrecked on the Norman coast, was rescued by William's men, was kept in Normandy for two years, and that he fought with William against the Duke of Brittany. Most importantly for the Normans, the Bayeux tapestry shows Harold swearing an oath upon holy relics to support William succession to Edward. However, when Edward the Confessor died Harold was chosen as the successor King of England by the leading Saxon noblemen at the London witan.
As king, Harold had immediate problems, his strong-willed brother Earl Tostig rebelled, was forced to leave, and raided England several times in 1066. Initially, Tostig had some Irish support and he invaded along the eastern and southern coasts. Since Wessex was the center of Harold's strength, Tostig gained little support there.
Tostig then found support in Norway's King Harald Hardrada. Tostig persuaded Harald that Tostig's former northern earldom would support a Viking invasion. (He was quite wrong Tostig had been unpopular and they found little support.) Nonetheless, Tostig and Harald planned a massive invasion of the north-eastern area of York in England, landed successfully, and defeated the local militia. The Norwegians fatally relaxed after the easy battle, and left their secure bridgehead and part of their army - without much of their armour - on a local search and destroy mission.
Meanwhile in London, Harold had learned of the Norwegian invasion and raced his army north. The Saxon-English caught the unprepared Norwegians at a river crossing near York. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed by Harold's army at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. So many Norwegians were killed that only a few of the long-ships returned to Norway. However, by circumstance, with favourable weather at last this was the same time when William, Duke of Normandy brought his army to England to claim the throne.
After fighting a major battle, Harold marched his army from Stamford Bridge to London, ordered more reinforcements - but did not wait for them, and then marched almost straight on to Hastings where William's army waited. With such a small Norman invasion force, Harold only had to wait to win: Harold's fyrd (militia reinforcements) were coming; and William would run short of supplies in a foreign land. Clearly William's army was rested and Harold's was tired, but then the Saxon-English were fighting on their own ground
The English and Norman armies fought bravely, but Harold with his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine were killed. The (Latin text) tapestry tells us "...here King Harold has been killed..." - perhaps struck down by the sword of a mounted Norman soldier, rather than an arrow in the eye as sometimes suggested. After the battle of Hastings William had an abbey built on the place where the battle had been fought, and the high altar is supposed to mark the spot where Harold was killed.
William's father was Duke Robert of Normandy and his mother was Arlett, a tanner's daughter from Falaise. Duke Robert's great-great-grandfather was Rollo, a Viking who invaded the coast of France in 911. Although he was illegitimate William became Duke of Normandy when he was only seven years old, as his father died, while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. William's mother married the Viscount of Conteville and had two more sons - Bishop Odo and Count Robert.
William had had to defend himself and his dukedom from childhood and had become a strong leader. William particularly wanted to become King of England, perhaps to legitimise his illegitimate birth. Because of the earlier Danish invasions and conquest of England, for several years William had been the host to the English heir then known as Prince Edward. During this extended period (1013- 1041), William had a unique opportunity to influence Edward and to consider succeeding him in England.
William had a weak claim to England through his great-aunt Emma, who was also Edward's mother. However, William maintained that Edward had promised him the succession (no doubt predicated on the length of Edward's exile in Normandy), during William's visit to England in 1052. Finally, as illustrated in the Tapestry, William stated that during Harold's sojourn in Normandy, Harold had sworn an oath to support William's claim to succeed Edward.
William built a fleet of ships and raised an army, gained papal support, crossed the English Channel, and led his army to the Battle of Hastings where Harold was killed and his army defeated. William then set about the conquest of England; he gave Norman barons small pieces of land all over the country and in return they supported him in war and administered regions of England on the king's behalf. By dividing their rewards into small and dispersed pieces, William avoided Edward's mistake of allowing a single noble to gain too much concentrated power.
During his reign William ordered the collection of information about the people in Britain and how much property they owned. This information was recorded in the Domesday Book. William died in 1087 after being wounded while fighting in France.
5 See Harriet O'Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, who recounts Emma's remarkable circumstances of marriages all on 'stage centre' at the critical time and with the key figures leading up to the end of Nordic domination of England - save for the Normans, of course. The Reading Museum Service, op. cit., also provides basic biographies.
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