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William the Conqueror on Horseback, Bayeux Tapestry

William the Conqueror on Horseback, Bayeux Tapestry

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The Bayeux Tapestry

Seventy-one metres long, the famous Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry in fact, but rather a woollen embroidery on a linen backing. It tells the epic story of William the Conqueror, who became King of England in 1066 after the Battle of Hastings.

The Bayeux Tapestry was probably commissioned in the 11th century by Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, to embellish his newly-built cathedral in Bayeux. It was almost certainly created in south-east England upon instruction by Bishop Odo, as he was also made Earl of Kent following the Norman Conquest. The embroidery was displayed in Bayeux Cathedral on 14 July 1077, and has remained in Bayeux ever since.

The primary purpose of the Bayeux Tapestry was to justify the Norman Conquest of England before God. In 58 scenes, it tells the story of the events surrounding this key event in Anglo-French history. The story starts in 1064, when Edward the Confessor, King of England, instructs his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson to travel to Normandy to offer his cousin William the succession to the English throne. Although the end of the embroidery is missing, the story ends with the Anglo-Saxons fleeing at the end of the Battle of Hastings in October 1066.

Bayeux Cathedral © Ville de Bayeux

Alternate history: what if William the Conqueror had lost at Hastings?

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Marc Morris about what England might have been like had Harold Godwinson triumped over William of Normandy at the battle of Hastings…

So much hinged on the battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. Victory for William, duke of Normandy, ushered in the Norman Conquest and huge political, administrative, cultural, religious and social changes. It established a new royal dynasty and aristocracy. It signalled the end of the Viking Age. It restructured both government and church. It saw England bind itself more closely to Europe. It led to the Bayeux Tapestry and Domesday Book, and made 1066 the most famous date in English history.

All of that may never have happened, though, had Harold Godwinson, crowned in January 1066, bested William. Instead, Harold would have been the king who fought off two invasions in his first year. Harold had crushed the King of Norway, Harald Hardrada, at the battle of Stamford Bridge, in September 1066. “Had he gone on to defeat the Norman invasion, too, his reputation as a great warrior would have been truly legendary,” says Marc Morris, historian and author of The Norman Conquest and William I: England’s Conqueror. “He would be remembered as one of the greatest of English warrior kings, up there with Æthelstan and Henry V.”

There were three pivotal moments that could have swung things for Harold. The first was that while, in May, he had been ready for William, stationing his army and fleet along the south coast, the invasion was delayed until late September. Had William sailed when intended, Harold would have been waiting, according to Morris. “The ease with which William landed at Pevensey and established his base camp at Hastings would have been denied to him. With an English fleet to oppose them, his ships might not have even made it to shore.”

At the same time, Harold was contending with Harald Hardrada, along with his own brother Tostig, in the north. The king of Norway first defeated the English led by Earls Edwin and Morcar at the battle of Fulford on 20 September, before Harold himself met his forces at Stamford Bridge. This is the second moment, for if the northern earls had emerged victorious at Fulford, Harold would have halted his advance and headed back south to prepare for the Norman invasion. This would have given him more time and many more experienced fighters.

The final moment, of course, was Hastings itself, which could well have gone Harold’s way. His shield wall held the higher ground on Senlac Hill and withstood the Norman infantry, cavalry and archers for the whole day. William’s men even began to flee when they thought he had been killed, causing him to take off his helmet, show his face and rally his attack. “The fact that the battle went on from around 9am to sunset indicates that the two sides were quite evenly matched,” says Morris.

“The thing is, Harold didn’t really need a decisive victory, or necessarily even to kill William. Had darkness descended with no outright winner, William would have been in a difficult position with nowhere to retreat except his camp. All Harold had to do was not die, keep William penned in, and wait for him to get into logistical difficulties,” claims Morris. “Had he been more cautious, Harold might easily have lived out the day and continued to wear his crown for many years to come.”

In context: why did the battle of Hastings happen?

When Edward the Confessor died without a child in early 1066, the most powerful noble in the country, Harold Godwinson, was crowned, having said the dying king of England had granted him the throne on his deathbed. But William, duke of Normandy and distant relative of Edward’s, declared that

he had been made the heir in 1051, and started planning an invasion to assert his claim.

William landed his Norman force in September and made camp near Hastings, just as Harold was quashing another invasion by Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, and was forced to race south. On 14 October, William defeated Harold at the battle of Hastings and the Norman Conquest began.

It would bring about monumental changes: replacing the aristocracy with Normans and the language with French restructuring land ownership, the church and feudalism introducing Romanesque architecture, chivalry and castles and advancing England as an international power.

By ending two invasions from Norway and Normandy within a matter of weeks, Harold would have been “virtually unassailable”, says Morris. “God would have been demonstrably on his side.” He wouldn’t have had to secure his throne: he was already crowned, as Harold II, and had dealt with opposition in England the previous year. He would also have been in a strong position dynastically as he had two sons by his first marriage nearing adulthood, and his new queen was pregnant. There would be good reason to believe his line would carry on after him.

As for William, his death would have caused a “great deal of turbulence” regarding the duchy of Normandy, says Morris. “His eldest son, Robert, was no more than 15 – possibly old enough to take personal charge without a regency, but lacking experience to govern.”

William had struggled for decades to consolidate his rule and any future duke would have faced the same aggression, potentially damaging Normandy’s influence in the long term.

“Here’s the rub: I don’t think England would be greatly different today had Hastings gone the other way,” says Morris. “If you look at what the Conquest changed in the short to medium term – the introduction of castles, Romanesque architecture, chivalry and the abolition of slavery, which was still widely practised in England – all those changes would have happened eventually. The Conquest simply meant they happened very quickly and aggressively.”

That is not to say there wouldn’t have been any lasting impact. There would be no Bayeux Tapestry, no Domesday Book and no sudden shift in English history. Would that mean the names of the kings that came before 1066 would be better known today? Perhaps. “The major change was language,” concludes Morris. “The wholesale replacement of an English ruling elite with a new aristocracy drawn from northern France meant that for the next 200 years or so, French was the language of power.”

“French loanwords entered the English language, and it evolved in ways that would otherwise not have been the case. The variety, complexity and illogicality of modern English is a direct and lasting result of the Norman victory at Hastings.”

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The Bow

Many Norman archers are shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, and it's estimated that there were over 1,000 of them in William's army. They played an important part in the battle, especially after William ordered them to shoot high, firing their arrows onto the heads of the Saxons behind their shield-wall.

Archers needed to move quickly, so they were lightly clothed and sometimes barefoot and bare-legged. Some are shown carrying their arrows in 'quivers' attached to their belts, while others take theirs from bigger quivers placed on the ground.

Though none are shown in the Tapestry, the Norman army also included crossbowmen. Crossbows, a relatively new kind of weapon in 1066, shot much more slowly than ordinary bows, but their 'bolts' could penetrate right through shields.

Only one Anglo-Saxon archer is shown in the Tapestry, symbolising that Harold's army included very few bowmen. Archers were poor men, and it's possible they couldn't afford horses to help them keep up with Harold's rapid move to the battlefield.


Harold comes to Normandy / Wikimedia Commons

The earliest known written reference to the Tapestry is a 1476 inventory of Bayeux Cathedral, which refers to “a very long and narrow hanging on which are embroidered figures and inscriptions comprising a representation of the conquest of England”. [2]

French legend maintained the Tapestry was commissioned and created by Queen Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife. Indeed, in France it is occasionally known as “La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde” (Tapestry of Queen Matilda). However, scholarly analysis in the twentieth century has concluded that it probably was commissioned by William’s half brother, Bishop Odo. [3] This conclusion is based on three facts: 1) three of the bishop’s followers mentioned in the Domesday Book appear on the Tapestry 2) the Bayeux Cathedral, in which the Tapestry was discovered, was built by Odo and 3) it seems to have been commissioned at the same time as the cathedral’s construction in the 1070s, possibly completed by 1077 in time for display at the cathedral’s dedication.

Assuming Odo commissioned the Tapestry, it was probably designed and constructed in England by Anglo-Saxon artists given that Odo’s main power base was in Kent, the Latin text contains hints of Anglo Saxon. Other embroideries originate from England at this time and the vegetable dyes can be found in cloth traditionally woven there. [4] Assuming this was the case, the actual physical work of stitching was most likely undertaken by skilled seamstresses. Anglo-Saxon needlework, or Opus Anglicanum was famous across Europe.

The Bayeux Tapestry: A Lasting Question

Panel 70 of the Bayeux Tapestry can be seen as the epitome of what went on during the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (Wilson 194). Bloodshed emanates from every inch of the cloth. While it is clear that many men, as well as the British King Harold, are losing their lives, certain details still are not understood. The basic who’s who in the tapestry can be discerned by historical hints based on weaponry and garb or by textual clues around the images. Small events of the battle may still be unknown due to the lack of inscription or the loss of records.

(Plate 70, Wilson 194. Infantrymen and archers are dying all around.)

In the center of the panel is a man on horseback cutting down an enemy soldier. Carnage envelops him on both sides. The panel prior to the soldier shows him and his fellow cavalrymen charging the opposing infantry. To highlight the butchery, it also contains an inscription reading, “Here the English and the French fell at the same time in the battle,” (Hicks 17). The charge seems to be a synergistic attack between the cavalry and a group of archers.

In the bottom border, under the horseman, the archers have the angle of their bows held high, raining down arrows on their adversary in the next frame. It seems that they have hit their mark in frame 71. A man lies on the ground dying, while also having his leg hacked at by a horseman. Next to him is his weapon, a battle-axe. Also, the dead man seems to be wearing different, more vibrant colors than those around him. This is a clue about his status.

Earlier in the tapestry Harold, Earl of East Anglia, is shown meeting with King Edward of England. The man announcing Harold to the King is holding a battle-axe. This is the first time that an Englishman is seen sporting an axe in the tapestry (Rud 55-56). This sets a precedence in the coming panels of the piece in that a soldier seen wielding an axe is most likely an Englishman. This allows the viewer to be able to discern who is who in the mass of soldiers in panel 70. It also gives a great clue about the man dressed so fancily in the next panel.

It is known that in the final stages of the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror told his archers to aim high to rain down arrows on Harold (Rud 86). This is interesting when one considers panel 70. As said above, the archers in the bottom border were aiming high. This is not a coincidence when one takes into account the man dying in panel 71.

Both the angle of the archers bows in panel 70 and the standout in color of the man’s clothes point to one thing. The man dying in panel 71 is Harold, King of England. One final thing that supports this is the inscription above this man. It clearly says in Latin, “Here King Harold has been killed,” (Wilson 173). Together, these three clues be they text, coloring, or interpretation from earlier imagery, tell the viewer that panels 70 and 71 diagram the death of King Harold and many of his men. Not all things in the Bayeux Tapestry are this easily deciphered though.

Detailed plate (pictured below) shows a Norman horseman cutting down an Englishman with a round shield. The thing that makes it odd is that the man on horseback is sitting on the neck of his horse instead of in the saddle. Seemingly all other cavalrymen in the tapestry are presented fighting firmly in their saddles. This presentation is not a mistake. It is most likely that this frame refers to a specific event during the course of the battle (Wilson 194-195). Although this is reasonable to assume, the modern viewer cannot be sure whether this is the case, and if it is, which event is it.

(Detailed plate, Wilson 194. Notice the man is sitting on the neck of his horse)

The reason for this is that there is no known account of this specific event that survives (Wilson 195). Perhaps it is sensible to infer that the audience at the time of the tapestry knew what this small abnormality meant. However, today one cannot assume. Certain details either are not transcribed or are lost in translation. This is one of the constraints that one faces when trying to interpret classical and middle aged art.

The Bayeux Tapestry contains a world of information to the modern viewer. Panel 70 gives a look into the final stages of the Battle of Hastings. The archers narrowing in on King Harold and the carnage around them give the observer a look into the past. While some things can be interpreted, others cannot. The tapestry leaves modern man to wonder about things such as specific events that may have been known at the time. Through both the known and the unknown, the Bayeux Tapestry has lent an air of excitement to scores of generations as well as many to come.

Hicks, Carola. The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life story of a Masterpiece. London: Vintage books, 2006. Print

Rud, Mogens. The Bayeux Tapestry and the Battle of Hastings 1066. Copenhagen: Christian Ejlers, 2002. Print.

Wilson, David M. The Bayeux Tapestry. London: Thames and Husdon, 1985. Print.

Bayeux Tapestry Recreation Project

The Bayeux Tapestry is a recording of the Battle of Hastings, and was probably made in the 1000s and commissioned by Odo of Bayeux, half-brother to William the Conqueror. It’s over 70 meters long and was embroidered over a period of 10 years by multiple nuns. There is a replica in England, while the original is displayed in Normandy, France. The Tapestry depicts the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, who led his Norman tribes against the Saxons, who were led by Harold, Earl of Wessex. William’s victory against Harold in the Battle of Hastings was a key part in the Norman invasion of England.

King Edward had offered William the throne of Britain in 1051, and died in 1066 of illness, leaving the throne to Harold. The Normans claimed that William had prior claim to the throne, and so William prepared for invasion while Harold prepared to fight back, while also fighting off other petitioners to the throne. Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but it took William until 1070 to completely appease the region. He built many castles and other fortified buildings in order to maintain the peace. The Battle of Hastings was the last successful invasion of Britain. The Norman cavalry consisted of mercenaries and nobles, and bows and crossbows were used. The British army consisted of only infantry who used battleaxes and shieldwalls.

There is debate over whether the Tapestry is an accurate record of the Norman invasion and the Battle of Hastings. While some things may be accurate, others may have been altered or exaggerated. Because we don’t know for sure who created it, we can’t be sure any of the information is correct unless confirmed through other sources. The Tapestry has been repaired or altered in places over time as well, and because embroidery is not accurate to details, we can assume that the armies were not set up the way they are in the tapestry. Each scene in the tapestry is separate, although the scenes are connected, so the linear timeline is probably accurate enough granted that we take into consideration the odd layout of the figures within the tapestry itself. The Norman and British soldiers are also dressed the same way, and so the only differentiation is whether they are on horseback or not.

The Tapestry consists of English style embroidery and was likely made to fit a traditional European rectangular building. The art and language used is similar to other Anglo-Saxon art of the time and is told from the point of view of the Normans (depicting several Norman soldiers by name), and so was likely made in England after William took over.

I wasn’t able to completely finish the section, but I got just over half of it done. When I finish it I can upload a picture here.

Bayeux Tapestry. Romanesque Europe (English or Norman). c. 1066-1080 C.E. Wool embroidery on linen.

Wilson, David. The Bayeux Tapestry: The Complete Tapestry in Color. 1985.

Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry at Reading Museum http://www.bayeuxtapestry.org.uk/

Dodwell, C. R. “The Bayeux Tapestry and the French Secular Epic.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 108, no. 764, 1966, pp. 549–560. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/875133.


Royal history rewritten: Harold was ‘NOT shot in eye’ when William the Conqueror invaded | Royal | News

Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings is one of the most significant moments of English history. William’s victory in Sussex sparked the beginning of a new age, as the Normans set about creating a new dynasty. The Bayeux Tapestry, thought to have been commissioned shortly after the battle, has gone down in history as the most famous witness to Harold’s death.

But the depiction may not show the king being shot by an arrow at all.

Accounts from the years immediately after William’s invasion make no mention of an arrow when describing Harold’s death.

The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, an early Norman history of the battle, reported that William and three knights broke through the English defences, where they butchered Harold.

It read: “The first of the four, piercing the king’s shield and chest with his lance, drenched the ground with a gushing stream of blood.

Royal history rewritten: Harold was ‘NOT shot in eye’ when William the Conqueror invaded (Image: GETTY)

The Bayeux Tapestry (Image: GETTY)

“The second with his sword cut off his head below the protection of his helm. The third liquefied his entrails with his spear. And the fourth cut off his thigh and carried it some distance away.”

This, as Professor Martin Foys points out, is supported by numerous other accounts from the period ‒ but very few mention an arrow to the eye.

French bishop Baudri of Bourgueil wrote a long poem dedicated to Adela of Blois, one of William the Conqueror’s daughters, 40 years after the Normans first landed.

The bishop claims Harold was killed by a “lethal arrow”.

READ MORE: Royal row unveiled as alternative cause of death for Edward V exposed

Harold was defeated at the Battle of Hastings (Image: GETTY)

A few decades later, English historian William of Malmesbury used the phrase again ‒ but crucially elaborated that the arrow pierced Harold’s brain and then he was hacked at by a knight as he lay on the ground.

Two other 12th-century accounts helped to fix the story in the popular imagination for centuries to come.

English historian Henry of Huntingdon reported that a shower of Norman arrows fell around Harold and one “struck him in the eye”.

And the Norman chronicler Wace related that during the battle an arrow grievously wounds the king “above the right eye”.

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Hastings today (Image: GETTY)

Royal Family tree (Image: GETTY)

However, as Prof Foys notes in his piece for History Today, the Bayeux Tapestry remains the most convincing piece of evidence.

The final battle scene shows a knight with an arrow in his eye. The inscription reads: “Here King Harold is killed.”

Prof Foys – editor of ‘The Bayeux Tapestry: New Interpretations’ – does not believe the story is quite that simple.

He writes: “The Anglo-Saxon shield wall on the left is breached by a charging Norman horseman, cutting down a falling Englishman holding an axe – indisputably identified as Harold – at the centre of the action.

“However, immediately behind the breached wall, the standing figure with his fist raised has also been identified as Harold.

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“The case appears easy to make: the word ‘Harold’ breaks around the standing figure’s head and he appears to be pulling an arrow out of his head.

“This neatly aligns with the later narratives, where Harold is first struck by an arrow and then killed by Norman cavalry.

“But a closer look at the form and history of this scene muddies the water.”

He then suggests that, when the Bayeux Tapestry was altered in the 19th-century, the depiction of Harold’s death was changed to fit the literary narrative.

Royal line of succession (Image: GETTY)

If true, it throws the debate around Harold’s real cause of death wide open.

Prof Foys concluded: “In other Tapestry scenes with long inscriptions, names are often not close to the figures they represent.

“In the earlier scene of Harold’s oath to William, for instance, Harold’s name appears over William’s head.

“And in Harold’s death scene, the arrow of the figure in question is not original, but was added during 19th-century French repairs.

“It is possible that conservators altered the textile’s content to fit later medieval literary traditions.”

The Bayeux Tapestry

“I can’t even pronounce this chapter of history!” Rohan complained to Sir Dig a-Lot.

Sir Dig-a-Lot said, “Let me tell you about the Bayeux tapestry. Bayeux is a place in France and the tapestry is kept there.”

“All that is fine. What is a tapestry?” asked Rohan.

Sir Dig-a-Lot said, “It is a piece of a fabric which has designs formed by weaving coloured threads. The threads used are mostly made of silk and making a tapestry requires immense precision.

The Bayeux tapestry is nothing like a normal tapestry. The weaving is done using wool on bleached linen stuck together to form a canvas. The pictures on the tapestry tell the tale of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, in 1066. The tapestry was probably made in the 1070s.”

“What does the tapestry show?” asked Rohan.

Sir Dig-a-Lot continued, “The pictures first show King of England, Edward the Confessor with Earl Harold Godwinson. Harold is then shown setting sail to Normandy, a part of France and meeting Duke William. The Duke takes Harold with him on a battle against Brittany, another part of France.

Harold fights bravely and then returns to England. Edward is shown on his deathbed and Harold is made the king of England. After this, William is shown preparing for an invasion, as Harold is a threat to him. William’s fleet lands in England, and a fierce battle starts. Harold is killed and William is crowned king. This is where the tapestry ends.”

For more such interesting history articles and videos, go to History for Kids.

Watch the video: Einführung in die Geschichte der Angelsachsen. Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia (June 2022).


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