It was on August 22, 1944, that the Nazi SS made their attempt to capture the Bayeux Tapestry. The Allied Forces were not too far from Paris; there was no time to lose if the tapestry was to be kept in Nazi hands. Their notorious leader, Heinrich Himmler, had ordered that it be removed to a safe place, probably Berlin. Himmler gave the order on August 18, but by the 22nd, it was too late. The Louvre, where the Gestapo had placed the Bayeux Tapestry on June 27, was already back in French hands. The Allies liberated Paris on August 25, and the tapestry was put on public display once more.
What is the Bayeux Tapestry?
What is this coveted tapestry? Actually, the Bayeux Tapestry is not really a tapestry at all. It is rather a work of embroidery measuring about 230 feet long, every inch of it covered with pictures of people, animals, buildings, ships, weapons, and farm implements. The tapestry even includes the earliest known depiction of Halley’s Comet. Many of these figures, however, are merely ornaments decorating the top and bottom edges of the tapestry. The main portion of the Bayeux Tapestry tells a story with pictures and captions stitched into the linen. In some scenes it is unclear what exactly is taking place, but the story is clearly one of the Norman Conquest of England.
The Story in the Bayeux Tapestry
First we are introduced to Edward the Confessor, king of England, and his brother-in-law Harold, earl of Essex. Harold departs for Normandy (the captions do not explain why) but accidentally lands at Ponthieu, the territory of a certain Count Guy, who welcomes his guest by taking him prisoner. Fortunately for Harold, William, duke of Normandy, orders his release and invites him to join in a war against Conan II, duke of Brittany. The campaign is successful, William is triumphant, and Harold is honored for his courageous assistance. After taking some sort of vow or oath, Harold returns home to England. Edward dies shortly thereafter, and Harold is crowned king in his place. At this juncture, Halley’s Comet appears in the sky, a bad omen in medieval times. When William learns that Harold is now king, he sets sail with his armies to conquer England. Upon landing, William fortifies himself at Hastings, where Harold presently arrives to meet him in battle. Harold is killed, however, and his men flee.
At this point part of the tapestry was either removed or never finished, although there was not much of the story left to tell. We know from history that William, thereafter known as “the Conqueror,” then marched to London and was crowned on Christmas Day, 1066, at Westminster Abbey. He rewarded his faithful barons with British lands and set up the feudal system.
The History of the Bayeux Tapestry
No one knows for sure when the Bayeux Tapestry was made or why. The earliest reference to this work of embroidery in historical records is in an inventory of the treasures of the cathedral in Bayeux, France, where it was hung up once a year during the Feast of St. John the Baptist. A Benedictine scholar named Bernard de Montfaucon rediscovered it around 1729, by which time it was hung up once a year simply to air out. He also discovered a tradition regarding the tapestry that gave Matilda, William the Conqueror’s wife, the credit for designing it. No evidence has been found to support this theory, however. Modern scholars generally believe that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by William’s half brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux. Odo is featured rather prominently both during the planning stages of the conquest and at the Battle of Hastings. Furthermore, some of the more obscure men shown on the tapestry were associated with him.
Who Made the Bayeux Tapestry?
Assuming Odo was responsible for commissioning the Bayeux Tapestry, several theories as to why he ordered its creation arise. Perhaps he simply wanted a historical record of the Norman Conquest and particularly his role in it. He may have wanted the tapestry to decorate Bayeux Cathedral, which he also commissioned, at its dedication. Some have considered the Bayeux Tapestry to be a form of propaganda establishing the Norman claim to the throne of England.
Another theory revolves around the mysterious oath Harold takes after the defeat of Conan II. Many Norman historians claimed that Harold traveled to Normandy as a royal messenger with orders to promise William the throne after Edward the Confessor’s death. The oath, then, made on the sacred relics of Bayeux, was intended to confirm that William would succeed Edward with no contest from Harold. The story is therefore a moral one, a warning from the bishop to beware of breaking oaths made on the relics of Bayeux.
Yet another theory claims that the tapestry was actually an English work and is riddled with secret messages designed to undermine the Normans. Although there is little evidence to support this hypothesis, it does draw attention to the fact that the style and spelling of the Latin captions show English influence.
The Interest in the Bayeux Tapestry
Opinions on the tapestry itself also run the gamut. Himmler sought to capture the Bayeux Tapestry because it was “important for our glorious and cultured Germanic history.” Before him, Napoleon symbolically displayed it in Paris in 1803 and 1804 when he was planning his own invasion of Britain. Earlier still, the tapestry was confiscated as public property during the Reign of Terror and used to cover military wagons, only surviving the experience because a lawyer rescued it and hid it in his house.
Various critics throughout history have admired its primitive style and interesting design. Charles Dickens was one of the few to remark, “It is certainly the work of amateurs; very feeble amateurs at the beginning and very heedless some of them too.”
Indisputably, however, the Bayeux Tapestry provides a fascinating and accurate look at life in medieval times. In its colorful stitches we find out how the people of the 11th century dressed, fought, hunted, farmed, and furnished their homes. It is also a prime example of medieval art. Whatever its original purpose may have been, therefore, the Bayeux Tapestry continues to be a valuable artifact to the modern scholar.
The Animated Bayeux Tapestry
Amazing college student project!
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Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry
Scene-by-scene look with descriptions from the Museum of Reading.
The Bayeux Tapestry: A Guide
Helpful background information and scrollable image with Latin translation.
Key Events of the Conquest
A timeline at BBC.
King Harold II
Background biography at BritRoyals.com
King William I The Conqueror
Background biography at BritRoyals.com.
The Invasion of England, 1066
An EyewitnesstoHistory.com account of the Battle of Hastings.
The Battle of Hastings Web Game
Interactive from the BBC where you enter the battle as either William or Harold.
Create Your Own Bayeux Tapestry
Interactive from the Reading Museum.
Historic Tale Construction Kit
Another interactive that lets you create your own tapestry.
Bayeux Tapestry Sequence
Match the pictures and captions, then put them in the correct order in this download at the Reading Museum.
How To Do Embroidery With Kids
Simple instructions at ThatArtistWoman.org to help youngsters create their own!
Step-by-step for beginners at MarthaStewart.com.
The Book of the Bayeux Tapestry by Hilaire Belloc
Although best known for his “cautionary tales,” the author does a wonderful job describing the tapestry frame-by-frame. Helpful introductory information and history also included in this public domain work.
“The Bayeux Tapestries”
A chapter from the public domain work titled The Development of Embroidery in America by Candace Wheeler discusses the tapestry from an embroiderer’s point of view.
Unit Studies & Lesson Plans
Medieval Tapestry Lesson Plan
At StoryBoardToys.com where students learn about tapestries and their purpose, and make their own tapestry-like creation.
Bayeux Tapestry and the Norman Conquest
Three-day unit for older students using the tapestry and other documents to learn about primary sources. Includes discussion questions, analysis, and written assignments.
Hands-On History: The Normans
18-page download from the BBC with three activities, and evaluation and review questions One of the activities sends students off on a scavenger hunt of sorts to find out what their piece of the tapestry means. Then the pieces can be put into the correct order. One student could also complete the activity by tackling one section each day and then ordering them.
Art & Artists: An Appreciation
Core Knowledge lesson plan examining elements of art and architecture. Lesson four covers the Bayeux Tapestry.
Halley’s Comet: A Unit Study
Fun rabbit trail for those interested.
Printables & Notebooking Pages
Bayeux Tapestry Notebooking Pages
Simple set of pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.