The Bayeux Tapestry – England’s first political cartoon strip

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is the only contemporary account in the English language of the Norman invasion of England in 1066. All other sources of the story are in Latin and tell the story from the Norman point of view. The Bayeux Tapestry has a foot in both camps.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says:

“Count William came from Normany into Pevensey on the eve of Michaelmas, and as soon as his men were able they constructed a fortification at the market of Hastings. This was then told to King Harold and he then collected a large army and met William at the old apple tree, and William came upon him unexpectedly before his army was drawn up. Nevertheless, the king fought very hard with him together with his men who would stand by him, and there were many slain on either side. King Harold was killed there, and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyrth his brother, and many good men, and the Frenchmen had possession of the field, as God granted to them for the people’s sins.”

Bayeux(1)Most scholars accept that the Bayeux Tapestry (more properly described as an extensive piece of embroidery) was made in the south of England before 1082. Its purpose is unknown, but it clearly had political significance. For nearly 400 years it vanished from view, but eventually turned up in the mid-15th century records of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Bayeux. It makes its first documented appearance there in 1476 when it is listed in an inventory as “a very long and narrow hanging on which are embroidered figures and inscriptions comprising a representation of the Conquest of England.” Apparently the Tapestry was being hung annually in the Cathedral for the week of the Feast of St. John the Baptist and was otherwise stored in a chest.

The Tapestry survived fires and wars for 500 years more before part of it was reproduced in 1724 in an accurate coloured drawing for the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. That drawing was in turn used as the basis for an engraving published in the first volume of Monuments de la monarchie française (1729). The Tapestry was taken to Paris in 1803 on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte for propaganda purposes related to a planned invasion of England. When that fell through, the Tapestry was returned to Bayeux, where it survived several calamities until being studied, cleaned and restored in 1982/3 and re-hung in a purpose-built museum.

French legend maintains that the Tapestry was commissioned 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 20th century concluded it was probably commissioned by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo who, after the Conquest, became Earl of Kent and, when William was absent in Normandy, de facto regent of England.

Bayeux(2)The logic of the Odo commission theory rests on: 1) three of the bishop’s followers mentioned in the Domesday Book appear in the tapestry; 2) it was found in Bayeux Cathedral, built by Odo; and 3) it may have been commissioned at the same time as the cathedral’s construction in the 1070s, possibly completed by 1077 in time for display on the cathedral’s dedication. Assuming Odo did commission the Tapestry, it was probably designed and made in England by Anglo-Saxon artists (Odo’s main power base being by then in Kent). The Latin text contains hints of Anglo-Saxon; other embroideries originate from England at this time; and the vegetable dyes used can be found in cloth traditionally woven there.

The Tapestry is incomplete and the final words Et fuga verterunt Angli (“and the English left fleeing”) are spurious, added shortly before 1814 at a time of anti-English sentiment. But in early 2013, 416 residents of Alderney in the Channel Islands finished a continuation including William’s coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 and the building of the Tower of London.

Interestingly, another candidate for the inspiration behind the Tapestry is often overlooked. Thomas of Bayeux (who died in 1100) was Archbishop of York from 1070 until his death. A native of Bayeux, he was royal chaplain to Duke William of Normandy, later William I of England. Before the Conquest he was also one of Bishop Odo’s officials and a canon and treasurer of Bayeux Cathedral. Thomas of Bayeux may have been responsible for the kind of Norman propaganda that strengthens the victor’s version of history. We shall never know.


One comment on “The Bayeux Tapestry – England’s first political cartoon strip

  1. Pilar says:

    Very interesting article. We went to Bayeux ten days ago on our way back from a visit to Omaha Beach. It was late when we arrived and unfortunately we could not see the tapestry. We plan to go to Bayeux again soon and hope you and family can join us! It is also a beautiful town.

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