21 June 2015

The Bayeux Tapestry

When I worked in London, overseas visitors would sometimes ask what I thought they should visit. One recommendation was the Crown Jewels: after all, just because something is obvious, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, queuing considerations apart. So I wanted to find out whether the same applies to the Bayeux Tapestry, more properly, given its location, La Tapisserie de Bayeux. Just in case someone reading this does not know, according to Wikipedia the Tapestry is:
… an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long and 50 centimetres (20 in) tall, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.
Or, more particularly, a fight between Norman and Danish (Anglo-Saxon) aristocrats as to who should take over the English throne.

There are about 50 scenes with brief Latin descriptions running along the the cloth, complemented by a decorative border which includes some interesting vignettes of peasant life:
Scenes 10a (upper) and 13
One famous scene shows Halley’s Comet, as seen in England in March 1066 – a bad omen for Harold:
Scene 32
Another scene of the disembarkation of the invading Norman forces at Pevensey in Kent seems particularly apt in Bayeux, a few kilometres from the D-Day beaches:
Scene 39
Once ashore, the top brass have a good breakfast:
Scene 43a (with detail)
before battle commences and the Poor Bloody Infantry have to confront Norman cavalry and archers, unsuccessfully as it turns out:
Scenes 52a (upper) and 54
 Harold dies:
Scene 57
and as a consequence Duke William becomes William the Conqueror.

Subsequently, William would expropriate English property holdings and enrich his Norman followers, as well as constructing Winchester Cathedral, the Tower of London (present day home of the Crown Jewels) and other notable buildings. The English language started to develop as a complex mix of Old English (Germanic) and Old French (Romance) with a marked social divide, as described in this interesting recent post on the OxfordWords blog by Adrastos Omissi.

The Tapestry is now carefully conserved (low light, humidity, temperature) by the Bayeux Museum, with an accompanying exhibition and, of course, a shop. To avoid queuing, go during the sacrosanct French lunch period (13:00 to 14:00). And to answer my question: although obvious, it is definitely worth seeing.


The origins of the Tapestry are argued about by scholars but it is thought likely to have been made in Canterbury on the other side of Le Manche in the 1070s. However, given the modern French obsession with BDs (BD, bande dessinée, comic book), its current location seems quite appropriate.

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