This week I am very excited to introduce a new series of blog posts written by the historian Dr Paul Brown, called 'Fibre Through the Ages'. This series will focus on the history of wool and silk, and the cultural and economic importance of these commodities. The series begins with the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry - hope you enjoy!
What is it?
Completed during the 1070s, the famous tapestry is actually misnamed: as it is not woven but stitched, it is an embroidery. In the late fifteenth century the work was thought to commemorate the Norman conquest of England and, while it certainly features a depiction of the famous battle at Hastings (14 October 1066), the embroidery’s aim was to educate its viewers about the dangers of perjury. According to the surviving, largely pro-Norman historical tradition, the Anglo-Saxon earl of Wessex Harold Godwinson swore an oath at Bayeux (Normandy, France) to support the accession of Duke William II of Normandy to the throne of England. The duke, better known as William ‘the Conqueror’, had been promised the succession by the childless King Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-66), whose mother Emma was William’s great aunt. Harold’s oath was both of secular and religious importance: not only did he become William’s vassal, but he swore his oath of fidelitas figuratively in the presence of God – that is, by placing his hands on reliquaries (vessels housing the bones of saints) during the public ceremony. Accordingly, when Harold violated this oath by having himself acclaimed king upon Edward’s death in January 1066, he was held to have violated both human and divine law. Transgressions of this nature were regarded to be serious indeed, and accordingly William’s subsequent invasion of England was supported by various European rulers and by Pope Alexander II. The embroidery was almost certainly commissioned by William’s half-brother Odo who, among other things, was bishop of Bayeux. As Bayeux’s refurbished cathedral was dedicated on 14 July 1077, it is likely that Odo intended the embroidery to be hung in the church’s central area (nave). This was certainly the practice until as late as 1773, the year in which the ‘tapestry’ was noted to have adorned the nave from St John’s Day (24 June) until the traditional date of the cathedral’s (re)dedication (14 July). So, while the embroidery certainly glorified the Norman conquest of England, its intention was to impart a religious message rather than a historical one. In Old Testament fashion, effectively the Normans were chosen by God to punish the perjurer Harold Godwinson, who paid for such sinful behaviour with his life (Scene 57).
Scene 23: ‘Where [Bayeux] Harold made an oath to Duke William’.
Who produced it?
There are various theories regarding the origin of the embroidery, but the most convincing one is that it was created in the county of Kent; more precisely at the abbey of St Augustine in Canterbury. Firstly, in addition to being the bishop of Bayeux, Odo was earl of Kent, the south-eastern region of England well known for the skill of its seamstresses. In addition, the Latin captions feature various Anglicized spellings, and there are also certain inaccuracies depicted throughout the work: e.g. Anglo-Saxon infantry wore chainmail leggings, not Norman cavalrymen as the artisans would have us believe. Lastly, two of the most significant sections of the embroidery (Scenes 30 & 57) that portray the coronation and death of Harold, label him as rex (‘king’). This is a particularly important anomaly, for as the famous catalogue (Domesday Book, 1086) of King William’s territories in the kingdom of England made clear: William, not Harold, was Edward the Confessor’s legitimate successor, a claim reinforced by contemporary historians who variously referred to Harold as a perjurer or tyrannus (most notably by the Conqueror’s classically educated chaplain, William of Poitiers).
Scene 54: Odo of Bayeux rallying fleeing cavalrymen at the Battle of Hastings.
How was the embroidery made?
The skilled embroiderers stitched the various scenes onto nine pieces of linen of varying degrees of length, and impressively the seams joining these sections together are quite literally seamless. Presumably to reinforce the 64m-long (211ft) embroidery, in 1724 it was affixed to an additional linen backing. Probably in the same century, numerals were added to delineate between the various scenes, a system still in use by historians. Given the remarkable vibrancy of the embroidery to this day, clearly only the best quality wool and dyes were used in its production. As will be related in a future blog post, England was well known for the production of premium quality wool. The dyes were probably made from vegetable extracts, and eight distinct colours have been identified. To use the words of eminent French scholar Lucien Musset, the colours used were ‘red, two shades of yellow, two of green, and three of blue (one of them almost black)’. As Musset further relates, two types of stitches have been detected: stem stitching for both the outlines and Latin captions, and the couched or laid stitch for everything else. There are also some sections featuring the chain stitch, but they are the product of modern restorative work. Although there is no evidence for the use of tracing on the original linen sections, it is feasible that the seamstresses used a smaller version as a guide, or perhaps a painting or sketch.
Scene 6: Harold Godwinson; note stem (outline) and couched stitches (interior).
- The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, ed. & trans. R.H.C. Davis & M. Chibnall, Oxford, 1998.
- R. Allen Brown, The Norman Conquest of England: Sources and Documents, Woodbridge, 1995.
- E. van Houts, The Normans in Europe, Manchester, 2000.
- L. Musset, The Bayeux Tapestry, trans. R. Rex, Woodbridge, 2005.
- M. Chibnall, The Normans, Oxford, 2006.
All images derive from Wikimedia Commons.
About the author
Dr Paul Brown specializes in ancient and medieval history, and is particularly interested in culture, language, and warfare. In addition to writing scholarly articles and chapters, his first book, Mercenaries to Conquerors: Norman Warfare in the Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Mediterranean, will be published in 2016 by Pen & Sword Books.