Monday, June 9, 2014

The Bayeux Tapestry

After William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (which changed him from Duke of Normandy to King of England), a tapestry was made showing the key events that led up to that battle. It was first exhibited at Bayeux Cathedral in 1077 and has somehow survived to the current day.

Not a place to get tapas

The legend of its creation is that William's wife, Queen Matilda, began work on the tapestry the day after the battle was won. She and her ladies in waiting worked diligently to commemorate her husband's victory. No one is certain who really made the tapestry. Current theories give either the monasteries at Canterbury or Winchester or Wilton or Bayeux itself as the creator of the tapestry. Most agree it was made in anticipation of the reopening of the Bayeux Cathedral in the late 1070s, where it was kept for most of its history.

Queen Mathilda embroidering the Telle du Conquest by Alfred Gaillard

The tapestry is not actually a tapestry, that is, it is not a woven image. The pictures are sewn on using two different embroidery stitches and eight shades of wool. Eight or nine separate pieces of linen were embroidered and then sewn together. The tapestry is 50 centimeters high (about 19.5 inches) and an amazing 70 meters (about 230 feet) in length.

The story depicted on the tapestry starts with King Edward of England, who is growing old and frail. Without a son of his own, he plans that Duke William of Normandy will be king after him. He sends his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson to Normandy to pass on the good news. He has various misadventures but eventually arrives and passes on the information and swears on relics at Bayeux Cathedral that he will not claim to be King of England. When he gets back, he does declare himself king after Edward dies. William invades to claim his throne and the climax of the tapestry is the Battle of Hastings. The story definitely shows a Norman bias in its telling, justifying William's invasion. Here's some bits scanned out of a book on the tapestry.

Death of King Edward (click to enlarge)

Harold has himself made king (click to enlarge)

Part of the final battle (click to enlarge)

Readers will notice the subtle use of color variation in the horses' legs to suggest depth. Also, the story is told in the middle of the cloth with top and bottom borders showing fantastical animals or supplements to the main story (such as the above bottom border showing the wounded and the archers from the battle). The detail of the work is quite incredible and definitely justifies a visit to Bayeux.

The tapestry is in the former grand seminary of Bayeux. It was used to train priests for the local diocese from the late 1600s until 1969. Only the original chapel remains of the priory that existed before the seminary. The tapestry has been kept here since 1983. It's kept in a protective case that runs down and back a long room. Audio guides are provided that describe the work scene by scene. The audio presentations are very informative and keep visitors moving along without time to dawdle.

Entrance to the museum

Seminary courtyard

Fancy door into the museum

The museum has other exhibits related to the medieval era, including displays about the local nobility and towns and the Viking raiders.

J by the knight

A Viking sea boat

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