Normandy Section

Bayeux Tapestry - Norman Conquest England

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Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde

The Bayeux Tapestry chronicles the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066.

The long linen cloth depicts about fifty scenes with captions and is a unique work of art.

Its origins, however, are still subject to controversy.

The earliest trace of the Bayeux Tapestry dates from 1476, when it was added to the inventory list of the Cathedral of Bayeux.

Some believe that William's wife, Queen Matilda, and her ladies in waiting embroidered it.

In France, the tapestry is indeed known as Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde.

Who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry?

However, recent finds suggest that Bishop Odo, William's half brother, commissioned it.

The tapestry was indeed 'discovered' in the cathedral of Bayeux, which Odo built and dedicated in 1077.

This theory is corroborated by the fact that three of Odo's followers, who are mentioned in the Domesday Book, are also depicted on the tapestry.

This would imply that the cloth was embroidered in the monastery Odo founded in Kent.

This would also explain various characteristics of the tapestry.

Firstly, the Latin captions contain some Anglo-Saxon constructions.

Secondly, Anglo-Saxon needlework was renowned and similar dyes and tapestries were produced in England at the time of the creation of the tapestry.

Finally, the tapestry depicts the conquest from a Norman point of view.

Yet, it praises the bravery of King Harold and his men, and therefore comes across as a strong political propaganda or statement.

Experts might not be 100% able to tell who commissioned the tapestry.

However, they have scientifically proven that the Bayeux Tapestry was embroidered in the 1070's, shortly after the Battle of Hasting.

The Bayeux Tapestry miraculously traversed the centuries

There is no recorded history of the tapestry prior to 1476.

We only know that until 1728 it was stored, cared for and hung in the Cathedral of Bayeux for a week during St-John the Baptist's celebrations.

It was nearly destroyed during the Wars of Religion, when the Protestants sacked the cathedral of Bayeux.

It was confiscated during the French Revolution and used to cover military equipment!

Fortunately, a lawyer rescued it and stored it away and returned it to the City of Bayeux, after the Revolution.

Fortunately, the Fine Arts Commission immediately listed it 'National Treasure'.

It also sent to Paris to be exhibited in the newly founded Musée Napoléon.

It was returned to Bayeux and exhibited in the local Public Library from 1842 until the Franco-Prussian of 1870, when it was once more placed in a safe storage.

The same precautions were taken during WWI and WWII.

The Bayeux Tapestry was then exhibited in the Louvre Museum, but was definitively returned to Bayeux in August 1945.

It was partially restored, however, it's a miracle that it should have survived the centuries in such good state.

It has been exhibited in Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux since 1983.

The museum was  founded in the former Grand Séminaire de Bayeux in the city centre.

A special place for a special tapestry

A room was especially built and fitted in order to exhibit the tapestry.

The long and slightly curved corridor indeed allows to display the 70m long by 0,5m wide tapestry in a single strip.

It is encased in a glass window and illuminated with special lightnings.

The rest of the corridor is plunged in a dim light in order to enhance the beauty and detail of the embroideries.

Characteristics of the embroidery

1- The Bayeux Tapestry consists of nine panels of various lengths, which were embroidered then sown together.

Additional embroidery concealed the seams.

2- Two decorative borders adorn the tapestry, one at the top, the other at base.

These are embroidered with various animals and religious, agricultural and hunting scenes, but also battle field scenes with severed limbs or heads!

3- The space delineated by these two borders is embroidered with various scenes.

A stylized tree delineated most scenes from the next one.

4- Two methods of stitching were used in order to produce different effects.

The stem stitch was used for the captions and outlines of the figures.

Laid work was used to fill in the characters.

5- The main woolen yarn colours are terracotta or russet, blue-green, dull gold, olive green, and blue with some dark blue, black and sage green, natural and earthy colours.

These create a simple, yet elegant unity.

Bayeux Tapestry, listed as Memory of the World by UNESCO

The Bayeux Tapestry chronicles the Conquest of England, from the moment William the Conqueror left Normandy.

One the most famous scenes is the Battle of Hasting, where King Harold was killed by an arrow.

The last section of the Bayeux Tapestry disappeared ages ago.

It was, however, replaced in the early 19th century, while using the same technique of dying and stitching.

UNESCO listed the unique Bayeux Tapestry under the label 'Memory of the World'.

N.B. It is not allowed to take photos of the tapestry as it would obviously damage it.

Department of Calvados
Coordinates Bayeux Tapestry Museum: Lat 49.274161 - Long 0.700398

Photos via Wikimedia Commons: All photos public domain - Norman fleet - Duke William - Raven banner - Harold dead - Tapestry fragment - laid work detail 

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