Road Trip Through History: The Bayeux “Tapestry”

I played hooky from the tour on the second day devoted to D-Day because I wanted to visit the Bayeux Tapestry,(1) (Which is actually a work of embroidery. Just saying.) The group was scheduled to see the tapestry several days later, but I was sure I would want to spend more time than was officially allotted. (I’m almost as fascinated by needlework as I am by history. ) I am so glad I did. If truth be told, I would have happily made a third visit. Because, wow!

I have read a great deal about the tapestry over the years. But nothing had prepared me for the real thing. Plates don’t do justice to the skill of the needleworkers or the power of the images. And quite frankly, I was never able to get a feel for the scale of the work (224 feet long and 20 inches high, more or less.) Made with only ten colors and four stitches,(2) the work is both historical document and artistic masterpiece. The central panel tells the story of how William came to conquer England, focusing on the actions of Harold Godwinson in Normandy that lead to the Battle of Hastings. The battle itself appears only in the final scenes, appropriate because in this version of the story it is the end of the narrative. An upper border includes Latin text describing the action below and Roman numerals that mark the transition to each scene. A border on the bottom edge is filled with the embroidered equivalent of marginalia: tales from Aesop’s fables and details of daily life in eleventh century Normandy.

The images manage to be both stylized and realistic. (In fact, the boat building scenes are a major source for students of medieval navies.) Realistic details bring events to life: it never occurred to me to wonder about how soldiers got from the boat to the shore until I saw images of Harold Godwinson wading barefoot through the surf in France. (If you look closely, you’ll see that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans have very different haircuts. The Anglo-Saxons wore their hair relatively long; the Normans wore their hair in a modified Mohawk.(

The museum itself is well designed. The tapestry is exhibited in a darkened, climate controlled room designed to protect it.(3) You walk its length with an audio tour that narrates the story as told in the tapestry, linked to the scene numbers that are part of the embroidery. Displays upstairs explain the construction of the tapestry and put it in context. An excellent film tells the story of William’s claim to the throne (4) and describes the conundrums surrounding its construction. (We don’t know who commissioned the work or where it was made.)

In truth, the tapestry, er embroidery, could have been hung along the wall of Bayeux Cathedral, as it was for two weeks each year for centuries, with no modern display aids and I would have been entranced.

1) And a local bookstore and a pair of shoes that had screamed my name every time we walked past them in the store window. The bookstore visit was a success—bookstores in foreign countries are eternally fascinating as far as I’m concerned. (What English language books do they carry? What do the covers of my friends’ books look like in a foreign edition? Plus the cookbooks, the children’s books, the history books, all the other books…) The shoes were a bust—they didn’t carry my size. Story of my shoe-shopping life.

2) Stem stitch, chain stitch, split stitch, and a variation of satin stitch known as “Bayeux stitch” LINK? (In case any fellow embroiderers are reading this, it is a variation of laidwork.)

3) Making me wonder why France would even consider lending the tapestry to England. The mere act of moving it would cause damage.

4) Told from the French perspective, Harold Godwinson is a usurper and an oathbreaker.

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