One of the most important sources of the events of 1066 is actually a piece of artwork. A beautiful embroidered tapestry, 70 meters long and 50 cm tall, depicts over fifty scenes of history. It is most commonly known as the Bayeux Tapestry and begins with the alleged oath of Harold to William and ends with the death of Harold in battle. It was embroidered with wool by Anglo-Saxons artists, but was probably commissioned by the victorious Normans after the conquest. Naturally, this source (though it is probably the most contemporary we have) is very biased. It is meant to show the glory of the Normans and tell the story of how they took England. It contains extremely specific details (such as the depiction of Halley’s Comet) and some scenes are narrated through text. Yet, the work does not depict Harold in a bad light. He is depicted as a King and as brave with strong soldiers. It is interesting the small details that could show the artist’s influences.
But, how did such a fragile artwork survive over a thousand years of chaotic history? Honestly, if a few near misses had made a hit then this history and artifact would have been lost to the ages.
The tapestry was created not long after the conquest, but the first recorded mention of the tapestry is not for centuries later. In 1476 the Bayeux Cathedral inventory notes that they possessed they held a long and narrow tapestry which depicted embroidered figures and inscriptions from the conquest of England. The tapestry survived 16th century religious wars where the Cathedral it was housed was sacked by Huguenots. Many of the items in that original inventory were burned and destroyed. It is believed some of the clergy were able to secure this tapestry and move it to a safe place. The French Revolution (1790s) also brought dangers to this precious piece of history. The Revolutionary government demanded that anything that represented the history of the monarchy was to be destroyed. Many buildings and churches were damaged. The tapestry was confiscated by the military during the French Revolutionary Wars as a cover for their equipment wagons. Luckily, a lawyer by the name of Lambert Leonard-Leforestier was able to save it and preserve it before it was used to go to war.
The tapestry was used as propaganda for Napoleon as he believed it foretold the success of his own planned invasion into England (which never took off). During World War II the Nazis also found the tapestry to be a great propaganda tool and again thought it would help them have a successful invasion into Britain (but that failed as well). Since the Nazis transported the tapestry around the country, this embroidery was exposed to the dangers of war and probable destruction. It was not until after World War II that the piece could finally be safe and preserved correctly. In 1945 it was finally returned to Bayeux where it is now shown.
It amazes me how after all those adventures that fragile embroidery is still in good condition. What this piece of art has seen over the thousand years of existence would be a fascinating story to hear. By sheer luck this important piece of history has survived.
During my 1066 week I am going to follow the timeline set by this tapestry, though it is a very Norman point of view. If interested to hear more of Harold and his journeys view my blog post regarding the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Though not depicted on this tapestry, this battle was also a game changer which ended the age of Vikings and may have contributed to the end of Harold/Anglo-Saxon England!
1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford
1066: The Year of Conquest by David Howarth
1066: The Story of a Year by Denis Butler