The Mystery in the Bayeux Tapestry

It’s Not Just about 1066 and the Battle of Hastings

The Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux, France manages to make the Battle of Hastings in 1066 an adventuresome mystery. Photo credit: V. Laino

The Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux, France manages to make the Battle of Hastings in 1066 an adventuresome mystery. Photo credit: V. Laino

It having been a very long time since I learned about William the Conqueror, the Battle of Hastings, and the importance of the year 1066 to British history, it is almost as an afterthought that I go and see the Bayeux Tapestry, a long piece of cloth resting quite comfortably in Bayeux, France. Having something to do with Queen Mathilde, wife of the conquering William, the ‘tapestry’ depicts the events leading up to the battle and the battle itself in embroidered cartoon-like images. Here and there, some words in Latin, or possibly the language of the time, or maybe both, add some explanatory context. I feel like I am on a fourth-grade field trip as I walk the length of the tapestry, all 270 feet of it.

When Normandy Took England

Was the Bayeux Tapestry made by Queen Mathilde, for Queen Mathilde, or by and for others? Photo credit: L. Tripoli

Was the Bayeux Tapestry made by Queen Mathilde, for Queen Mathilde, or by and for others? Photo credit: L. Tripoli

Now the tapestry, a popular tourist destination, is protected in a darkened room and behind glass. Visitors may have a hard time lingering as they try to decipher what each scene may exactly mean. More intriguingly, on the top and bottom borders, additional action is depicted by smaller cartoon figures that seem to have a bit of a devilish streak—or, more to the point, an inclination toward more prurient interests. Yes, it seems like there’s a bit of porn in what the French call La Tapisserie. Also, there are knights, oaths, a woman named Aelfgyva (quite a popular female name in the first millennium, apparently), a very ambitious bishop, a scene at Mont Saint-Michel, and even a dwarf. The story becomes more interesting.

View of Bayeux by Thomas Shotter Boys, 1832

View of Bayeux by Thomas Shotter Boys, 1832

Is History Always Told by the Victors?

Even more so because the tapestry, which is really an embroidery rather than a rug made to live on a wall, was made almost contemporaneously with the battle itself, but by whom, and why, and the story it really tells are not nearly so clear as the illustrations might make them seem. Yes, the Battle of 1066, and the victory by William of Normandy over Harold, King of England, is most definitely depicted, but from whose perspective and with which elements of the retelling emphasized, perhaps appropriately, perhaps not, is up for interpretation.

Which in and of itself is sort of funny because the thing, after all, is a cartoon, and was made at a time when a big chunk of the population could not read at all and so was often provided with illustrations to understand what on Earth had transpired. So it is funny that today, we cannot figure these things out.

Who commissioned it? Why? How did it survive the Middle Ages and the Nazis? Where was it made? Who was the dwarf? Who was Aelfgyva? Who were the randy figures on the sidelines?

Lawyer and writer Andrew Bridgeford helps the mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry unfold in his well-researched book, 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo: Macmillan

Lawyer and writer Andrew Bridgeford helps the mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry unfold in his well-researched book, 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo: Macmillan

Understanding the Clues in the Bayeux Tapestry

Lawyer and writer Andrew Bridgeford, in his well-researched book 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry, manages to make the story of this embroidery an engaging mystery while finding clues in the smallest of details, like the hairstyles of various characters depicted, the weapons used in the fight, the outfits worn by those depicted, and near-contemporaneous works.

Bring a copy with you if you happen to be heading to Bayeux. A visitor will gain an even greater appreciation of the complications of history and how important events are recorded.

—Lori Tripoli

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