My husband and I were on vacation in western Normandy for the last two weeks of June. For us, that meant visiting gardens, castles, and churches (including the magnificent Mont Saint-Michel); driving past vast fields of wheat under enormous skies (Normandy is so flat compared to Switzerland!), and strolling among half-timbered houses. We were also very moved by the D-Day landing beaches and museums describing the Battle of Normandy. The highlight for us both, though, was the Bayeux tapestry.
This 231-foot strip of linen—not a tapestry at all, in fact—is an extraordinary piece of embroidery on display in the city of Bayeux. In exquisitely illustrated panels, it tells how William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, conquered England in 1066 and became its king. No one knows for sure why the tapestry was made, who had it done, or who sewed it; we don’t even know whether its creators lived in England or France. We do know from the first written reference to the tapestry in the fifteenth century that it was shown once a year in Bayeux’s cathedral. There’s also some evidence that it was commissioned sometime in the eleventh century by Odo, the bishop of Bayeux and William the Conqueror’s half-brother.
I was aware that the tapestry was a visual record of the events of 1066, when William defeated Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, at the Battle of Hastings. Having seen it, I now know that it’s also a detailed work of art and history, full of information about the daily lives, customs, dress, and food of Normans and Anglo-Saxons in the eleventh century. Beyond that, I’ve realized that it’s a powerful piece of propaganda justifying William’s conquest of England.
A less subtle instrument of persuasion would have shown Duke William’s virtues as a warrior and a statesmen, demonstrating how suitable he was to take the place of his father’s first cousin, King Edward the Confessor, instead of Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson. But that is not the story that the tapestry tells. Instead, it concentrates on “proving” Harold’s unfitness to be England’s king.
When the tapestry’s story begins, Harold, Duke of Wessex, is the most powerful person in England after King Edward. According to the carefully numbered panels that tell the tale, Edward, who is childless, decides to make his cousin William of Normandy his heir. He sends Harold off with a suitable retinue to tell William the good news. Harold’s ships are blown off course and he is captured by the Count of Ponthieu, but William and his army get Harold out of the count’s clutches and invite him to join them in a little war against William’s enemy Conan II of Brittany.
Harold apparently can’t imagine a jollier entertainment, so he and his companions help William defeat Conan. The tapestry emphasizes Harold’s bravery in battle and even his heroism—he is shown rescuing two of William’s men from quicksand near Mont Saint-Michel. Back at William’s castle, Harold lets his host know that he’s now heir to the throne of England, and William accepts the job. He then knights his new friend Harold. (Since Harold is already an English duke, I suppose this is a little like a famous professor getting an honorary degree at a foreign university.)
It goes without saying that, have become one of William’s knights, Harold owes him fealty. But that isn’t good enough for William, who asks Harold to swear on not one but two containers of holy relics that he’ll support William’s right to the throne. And—this is the important part—before returning to England, Harold takes this oath of loyalty to William as England’s future king.
Soon afterward, Edward dies, and—horrors!—Harold goes back on his sacred oath and let’s himself be crowned king of England. When William hears of this, what can he do but go to war? He has a duty to Edward to keep his promise and take his rightful place on the throne. So he builds a fleet of ships, fills them with provisions, horses, and men; sails to England; sets up his fortifications in Hastings; and crushes Harold and the Anglo-Saxon army.
The tapestry conveniently fails to report that after Edward’s death, Harold—not William—was chosen to rule England by the king’s council. It also makes no mention of the fact that Harold lost the Battle of Hastings in part because he and his battered army had to race to the battlefield all the way from Yorkshire, where they had just put down a major Norwegian invasion.
Although William and Harold are shown fighting face to face at Hastings, that is not how Harold dies. Instead, he is killed when an arrow, falling from the sky, pierces his eye. Never mind that there are scores of archers on both sides of the battle: Harold’s manner of death shows that not William, but God, is responsible for eliminating the oath-breaker. And so, with Harold gone, William can take his God-given place on the English throne.
Now that’s what I call seriously effective political propaganda. And the beauty of it is that, even today, most of what historians know about what “truly” happened between Edward, Harold, and William is from—you guessed it—the Bayeux tapestry. Did Harold really swear that oath to William? We simply don’t know.
As a storyteller myself, I am convinced that every good hero needs a few flaws, and every powerful villain has to have some appealing traits. Whoever created the tapestry’s story knew that, or they wouldn’t have made Harold into a sympathetic figure who succumbed to hubris. The only thing I don’t understand is why this “newsreel” was shown in Bayeux, instead of being displayed all over England to the Anglo-Saxons, to convince them to accept a Norman as their king.
Or perhaps it was exhibited in England for generations, and we simply don’t have a record of it. Looking back almost a thousand years, we know that the Norman Conquest worked. Maybe the Bayeux tapestry had something to do with that.
All the photographs I’ve used here are the intellectual property of Bayeux Museum®. The tapestry is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage object. See: https://www.bayeuxmuseum.com/en/the-bayeux-tapestry/