Skip to main content
Reading Time: 17 minutes
Battle of Hastings - From the Bayeux Tapestry
Battle of Hastings – From the Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the finest and most important works of art produced during the Middle Ages. In a series of vignettes, it tells the story of the decisive Battle of Hastings between the Norman invaders led by William the Conqueror and the Saxons. This battle changed the course of British history and of the world.

Here we present a discussion of the history of the Bayeux Tapestry, including theories about its origins and meaning. In another section, we examine in detail each of the panels and delve into the often hard to understand imagery and historical context of the story told in the tapestry.

This is a translation of a book entitled La Tapisserie de Bayeux by Albert Levé, originally published 1919 in French.

History of the Bayeux Tapestry

The BAYEUX Tapestry is the oldest great monument of the art of drawing, bequeathed to us by the Middle Ages. Tradition dates it by attributing it to Queen Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, who died in 1083. We will see that this attribution defies the attacks of criticism. By this antiquity, the Bayeux Tapestry constitutes a historical document of the utmost importance. In the Middle Ages, it was called the Telle (canvas) of the Conquest of England. Sometimes also Telle of Duke William,or Telle of St. John, from the time of its exhibition in the cathedral of Bayeux.

Let us now note that it is not a woven tapestry, of high or low lace; nor is it a needle tapestry on canvas. It is a canvas embroidered with wool, but the name of tapestry is so consecrated by usage, that one can not think of modifying it.

To facilitate the exposition of the different questions raised by the Bayeux Tapestry, we have divided our study into two parts.

In the first, after recalling the importance of historical hangings in the decoration of the eleventh century, we briefly tell the story of the one preserved by the bayeux library. Then we study the different paintings and subjects that it represents.

In the second part, addressing archaeological and historical problems, we will investigate what is the real subject of the drama depicted; then we will study the drawing and the mode of execution. We will insist on the details that can make it possible to discover its author and especially on the elements that, fixing the date of its creation, make it the most precious monument in the history of that time.


Historiated tapestries and wall hangings are ones decorated with designs illustrating scenes from the text.

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry - Kind Edward the Confessor consults with his ministers.
Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry – Kind Edward the Confessor consults with his ministers.


If today, in the decoration of buildings, friezes similar to that preserved in the Bayeux library are rarely used, it was different in the eleventh century. Many texts tell us of ornaments of this kind, decorating either churches or palaces; sometimes they are paintings or mosaics, sometimes hangings: many of the latter were simple fabrics, decorated with drawings obtained during weaving, and reproducing like the drawings of our modern damasks; but the most valuable depicted characters, religious scenes, or historical events. Their success was such that they were even used to make clothes.

The usage had come from the East.

Thus in Constantinople, at the vaults of the imperial palace of Chalce, we saw Belisarius presenting to Justinian and to Theodora, the kings he had taken prisoner during his glorious campaigns. In the hall of honor of another palace, the Cenourgion, Emperor Basil received the offerings of the conquered cities, which were presented to him by his generals; below were painted the personal exploits of the monarch, and the works he had had carried out for the happiness of his peoples. Elsewhere, the emperor on his throne was surrounded by his children, carrying books containing the divine precepts they had been taught.

The Complete Bayeux Tapestry

If, leaving the East, we head towards the West, we find, still existing today, the beautiful mosaics of Ravenna where we admire, next to many religious scenes, Justinian and Theodora in the middle of their courtyard. We insist on this example, because we find in it a contemporary and profane subject placed in a church. On the other hand, like our Bayeux hanging, it has the shape of a long frieze.

The texts still point out many similar decorations; thus, at the baptism of Clovis, to give this important ceremony all the brilliance that was appropriate, Saint Rémi made the streets of Reims stretch with painted canvases and tapestries.

We still know that in Ingelheim on the Rhine, Louis the Debonair had painted in the church the main scenes of the Old and New Testaments, and, in a room of the Palace, historical episodes according to the famous work of Paul Orose with Ninus, Cyrus, Phalaris, Romulus and Remus, Annibal, Constantine and Theodosius, as well as the victories of Charles Martel, by Pépin and Charlemagne.

Pope Leo III gave the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore a purple veil, where the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple were embroidered. At the Church of St. Lawrence, we saw the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord. At St. Peter’s Church, Our Lord giving the Prince of the Apostles the power to bind and untie, as well as the passion of St. Peter and St. Paul.

The use of historiated tapestries became widespread and the Council of Arras approved it, because they show the illiterate things they cannot learn in books 4. But not everyone shared this appreciation. Saint Bernard understood tapestries in his anathemas against images. On this point, however, his influence did not extend outside the Order of Cîteaux; yet the superiors had to renew the prescriptions of this illustrious leader on several occasions.

According to Doublet, one of its historians, the abbey of Saint-Denis kept in its treasury an embroidery of Queen Berthe, recalling, in various paintings, the titles of glory of her family. According to the false Turpin, the Palace of the Great Charlemagne would have been decorated with paintings representing his conquests; However, if this testimony does not constitute indisputable proof, it attests, at least, to the vogue of this decoration in the ninth century, when this chronicle was written.

The fact to remember is that the representation of contemporary events was usual in these distant centuries, and that it was done by mural painting, mosaic, as well as by the decoration of fabrics.

[p. 8]For those who are aware of the habits of the Xth and XIth century, this seems very natural; for, at that time, many noble ladies devoted their leisure time to this kind of work. One of them, Gonorre, wife of the Duke of Normandy, Richard acquired by her skill a real fame. She embroidered on fabrics of canvas and silk, scenes from the life of the Virgin and the Saints, for Our Lady of Rouen, and long after her death, Wace, collecting the very living tradition of her time, tells us:

“D’ovraige de feme saveit “Kan ke feme saveir poeit.” See V. 5401.

Battle of Hastings - The Saxon Defenders Face a Norman Cavalry Charge
Battle of Hastings – The Saxon Defenders Face a Norman Cavalry Charge

Mentions of works of this kind are not uncommon, and if the subjects are most often religious, there are others, such as this representation of the exploits of the Duke of Northumberland, embroidered by his widow, to donate to the church of Ely. This habit of celebrating contemporary facts has continued to the present day, and sovereigns never fail to have some of the forms of the image consecrate the remarkable events of their reign.

In the early Middle Ages, we still see Emperor HenryI have his recent victory over the Magyars painted in one of the halls of his palace, and Abbot Suger adorning his beloved basilica of Saint-Denis, which he had just rebuilt, with stained glass windows representing the exploits of Christians in Palestine during the First Crusade. It was a series of ten paintings.

Therefore, it is not surprising that a tradition, the value of which we will have to appreciate, has attributed to the Queen. [p. 9]Mathilde, this model wife, the thought of celebrating, with an embroidery intended even for a church, this extraordinary conquest of her husband, which remains one of the most surprising facts in the history of the world.

We also have a contemporary testimony of a very particular interest, in a poem addressed to Adele, daughter of William the Conqueror, by Baudri, abbot of Bourgueil, then later bishop of Dol. The poet, describing the apartment of this princess, tells us that it was decorated with tapestries representing creation, earthly paradise, the flood, the main facts of holy history, the history of Rome, the siege of Troy, and finally the conquest of England!

There can therefore be no doubt about the vogue of these hangings, especially when they represented contemporary facts.

Certainly the tapestry that Baudri describes is not the one that is preserved in Bayeux; but there are certain similarities between them, which one cannot help but point out. Thus, in both of them, inscriptions specify the subject of the scenes depicted and give the explanation in accordance with a general habit.


Among the curiosities that bring so many tourists to Bayeux every year, it is necessary to put in the front row, even before its admirable cathedral, this ancient hanging, universally known as the TAPISSERIE OF QUEEN MATHILDE or more commonly the Bayeux Tapestry

This hanging is 70mlong, 34, and 0mwide, 50. To facilitate the exhibition, it was mounted on a stronger and wider canvas of about 0m,40. What is the time of this work? Mr. Fowke is willing to believe it to be very old. But it seems that it can be fixed to 1730: M. Anquetil found in the archives a mention noting that the end of the Tapestry then began to spoil and that, to avoid the loss of a piece so worthy of preservation, the chapter of the church resolved to have it copied, and to have deposited in its archives a copy of the inscriptions it contains.

The hanging is divided into three superimposed strips. In the middle are historical scenes, with brief Latin inscriptions, specifying the name and acts of the characters depicted. When the subject requires a wider development, the scene continues in the borders, usually occupied by animals, scenes of country life, illustrations of Aesop’s fables, which, here and there, seem chosen to complete the subject, or give it its true meaning. We have carefully noted them. We think that the other fables and the animals confronted are only there for the ornament of the border.

The Tapestry contains the representation of:

626 characters, 190 horses

and mules, 35 dogs, 506 various animals,

37 vessels,

33 buildings and buildings,

37 trees or groups of trees.

Norman Knights - Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
Norman Knights – Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

When one is in the presence of the Bayeux Tapestry, one cannot help but wonder by what happy combination of circumstances, by what miracle, such a fragile monument, could have been preserved for eight centuries, and the surprise increases when one takes into account the vicissitudes of the city and the church where it was preserved!

It is first of all the fire of Bayeux, in 1105, by Henry King of England, if we admit with us, that the Bayeux Tapestry already existed at that time. Another fire in 1139, and then the disaster was such that it required the reconstruction of the cathedral of 1077, and its replacement by the old parts of the wonderful building that we admire today.

Then came the Hundred Years’ War, during which Bayeux changed masters many times, and was sometimes French, sometimes English.

Whatever the importance of these various disasters, it is certain that other such fragile objects have survived them, as evidenced by the inventory that the cathedral chapter had made in 1476, and which mentions, in fact, that the treasure then kept the coats worn, on their wedding day, Duke William and Princess Matilda.

This inventory is the oldest document that tells us about the Bayeux Tapestry. The mention is very short: « Une tente très longue et étroite de telle à broderie de ymages et escripteaux faisans représentation du conquest d’Angleterre, laquelle est tendue environ la nef de l’église, le jour et par les octaves des Reliques. » [“A very long and narrow tent of such an embroidery of pictures and pheasant scriptures representing the conquest of England, which is stretched around the nave of the church, by day and by the octaves of the Relics. “]

This festival was then celebrated on July 1st. The exhibition began on the eve of St. John’s Day and lasted until July 14, the anniversary of the dedication or consecration, in 1077, of the cathedral built by Bishop Odon, brother of William Conqueror.

The Tapestry still had to have many vicissitudes. During the wars of religion which, in the sixteenth century which desolated Normandy, the Protestants plundered the treasure and seized another tapestry of the chapter, composed of “sheets of various colors, attached to one to the other, and flowing on a rope”, and which was intended for the ornament of the choir, on days of solemn feasts.

Until the eighteenth century, the Bayeux Tapestry seems to have no history; it was periodically exposed to conform to usage, but it was attached so little importance that it is hardly that Béziers, one of Bayeux’s historians at that time, briefly mentions its existence.

It was in 1724 that people began to take an interest in it as a serious document of our national history. A member of the Academy, Lancelot, having found the drawing of a small part of this Bayeux Tapestry, in the collection of one of his friends, Foucault, former governor of Normandy, reported it to his colleagues, but no mention of origin accompanied the drawing. We did not know what the model for it was: a sculpture? painting? tapestry? We were getting lost in conjecture; the requests for information addressed to Caen remained unanswered, so that Lancelot finally admitted, as the most likely hypothesis, that the drawing had been taken at Saint-Etienne de Caen, on the tomb of William the Conqueror, destroyed by the Protestants in 1562!

But the attention of the scholars was definitely awakened. Fr. Dom Bernard de Montfaucon, who had published Foucault’s drawing in the first volume of his Monuments de la Monarchie Françoise (1729), finally learned of the existence of the Tapestry in Bayeux. He had it drawn and devoted Volume II of his work (1730) entirely to the Bayeux Tapestry. Then Lancelot, after having checked the accuracy of the inscriptions, presented to the academy a new communication, which contains a very remarkable study of this document and indicates its full value.

From then on, the Bayeux Tapestry is known to the learned world.

A member of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Smart Le Thieullier made an interesting study, which Ducarel published. This scholar, in 1767, during the [p. 14]he collected the elements of his work on Anglo-Norman antiquities, saw our Tapestry on display in the cathedral, and found that it occupied the entire nave.

It was at this time that discussions began on its antiquity and historical value.

Lyttleton was the first to attribute it to this other Matilda, daughterof Henry I of England, wife of the German Emperor Henry V, and who died in 1167.

It seems that, having become famous, the conservation of the Bayeux Tapestry was forever assured; nevertheless, in 1792 it faced one of the most serious dangers to which it had ever been exposed. The volunteers of Bayeux went to defend the invaded France, and to protect their luggage piled up on a cart against the weather, they had covered their wagons with this precious Tapestry, found in the sacristy of the cathedral. The convoy was about to leave when a member of the district administration, Leforestier, had it removed and replaced with real tarpaulin cloths. Then, in order to save the Tapestry from any new danger, he kept it, for some time, in his home. Then several enlightened men, Moisson de Vaux, J.-B.-G. Delaunay, a former deputy to the Estates General, Bouisset, who became a professor of rhetoric at the Lycée de Caen, and Le Brisoys-Surmont, a lawyer, became the defenders of the Tapestry. It was their energetic intervention that prevented her from being lacerated to adorn the chariot of the feast of the goddess Reason. At that time, the majority of Bayeusains did not attach any importance to it and considered it only as an old piece of canvas to be used for any purpose!

In 1803, Napoleon, then first consul, was preparing an expedition against England from Boulogne; he then wanted to know this Tapestry. At his request, it was transported to Paris and exhibited at the Napoleon Museum. Dr. Bruce and Mr. Fowke recount that the First Consul came to see her and seemed particularly struck by the part that depicts Harold on his throne, frightened by the appearance of the comet, which, in popular opinion, foreshadowed his defeat. Now, at that time, another comet was showing up in the south of France, it could give the opportunity to conclude that the Boulogne expedition was threatened with a similar disaster. Without stopping at this story whose authenticity seems questionable, note that the exhibition of the Bayeux Tapestry in Paris consecrated the importance of this document. The director general of the museums, Denon, had an explanatory catalogue written under this title: “Historical note on the embroidered tapestry of Queen Mathilde, wife of William the Conqueror”.

For its part, the Vaudeville Theatre played an appropriate one-act, La Tapisserie de la reine Mathilde. The authors Barré, Radet and Desfontaines showed this princess dividing her time, in the absence of her husband, between prayer and this work, which celebrated her exploits.

At the end of the exhibition, many people asked that this treasure remain in Paris, but it was sent back to Bayeux with this letter, addressed to the sub-prefect of the arrondissement:


I return the Tapestry embroidered by Queen Mathilde, wife of William the Conqueror. The First Consul saw with interest this precious monument of our history; he applauded the care that the inhabitants of the city of Bayeux have given to its conservation. He instructed me to express his satisfaction to them, and to entrust them with the deposit again. Invite them, therefore, citizens, to take new care of the conservation of this fragile monument, which retraces one of the most memorable actions of the French nation, and also consecrates the memory of the pride and courage of our ancestors. I have the honour to greet you. Denon.

In a deliberation that followed the sending of this letter, the municipality declared that by “receiving this ancient monument of the hands of the hero who watched over the destiny of France, it acquired a new luster in his eyes; that it placed the highest value on the flattering testimony of the First Consul towards the inhabitants of Bayeux and on the honourable trust he placed in them.”

It was then ordered that the Bayeux Tapestry be exhibited in the library of the college, recommending to the director to ensure with the greatest care its conservation, under the direction of the mayor.

It was also decided, in memory of the old usage, to exhibit it every year, for a fortnight, in the parish church, at the time of the summer; but there is no document to support the assertion that the latter decision was enforced. It had to remain a dead letter.

The exhibition in Paris had again drawn attention to the Bayeux Tapestry, and the discussion of its age began again. In 1812, a professor at the University of Caen, abbé de la Rue, took up Lyttleton’s thesis, arguing that the Tapestry was not the work of Mathilde, wife of the Conqueror, but of the other Mathilde, his granddaughter. His memoir was translated into English and annotated by Francis Douce.

At that time, the Tapestry, transported from the college to the town hall, was placed on a cylinder; to show it to visitors, it was unrolled by wrapping it on another, which Hudson Gurney compares to those we sees at the edge of the wells, to go up and down the buckets.

Thus, in 1814, it was in a pitiful state, about to be destroyed by successive frictions. The extremities had particularly suffered: many figures had disappeared, and this barbaric regime was to continue until 1842!

In 1816, the cathedral chapter requested the restitution of the Tapestry, which had always been its undisputed property before the Revolution. The municipality refused to return it, alleging that it now belonged to the city, whose representatives had ensured its preservation.

At the same time, the Society of Antiquaries of London sent to Bayeux Charles Stothard, distinguished artist, with the mission of taking the drawing of the Tapestry; his work, which required two years of effort, was published in the Vetusta Monumenta. To his journey is attached an incident variously told. One or two small pieces of the Tapestry were removed, either, as Mr. Fowke says to satisfy a desire of the Society of Antiquaries of London, or by the whim of Mrs. Stothard.

The piece, which had arrived at the British Museum, was returned in 1873, by its administrators who wanted to thank the municipality for the kindness with which the artists responsible for photographing the Tapestry had been welcomed. The precious fragment could not be put back in its place, because a skillful restorer had repaired the damage. But it was exposed above the windows [p. 19]at the place where he had been abducted, to attest to the gratitude of the city of Bayeux.

Back in London, Stothard gave his feelings about this monument, which he had had plenty of time to study at leisure, in every detail; he was as convinced as possible of the antiquity of the Tapestry.

For his part, Amyot supported these conclusions and refuted the arguments by which Abbé de la Rue had tried to attribute it to the reign of Henry I of England.

When, in 1827, the Duchess of Angoulême passed through Bayeux, during her trip to Normandy, the Tapestry was temporarily exhibited at the Tribunal, where the Princess came to visit it.

However, there was constant discussion about its origin. In 1836 Bolton Gorney took up the thesis of Lyttleton and Abbé de la Rue. He invoked the word Franci found in the inscriptions, and concluded, wrongly, that the Tapestry could not be prior to 1206, the date of the reunion of Normandy with the crown of France; but it is certain that, from the eleventh century, this name applied to all the inhabitants of Gaul as opposed to the peoples of foreign origin. Moreover, in William’s army, there were many fighters not from Normandy; all the provinces of France, especially those of the North-West, had provided them. Among the most prominent knights was Eustache de Boulogne, to whom the standard sent by the Pope was entrusted and which is represented on the Tapestry (Pl. VIII,No. 64). The word Franci could, alone in its generality, understand all the fighters of this army.

From time to time the authorities and scholars were concerned with the Bayeux Tapestry. It follows from the register of deliberations that in 1825 the City Council of Bayeux sought a suitable place for its permanent exhibition. But assemblies are slow to make resolutions, even the most urgent!

The following year, Spencer Smith drew the attention of the French Society for the Conservation of Historic Monuments to the way in which the Queen Mathilde Tapestry was shown to visitors; and, in 1840, the Anglo-French Review proposed the appointment of a commission, composed of scholars from France and England, to seek ways of exposing it without deteriorating it.

Probably after having agreed with the author of the article, the mayor of Bayeux, of Fontenelle, appointed a commission of archaeologists, composed by half of English and French scholars to pronounce in last resort on the age of tapestry; but it does not seem that it ever met. In the same year, President Pezet, reporting to the City Council on the means of preserving it, announced that the masonry work had been completed, and that carpentry had begun.

The great Norman archaeologist, from Caumont, could not [p. 21]attend as an indifferent witness to the discussions relating to the date of the Tapestry, this jewel of his hometown. In 1841, in a communication to the Institut des Provinces, he refuted the observations of Bolton Corney and Abbé de la Rue, and proclaimed the antiquity of tapestry.

Finally, in 1842, the Tapestry was installed on the ground floor of the library, Place du Château, and entrusted to the care of the librarian of the city. It was then Édouard Lambert. Under his direction, an important restoration of the parts, which had suffered the most from time and friction on the exhibition cylinders, was undertaken. Account was taken of all the elements that could give information, the holes left by the needles, the parcels of wool that remained attached to them, as well as the drawings previously published in particular by Montfaucon and Stothard. Since then, the Tapestry has been exhibited to the public except for a few months from 1870-1871, when the Prussian army threatened Normandy. It was then thought necessary to take precautions to bring this treasure to safety. It was carefully enclosed in a cylindrical zinc box, and concealed in a hiding place. After this alert, the Tapestry took its place on the ground floor of the city library. Traces of moisture having manifested themselves in the building, it was decided to transfer it to the first floor of the former disused Episcopal Palace. It has been there since April 1,1913, and if this installation is not yet perfect, if half of the Tapestry receives only insufficient light, there is, however, an undeniable progress, and this new room is much superior to the old one. Never before has the Tapestry received so many visitors. If everyone knew the vicissitudes through which she passed, they would not fail to exclaim with Théophile Gautier:

“What a singular thing, when so many solid buildings have collapsed, that this frail strip of canvas has reached us intact through the centuries, the revolutions, the vicissitudes of all kinds. A piece of canvas has lived eight hundred years!”

One cannot help but recognize that for half a century, each year has seen an increase in the universal interest in tapestry and its success. It is not disputed that it is impossible to study her time without consulting her and asking her for valuable information. All the libraries, all the major collections of public education have insisted on having a reproduction. Thousands of copies are sold every year. At the same time, it continues to be the subject of serious studies. In France, Messrs. Jules Comte, Émile Travers, Marignan, Lanore, Lefebvre des Nouettes, Campion, Anquetil, have devoted very interesting work to him. Abroad, Mr. Fowke wrote the most comprehensive and ingenious notice and Mr. Steenstrup gave an excellent guide to it for visitors to the Frederiksborg Museum, where a photograph is on display. Freeman agreed with Augustin Thierry paid the most complete tribute to his historical value in his remarkable history of the conquest of England by the Normans. Finally, in 1914, Mr. Hilaire Belloc published in London a new study of tapestry.

But we could not agree on the issues it raises. Controversies continue about the date of the Tapestry and its author; most attribute it to Odon, without taking into account the tradition observed by Montfaucon in 1729, and who, despite the attacks, continues to attribute it to Queen Mathilde.

We always discuss its date; Émile Travers believes that Odon did not commission it until after the death of William the Conqueror, 1087. Mr. Marignan, who renewed the thesis, wants it to have been conceived and executed only in the second half of the twelfth century.

We will have to study these various issues in the next installment.