What do you know about the Bayeux Tapestry?

What do you know about the Bayeux Tapestry?

One of the Museum’s most admired speakers is Imogen Corrigan, a freelance lecturer in Anglo-Saxon and Medieval History and Art. As the many who attended her illustrated talk on The Bayeux Tapestry on May 11th can attest, it was a perfect blend of information and entertainment: fast-paced enlightenment on panel details, well peppered with laughter-inducing asides.

She began by unfolding a stack of linked paper panels and sending a willing assistant with one end of the chain to the far side of the room, informing us that this represented a mere 1/7th of the length of the Bayeux Tapestry’s 70 metres (230 feet) – and of its height of 50 centimetres (20 inches). Having effectively demonstrated the exceptional physical dimensions of our subject she drew our attention to the 10 colours, still vibrant 900 years after its creation, then explained that its nearly fifty scenes have been embroidered on linen with coloured woollen yarn (i.e. it is not technically a tapestry) and called attention to the design with its decorative borders top and bottom and running commentary in Latin identifying characters and events. With the audience now marvelling that such a creation had survived nearly intact for nine centuries, she led us into the narrative revealed in the scenes.

  


The story depicted of this turning point in British history begins in 1064 and raises questions as to who should rightfully succeed King Edward the Confessor. Most of the audience would be familiar with the basic story outline: The chief protagonists are Harold Godwinson, Edward’s brother-in-law who is in fact crowned King in January of 1066 on Edward’s death and leads the Anglo-Saxon English, and William, Duke of Normandy, thought to be Edward’s choice, who leads a mainly Norman army which defeats the English – wearily returned from defeating other contenders in the North — at the Battle of Hastings in October.

What proved so fascinating were the many curious visual details highlighted by our speaker –  documentation before our eyes of the arms, apparel and objects of the period, missing legs on horses, a star with streaming tail (Halley’s comet, a bad omen), a character’s change of costume in successive panels, dual or multiple depictions of the same character on the same panel, the hair styles which distinguish English from Norman warriors, the commentary in Latin — and the information such details convey to close observers — not least about which of the varied theories still contested are most likely to be correct.

For example, it is now accepted that the tapestry was made in England by Anglo-Saxon women (though the designer was a man) and not in Bayeux. The style of the embroidery and the Anglo-Saxon style of words and spelling in the Latin commentary are just two of the reasons supporting the now accepted view that this was an English creation. The ‘tapestry’ was probably commissioned by Odo, half-brother of William who fought with him at the Battle of Hastings, became Earl of Kent and also Bishop of Bayeux. In 1476 the hanging was rediscovered by scholars at a time when it was being displayed annually in Bayeux Cathedral; this provides sufficient explanation for the name. At the time the ‘tapestry’ was made the cathedral had not yet been built!


Our speaker having spent 20 years in the army (retiring with the rank of Major) was also able to comment on military tactics: how the Anglo-Saxons, fighting on foot behind a shield wall, were enticed to leave their advantageous high ground so the Norman cavalry could be victorious. Certainly it is clear that the battle became very bloody with much slaughtering of troops and corpses — dismembered — littering the ground. As proof to his knights that he has not, after all, been killed, William is shown lifting his helmet. In another panel, Harold is shown with an arrow in his eye and for good measure, dead on the ground as well.

Appetites whetted, no doubt there have been many Google searches since the talk for more information on the Bayeux Tapestry and on Imogen Corrigan’s other talk topics too.  And you might want to put the next talk in our diary now.  On Thursday 8th June,  Duncan Pennock, an authority on hop tokens who judges  our collection ‘the best’ will speak on  Hop Pickers, their Tokens and Rye Museum — 7:30 pm at the East Street Museum.

 

 

 

First posted in Featured, Invasion Coast on 13th May 2017
Last updated: 15th May 2017