Bayeux Tapestry

One of the most famous relics of the Middle Ages, the Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth that depicts scenes surrounding the Norman Conquest of England. The cloth is not actually tapestry which is a textile woven on a loom. The embroidered scenes are also accompanied by embroidered Latin text. The precise origins of the Bayeux Tapestry are debated by scholars, but the earliest written notice of the tapestry is from 1476 when it was included on an inventory list from Bayeux Cathedral. The tapestry can be viewed today in Bayeux, Normandy at the Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.

A great deal of mystery surrounds the Bayeux Tapestry. For instance, it has been hotly contested where the cloth was designed and embroidered as well as who possibly commissioned it. One of the most popular legends contends that the wife of William the Conqueror, Queen Matilda, was behind the commission for the tapestry. In fact, in France the tapestry has periodically been dubbed La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde.” Some historians have suggested that the tapestry was more likely commissioned by Bishop Odo who was the half brother of William. One reason supporting the Odo theory is because he built the Bayeux Cathedral where the tapestry was found and probably displayed for the dedication of the cathedral in 1077.

Regardless of who commissioned the work, it is still unclear where it was made and who designed and embroidered it. There are supporters who claim the honor for both England and France. Scholars who favor an English origin note the skill of Anglo-Saxon seamsters and the popularity of England as a place to buy embroideries. Scholars who favor a French origin challenge the notion of Anglo-Saxon embroidery style and suggest that the work resembles the style of other northern European styles.

Whatever its origin, the cloth does date from the early medieval period and is comprised of tabby-woven linen that is embroidered with wool yarn. The work was achieved by assembling various panels to create a timeline that leads up to the famous victory of William the Conqueror. The tapestry is 230 feet long and nearly two feet wide. The embroidery was done in shades of russet, blue, olive green, terra cotta, and gold. There are also touches of dark blue and black. William the Conqueror is depicted as the most important figure within the tapestry. The scenes tell William’s story, how he became the heir of Robert the Magnificent despite being his illegitimate son. It concludes when he becomes the King of England. Not all of the scenes are completely understood by scholars and there are many mysteries. Nevertheless, the Bayeux Tapestry remains a unique chronicle and artistic relic of a major period in European history.