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The Bayeux Tapestry (France)

La Tapisserie de Bayeux

Last modified: 2004-03-27 by ivan sache
Keywords: bayeux tapestry | tapisserie de bayeux | william the conqueror | harold | hastings | normandy |
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Presentation of the Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is a masterpiece of Romanic art, which was miraculously preserved in a very good state until today.

The city of Bayeux, in Normandy, the former capital city of the Gaul tribe of Bajocasses, was the cradle of the Norman dynasty. The famous Viking Rollo (a.k.a. Rolf, Roleuf, Areulf etc.), the founder of the dynasty, married Popa, the daughter of count Béranger, governor of the city of Bayeux. Their son, later duke Guillaume Longue-Epée (William Long-Sword) was born in Bayeux in 905. Bayeux remained for a long period a Scandinavian city, in which Old Norse was spoken, as opposed to other cities, like Rouen, where French rapidly replaced Old Norse.

King of England Edward the Confessor had no descendants. He seemed to have chosen as successor his cousin, William of Normandy. He sent Harold, who was the favorite of the Saxon nobility, to announce his choice to William. Harold had to recognize officially the rights of William on the throne of England. By the so-called "Bayeux Oath", he swore on the relics that "death only could prevail him to keep his promise". However, on 5 January 1066, he accepted the crown of England after Edward's death. On 27 September 1066, William and the Norman fleet left Dives-sur-Mer. Next day, they landed in Pevensey, in Sussex, and seized Hastings. Harold had recently defeated a Norwegian army in the north of England and came back to the south with the remains of the Saxon army, who entrenched themselves on a hill. On 14 October, William attacked the hill and won the battle in the evening. Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow and died. 

The battle of Hastings is described on the so-called "Queen Mathilda's Tapestry" or "Bayeux Tapestry". The origin of the Tapestry is not clear. It seems it was ordered from an English embroidery workshop by Odon of Canteville, William's uterine brother, count of Kent and bishop of Bayeux. The Tapestry showed Harold's betrayal and his divine punishment and was intended to decorate the Bishop's palace or the newly built cathedral of Bayeux (1077). The Tapestry was mentioned for the first time in an inventory of the Treasure of the cathedral, dated 1476. In the XVIIIth century, the Tapestry was erroneously called "Queen Mathilda's Tapestry", Mathilda being William the Conqueror's wife. The Tapestry is made of coloured wool embroidery applied to a linen band of 70 m x 0.5 m. The Tapestry is divided into 58 scenes. In the first part of the Tapestry, scenes are separated by stylized trees, whereas there is no separation in the second part. Long captions in Latin with Saxon orthography are placed above the scenes. The most famous scene is probably the appearance of Halley's comet, the omen of Harold's death.

The Tapestry is displayed in the museum Centre Guillaume le Conquérant in Bayeux. This building from the XVIIIth century housed the theological seminary of Bayeux until 1970. It is now entirely dedicated to the Tapestry. There are three main rooms in the museum:

  • Room William, where information is given on the Vikings;
  • Room Odon, where information is given on the conquest of England;
  • Room Harold, where the Tapestry is displayed under special windows (for preservation purpose).

In the past, the Tapestry was displayed in the cathedral of Bayeux, located in the old city close to the museum. Bayeux is one of the only cities of coastal Lower-Normandy which was neither damaged nor destroyed during the Second World War after the allied landing in June 1944, allowing the Tapestry to have been preserved until now.

Ivan Sache, 2 March 2002

Flags shown on the Tapestry

King Harold and William's flags are both depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. Although the tapestry was made more than twenty years after the battle in 1088-1092, these two flags, at least, could be expected to be well known and hence fairly accurately portrayed. The tapestry only uses eight colours (yellow, grey, red, two greens and three blues) so the colours of the flags may only be approximations.

Harold used a "dragon flag". These were common during the early medieval period and were basically a windsock, fashioned into the shape of a monstrous fish, dragon or similar animal, and often containing a device to whistle when the wind blew through them. Harold's flag is depicted as a red, winged dragon with a green and yellow tail.

William's flag is shown as a gonfanon - a many-tailed flag. The hoist is white and bordered in red, in the white is a red cross, off-centred towards the hoist, with a red spot in each of the angles formed by the arms of the cross. What appears to be a verticle strip of ermine (well, its white with black spots) separates the body of the flag from its tails, which are red, green and yellow.

Paul Adams, 23 March 1998

The Bayeux tapestry is illustrated in full color photographs in the National Geographic Magazine, August 1966 issue. Basically, the Normans used variations on the gonfalon, a relatively small, square or somewhat wider along the pole than in the hoist to fly, with three tails. William's forces are seen with these on their lances and they often bear a cross on them. William received such a flag supposedly from the Pope before the conquest There is one such gonfanon that seems to be identified with William personally in several panels of the tapestry; it bears a Jerusalem cross with the center cross in gold and the crosslets in what appears to be green or blue. It is bordered on three sides in gold and has three long tails of green (or blue), gold and green (or blue), all of which have gold tassels on the end points. Harold is identified, not surprisingly, by the Red Dragon standard (windsock). In one panel, the Normans also seem to have Raven, Terror of the Land, the traditional war emblem of the Vikings.

Dave Martucci, 23 March 1998

The golden yellow cross in the center of William I's banner is the basis for the cross added to both the "national" flag and civil ensign of Guernsey. This has been the basis for most of the versions and reproductions of this flag which was supposedly given to William by the Pope.

James Ferrigan,13 August 1998

[William's flag]by Edward Mooney

Neubecker [neu32] gives a different interpretation:

"In the XIth century the popes began to support their claim of being the head of Christianity, among other ways, by granting royal titles, giving out as fiefs the lands taken from the heathen, and presenting flags with the Christian cross. One such flag, for example was received in the year 1066 by William the Conquerer, for his conquest of the Anglo-Saxons, through which the foundation was laid for the current English state." (translated)

The image shows a square white flag with blue border and three tails, green, green, and yellow. Centered on the flag is what is a yellow cross potent, in its corners are four yellow balls. (Similar to a cross of Jerusalem, with the crosslets replaced by dots (Resolution?)). (1:3 including tails?)

This is not exactly like the description given above, but then, our image and description don't match either, nor do they seem to be exactly like the detail of the Tapistry itself.

Whether, besides the gonfalon mentioned above, Willian I also used a banner of his arms as a Royal Standard is unknown.

Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 24 April 2002