Every kid learns about the Bayeux Tapestry at school – or at least they did when I was young! Seeing it for the first time though, I was totally unprepared for the sheer scale and beauty of this vast piece of embroidery. It is a huge and magnificent work of art and the word tapestry simply doesn’t do it justice…
History of the Bayeux Tapestry
In France it is known as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. It’s displayed at the Musée de la Tapisserie, an 18th century former seminary in the town of Bayeux in Normandy.
It tells the tale of one of the most famous events in British history – the conquest of England by William The Conqueror, Duke of Normandy in 1066. It shows the preparation for the Norman invasion, including barrels of wine being rolled onto boats, and the Battle of Hastings. The final piece of the tapestry is missing. There is no record of what was on it, some scholars say they believe the tapestry would have been around 1.5 m longer with the last panel.
Who created the Bayeux Tapestry?
It’s thought to have been embroidered by monks or nuns in the South of England. And it was probably commissioned by Bishop Odo, William’s half-brother. There are 9 panels of cloth and thread colours used in the emboidery.
There is a myth that the embroidery was a labour of love undertaken by Queen Mathilde, William’s wife. The popular story is that she and her ladies-in-waiting sat sewing for thousands of hours to produce a tapestry picture to honour her husband. But scholars agree that the style of the embroidery is English. The vegetable dye colours used are of English quality. And it is well-known that England at that time was famed for its embroidery skills, the work of well-born women who had chosen to live in a convent. They were acknowledged to be the best in the Europe.
The skill of the embroiderers and level of detail involved is stunning and if it was indeed commissioned for the inauguration of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077 as is thought, just 11 years after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the embroiderers must have put in an enormous amount of work to get the piece finished in time. The fact is that no one really knows for sure when it was started, finished or who carried out the work.
Seeing the Bayeux Tapestry
The UNESCO listed tapestry is encased in glass with dim lighting to protect it. But this doesn’t make it any less impressive to look at. At 70 metres (230 feet) long – the colours of the wool used in the embroidery are barely faded after some 900 years. The whole thing seems strangely fresh and dynamic. No photograph I’ve ever seen comes close to seeing the real thing in front of you. It is quite simply, stunning and I have spent hours looking at it both for real and online (see virtual visit below).
There are over 600 figures, 200 horses, fifty scenes with Latin captions and even Halley’s Comet is shown in one section, the first known depiction. The tapestry has amazing upper and lower borders in which are depicted wild animals, scenes of medieval life, hunting and agriculture, fables and mythical beasts. It is strangely three dimensional and has great impact when you see it for real instead of flat in a photo.
If you go to Normandy don’t miss out on this amazing exhibition, it really is one of those things that should be seen at least once in a lifetime. You can do a day trip from Paris to Bayeux by train which takes about two hours each way.
Virtual visit of the Bayeux Tapestry
Take an online visit of the Bayeux Tapestry and see it up close in a way only a few have done before you: bayeuxmuseum.com/en/the-bayeux-tapestry/discover-the-bayeux-tapestry/explore-online/
The high resolution images are astonishing and you can see every detail of the 1500 designs. Zoom in and see the stitches as if you were holding it in your hands. It’s easy to imagine someone sitting there all those hundreds of years ago. Hunched over a section of this incredible record of life in the 11th century, needle going in and out to create the images. You see things you never notice even if you see it in person. Contrast stitching around each character. The minute detail, archers with beards, what looks like men pulling armour from the fallen. Mont Saint-Michel even makes an appearance. And at 50 metres I was astounded to see the detail of a stirrup depicted on William’s horse. It really is a fascinating insight into the Bayeux Tapestry and a fabulous virtual visit to France…
There’s also a great animated video of the Bayeux Tapestry created by students at Goldsmith College, London: