Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Bayeux Tapestry

Upon our arrival in Bayeux, the first thing my Dad and I did was a trip to the Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux to see the Bayeux Tapestry - yes it has its very own museum.

Approximately 70 meters long and half a meter wide, the Bayeux Tapestry chronicles the Norman conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066 as well as the events of the invasion itself. It consists of oversix hundred characters, two hundred horses, around fifty dogs, five hundred other animals, several dozen trees, about thirty buildings and forty ships. Although the tapestry is annotated in Latin, it is generally believed that it was intended as a narrative wall hanging which told a story to the many illiterate people of the time.

It is generally believed that Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William the Conqueror commissioned the tapestry, however, debate still reigns as to where it was constructed, and by whom.

The band of canvas on which the Tapestry hangs bears 58 numbers which identify the scenes in the story. They are presented chronologically and cover a period of three years, from 1064 to 1066, divided into three main stages not equally represented however:

1. Harold’s journey to Normandy in 1064-1066 (scenes 1 to 23)
2. The death of King Edward on 5 January 1066 and the preparations for the Norman invasion in the spring of 1066 (scenes 24 to 38)
3. And finally the landing in England on 28 September 1066 followed by the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066 (scenes 39 to 58).

The tapestry begins in 1064 when the question of who would succeed to the throne of England remained unanswered. The King, Edward the Confessor, was growing old, and had no children or heirs. After a long exile in Normandy, and having brought back to the English court the Norman language and habits, as well as Norman nobles, King Edward logically chose William as his successor. Edward sends Harold Godwinson, the most powerful earl in England, to inform William that he will succeed him as King of England upon his death. Harold no doubt thought it wise, from a political standpoint, to accept, and set off for Normandy.

After a couple mishaps along the way, Harold finally arrives in Normandy and gives the message to William that he is to succeed Edward upon his death. William gives Harold arms and armour and has him take an oath on saintly relics to honor Edward's wish and allow him to succeed Edward as King. Harold leaves for home and shortly after his arrival back in England Edward dies. Harold violates his oath to William and has himself crowned King. William was then forced to take up arms against Harold, as he thought the only punishment for this felony was death! William invades England, the great Battle of Hastings ensues, Harold is defeated and killed and William becomes William the Conqueror and is crowned King of England.

In addition to this historical account, the tapestry also provides details and aspects of everyday life in the 11th century. The Tapestry centres above all on the life of the Court. It shows most of the symbolic elements of power: ceremonial clothing, richly decorated thrones and dining etiquette. These make the principle protagonists stand out so that they are easy to recognise.

The military world also occupies an important place. It is meticulously depicted through personal arms (battle axes and maces, lances, swords, bows, shields, helmets, coats of mail, standards, etc.), horses’ equipment, ships with their weapons and navigating methods, and also battle strategies and tactics.

Lastly, in the background, we can also see the various aspects of daily life: farmers, carpenters or unskilled labourers at work with their tools. Cooks are also represented with their full equipment, preparing roasted or boiled dishes of pork, beef, mutton, poultry, fish, all of course washed down with wine.