The Bayeux Tapestry

Created in the late 11th century, this extraordinary work of art depicts the events leading up to the Norman invasion of England, culminating in the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. Most historians believe it was commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, a city located four miles from France’s famous Normandy beaches.

The tapestry has been called “priceless” because it can never be replaced, even though it isn’t really a woven tapestry but rather an embroidery likely done by local female needleworkers. It is not only famous because of its age, but also its size and style of construction. Resembling a modern comic strip or movie story board, the cloth diorama is 20 inches high and 230 feet long. The Latin narrative (tituli) is stitched in but really unnecessary to understanding the unfolding tale, a powerful, bloody, sometimes ribald story created to deliver a history lesson to a largely illiterate public. Experts agree that at least two panels at the end are missing, with 58 scenes remaining to depict 626 humans, 190 horses and 35 dogs. Halley’s Comet, visible in England during the early months of 1066 and depicted in scenes 32 and 33, was considered at that time to be an unfavorable sign for King Harold. He died at the Battle of Hastings.

Over the ensuing centuries the tapestry rested in relative obscurity in the Bayeux Cathedral, emerging occasionally to be judged or to participate in historical events. In the eighteenth century, art critics deemed it crude. They disliked the red and yellow multi-colored horses. A century later, Charles Dickens weighed in with the following critique: “It is certainly the work of amateurs; very feeble amateurs at the beginning and very heedless some of them too.”

During the French Revolution the tapestry was confiscated as public property to be used as a cover for military wagons. It was rescued from a wagon by a local lawyer. In World War II, Heinrich Himmler placed it in the Louvre during the German occupation, saying the tapestry was “important for our glorious and cultured German history.” Only poor Gestapo planning prevented this national treasure from being shipped to Germany prior to the liberation of Paris.

The tapestry inhabits our modern history. It has appeared in several films, like Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Zeffirelli’s Hamlet. Tony Kushner found room for the tapestry in his play Angels in America. In January 2024 the Bayeux Museum purchased a Victorian replica of the tapestry at Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts’s estate auction. The price: a bit over $20,000 … for a replica.

The tapestry is now exhibited at the Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.