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Art / The Bayeux Tapestry

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Harold swears a fidelity oath to Duke William over holy relics.
The battle rages at Hastings.

The Bayeux Tapestry (French: La Tapisserie de Bayeux), also known as "Telle du Conquest" and "Embroidery of Queen Mathilde", is an embroidered strip of cloth that's nearly 70 meters (230 ft) long and 50 centimetres (20 in) tall and dates back to the second half of the 11th century, right at the turn between the Low and High Middle Ages at the end of The Viking Age. It can be seen here in its entirety.

It depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and concerns William, Duke of Normandy (known as "William the Conqueror" after the battle), and Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, later King of England as Harold II, and culminates in the conquest itself and the battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066. It was made within a few years after the battle and ended up named after Bayeux, the French city it was kept in the cathedral of for centuries, but it is now agreed to have been made in England.

The events the tapestry depicts are told solely from the Norman perspective (as it was commissioned by Norman bishop Odo of Bayeux), and numerous minor amendments have been made during restoration, possibly altering the original appearance/context of some scenes. The end section is missing; it could have contained the coronation of William the Conqueror on December 25th, 1066. The tapestry is still preserved in Bayeux, in a large museum that's entirely dedicated to it.

Effectively a vast medieval comic, the tapestry tells the events in a sprawling, colourful, Latin-annotated pictorial form, and remains one of the most important iconographic sources about 11th century Western Europe. Its unique nature and striking visuals have inspired many opening credits for depictions of The Middle Ages in popular culture, though almost always anachronistically so considering the scarcity of modern works that are actually set in the late 11th century.

The Bayeux Tapestry provides examples of:

  • Battle Epic: A 70-meter embroidery recounting the conquest of England by the Normans, culminating in the battle of Hastings. Its main characters are William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, and Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex who becomes the King of England.
  • Bowdlerise: The Museum of Reading in England has a replica of the tapestry on display. It was created using a drawing of the original as a guide. However, the drawing put shorts on a figure who was originally naked, so the replica does too.
  • Comet of Doom: After scenes that depict Harold Godwinson being elected and then holding court as king of England, there is a group of people who point excitedly at a flying something meant to represent a comet (as the caption explains: "these people are amazed at the star"). In the context of the tapestry, this is an ill omen of the war that is about to be triggered by Harald's coronation, and foreshadows that it will end badly for Harold. The comet is Halley's Comet, which was visible in April of 1066; Harold had been crowned in January.
  • Eye Scream: Harold is depicted as being killed by an arrow shot in the eye.
  • Huge Rider, Tiny Mount: Early works of art, like the tapestry, depict warriors riding into battle on horses so small that the riders' feet appear to barely skim the ground. Some historians theorize that European horses were historically much smaller than they are today and that they were selectively bred to be larger and stronger as knights wore heavier and heavier suits of armor.
  • Luckily, My Shield Will Protect Me: Both sides are depicted using almond-shaped shields made of wood and reinforced with leather. Those became commonly associated with Norman warriors.
  • Moe Greene Special: The tapestry depicts King Harold as going out like this, as a figure is shown apparently with an arrow in their eye, with the caption Harold rex interfectus est (King Harold is killed). Of course, since the tapestry is believed to be an abstract retelling, it's possible he didn't actually die this way, and needle marks suggest the arrow may have been something else before someone modified it.
  • Nonindicative Name: The piece is an embroidery and not a tapestry, but it's been called a "tapestry" for centuries nonetheless. An embroidery is decorating a piece of fabric after it has been woven. A tapestry, by contrast, is when decorative patterns are added while weaving the cloth by means of colored cloth.
  • Reports of My Death Were Greatly Exaggerated: At one point at the Battle of Hastings, William raises his helmet to reveal his face, to reassure his army that he is still alive before their decisive final charge.
  • Sequential Art: It's a several-meters-long piece of cloth that captures the key events of the Norman conquest of England in full-color pictorial form with the occasional Latin annotation. Each Plot Point can be considered a self-containing panel of sorts.
  • Storming the Castle: Several English motte-and-bailey castles are depicted being attacked by the Normans. While this undoubtedly happened on very few occasions in Real Life, it's used in the tapestry as a symbol of the Normans conquering more and more English territory.
  • This Means War!: William felt Harold's coronation as King of England was a betrayal and decided to invade England as a result.

Alternative Title(s): Embroidery Of Queen Mathilde