The historical background of Bayeux Tapestry

The Tapestry relates, through the minds and eyes of contemporaries, the events leading up to the Norman invasion of England and culminates in a major depiction of the Battle of Hastings. Events in both England and Normandy are recounted, save for an occasional apparent solecism, in chronological order. Most scenes are easily explicable in relation to the contemporary written sources, and those which are not are mere caesuras in a running story. The tapestry must be seen against the background of contemporary accounts of the events which took place in the years between 1064, when Harold set out for Normandy, and Saturday, 14th October 1066, when Harold was killed by a Norman arrow at Hastings.

Harold ride with hawk and hounds to Bosham


To understand the events portrayed in the Tapestry it is essential to try to disentangle the historical background and sort out the personalities, status and influence of the principal actors in the events of those years. First some simple genealogy. The king of England who appears in the first scene of the Tapestry is Edward, eldest son of Æthelred ‘the Unready’ and his formidable queen, Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy (she was later married by Knut of Denmark, her husband’s conqueror). Edward, later known as ‘the Confessor’, was born about 1005 and had come to the throne in 1042; he was childless.

Harold, who was to succeed him, was the son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex (died 1053), and Gytha. Gytha’s sister-in-law Estrith was the daughter of Sven Forkbeard, the father of Knut the Great. Harold’s sister was married to Edward the Confessor. At the time of the Conquest he was about forty-three years old and had at least two surviving brothers who appear in the Tapestry: Leofwine, the youngest, and Gyrth; both were killed at Hastings. Another brother, Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, went into exile in 1065 and was killed at Stamford Bridge. To modern eyes the most legitimate claimant to the English throne was the Ætheling (or prince) Edgar, the grandson of King Edmund Ironside and great-grandson of Æthelred, but he was too young in 1066 to take over the crown (his sister Margaret, incidentally, subsequently became Queen of Scotland and mother of Matilda, wife of Henry I).

William of Normandy listens to the messengers

William of Normandy (otherwise known as ‘the Conqueror’ or ‘the Bastard’) was the son and successor of Robert I, Duke of Normandy, who had died in 1035. His grandfather was the brother of Emma, Edward the Confessor’s mother. he was married to Matilda of Flanders and had two half-brothers, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and Robert, Count of Mortain, both of whom appear in the Tapestry.

These complicated genealogies hide an even more complex family nexus (particularly in England) which had created feuds and factions for a generation. Primogeniture was not necessarily the normal means of succession: the first-born had a strong claim, but if he was too weak or (as was the case with Edgar) too young, a strong man of royal stock could be elected to the throne. Moreover, a king could in some sense nominate his heir. The important process was to be crowned; once this sacred ceremony had taken place it was difficult to challenge the anointed of God.

AElfgyva and ‘a certain cleric’ – an unexplained episode

Of all these people Edward is perhaps the most difficult to understand. Frank Barlow has dealt with his reputation in a most succinct – if rather anti-Norman – fashion:

‘If Edward had been succeeded by a son, or if his actual successor, Harold, had won the battle of Hastings, it is doubtful whether later generations would have paid much attention to his reign or person, even more unlikely that he would have obtained any place at all in popular history and tradition. Edward, as we know him, is a creation of the Norman Conquest. In fact the Conquest led to the creation of two Edwards – the saint in the ecclesiastical legend and the friend of Normandy in the political legend. These two legends are not basically connected. By simplifying, we can say that the legend of Edward’s holiness and justice derived at least its popular support from native English feeling – it was the work of the conquered – whereas the political legend was purely a creation of the conquerors. But it is doubtful whether the ecclesiastical legend would have flourished without the support it was able to derive from the political legend. Normans could accept Edward’s sanctity more easily because they believed that he had been a friend to their cause, a kinsman and benefactor. (F. Barlow, Edward the Confessor, London, 1970)

Harold is received by King Edward

Edward was not a particularly saintly, strong or popular king, although in Barlow’s words he had ‘intelligence and resourcefulness, not good judgement and wisdom’. He did, however, manage to keep his kingdom unified despite the difficulties, both national and international, of the times. He had been exiled as a child to Normandy, but had returned in 1041 (when he was in his late thirties and Duke William was thirteen). He favoured Normans and was indeed a close friend of Robert, Abbot of Jumièges, who became bishop of London in 1044 and archbishop of Canterbury in 1051. Although there were many Normans at his court, he also patronized men of many other countries. Despite the events of 1051/52 – when Godwin (Harold’s father) and other members of his family were outlawed, when the Queen was repudiated and when William probably visited England – it cannot be shown either that Edward at any time wanted William to succeed him or that he did not, although he seems to have dangled the succession before him. But he also seems to have dangled it before the members of the old royal line, Edward Ætheling and Edgar, and possibly before Sven Estridsson of Denmark and harold of Wessex. William of Normandy and Harald-the –Hard-ruler of Norway had legitimate dynastic claims, and were old enough to pursue them. But Harold of Wessex, the king’s brother-in-law, also had claims and is said to have been named as Edward’s successor by the dying king. Edward was a powerful king and ruled over a rich, prosperous, peaceful and unfied realm. He passed his kingdom entire to Harold. Harold squandered the inheritance. The Norman sources unanimously say, however, that William was the true heir and that Harold was his dependant.

Armour, weapons and supplies are carried to the ships

Harold has had a mixed reception from the historians and chroniclers. He was seen by the Normans as a vicious oath-breaker, usurper and all-round villain. His claim to royal blood was thin. Even the English were not so sure that his claims were legitimate; after his death they turned their attention not to his kin but to members of the old English line – Edgar, Margaret of Scotland, Waltheof – as claimants. And yet in the Tapestry Harold is described as Rex, he is portrayed in heroic style and dies a hero’s death. in the Vita Ædwardi he is eulogized, ‘a true friend of his race and country, who guided his father’s powers even more actively, and walked in his ways, that is in patience and mercy with kindness to men of goodwill. But disturbers of the peace, thieves and robbers, this champion of the law threatened with the terrible face of a lion’, which is laying it on a bit! Harold was a tough and experienced soldier and with his brothers held enormous political and landed power in England, controlling vast tracts of the century from Northumbria to the south coast; Harold himself also became a brutal and very successful hammer of the Welsh and (as seen in the Tapestry) a companion in arms of William during the latter’s assault on Brittany. The title dux Anglorum given to Harold in the first scenes of the tapestry testifies to his supreme position in the country at the start of the adventures depicted there.

The ships are drawn up on the shore and troops set off for Hastings

The third character in the story can best be described as shrewd. William, duke of Normandy, was, like Harold, tough, brash and violent, but was endowed with a strength of purpose and political know-how which outstriped most of his contemporaries. His marriage, to Matilda of Flanders – for which he fought long and hard against the church – was not only a political and dynastic success: he also gained a strong-minded wife. William was the illegitimate son of Robert I, 6th Duke of Normandy, by Herleve, the daughter of a tanner (she later married Herluin of Conteville and produced two sons – William’s half-brothers Odo, later bishop of Bayeux, and Robert, Count of Mortain). William’s father died on a pilgrimage in Asia Minor in 1035 having named his son as heir. Strong hands protected the seven-year-old William – Archbishop Robert of Rouen, Alan of Brittany, Osbern the steward and Turold, the child’s tutor.

Bishop Odo, with a wand, rallies his men

The times were, however, tough; near-anarchy reigned and soon his protectors were all dead and replaced by others as a blood-bath developed in Normandy. By 1046 the young William was surrounded by trouble, revolt sprang up on every hand (but particularly in the west of the duchy) with the avowed object of overthrowing him. Supported by Henry of France, William defeated the rebellious Norman vicomtes at Val-ès-Dunes and the tide turned.

English soldiers, who fight on foot

But all was not over; for thirteen years William continued to fight on all sides, against his own magnates, against the French king and against many permutations of French and Norman leaders. William, through great qualities of leadership, by cunning and by increasing vigilance, managed to survive these years and emerge in 1060, with the deaths of Geoffrey of Anjou and Henry of France, as the formidable, strong and powerful ruler who appears in the early scenes of the Tapestry.

Harold’s death

These three men dominate the tapestry and rightly so, for it was their enterprise, their political decisions and their military actions which conditioned the story told there. The other personalities represented on the hanging – Harold’s brothers, William’s brothers, the counts, lords and other characters – may have been (or at least some of them may have been) important, but they are comparatively minor actors on the stage. Their rôle adds tension to the story, but is not paramount. The drama is played out between Harold and William.

The English in flight

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One Response to The historical background of Bayeux Tapestry

  1. This is a beautiful article. The Bayeax Tapestry is really fascinating and a great source for the history of the time. This is on my list to see when I go to France!

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