A timeless tale of William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion of England, in colored yarn.
Associated with such bellicose figures as William the Conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Heinrich Himmler, it is surprising that the delicate fabric of the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the story of William, Duke of Normandy, overcoming England’s king Harold Godwinson in the 1066 Battle of Hastings— as well as the events leading up to it—has survived for nearly 1,000 years, despite the constant threat of wars, fires, and destructive treasure seekers. Yet it has, and its longevity alone makes it unique in the annals of military reportage.
Likely made in England sometime around 1076 for the cathedral in the town of Bayeux on the coast of Normandy, the Bayeux Tapestry is not tapestry at all. Tapestries are threads woven together to create a thick, ornamental piece of fabric, but the Bayeux Tapestry’s wool yarn design sits on top of linen fabric, therefore it is better described as a monumental work of embroidery. This style of embroidery would have likely been used on wall hangings during the medieval period; the work lacks elaborate detail, suggesting that it would have been viewed from a distance. The entire piece measures nearly 230 feet long and 20 inches tall. However, the tattered character of the final scenes and the incomplete friezelike pictorial narrative suggest that sections are missing, and scholars deduce that the tapestry was originally nearly 33 feet longer.
The history of the Bayeux Tapestry is far more fragmented than its current condition.There is no definitive evidence indicating who commissioned the tapestry, though strong cases have been made for William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux; William’s wife, Mathilda; and Harold Godwinson’s sister, Edith of Wessex. It does not show up in any historical record until a 1476 inventory of the Bayeux Cathedral notes “a very long and narrow hanging of linen, on which are embroidered figures and inscriptions comprising a representation of the conquest of England.” The tapestry survived the religious conflicts of the 16th century, although the Bayeux Cathedral was sacked by the Huguenots in 1562. The public was not widely aware of the tapestry, aside from those who attended the annual religious celebrations when it was displayed within the cathedral, until the early 18th century when it was studied, drawn, and when images of it were first published.
The tapestry was seriously threatened for the first time in 1792, during the French Revolution. Seeking to destroy objects representative of the monarchy, revolutionaries removed the Bayeux Tapestry from the cathedral, intending to use it to protect ammunition wagons. Townspeople who recognized its historical significance risked their lives to seize it back.
In 1794, revolutionaries nearly destroyed the tapestry a second time, but the local arts council protecting the tapestry foiled their plans to shred it as decoration for a carnival float.
Napoleon Bonaparte was the first monarch since the tapestry was created to appreciate its propaganda value. While planning his own invasion of England in 1803, much like the Norman invasion, Napoleon ordered the tapestry to be temporarily displayed at the Louvre (then called the Musée Napoléon), where he hoped to drum up support for his cross-Channel foray.
During World War II, the Nazis, like Napoleon, were attracted to the tapestry’s depiction of the successful invasion of England (and to the Norman connection to the Aryan race, Normans being Viking descendants). For safekeeping, the Nazis moved the tapestry to an abbey at Juaye-Mondaye and then to Chateau de Sourches, near Le Mans.
When the Allies landed at Normandy in 1944, an SS guard took the tapestry to the Louvre. Just as Hitler was ordering Paris bombed, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler tried to arrange to move the tapestry to Berlin but the Resistance had already captured the Louvre. The tapestry was exhibited one final time in Paris before it was returned to Bayeux in 1945.
Today the 933-year-old Bayeux Tapestry is in remarkable condition despite the abuse it has sustained, which includes countless removals of fragments of linen and thread for study and souvenirs. The embroidery is now displayed behind glass in a light- and temperature-controlled environment in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.
Originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.