The Threads of Time in the Bayeux Tapestry
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Over the past nine centuries, 1066 has remained one of the most well-remembered dates in English history. Marking the Norman conquest of England with the Battle of Hastings, it is a year which points to a pivotal moment in English history. The victory of William, the Duke of Normandy and his invading Norman army against King Harold's Saxon forces at the Battle of Hastings fundamentally changed the course of English culture, language and history.
The Battle of Hastings saw its 950th anniversary on October 14th 2016. In commemorating this historical moment, it is an opportunity to look at the battle’s greatest commemoration: the Bayeux Tapestry. Chronicling the story of the battle in over 230 feet of embroidery, the Bayeux Tapestry is an iconic piece of art which has secured the battle’s place in cultural memory. Its scale and detail make it a treasured artefact, yet it is so much more than that. As Hilaire Belloc wrote in The Book of the Bayeux Tapestry “It is exceedingly difficult to convey in language this shock which the eye receives when centuries seem to drop out and the action of men to be brought up from the remote past to the present”. There is an immediacy to the tapestry that envelops its viewer in the historical reality of the story it conveys. There’s so much to discover in its threads. It captured a moment of shifting tides in a nation’s history, and in the midst of change, it cemented a tradition which would resonate with people for centuries after.
The creation of the tapestry is shrouded in mystery, but the best guess is that it was created circa 1070 at the behest of Bishop Odo, half-brother to William the Conqueror, to hang in his newly built cathedral at Bayeux. While it should be a straightforward account of triumphant Norman celebration, the tapestry itself is part of a tradition of Anglo-Saxon heroic hangings, and likely to have been created by Anglo-Saxon artists. This means that the victory of the Normans is transmitted by the last great work of Anglo-Saxon art.
The Anglo-Saxon embroidery tradition was famed across Europe. They created vast hangings which were described as being stitched in gold and silver threads and conveying stories of heroic deeds, from epic sagas to the miracles of Christ. Only a few fragments of these tapestries survive, as the precious materials used to make them meant that they were picked apart or burnt to retrieve the bullion. The Bayeux Tapestry’s status as the sole survivor of this tradition was made possible because of its lack of precious threads and decoration. It was probably considered a lowly work in comparison to the elaborate and embellished works which preceded it. C.R. Dodwell noted in his writings on Anglo-Saxon art: "it remains a supreme irony that this, the only surviving example of their long tradition of heroic hangings should show them at the absolute nadir of their fortune".
Despite this bittersweet note to the legacy of the tapestry, there is an element of Anglo-Saxon triumph to it. Although it may be the swan song of a great tradition, the tapestry has survived to inspire people across the nations. Its fame has led to deep association with commemorating battles and invasions in embroidery. The Bayeux Tapestry may convey a Norman triumph but it also preserved the Anglo-Saxon spirit.
In recent years, there have been several tapestries of breath-taking scale and complexity which have taken inspiration from the Bayeux Tapestry. Chronicling important battles and moments which changed the status quo of a country, these tapestries are fitting memorials to the enduring power the Battle of Hastings and the artistic tradition which documented it. Here is a selection of these modern Bayeux Tapestries:
The Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, saw Prince Charles Edwards triumph over the Hanoverian Army led by Sir John Cope. It was a battle which has been heavily mythologized in Scottish memory as a triumph in reclaiming a nation against usurpers. Inspired by a visit to the exhibition of the Bayeux Tapestry, the heritage trust for the battle determined to create their own embroidered account of a continued struggle for nationhood and rightful succession. They have linked their work to the Bayeux Tapestry not only in subject matter but in style, as the figures stitched in bright colours march across a largely sparse landscape. Unveiled in 2010, it took the work of 200 embroiderers over two years to create the 341 feet of narrative.
Bringing us back to Normandy, in a reversal of roles, the Overlord Embroidery conveys the history of the D-Day invasion of France during World War II, specifically that of Operation Overlord which was the codename for the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. It was commissioned in 1968 by Lord Dulverton to commemorate this pivotal moment in the Allied Force’s victory in World War II. The design is bold and unmistakably modern, but the theme and story harken back to its historical inspiration. Again, we see the narrative of a crucial point in time, an invasion which would impact the culture and history of a nation. The Overlord Embroidery, created by the Royal School of Needlework in London proudly follows in the Anglo-Saxon heritage of celebrating the stories of heroes, in this case the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers during the D-Day landings.
Following on sequentially from the narrative in the Bayeux Tapestry, the Ros Tapestry recounts the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169, specifically their arrival in the South East of Ireland and the establishment of the town of New Ross in Co. Wexford. This, like the Battle of Hastings, would profoundly impact Irish history and culture.
The Ros Tapestry, which began in 1998, took sixteen years and 150 volunteers to create. This immense embroidery, containing 15 panels, each measuring 6 x 4 feet, is mesmerizing in its detail and colour. Each panel richly describes a stage in the establishment of Norman power in Ireland. This continued cycle of Norman influence on the British Isles makes for a fitting and beautiful companion to the Bayeux Tapestry.