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Unravelling the mysteries of Bayeux

Steve Jack, 16 February, 2018
The Bayeux Tapestry is back in the news. As ever, though, it seems to raise more questions than it answers, argues Inntravel’s Steve Jack.

The world-famous Bayeux Tapestry needs little introduction. As every schoolchild knows, it tells the story of the future William I's conquest of England, culminating in the Battle of Hastings and the defeat of Harold in 1066. (It’s just a shame that most schoolchildren don’t get to see this 5-minute video – a wonderfully irreverent take on the story of William the Conqueror, recorded in 2016 for the battle’s 950th anniversary.)

Any visit to the beguiling town of Bayeux in Lower Normandy would therefore not be complete without spending time in the Tapestry Museum, where you can admire this ancient, 70-metre-long masterpiece in its permanent home. All this may change, though – for a while, at least. Because France has decided (and this has come from the Président de la République, no less) that their precious tapisserie  can leave French shores for the first time in 950 years. Beyond the fanfare and diplomatic bonhomie  associated with its proposed transfer to England, though, many questions and uncertainties remain. And this is nothing new: the tapestry has always, it seems, provided more questions than answers…


The straightforward answer is that the Bayeux Museum will be undergoing a major renovation during the early 2020s, so a new temporary home for the tapestry needs to be found. A longer answer – particularly with regard to its proposed transfer to England – involves diplomatic and cultural machinations, and a desire to make some kind of grand gesture towards positive, post-Brexit, Anglo-French relations. After all, it has never left France before, having been moved away from Bayeux only twice before. On both occasions, it was exhibited in Paris: once by Napoleon in 1804, while he was planning an invasion of England; and then again during World War II, when it was briefly displayed in the Louvre after being seized from the Nazis. President Macron's offer, moreover, comes after previous failed attempts to bring the tapestry to Britain. One request was refused ahead of the Queen's Coronation in 1953; then another in 1966, the 900th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. So there’s little doubt that the loan will be seen as deeply symbolic, and there are already suggestions that some kind of reciprocal arrangement might be appropriate to help cement the relationship. The Rosetta Stone, originally in French hands until Britain defeated the French in Egypt in 1801, is said to be a likely contender.


Not necessarily. The French offer is subject to tests confirming that it’s safe for the tapestry to be moved. This is by no means a ‘done deal’, given its age and fragility. After all, it is currently housed (behind glass) in a specially designed room under carefully controlled lighting, humidity and temperature, so the British authorities will have to demonstrate that they can properly care for it. Indeed, some scepticism remains in French quarters. Pierre Bouet, who cares for the tapestry at the Bayeux Museum thought Macron’s offer was ‘a hoax’, and commented: “If you were to ask my advice, despite the regard I have for my English colleagues who I have worked with for many years, I would say no [it is not possible] .”


Another deceptively simple question! Although the agreement has been made after months of talks between London and Paris, the tapestry’s proposed destination is far from clear. One leading contender appears to be the British Museum, whose director said it would be “honoured and delighted” to put it on display. However, a rival bid has recently been launched by the site of the Battle of Hastings itself, and other potential venues have also been mentioned, such as The Tower Of London (built by William The Conqueror); Canterbury Cathedral – close to where the tapestry was almost certainly created; or the National Archives at Kew, where the Domesday book manuscript is housed. A touring exhibition has also been suggested, but probably by someone who fails to understand the logistical and conservational nightmares that would ensue!


In a word, no. It is, in fact, an embroidery, hand-sewn in coloured wools on a linen backing or ‘ground fabric’. (A tapestry is woven on a loom, so the pattern or picture grows as the fabric is made.) Nor is it particularly tall (just 50cm in height), because it was designed to be ‘read’ as a story, in pictures progressing from left to right, not as something to study while standing still like a painting.


Again, there are plenty of competing theories. Although its first written record was in 1476, in Bayeux Cathedral’s inventory of Treasury, it was probably commissioned during the 1070s by Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, as a piece of propaganda. He had built the cathedral in 1077, making himself the first Bishop of Bayeux, and the tapestry was supposedly destined to adorn the nave. Odo was also the Earl of Kent in England, and many historians argue that the tapestry was embroidered here, despite a preposterous 18th-century legend that Queen Matilda (William’s wife) had made it. It is thought the work was accomplished by a Kent group of women embroiderers, supplemented by other individuals drafted in from around the country. Having said that, another theory is that it was made in Bayeux, or even at the monastery of St Florent (in the Loire) where William himself had connections and there was an established textile workshop. One thing’s for sure: the intention to rehouse the tapestry in England, albeit temporarily, will re-ignite this smouldering debate.


In addition to the mystery of who  commissioned it, the tapestry invites questions about its creative process. For example, who conceived the narrative sequence of scenes? Was it one person or a collaboration? What were their motives? How were these ideas conveyed to the embroiderers themselves? Was it simply via an oral account, or in sketches like a modern ‘story board’ for a film? Or was there a very detailed embroidery pattern? What we don’t know is how much was left to the imagination and skill of the embroiderers. For example, was it they who decided to make all the archers fire from the chest for the sake of artistic symmetry, when longbows were known to be fired from eye level? Did they work on a scene each? Who scripted the captions? Who oversaw or ‘produced’ the project? The debate, it seems, is endless; and points towards one overriding – and perhaps ultimate – question…


Despite the astonishing level of detail in its depiction of life in the Middle Ages (witness the detailed descriptions of clothes, ships, arms and even the eating habits of the period), the tapestry is also an early example of history being written – or in this case embroidered – by the victors. As the piece’s likely commissioner, William’s half-brother Odo plays something of a starring role; and the story that Harold was killed by an arrow in his eye, thought to have come from the tapestry, is also somewhat unlikely (earlier sources claim he was hacked to death by four Norman knights). So, rather being seen as just a simple story, this work of art can also be viewed as a magnificent piece of propaganda – adding yet another dimension to its enormous appeal.


We’re completely biased, of course, but I would say ‘as soon as possible’ and ‘in France’! This UNESCO-listed ‘Cloth of the Conquest’ (to give it its alternative name) has a superb home in Normandy, where it has been remarkably well-preserved. Apart from the tapestry itself, Bayeux’s cathedral – a fine example of Norman Gothic architecture – is well worth a visit; and the town itself, with its excellent shopping and delightful half-timbered buildings, has a busy but timeless allure. And who knows what will happen in 2022? There’s bound to be another twist in the tapestry’s tale, so take my advice and plan to see it sooner rather than later.


Further information

Bayeux & Beaches of Normandy
What better way to admire Bayeux’s famous tapestry than as part of our easy, 6-night cycling holiday around Lower Normandy? There’s plenty of World War II history, as well as beautiful countryside, and a chance to add on a ride to iconic Mont St-Michel.
More about our cycling holidays in France >

Bayeux Museum
La Musée de la Tapisserie can be found down a side street off Rue de Nesmond in Bayeux, and is open daily from 0900-1830 (1900 in May-Aug). Audioguides are available (and included) and really bring the tapestry to life. Admission is approx. €10. Allow a good hour for your visit.
More about visiting the museum >
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