Bayeux's Tapestry: Why it Matters
|In this scene from the tapestry, an oh-so-concerned Harold checks on King Edward's failing health.|
Bayeux's legendary tapestry, precious to historians, is really a 70-yard cartoon. It tells the story of William the Conqueror's rise from duke of Normandy to king of England, and shows his victory over Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Long and skinny, it was designed to hang in the nave of Bayeux's cathedral.
A visit to the tapestry consists of separate parts: First, you'll walk through a room full of mood-setting images into an adjacent room containing a reproduction of the tapestry, with extensive explanations. Then you'll continue to a third room showing Norman culture and the impact it ultimately had on England. Next, a 15-minute A/V show in the cinema (up one flight) gives a relaxing, though not essential, dramatization of the battle. Finally, you'll see the real McCoy: the tapestry itself — delightfully close-up — with the aid of an included audioguide.
Because of the Battle of Hastings was so pivotal, the most memorable date of the Middle Ages is 1066. Here's the background, filled with enough loyalty, betrayal and revenge to power a major miniseries:
England's king, Edward the Confessor, was about to die without an heir. The big question: Who would succeed him — Harold, an English nobleman and the king's brother-in-law, or William, duke of Normandy and the king's cousin? Edward chose William and sent Harold to Normandy to give William the news. On the journey, Harold was captured. To win his release, he promised he would be loyal to William and not contest the decision. To test his loyalty, William sent Harold to battle for him in Brittany. Harold was successful, and William knighted him. To further test his loyalty, William had Harold swear on the relics of the Bayeux cathedral that when Edward died, he would allow William to ascend the throne. Harold returned to England, Edward died...and Harold grabbed the throne.
William, known as William the Bastard, sailed with his army across the channel and invaded England to claim the throne he reasoned was rightfully his. Harold met him in southern England at the town of Hastings, where their forces fought a fierce 14-hour battle (graphically depicted in the tapestry, complete with rolling heads). Harold was killed when a sharp arrow put his eye out (ignoring every mother's warnings), and his Saxon forces were routed. William — now "the Conqueror" — marched to London, claimed his throne, and became king of England as well as duke of Normandy.
The advent of a Norman king of England muddied the political waters and set in motion 400 years of conflict between England and France — not to be resolved until the end of the Hundred Years' War (around 1450).
The Norman conquest of England brought England into the European mainstream (but still no euros). The Normans established a strong central English government. They brought with them the Romanesque style of architecture (seen in the Tower of London and Durham Cathedral) that the English call "Norman." Historians speculate that had William not succeeded, England would have remained on the fringe of Europe (like Scandinavia), and French culture (and language) would have prevailed in the New World. Hmmm.