An Animation of the Bayeux Tapestry

In pre­vi­ous cen­turies, unless you were a mem­ber of the nobil­i­ty, a wealthy reli­gious order, or a mer­chant guild, your chances of spend­ing any sig­nif­i­cant amount of time with a Medieval tapes­try were slim. Though “much pro­duc­tion was rel­a­tive­ly coarse, intend­ed for dec­o­ra­tive pur­pos­es,” writes the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, the tapes­try still com­mand­ed high prices, just as it com­mand­ed respect for its own­er. And as oth­er dec­o­ra­tive arts of the time pre­served his­tor­i­cal memory—or cer­tain polit­i­cal ver­sions of it, at least—tapestry designs might embody “cel­e­bra­to­ry or pro­pa­gan­dis­tic themes” in their weft and warp.

“Enriched with silk and gilt metal­lic thread,” writes the Met, “such tapes­tries were a cen­tral com­po­nent of the osten­ta­tious mag­nif­i­cence used by pow­er­ful sec­u­lar and reli­gious rulers to broad­cast their wealth and might.” Such is one of the most famous of these works, the Bayeux Tapes­try, which com­mem­o­rates the 1066 vic­to­ry of William the Con­queror at the Bat­tle of Hast­ings. The famous wall hang­ing, housed at the Bayeux Muse­um in Nor­mandy, was “prob­a­bly com­mis­sioned in the 1070s” by Bish­op Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-broth­er, mak­ing it a very ear­ly exam­ple of the form. So the site of a Vic­to­ri­an-era repli­ca writes, and yet “noth­ing known is cer­tain about the tapestry’s ori­gins.” (The first writ­ten record of it dates from 1476.)

While the Bayeux Tapes­try may have been inac­ces­si­ble to most peo­ple for how­ev­er many cen­turies it has exist­ed, you can now stand before it in its home of Bayeux, or see the very con­vinc­ing repli­ca at Britain’s Read­ing Muse­um. (You’ll note in both cas­es that the Bayeux tapes­try is not, in fact, a tapes­try, woven on a loom, but a painstak­ing, hand-stitched embroi­dery.) Or, rather than trav­el­ing, you can watch the video above, an ani­mat­ed ren­di­tion of the tapestry’s sto­ry by film­mak­er David New­ton and sound design­er Marc Syl­van.

Dur­ing the years 1064 to the fate­ful 1066,  a fierce rival­ry took shape as the ail­ing King Edward the Con­fes­sor’s advi­sor Harold God­win­son and William the Con­queror vied for the crown. Once Edward died in 1066, Harold seized the throne, prompt­ing William to invade and defeat him at the Bat­tle of Hast­ings. The Tapes­try gives us a graph­ic his­to­ry of this bloody con­test, “a sto­ry,” writes the Bayeux Muse­um, “broad­ly in keep­ing with the accounts of authors of the 11th cen­tu­ry.” “The Tapes­try’s depic­tion of the Bat­tle of Hast­ings,” his­to­ri­an Robert Bartlett tells us, “is the fullest pic­to­r­i­al record of a medieval bat­tle in existence”—and the ani­ma­tion above makes it come alive with sound and move­ment.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

What’s It Like to Fight in 15th Cen­tu­ry Armor?: A Sur­pris­ing Demon­stra­tion

Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Illus­trat­ed in a Remark­able Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script (c. 1450)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Geoffrey Tobin says:

    About the time that the Bayeux tapes­try was being woven, King William spent time in hunt­ing and oth­er aris­to­crat­ic recre­ations at Barfleur, while his fleet wait­ed for favourable winds to Eng­land. Seek­ing a fit­ting memen­to, he sent a band of harpists to Brit­tany to request of the famed Red Lady that she com­pose a Lay to com­mem­o­rate the delight­ful sojourn. She oblig­ed with the Lay of the Beach, which became a hit in sev­er­al coun­tries. Unfor­tu­nate­ly the text is lost, but a Nor­we­gian trans­la­tion of it was made for King Hakon of Nor­way in the 1200s and a writ­ten descrip­tion of this occa­sion and of the back­ground to the orig­i­nal has sur­vived.

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