Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Tapestry of Bayeux

{This group of posts pertains to my Christmas vacation in which my family came to visit me. The posts are based on notes I took during the trip and then wrote up after returning. They are post-dated to reflect the proper sequence of events. This is Part 5.}

This was a new encounter for me. You'll notice that many of the things on this trip I had seen before, but this is on the list of "new" things. Our guide drove us to see it after Mont St. Michel. It's not something that requires a lot of time to visit, but definitely interesting. You could probably do the whole thing in under 30 minutes. Similarly not worth traveling a long way, but if you're in the area it's worth a stop.

So what is it? It's a UNESCO Memory of the World for starters. You've heard of UNESCO World Heritage Sites; the Memories of the World are similar, except they're documents/manuscripts instead of properties. France has 9 according to the website, out of about 280. The Tapestry is actually an embroidery, dyed wool on linen. It's 70 meters long (horizontally) but it's only about a foot, maybe a foot and a half wide (vertically). It's comprised of over 50 scenes which tell the story of the broken oath of Harold II and the rightful claiming of the throne by William the Conqueror with the Battle of Hastings. It was commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William's half-brother. He shows up in the tapestry a couple times, because after all, if you're going to thrown down that kind of money you should at least get to be in the darn thing. They're pretty sure the tapestry was made in England at about 1070 or so. On the one hand, that's pretty quickly after the events themselves took place, but on the other hand, it was commissioned by William's half-brother who almost certainly had a biased view of what happened.

Anyway, it's kind of a great story. I don't know about you, but my history classes didn't spend ages and ages on William the Conqueror. I'm sure it's a topic of great interest in a British History Course, but I'm pretty sure most Americans don't know the story of the Battle of Hastings.

King Edward the Confessor of England (of both Anglo and Norman descent fyi) was old and heirless. His closest blood relative was William Duke of Normandy, but you may recall that William was an illegitimate son of his father Robert the Magnificent. Edward's brother-in-law Harold Earl of Wessex also had his eye on the throne. Another point of contention between them: Harold was Anglo-Saxon, William was Norman. Edward sends Harold to Normandy to tell William that he will be his successor, or at least so the Normans say. When Harold gets to France he is captured by one of William's allies. Harold then ends up going on a campaign with William against the Duke of Brittany. Outside of Mont St Michel the army gets mired in quicksand and Harold saves two Norman soldiers. William knights Harold (at least that's what it looked like to me) and Harold swears a solemn oath on some sacred relics. This is one of the scenes that has a latin label so there are no doubts that Harold swore an oath to William. It doesn't say what was promised but it's implied that he swore loyalty to William. Well, old Edward died and Harold, now back in England, proclaimed himself King of England. At this point Haley's Comet appears. {Side note: Haley's Comet really did appear, albeit about 4 months after the coronation.} Comets were considered as being a really terrible horrible bad omen at the time, so you can imagine the doom people were expecting. Word gets back to William who gets a whole big fleet of boats and then he and his cavalry cross the Channel. He and Harold fight in the Battle of Hastings, and of course, Bishop Odo is on hand to rally the troops. The battle gets very bloody and Harold takes a flaming arrow through the eye and, well, that was that.

Moral of the story: Don't break your oaths or you will get a flaming arrow through the eye.

There's a surprising amount of gore in the tapestry. At one point there's a naked guy (who could really use a loincloth) and historians don't really know why he's there. During the battle you see a horse with an axe embedded in its head, decapitated bodies, and lots of blood. Afterward, the Normans stripped the corpses of their clothing.

It's amazing that it has survived this long. Part of that was due to the careful protection of the church. For the first several centuries of its existence it was kept in the cathedral and only brought up for viewing once a year. It began to suffer damage once it was confiscated from the church during the French Revolution. Politicians have no sense of preservation. It wasn't until 1945, following the liberation of France, that it was finally moved to its own special museum in Bayeux.

So if you're in the neighborhood go see it; it's really cool. If you want to play a fun game, try and count how many times Odo managed to get himself added into the story.

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