Who made the Bayeux Tapestry?


Seal of William the Conqueror

The origins of the tapestry are not known. It is generally held to have been made within a decade or so of the events depicted, primarily because of the accuracy of certain details. The principal figures, such as the kings William and Edward, resemble other contemporary portraits, and if the tapestry had been made at a significantly later date the the arms and armour of the knights would have been anachronistically depicted as they were at the date of manufacture.

There are however several theories about who had it made and where. When the tapestry was 'rediscovered' in the eighteenth century, local tradition ascribed it to Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror. Throughout much of the twentieth century there was a general concensus that it was comissioned by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William's half brother, and that it was made in England, probably in Canterbury. More recently, however, there have been a number of different theories proposed.

Bishop Odo of Bayeux

The commission of the tapestry was first attributed to Bishop Odo, William's half-brother, by Honoré Delauney in 1824 [1]. Frank Rede Fowke [2] summarised the evidence in favour of Odo as:

If the tapestry was made for Odo it is likely to have been before 1082 when he was disgraced and imprisioned by William. The new cathedral in Bayeux was dedicated in 1077 and it has been argued that the tapestry was made for this event. An alternative theory is that it was commissioned around the time of Odo's trial or during his imprisonment in an attempt to regain William's favour [3].

Among the many scholars arguing that Odo commissioned the tapestry there remains debate about where the tapestry was made. For many years the conclusion of Sir Frank Stenton [4] that the tapestry was English in origin, indeed that it was probably made at St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, was widely regarded as fact. Arguments for English manufacture include:

Early scholars believed that the tapestry was made in France. Frank Rede Fowke, writing in 1913, considered it to be Norman in origin because:

More recently Wolfgang Grape has revived the argument for a Norman origin [5].

The apparent concensus that Odo comissioned the tapestry has recently come under attack. A reference dating to 1430 [6] to a tapestry depicting William's invasion of England has been recently discovered in the archives of the Court of Burgundy. Unless more than one tapestry depicting the Norman invasion existed this strongly suggests that the association of the tapestry with Bayeux, while early, does not in fact go back to the period of its manufacture, significantly weakening the case for Odo.

Also, an analysis of the lengths of the scenes of the tapestry suggest that, rather than being designed to fit the dimensions of the cathedral at Bayeux, the tapestry was in fact designed to fit a rectangular building [7].

Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror

The argument for attributing the tapestry to Matilda has recently been revived [8], having previously been widely rejected. Matilda met Harold during his visit to Normandy and they became friends: Snorri Sturluson in The Saga of Harald Hardrade records that 'They often talked together for amusement at the drinking-table; and the earl went generally to bed, but Harald and the earl's wife sat long in the evenings talking together'. This would explain the importance placed on the sequence of events around Harold's visit to Normandy. While Matilda would undoubtedly have ensured the key elements supporting the legitimacy of William's claim to the throne were included she had a motive to be even handed in the representation of Harold, such as including the scene where he rescues two Norman knights from drowning.

The passage of the tapestry from Matilda, to her daughter Adèle, whence it was seen by Baudri of Bourgueil, and thence to Duke Phillip the Good of Burgundy and thence to the cathedral at Bayeux would not appear inconcievable.

Edith of Wessex

It has also been argued that the tapestry may have been comissioned by Edith, sister of Harold and the widow of Edward the Confessor [9]. She continued to be influential after the conquest even though all her male relatives were dead, imprisoned or exiled. English noble women were skilled in embroidery and the giving of such a hanging would not be unique, the widow of the English Earl Brythnoth, who was killed at the Battle of Maldon in AD991, is known to have donated a hanging depicting her husband's achievements to Ely Cathedral. Also, like Matilda, Edith would have been motivated to record a balanced view of the events, although it is difficult to understand the lack of any reference to Harold's victory at Stamford Bridge on the tapestry in this case.

William the Conqueror

Recently, George Beech [10] has made a case that the tapestry was commissioned by William himself and that it was made in the workshops of the Norman monastery of St. Florent of Saumur between 1070 and 1083. Evidence includes:

Eustace, Count of Boulougne

Eustace, Count of Boulogne, a French rather than Norman nobleman, is proposed as the commissioner of the tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford [11]. Accepting the arguments that the tapestry was made in England, he suggests Eustace had it made as a gift to Odo of Bayeux after Eustace's failed revolt of 1067. The tapestry gives considerable prominence to Eustace, naming him in one scene and appearing to show him leading the charge of the Norman cavalry in another.

Notes

1. Honoré François Delauney, Origine de la Tapisserie de Bayeux prouvée par elle-même Caen: Mancel, 1824.
2. Frank Rede Fowke, The Bayeux Tapestry: A History and Description London, New York: G. Bell & sons, 1913.
3. Shirley Ann Brown, The Bayeux Tapestry: Why Eustace, Odo and William? in Anglo-Norman Studies XII: Proceedings of the Battle Conference by Marjorie Chibnall (ed) 1989.
4. Sir Frank Stenton (ed) et al, The Bayeux Tapestry. A comprehensive survey London: Phaidon, 1957 revised 1965.
5. Wolfgang Grape, The Bayeux Tapestry, Monument to a Norman Triumph Munich and New York: Prestel, 1994.
6. The entry appears in the inventory of the more than 50 tapestries then in the possession of Duke Phillip the Good of Burgundy. Under the heading tapiz de sal or "hall tapestries" it reads: Ung grant tapiz de haulte lice, sans or, de l 'istoire du duc Guillaume de Normandie, comment il conquist l 'Engleterre. " A large tapestry of the type woven on a vertical frame, without gold, of the history of Duke William of Normandy, telling of his conquest of England. See George Beech Could Duke Phillip the Good of Burgundy have owned the Bayeux tapestry in 1430? in Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. Tome 83 fasc. 2, 2005.
7. Richard Brilliant, The Bayeux Tapestry: a stripped narrative for their eyes and ears Word and Image 7, 1991.
8. Michael Leete, The Bayeux Tapestry 2005.
9. Carola Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry. The Life Story of a Masterpiece London: Chatto & Windus, 2006.
10. George Beech, Was the Bayeux Tapestry Made in France? The Case for St. Florent of Saumur. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.
11. Andrew Bridgeford, 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry London & New York: Fourth Estate, 2004.

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