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The Bayeux Tapestry - An Intriguing Piece Of Art With Many Secrets

Updated on November 7, 2010

The Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman conquest of England, is an enormous embroidery - 270 feet long, 19.5" high, and weighing in at 771 lbs. Not technically a tapestry since it's embroidered rather than woven (but known as one nonetheless), this well-preserved, famous medieval work of art can be found in its own museum in the town of Bayeux, France, and was added to UNESCO's “Memory of the World” register in 2007.

Bayeux Tapestry detail
Bayeux Tapestry detail
Bayeux Cathedral
Bayeux Cathedral

Who Made It? Where and When?

Its origins are uncertain. Most scholars say it was commissioned by William the Conqueror's flamboyant brother, Bishop Odo (his name appears in the tapestry), while others claim it was Edward the Confessor's wife Edith of Wessex.

Although some suggest it was made in France, most agree that it was made in England and intended for use as a wall decoration in the Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux. The first written mention of it is from the 15th-century, in an inventory of the cathedral, but it is believed to have been completed in the 1070s.

Bayeux tapestry stitch detail
Bayeux tapestry stitch detail

Materials Used

The tapestry is made of linen and wool, dyed in 10 colors. Four stitches were used: stem, chain, split with two threads, and couching work, or “Bayeux stitch”. It is still a popular craft - at Bayeux Embroidery Studio you can buy kits and reproduce various parts of the tapestry yourself. They also hold courses and workshops for those who really want to immerse themselves in this particular type of embroidery. But for those who are not into needle crafts, there are many reproductions available. You can find it as curtain fabric, tapestries, postcards, on t-shirts, mugs, etc.

Halley's Comet
Halley's Comet

What's The Story?

Illustrative wall hangings were made to tell a story in pictures (literacy was not widespread at the time) and this one (which also does include words in Latin) shows the background of the Norman conquest as well as the invasion itself. It is constructed of sections and covers events from 1064 to 1066. The first section illustrates the events leading up to the Norman invasion, the second shows the preparations and the Norman fleet and the third is all about the events of the Battle of Hastings.

It is a depiction of actual people (William the Conqueror, Odo, Harold Godwinson, and Edward the Confessor, as well as military, farmers, carpenters and cooks) and places (The castle of Winchester, Beaurain castle, the castle of Dinan,The palace of Westminster to name a few), and even includes Halley's comet.

What About The Secrets?

In addition not revealing where it was made, and by whom it was commissioned, the tapestry contains several additional mysteries. A few of them are:

  • The last few panels are missing, leaving us wondering what events were pictured there.
  • Also, it is unclear which side it is on. Some think that the tapestry is encoded with secret messages meant to undermine the Norman rulers
  • There is a mystery woman in one of the tableaus with an inscription that nobody has been able to decipher properly. It seems to suggest a scandal but nobody knows for sure.

Whatever the hidden meanings might be, it's amazing to look at this gigantic masterpiece and think that in England (probably), over 900 years ago, people were creating this incredible record of history, stitch by stitch.

Secrets of the Bayeux Tapestry

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