Depicting a very one-sided depiction of the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE, it shows the bloody transition of England from Anglo-Saxon rule to Norman invasion and conquest.

A very English embroidery

First things first. What has been known, for about nine or so centuries, as the "Bayeux Tapestry" is a misnomer. This elaborate cloth, some 70 meters / 230 feet long and measuring 50 centimeters / 20 inches in height, is actually not a tapestry. 

Art historians, and pedants, in recent years, have been shouting until their purple in the face that as the designs are embroidered and not weaved like a true tapestry, it is not, technically, a tapestry. 

In fact, some historians have gone further by calling it the "Bayeux Embroidery" - which, unfortunately, doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

Yet the method of its design is not the only misnomer in the name. Recent historians have shown that the embroidery was actually made in England, commissioned by Bishop Odo, the half-brother of William the Conqueror. 

The first reference to its being in Bayeux, a town in the Normandy region of France, comes from almost half a millennium after the events depicted, from an inventory of Bayeux Cathedral in 1476 CE. 

Whilst French legend says that it was commissioned by William the Conqueror's wife, Queen Mathilda, it was, in fact, commissioned by his half-brother and made not in Normandy but by Anglo-Saxon artists in England.

So, for the sake of clarity, we at The Viking Herald – who are obviously lovers of history and tradition – have stuck with calling this elaborate piece of Romanesque embroidery the name that it has been called more almost a millennium "The Bayeux Tapestry"...even though it is not a tapestry. And it wasn't made in Bayeux.

A royal conundrum - oath breakers, invasions, and dead kings

Technicalities aside, the Bayeux Tapestry is surely one of the most breathtaking and audacious pieces of propaganda ever produced. 

Despite its intrinsic delicacy and glorious beauty, make no mistake: this is a piece of political propaganda commissioned by the recent ruling class, who were, in fact, Norman invaders. 

The two main protagonists of this very one-sided view of history are William, Duke of Normandy, leading the invading Norman force (sometimes referred to as "William the Bastard" due to his illegitimate birth) who has come to claim (what he saw as rightly) the English crown promised to him by the former king, Edward the Confessor.

When Edward died, William claimed that Edward had promised him the crown. However, Harold Godwinson had seized the throne. Furthermore, naughty Harold had, in fact, been sent earlier by King Edward, to Normandy, and had even sworn an oath of loyalty to William. 

Harold's seizure of the crown was seen as betraying William and breaking an oath. Either of these two things, during the early medieval period, could have serious and deadly consequences, so William felt obliged to invade England and claim the throne that he felt was promised to him.

The tapestry begins with poor old King Edward the Confessor near death and ends with the climactic Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066 CE. The battle saw the end of Anglo-Saxon England as William's force won the battle, and the wider war, supplanting a new ruling elite, the Normans. 

The battle – which was, to coin a Duke of Wellington quip, "a sure run thing" - a turning point in English history: the Anglo-Saxons, who helped forge an English realm – were out, and the Normans – with their Norman language, politics, and castle building – were in. 

As a result, England would shift its gaze from across the North Sea, leaving its Viking and Anglo-Saxon past behind, and gaze instead towards the English Channel to France, a country it was to be intertwined with for the next few centuries of its history.

Key people and events depicted

There is a long list of an early medieval "Who's Who" depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. 

It ranges from William, Duke of Normandy – later to be crowned William I of England – the last crowned Anglo – Saxon King of England, William's brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux (who modern historians believe commissioned the propaganda artwork), Edward the Confessor and a huge swathe of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman nobility and ruling class.

The tapestry depicts the two years leading up to the Norman invasion of England, including Harold's time in Normandy at the behest of Edward the Confessor, Harold's oath to William, the coronation of Harold, the building of a naval fleet for the invasion in Normandy, the invasion itself and the climatic Battle of Hastings.

The Bayeux Tapestry is also famous for its depiction of Halley's Comet, depicted in Panel 32. Here, under the Latin words, STI MIRANT STELLA (They marveled at the star) is one of the best depictions of a comet in the early medieval world. 

Upon its appearance over the English sky in 1066 CE, it was thought to be a bad omen which was justified, in Anglo-Saxon eyes, by the invasion of England later that year.

The tapestry depicts the two years leading up to the Norman invasion of England. Photo: Lenush / Shutterstock

The climatic battle

It should be noted that by the time Hastings took place, in October 1066, Harold had just fended off another invasion – by Viking warrior and Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (another claimant for the English throne). 

Fending off the Viking invasion at Stamford Bridge, in the north of England, Godwinson and his men then learned William had invaded in the south. 

They had to rush down the length of England, briefly stopping in London to resupply. However, by the time they took the field at Hastings, they were exhausted.

If we are to believe the tapestry, the battle was won thanks to the premature death of Harold Godwinson, famously depicted falling in battle with an arrow to his eye. However, during an 18th-century CE engraving of the tapestry, it showed Harold II of England being felled by a lance. 

Furthermore, recent scientific testing has revealed needle holes showing, possibly, something was changed or removed. Historians are divided as to how Harold died, but his death was seen to change the course of the battle. So if he wasn't felled by an arrow, how did Harold die?

Before then, the Normans, who had the literal low ground, had been charging uphill to try and attack the Anglo-Saxons in a shield wall formation. All Harold had to do was stand his ground. 

However, it appears that, late in the day, Harold led a charge which saw the Anglo-Saxons lose their formation. Rumors had gone around that William had died but – again, according to legend – he was said to have taken off his helmet and shown his face to his men. 

With the Normans now revigorated after hours of fighting – and the Anglo-Saxons finally breaking formation – the Norman knights plowed into the disorganized Anglo-Saxons. 

Harold may have indeed received an arrow to the eye, or he could have been cut down and mowed during the Anglo-Saxon route. Nevertheless, the victorious Normans never let the truth get in the way of a good story, and Harold's death, as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, is one of the most famous depictions of death ever recorded in art.

Survived revolutions, wars, and Nazis

Since its commission in the late 1070s CE, the tapestry has survived countless wars, revolutions, and the elements. 

Normandy was at the forefront of the Hundred Years War, which saw England and France fight for territorial control over much of northern France. Centuries later, during the French Revolution, the tapestry was taken from the cathedral and used to cover military wagons. Miraculously, no damage was done.

When France was invaded during the Second World War, the tapestry was a key target for Heinrich Himmler to whisk away back to Berlin. The Nazis got it as far as the Louvre in Paris, but thankfully, the city was liberated by the Free French and American forces. 

This survival in Paris is even more remarkable when one remembers that Adolf Hitler had told his military governor of Paris, Dietrich von Choltitz, to (quite literally) burn and blow up Paris upon the Nazi retreat from the city. 

Luckily for the tapestry, Parisians, and Francophiles the world over, Von Choltitz (himself a bit of a Francophile) disobeyed his orders.

In 2018 French President Emmanuel Marcon announced that it would be loaned to the British Museum, but no timetable has been planned for its arrival across the English Channel. 

If and when it does, it would mark the first time in almost a millennium that the world's most famous embroidery has crossed back to the land of its origin.

For more on how the Bayeux Tapestry continues to inspire historical and artistic works, visit the BBC website here

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