The Bayeux Tapestry: Historical, Interesting, and Fun

Written by Daniel Suits.

One of the most enjoyable parts of our visit in France last summer was a trip to the little city of Bayeux to see the Bayeux Tapestry. This famous strip of cloth depicts the history of the invasion and conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. Produced just a few years after the conquest, the tapestry is not only important artistically, but supplies much of what we know of the people of the time, their dress, armor, ships and way of life.

Twenty inches wide and almost as long as a football field, the tapestry consists of a series of 73 panels, handsomely embroidered on linen in wool yarn of eight colors, that follow the story of the conquest step by step almost like a modern comic strip. The first panels show Harold’s journey to Normandy to swear his support for William’s claim to the English throne as successor to King Edward the Confessor. The story goes on to show the death of King Edward, and how Harold went back on his promise and took the throne for himself. The strip ends depicting the details of the battle of Hastings and William’s conquest of England. Along the way are scenes of feasting, shipbuilding and the assembly of the fleet, the appearance of Haley’s comet, and the sail to England. Across the top of each panel a Latin inscription explains the progress of the story. Small figures below each panel sometimes complement the main action and sometimes appear to bear no discernable relation to the story.

The tapestry is housed in the Musee de la Tapisserie, and is beautifully displayed in a glass case that, to save space, curves around in a long U. The case has special lighting to minimize damage to the delicate fabric, and the visitors’ pathway around the tapestry is dimly lit. Any use of flash cameras is strictly forbidden.

Earphones are available to supply electronic commentary in several languages including English. A normal unhurried tour of the tapestry takes about half an hour, but you are free to spend as much time as you like. At the height of the tourist season, May to August, the museum is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

In addition to the tapestry itself, the museum displays a number of life-size mock-ups of monks and other people of the eleventh century going about their daily activities. The museum also includes, of course, an extensive souvenir shop offering a wide selection of items related to the tapestry and its history, including among other things postcards, calendars, kits from which replicas of individual panels can be embroidered, small scale paper versions of the entire tapestry, and – spanning the thousand years since the Conquest – mouse pads in the form of one of the panels.

Bayeux lies 160 miles west-northwest of Paris in the Calvados region of Lower Normandy, 20 miles west of Caen. Most group tours of Normandy include a visit to the tapestry, but if you are driving on your own, you can easily get there by car. If you’re staying in Paris without a car, it makes an interesting day excursion by rail. Several trains leave daily from the Gare St. Lazar, and the trip takes only two hours.

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