The Bayeux Tapestry

William the Conqueror landed in England on this day in 1066, setting in motion the events that would change British history: the Battle of Hastings in mid-October and William’s coronation on Christmas Day. The story of William’s defeat of Harold II, the last Anglo-Saxon king, is told not just by the contemporary bards and chroniclers but also by the Bayeux Tapestry. The 230-foot-long, 20-inch-high embroidered panel has its own fascinating history and may be as important as the Norman Conquest itself:

Adventurous, resolute, aggressive, brutal, and brilliant tacticians, willing to risk all for the sake of a kingdom, William and Harold lived by the law of the strongest in a world in which the death of a ruler more often than not brought a bitter struggle for succession. How is it, then, that their story was captured not in the marble or bronze of ancient heroic monuments, but in the simple medium of embroidered wool on linen, the work most likely of women? The question goes right to the heart of the drama depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry and underscores the role of art in the conversion of a factional and tribal society founded in violence into a society governed by something like the rule of law.

The excerpt above is from the opening chapter of R. Howard Bloch’s study of the Bayeux Tapestry, A Needle in the Right Hand of God (2006). In his second chapter, Bloch describes one of the oddest moments in the Tapestry’s history when, in the early days of WWII, a group of high-ranking Nazi officers and academics were sent to study and photograph it. Intent on legitimizing their own conquests, the Nazis hoped to demonstrate that the Tapestry was “a visual record of Teutonic ingenuity and daring” and to borrow some of William’s glory:

And so, standing before the unfurled embroidery, [the Germans] focused their attention upon the most dramatic scenes, such as the launching of a fleet of ships to conquer England from a spot on the Norman coast not too far from where they presently stood. That was just two weeks before the Battle of Hastings, which changed the history of England and brought a new order to Europe—and could not have failed to resonate with the new order so much on the minds of everyone in the room.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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