The Bayeux Tapestry is a finely embroidered linen cloth, nearly 70 metres (230 ft) in length, that tells the story of the Norman Invasion of England. Although the work is commonly referred to as a “tapestry”, it is technically an embroidery, as the images have been stitched in with needles, not woven.
The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the best-known historical artefacts in the world and probably originates from around the 1070s. The tapestry consists of a series of 70 sequential scenes relating the story of the Norman Invasion of England, rather like a Medieval comic strip. It begins with the “backstory” of events leading up to the invasion, with the court of the aged King Edward the Confessor, and the bequest of the English crown to Harold Godwinson.
A significant astronomical event features in one scene, as the passing of Halley’s Comet in April 1066 was seen as a bad omen of impending disaster. William, Duke of Normandy is shown setting sail for England in a flotilla of ships, and the Battle of Hastings is presented, with detailed depictions of English and Norman troops in battle. Famously, the death of King Harold is shown as an arrow pierces his right eye (although this has been disputed by some historians, who suggest that Harold is in fact the adjacent figure being cut down by a Norman cavalryman).
The final scene shows English troops fleeing the Hastings battlefield. This ending presents something of a mystery, as it seems to be a rather abrupt finish. Might we expect this piece of 11th-century political propaganda to end with something more triumphant, glorifying William in his victory? Is it possible that the last part of the tapestry is actually missing? If so, nobody really knows what this lost ending may have shown, but a number of modern artists have attempted to “complete” the work by creating panels depicting events after Hastings.
The significance of the tapestry for Berkhamsted Castle lies in those missing scenes; one modern recreation, the Alderney Bayeux Tapestry, completed in 2013, incorporates a scene depicting the Saxon nobles surrendering to William at Berchehasteda – Berkhamsted.
The original Bayeux Tapestry is now exhibited at the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux, in the town of Bayeux in Normandy, France. It is a breathtaking display and well worth a visit. The museum has a comprehensive website which includes online high-resolution images of the tapestry.