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3 / History and Memory

“Many fall in battle and King Harold is killed” (detail) from the Bayeux Tapestry
“Many fall in battle and King Harold is killed” (detail) from the Bayeux Tapestry
Artist / Origin Unknown artist(s), France or England
Region: Europe
Date Before 1082
Material Wool embroidery on linen
Dimensions H: 20 in. (50 cm.), L: 230 ft. (70 m.) (entire tapestry)
Location Musée de la Tapisserie, Bayeux, France
Credit Courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library

expert perspective

David BernsteinProfessor of European and English History, Sarah Lawrence

“Many fall in battle and King Harold is killed” (detail) from the Bayeux Tapestry

» Unknown artist(s), France or England

expert perspective

David Bernstein David Bernstein Professor of European and English History, Sarah Lawrence

The Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most famous works of art from the European Middle Ages, was made to commemorate the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The aged King Edward died without heir, leaving a contested succession. There were two claimants—one an Englishman named Harold and the other, William, Duke of Normandy. With about 6000 soldiers, William, the Duke of the Normans, came to England to exercise what he said was his legitimate right to be the king of England. Not only does it depict political and military affairs rather than the lives of saints or scenes from the bible, it depicts one of the turning points in all of European history.

What we now believe on much evidence is that the master designer and the embroiderers were English. So here we have a paradox of the conquered commissioning the conquered people to commemorate a victory over the English, a victory which meant the loss of their property, the loss of their independence, and having new overlords from France. The fact that the English made the tapestry raises many interesting questions about whether or not the English were including an alternative narrative to that which was being promoted by the Norman propagandists. One example is that when Harold, the English claimant, is shown in the tapestry he is always identified as Harold the King, Harold Rex. Whereas the Normans described him in their written propaganda accounts as Harold the Usurper, Harold the Tyrant.

In the borders sometimes we have animals telling stories and these stories come from the fables of Aesop. Aesop was a slave. And he wrote his animal stories as a way of criticizing those who were more powerful. The fact that the English designers include many Aesopic fables raises the question of whether or not we have a counter-narrative to the themes that justify William in claiming the English throne.” 


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