Following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo, decided to commemorate the victory at his cathedral in Bayeux, and commissioned a tapestry that would depict events from the winners’ perspective.
Made in Kent
The tapestry (actually embroidered rather than woven) was long thought to have been made in France, where it is still sometimes called la Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde in honour of the Conqueror’s. The use of Saxon spellings led later historians to conclude that it was produced near Canterbury.
The tapestry, which measures 210 feet long and 20 inches wide, has been described as ‘an embroidered cartoon’ and ‘the first movie’. It provides a linear narrative of events from the supposed offer of the English throne to William in 1064 to the defeat of King Harold’s army at Hastings. In all, the tapestry features 623 people, 202 horses, 55 dogs and 41 ships.
As well as Odo himself, who makes several appearances, other prominent Normans are depicted: Vitalis of Canterbury, the man bringing news of Harold’s approach to Hastings, was a landholder in the Whitstable area; Turold, seen bringing William's message to Count Guy of Ponthieu, became castellan of Rochester and was one of Odo’s trusted retainers.
The final 20-foot section of the original tapestry is missing, though nothing is known of the circumstances of its removal. Scholars believe it probably depicted events immediately after the Conquest, culminating in William’s coronation at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066.
During the French Revolution, the tapestry was removed from Bayeux Cathedral and used to cover a wagon. Only the efforts of a local man called Leforestier saved it. In 1803, Napoleon had it brought to Paris to help inspire his planned invasion of Britain. When the invasion was cancelled the tapestry returned to Bayeux.
In 1895, a group of 35 women from the Leek Embroidery Society in Staffordshire created a replica tapestry ‘so that England should have its own’. It hangs in Reading Museum.