Friday, 29 July 2016

Changes made to the Bayeux Tapestry

“Every schoolchild knows” – every British schoolchild that is – that King Harold II died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when an arrow struck him in the eye and penetrated into his brain. The evidence for this is plain to see in the dramatic “comic strip” that is the Bayeux Tapestry. However, the truth may not be as clear-cut as the scene displayed in that remarkable artefact.

The Bayeux Tapestry is about 70 metres (230 feet) long and half a metre (1.6 feet) wide. It is not actually a tapestry (which is woven) but a piece of embroidery, with all the scenes and text having been stitched in wool yarn on to a linen cloth that was left bare in many places.

It is now generally believed that the Tapestry was the work of English embroiders in the 1070s. They worked at Canterbury under the direction of Odo, the Norman Bishop of Bayeux, who wanted to display the Tapestry in his cathedral. It therefore tells the whole story of Duke William’s claim to the English throne, the invasion, and the Battle of Hastings. Odo’s own participation in the battle was to be carefully “spun” to show that he was essential to the eventual victory but did not actually do any fighting, which would be unbecoming for a bishop. The truth of this claim is disputed!

The Tapestry that can be seen today in Bayeux shows the death of Harold from an arrow in the eye quite clearly, but the question arises as to whether this was always the case. It would appear that the ladies of Canterbury had a certain amount of leeway in how they depicted certain events and often portrayed scenes from an English rather than a Norman perspective. As long as Odo was portrayed as he wanted, he was not too bothered about the details, so the embroiderers may have got away with quite a bit of sly propaganda of their own.

Changes to the Tapestry

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the Tapestry was altered in several respects at various times during its long history. It is not surprising that a work of this kind would have needed restoration from time to time, but it certainly looks as though opportunities were taken to make changes that were more substantial than just replacing worn-out threads.

The finger of suspicion for the death of Harold scene points to restorers in the 19th century, because reproductions of the scene that were made at earlier times do not look the same as they do now.

A full-scale tracing was made in 1729. This shows Harold holding a spear, either because he is about to throw it or because he has just been struck by it. A set of facsimiles was made in 1819, but these show the spear as an arrow heading for Harold. By the time that a photograph was taken in 1872, the arrow is in Harold’s eye.

Why would anyone have wanted to make these changes?

Harold’s death now looks to have been clean and clinical – almost accidental, one might say. If the 1729 version was the original, it shows Harold fighting for his life in hand-to-hand combat. He is therefore a brave fighter and not the victim of a stray arrow, which might happen to anyone at some distance from the main event. The emphasis has therefore shifted from an English viewpoint to a Norman one.

There is, however, another possibility, which is that the original spear was so worn out by the time it was restored in the early 19th century that it was not clear that a spear had been intended at all.
The restorers might have genuinely thought that the image was of an arrow, or they might simply have gone for the lazy option of replacing many stitches with a few. 

How did Harold really die?

It is always possible that Harold did die from an arrow. This was stated in a chronicle written in 1080. However, there is a far more reliable account that dates from 1067 which is the “Song of the Battle of Hastings” written by Guy, the Bishop of Amiens.

According to Guy, Harold was hacked to death by a group of four knights who were acting on Duke William’s orders but who went much further than William wanted. Harold was struck in the chest (the spear in the original Tapestry image?) then beheaded, disembowelled, and had his genitals cut off. He was therefore treated with great dishonour, which even a general as vicious as William would not have countenanced as being the right way to despatch someone of royal blood.

Evidence for this account comes from the fact that Harold’s widow was the only person who could identify his mutilated remains after the battle. It was also reported that Duke William was so horrified that he demoted the knights in question and sent them home in disgrace.

It does not sound likely that the English embroiderers would have been allowed to portray the full horror of Harold’s death – had it been as reported – and they might not have wished to do so even if they could. However, even the sanitised version that they showed appears to be missing from the Bayeux Tapestry as it appears today.

The story of the arrow in the eye therefore continues to be what “every schoolchild knows”, despite the very flimsy evidence on which it is based.

© John Welford