Art, Allegory, and the Authorship of the Bayeux Tapestry

Depicting the Norman Conquest of England, its causes, justifications, and political context, the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the most immediately recognisable, and most complex sources of European history.  Importantly, granted the location of its conception, the overt concerns of the Tapestry’s narrative are the religious and political interests of Latin Christian Normandy in the late 11th century.  However, it would be a mistake to characterise the Tapestry as mere Norman propaganda – the allegory, analogy and imagery used by the collaborators of the work have given it complexity beyond a simple chronology of events. It is this complexity I want to focus on today, with a particular interest in the authorship of the piece (in so doing I will, to a large degree, be treating the Tapestry as a historical document).

But before we begin on authorship and authorial intent, it is perhaps worth noting that, in form, the Tapestry was not entirely unique.  Remnants of similar artworks have been found in the Scandinavian countries.  Sweden, Norway and Iceland all preserve embroidery fragments dating between 900 – 1200. Literary evidence in turn points to the existence of such narrative embroideries, the Liber Eliensis of Ely cathedral in the 12th century mentions the bequethal of a hanging woven upon and embroidered with the deeds of [Byhrtnoth] and, in a separate event, notes the theft of a very valuable and famous hanging from the cathedral by rival monks. Despite our lack of extant examples, it seems likely that a tradition of narrative textiles existed throughout Western Europe.  Although, perhaps we could take this a little further. Aside from the Tapestry, the extant physical examples are exclusively Scandinavian.  As such, the evidence points to a tradition of narrative embroidery that was endemic to the Scandinavian world.  England had been a part of the Scandinavian world for over a century prior to the Conquest, with an increasingly Anglo-Norse population ruled by Scandinavian kings prior to the start of the Tapestry’s narrative.  Likewise, the Duchy of Normandy had significant Scandinavian influence in its genesis.  With Norman and Anglo-Norse authors, the decision to tell the history of the Conquest through textile art would not have been unusual.  It is from this cultural tradition that the Tapestry was born.

Nonetheless, the Tapestry is unique in form as a surviving history of the Conquest, though the narrative and themes of the Tapestry reflect those of other, near-contemporaneous, literary sources relating the story.  Yet unlike these, no single author can be attributed to the creation of the Tapestry, it was a collaboration of patron, designer and artisan.  Each party had their own contributions that can be teased out from the frequently ambiguous motifs of the Tapestry.  Its visual nature, as a piece of textile art, allowed its authors to adapt symbolic imagery to convey narrative tropes, familiar to a receptive, and likely illiterate, 11th century audience.

So, let’s have a think about the motivations behind the creation of the Tapestry. It was not created to record the political history of Normandy and England from 1064-1066. Neither was it created to provide an official Norman account of the Conquest. It was created to satisfy its patron – as that great Anglo-Saxonist, Frank Stenton stated:  the designer […] could do no other than follow the tale most acceptable to his patron. This creates an interesting dichotomy of authorship.  The patron commissioned the Tapestry, but did not create it. As such, though the interests of the patron informed the Tapestry’s creation and the narrative it wove, the subtleties of designer and artisan provide the narrative with depth and expression.

Taking each of our collaborators in turn, I am going to look to our patron first. The commissioning of the Bayeux Tapestry has traditionally been attributed to Odo of Bayeux, William of Normandy’s brother. This provenance would mean the Tapestry is one of the earliest sources recording the Norman invasion of England, made within memory of the Conquest. Yet, without direct evidence for the authorship of the Tapestry, the identification of its patron needs to be ascertained from the narrative of the Tapestry itself.  A brief study of the case for Odo of Bayeux commissioning the Tapestry will begin unravelling the motives for the Tapestry’s creation.  The argument rests upon the fact that the Tapestry assigns him a role within the overall narrative that exceeds his role in other accounts of the Conquest. Odo makes four appearances in the tapestry and is named three times in the inscriptions. Two appearances are at significant points in the narrative: the commissioning of the Norman fleet (scene 15), and the rallying of the troops at the Battle of Hastings (29). While this prominence is unlikely, it can be justified by Odo’s station as bishop, vassal and brother to Duke William.  This cannot be said of four minor characters named in the Tapestry of which three were vassals of Odo.  Significantly these men do not feature in any chronicles of the event, and Odo is not given prominence in other early records of the Conquest.  Most notably, the Kentish monk Eadmer makes no mention of Odo in his Historia Novorum.  While paralleling the moralistic themes of the Tapestry, Historia Novorum is Anglo-Saxon in tone and either slighted Odo, or Odo’s contributions to the Conquest were not sufficient to warrant note outside Norman sources.  The Bayeux Tapestry had definitive purpose in providing prominence to Odo and his men.  It was created for display at Odo’s cathedral in Bayeux, and was designed to appeal to an audience that was to view the Tapestry and remember and recognise the contribution of its leaders to the Conquest.

(Scene 15) Odo at the commissioning of                   (Scene 29) Odo rallying the troops                     the Norman fleet

In addition to providing prominence to the Bishop of Bayeux, the Tapestry provides prominence to Bayeux itself. One of the key events preceding the Conquest was the swearing of an oath by Harold Godwinson to Duke William, pledging his support for William’s claim to the English throne.  However, Harold went on to claim the English throne, despite his oath, giving the Normans the moral justification to mount the expedition to England.  The idea that the Normans were a tool of God’s retribution on a perjurious usurper is attested in numerous contemporary sources, and hinges on Harold’s oath.  Aedmer, who could be expected to support the Anglo-Saxon claim to the throne, casts the Norman victory as an indictment of Harold’s perjury, the miraculous intervention of God, who by punishing Harold’s wicked perjury shewed that He is not a God that hath any pleasure in wickedness.  The Norman chroniclers, William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers, also make the oath central to their histories and promote the allegory of the Conquest as righteous judgement.  The Tapestry is part of the same narrative tradition, depicting Harold taking an oath to William in Bayeux, over the holy relics held by the cathedral (11).  The only chronicler to place the oath at Bayeux was Wace, writing 100 years later in his role as a canon of Bayeux Cathedral. In contrast, William of Poitiers places the oath at Bonneville, located within his own diocese, while Orderic Vitalis, who wrote somewhat later and was openly critical of Odo, placed the oath at the Norman capital of Rouen.  The location of the oath is unimportant to the moral allegory of the Tapesty, and even to the literal outcome of the Conquest.  Each author was using this aspect of the narrative to their own provincial objectives, in the case of the Tapestry, providing prominence to Bayeux and its bishop.  Odo is placed in the centre of momentous events, the pivotal moment of the narrative centring on his cathedral, and the home of the Tapestry.

Scene 11: Harold swears an oath to William over the relics at Bayeux Cathedral

Yet the Tapestry is more than a simple attempt by its patron to show the justice of the Norman cause and his central role in the events – it is important that the contributions of designer and artisan not be overlooked. While the dual interests of the Tapestry’s patron as both religious figure and Norman partisan provided the allegory we have noted – God’s retribution upon a usurper – the weaving of this moral allegory throughout the Tapestry speaks to the clerical training of its designer.  Trained to read scripture, clerics were taught to interpret events in a religious and moralistic light, and it is likely the designer provided an outline of text, events and figures on the linen that was to become the Tapestry before the artisans went to work. The designer was clearly literate with religious interpretation of history, and literate with the language of the church. Interestingly though, and deepening the dichotomy of authorship, factors such as orthography, letter form and the expertise available indicate that the designer, and his artisans, were English, likely based in Odo’s post-conquest acquisition, the Earldom of Kent. With this in mind, it is just possible to see the hands of the Tapestry’s creators independent of its patron. Though the narrative certainly perpetuates the Norman narrative of Conquest, the designer did not deviate from the main history in order to pontificate upon the virtues of the victors – he even passes over details recorded elsewhere that would have demonstrated the morality of the Normans. The Tapestry’s English authors may have been embroidering to satisfy their patron, but they were not going to do so at the cost of English dignity. Indeed, I would argue that the Tapestry takes something of a ‘middle road.’ Generally speaking, the narrative tends to eschew individual heroism; Harold, for example, is depicted as heroic but morally flawed, while the text inscriptions have been described as studiously non-committal. The result is that both the conquered and conquerors as depicted as men of merit and valour and, as such, the Tapestry provides a vital link between the views of both peoples.

Which brings us to audience. The decision to use a textile medium to depict the events of the Conquest was directly related to audience. Odo likely commissioned the Tapestry for display at Bayeux cathedral in time for its consecration in 1077. The display of the tapestry in a public setting enabled the literal and allegorical narrative of the Conquest to be conveyed to an illiterate audience. In this, the Tapestry was somewhat akin to oral history in its ability to reach a larger audience, and relay both the narrative and the implications of the Conquest more immediately than written chronicles.  Indeed, the Tapestry likely fostered an oral tradition, with the Latin text enabling churchmen to narrate the events of the Tapestry for visiting pilgrims.  As an aspect of this, the Tapestry’s depiction of Harold’s oath (11) would have drawn the pilgrim’s attention to the significance of the relics they had come to see.  Meanwhile, the parishioners of Bayeux would have a constant reminder of the primacy of their bishop, cathedral and relics in grand political events.  In creating the Tapestry, its authors distinctly targeted an audience separate from the chronicles recording the events of 1066.  The chronicles were aimed at a literate, educated audience, while the Tapestry used established traditions of iconography to recount events to an audience conditioned to understand the underlying religious, visual motifs of the embroidery.

At which point it is worth sounding a note of caution and recalling the idiom coined by the great scholar of medieval art, Emile Mâle: the old craftsmen were never so subtle as their modern interpreters.  The Tapestry authors used imagery to convey ideas and individual components of the narrative through devices of allegory and analogy.  Already rich in emblematic meaning, it is easy to find allegory where the authors intended none. This has led to wide ranging interpretation of individual scenes within the narrative. Yet, in searching for meaning in the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, it is important to read the tapestry as an ensemble: border, text and narrative scene together.

The visual representations in the Tapestry have three readily accessible layers of narrative.  The often terse Latin inscriptions provides a basic narrative that needs to be located within the larger story.  This story is provided by the main pictorial plates which provide the full narrative of the events of the Conquest, imbued with allegory appropriate to a Norman, Christian audience.  Finally, the borders provide analogy and depth of message to the narrative, either commenting on individual scenes, or alternatively providing general commentary on the overarching moral theme.

A closer look at scene 6 will show the manner in which these layers are used to develop the narrative:  Harold is in the custody of Guy of Ponthieu, who receives word from Duke William to send Harold to him. The brief Latin inscription states Here a messenger comes to Duke William; Here Guy took Harold to William, Duke of Normandy.  The narrative panels give greater detail, the previous scene had shown the arrival and capture of Harold in Guy’s territories.  Under the first inscription a messenger arrives at William’s court telling him of the event, William then organises Guy to transfer Harold to his custody, which takes place under the second part of the inscription.  In the lower border, between the two inscriptions there is a deer, caught between two packs of hunting dogs.   Caught between Guy and William, the deer is analogous of Harold’s circumstance.  The scene needs to be read comprising all its component parts to provide the audience a full picture of events.

Scene 6: William is informed of Harold’s capture and organises Harold’s transfer into his custody.

The Tapestry is not always so easily read.  Ambiguity was a narrative device adopted by the designer and his artisans, the dichotomy of authorship allows multiple readings of the Tapestry’s iconography. This ambiguity is displayed in the authors’ analogous use of fables throughout the Tapestry’s borders.  In scene 2 there is a representative depiction of the fable of the lamb, drinking upstream from the wolf.  In the fable, the wolf tries various rationalisations to justify eating the lamb; however, when the lamb rebuts all of these, the wolf simply eats the lamb anyway. The moral is that the greedy will always take what they want – usually interpreted in line with the Norman condemnation of Harold’s usurpation.  Yet if it is understood that the Tapestry’s creators were English, the fable could equally be read as an indictment of William’s actions in conquering England.  Accustomed to reading allegory in visual narrative, conqueror and conquered could read the analogy in the light of their own cultural context.

Scene 2: Fable of the lamb and the wolf depicted in lower border.

Contributing to the difficulties in reading the narrative is the very form of the Tapestry.  The nature of the object necessitates a linear history, however the designer breaks the flow of the story at various points.  Famously, scene 13 reverses the order of the death and funeral of Edward the Confessor. This is not simply an anomaly, the movement of the characters changes in line with the reversal of events.  The narrative reversal supports the Norman view of Harold as a usurper by visually separating his elevation as king from the internment of the last legitimate Anglo-Saxon king.  The highly ritualised scene of procession is moving away from the events of Harold’s coronation and the omens after his crowning.  This funeral scene anticipated Edward’s future saintliness, living on in death and not following the progression from life to death depicted in other deaths in the Tapestry. The representation of Edward as a saintly king benefitted both Anglo-Saxon and Norman views of events, and the narrative break at his death segregates the Anglo-Saxon past from the Norman future.

Scene 13: The death and funeral of Edward the Confessor – scene is in reverse chronological order.

So where to finish up? Designed to be central to Bayeux cathedral, just as Bayeux cathedral was central to the narrative, the Tapestry would have been seen by an audience who would be reminded of the prominence of their leaders in world events and in God’s plans. It was a remarkably simple idea – a visual representation of the Norman view (or Odo’s view) of the Conquest for a largely illiterate audience – Norman propaganda. Yet the Tapestry is a fundamentally complex document that, in its authorship, in its inter-weaved allegory, analogy and imagery, displays a contrast between Norman patron and Anglo-Saxon artisans. No doubt the Norman refrain that they were God’s tools in visiting his justice upon a wayward and perjurious king resounds loudly through the Tapestry narrative, but the Anglo-Saxons scarcely appear as a wayward and perjurious people.

-Matt Firth


  1. Feature image: Scene 15  Bayeux Tapestry
  2. Eadmer, A History of Recent Events in England: Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans. Geoffrey Bosanquet, London, Cresset Press, 1964.
  3. Suzanne Lewis, The Rhetoric of Power in the Bayeux Tapestry, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  4. Liber Eliensis, trans. Janet Fairweather, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2005.
  5. J. Bard McNulty, The Narrative Art of the Bayeux Tapestry Master, New York, AMS Press, 1989.
  6. Lucien Mussett, The Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2005.
  7. Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, trans. T. Forester, London, Henry G. Bohn, 1853.
  8. Gale Owen-Crocker (ed.), King Harold II and the Bayeux Tapestry, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2011.
  9. Wace, Roman de Rou, trans. Glyn S. Burgess, Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 2004.
  10. William of Jumieges, Gesta Normannorum Ducum, trans. Elisabeth Van Houts, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.

If you liked this post, follow this blog and/or read the following blog posts:

A Case of Clerical Fraud – King Æthelstan and Malmesbury Abbey

The King Lives! Scandinavian Legends of Hastings and Svolder

Shrouded in Rumour – The Lost Childhood of King Æthelstan

When Justice Cost an Arm & a Leg – The Mutilated Body in Medieval Anglo-Scandinavian Law

See our bibliography on Chronicle Editions


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