Bayeux Tapestry – The Unsung Heroines

by Vinny Stapley

This summer I have fulfilled a childhood ambition to visit the Bayeux tapestry.  Despite many trips to France over the years, I’ve never quite been able to make it, but this year,  our meandering around the French countryside afforded us the opportunity.

The Bayeux Tapestry tells the epic story, in wool thread embroidered on linen cloth, of William, Duke of Normandy who became King of England in 1066 after the Battle of Hastings.

It was commissioned by William’s brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux.  The technique used is unquestionably embroidery (despite the work commonly being called a tapestry).  Lines traced by the wool thread show that guiding marks, perhaps drawings, were made on the cloth.  It’s an interesting, almost 3D technique – laid work, almost basket-weaving threads at right angles, so that image and cloth take form at the same time.   Narrative pieces such as this were put on display for all the faithful to see.  They told stories that the illiterate people of the time could follow, a piece of propaganda for a victorious conquest. 

What isn’t mentioned at the exhibit is that it’s more than likely the embroidery was created and embroidered by English women in Kent, because all the surviving evidence demonstrates that only women in early medieval England embroidered:  in fact this Anglo Saxon early embroidery was highly prized.  It is also known as Queen Matilda’s Tapestry – she was reputed to have taken a kind of project management role in its creation.  I did feel that the accompanying literature and audio guide should have made more of the womens’ role in the creation of this masterpiece .. that the patriarchal account focuses mainly on the battle & Odo’s  ecclesiastical power propaganda.  Maybe it’s time for some reassessment of the presentation of this piece, focusing on the womens’ role in its creation. 

Sadly no pics allowed in the exhibition – so stock photos .. but here’s a pic of me and Izzy (she wasn’t allowed in to see the embroidery 😟) outside the Cathedral in Bayeux.

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