When William the Conqueror seized control of England, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he acquired a great center of medieval art as well as an extensive addition to his realm. The Anglo-Saxons were famous for their manuscript illuminations and drawing, for metalworks and fine carving in ivory and stone. In an era when embroidery was one of the great art forms, their needlework was unsurpassed. Over the centuries most Anglo-Saxon hangings have disappeared , worn to tatters or burned down to recover the gold or silver in their thread. The Bayeux Tapestry; not strictly speaking a tapestry, but an embroidered hanging , is one of the few that remains.
It was probably commissioned within ten years after the Battle of Hastings by William’s half-brother, Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent. These dignities were not sufficient for Odo. He aspired to be king of England or pope, and he commissioned the great tapestry as a piece of propaganda to help his ambitions along. Throughout, it features him in an important position; he is usually shown next to William in the preparations for battle and in the battle scenes.As art, the tapestry was effective. As propaganda, it was not, for Odo attained neither the crown nor the papal tiara.
The tapestry is altogether two hundred and thirty feet long, and about twenty inches wide. It is embroidered on bleached linen, and was probably made in a number of separate pieces by a team of women, who stitched over drawings that had been done directly on the linen by an artist. The main story runs through the center, as in a comic strip. In the border at the top and bottom are mythological and symbolic beasts and birds and, occasionally, side-light events of the narrative. No one knows whether the huge hanging was originally intended for the Bayeaux Cathedral or for one of Odo’s palaces in Normandy, England or Rome. But it is known that a few hundred years after the aspiring bishop’s death, it was on deposit in the Cathedral, and it was displayed there each year during the Feast of Relics.
It was not until the eighteenth-century that the tapestry received much attention outside Bayeaux. Then drawings were made of it, and engravings published, and antiquarians examined it with interest. Despite their attention, it was almost destroyed in 1792, during the French Revolution, when volunteers going off to war tried to requisition it as a wrapping for their provisions. In the nick of time a local conservationist persuaded them that it would be sacrilegious to use it for such a purpose.
In 1803, planning an invasion of England, ordered it brought to paris so that he could study it. There it was placed on public exhibition, to inspire the populace and the army with William’s example. During World War II, when the always thorough Germans were entertaining the same dream, they inspected the tapestry too, seeking inspiration or perhaps practical hints. When events turned out the other way around, and the Anglo-American forces landed in Normandy, the tapestry was rushed off to the Louvre for safety.
It was not until after the war that the famous tapestry was restored to Bayeaux, where it is now on exhibit in one of the most technologically perfect, specially lighted , heated, de-humidified, and rather uninspiring shrines which the twentieth century erects around its precious relics.
If Harold had won at Hastings, and had survived, William would have had no choice but to renounce his adventure. He could not have prevailed against the aroused masses of the island, led by their determined king. He could not possibly have raise reinforcements in France. There is little likelihood that anyone would have attempted an invasion of England during the next millennium, at least by water. England would have strengthened its bonds with Scandinavia while remaining distrustful of the western Continent, even more distrustful than in the present case. The native Anglo-Saxon culture, art, and literature would have developed in unimaginable ways. Our language would be written and read, not in English, but in Anglo-Saxon, and William the Conqueror would be dimly known in history only as William the Bastard.