It’s puzzled historians for centuries but now one of the pressing questions hanging over one of the most famous royal artefacts in the world has an answer. And it sheds a new light on the reign of the king it celebrates, William the Conqueror.
The conquest that gave him a throne and a place in royal legend was commemorated in the Bayeux Tapestry. It tells the story of his decision to invade England in 1066 and his subsequent victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Despite being one of the most celebrated historical records ever made, its origins have never been certain. But now historians have new evidence that the famous tapestry was commissioned by his family to showcase his victories in another of the lands he ruled.
Now work by Christopher Norton, Professor of Art History at the University of York, into how Bayeux Cathedral in Normandy looked in the 11th century, before later restoration work, has shown that its old nave was a perfect fit for the long, thin cloth on which the famous embroidery is set. He also found that the design of the original nave would fit the narrative of the tapestry, too, with doors and columns breaking the fifty scenes up into sequential chapters. The tapestry hung in Bayeux Cathedral from the late medieval period but now Professor Norton claims this record of the Conquest of England was made specifically for the church and first graced its walls much earlier.
The most likely person to have commissioned the work in that case was Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and half brother of William the Conqueror. Odo was also one of the most important and powerful politicians in William’s new kingdom of England and his Duchy of Normandy and it’s likely he had the tapestry made to show the might of his family and their elevation to the ranks of royalty.
Theories over the origins of the Tapestry abound. In France, it is still sometimes called ”Queen Matilda’s Tapestry” after the wife of William the Conqueror. Legend has it that she and her ladies embroidered the work in tribute to her husband’s great victory. The idea that Odo was responsible for its creation gained ground in the 20th century and it’s likely that he paid English artists to work on the tapestry as his powerbase after the Conquest was in Kent.
The first records of the Bayeux Tapestry being on display date back to the late 15th century. It was hung in Bayeux Cathedral every year to mark the Feast of St. John the Baptist but it was confiscated during the French Revolution and rescued by a local lawyer before eventually ending up in Paris. It came back to Bayeux in 1945 following the end of World War Two and is now on permanent display there in a special museum. In 2018, French President, Emmanuel Macron, said the work would be lent to Britain for a touring exhibition.
The new research by Professor Norton could help those planning that display to decide how best to put the Bayeux Tapestry on show.