The People in the Bayeux Tapestry

Scene 29 – “Here they give the crown to Harold”
Scene 29 – “Here they give the crown to Harold”, image on web site of Ulrich Harsh

Although referred to as a tapestry the Bayeux Tapestry is in fact an embroidery.

It was not made in Bayeux, but most likely at Canterbury, and was probably commissioned by Odo of Bayeux and made during the 1070s.

Its first appearance in the documentary record is the 1476 inventory of the treasures of Bayeux Cathedral where it is described as “A very long and narrow tapestry, made of cloth and embroidered with images and inscriptions, which shows the Conquest of England” and further explains that it was hung around the nave of the church on the day and the octave of the Feast of Relics.

It comprises 9 panels sewn together into a length of about 70m and it is probable that there was a 10th panel on the end (there was certainly more at the end but we don’t know for sure how much). It is about 50cm deep, split into three horizontal narratives of 7cm, 36cm (the main story) and then 7cm. Sometimes the three bands merge into a single story at critical moments of drama. In total there are around 60 scenes with (mostly) Latin text describing people, places and actions.

There are shelves and shelves of books, and a large number of web pages that can tell you more about the story; almost half of it is set in 1064 before the invasion of England, and was designed to try and justify it. However, in this article we are going to look at the named individuals in this dramatic tale.

In total there are 15 people named on the tapestry: 14 men and 1 woman. We can identify some others as well but they are not specifically named – Queen Edith for example is at King Edward’s deathbed but is not mentioned by name.

To begin with there are the major characters, kings and nobles: King Edward the Confessor, King Harold Godwinson, Duke William, and Guy of Ponthieu, who captured Harold when he landed on the Ponthieu coast, between Flanders and Normandy. Guy was well known for capturing and ransoming nobles from ships and must have been ecstatic to find Harold in his grasp; but William was his overlord and soon took control.

Other characters include Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain, William’s half-brothers. Odo has a much more prominent role than might be expected (including in the feast scene which seems to be modelled on the Last Supper and in which Odo sits in Jesus’ place) which suggests evidence that he was the commissioner of the work. In addition we meet Wadard, who supervises some pillaging, and Vital, who brings news, and both of whom have been identified from other documentary sources as probably being men of those names in the service of Odo.

Harold’s brothers, Leofwine and Gyrth, are identified in the battle scenes at Hastings reminding us that Tostig and Harald Hardrada, and the events at Fulford and Stamford Bridge, are noticeable by their absence from the tapestry. Describing these events would have legitimised the English King Harold and emphasised his authority and right to the throne. Meanwhile Eustace of Boulogne is shown carrying a banner and is the highest ranking non-Norman in William’s army who is depicted.

Archbishop Stigand is depicted at Edward’s deathbed, looking exhausted and unshaven, and later with King Harold. He was famously excommunicated by 5 different Popes for un-canonical behaviour and this meant that he did not crown William as king but only assisted the Archbishop of York. He was finally deposed and imprisoned in April 1070.

A man called Turold appears at Ponthieu holding the horses belonging to William’s messengers to Guy. The name is common for the period, and he is not a Norman because he is at Ponthieu. He may in fact be a dwarf and it has been suggested that his costume indicates that he was a jongleur or court entertainer and would have been a celebrity one for his name to be quoted. The name itself was very common but it is fun to speculate that he may be the Turold who is sometimes suggested as a possible composer of the “Song of Roland” (written c. 1040-1115).

The 14th man is Conan who is shown fleeing Dol during the campaign led by William and on which Harold accompanied him in 1064. Conan finally has to surrender Dinan to William and is depicted handing over the keys on the tip of a spear.

Only three women are shown in the tapestry and only one is named: Aelfgyva. She is clearly extremely important but no one can be certain who she is – although theories abound. There certainly seems to be reference to a sex scandal as there are some very explicit images in the margins at this point.

The other two women are Edith of Wessex, wife of King Edward and sister of King Harold, who is shown in Edward’s deathbed scene; and an unnamed woman fleeing a burning house with a boy when the Normans pillage the countryside around Hastings. Here’s another piece of speculation to consider: the house is near Hastings and clearly quite grand, so one possibility is that we are seeing Harold’s wife Edith Swan-neck and little son Ulf escaping Harold’s property.