The Romanesque cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux urgently needed to repaired or rebuilt. Bishop Hugo began the cathedral’s reconstruction, but he died in 1049. As quickly as possible, Duke William managed to have his adolescent half brother Odo appointed bishop of Bayeux.
central panel: Cleric touching Elfgyva’s face
bottom border: naked man
During the mid C11th, the new, young Bishop of Bayeux lent powerful support to his brother William, including in battle against the English. As a reward for his loyalty, King William I granted the entire English county of Kent to Odo.
Despite his lack of visible talent, Odo had become the Bishop of Bayeux AND the Earl of Kent. He was amassing an immense fortune coming from England, and decided to continue rebuilding the Bayeux cathedral at his own expense, taking up where Bishop Hugo had left off.
In his county of Kent, Earl Odo had greatly admired the wall hangings which were used to adorn sanctuaries. And knowing the splendid celebrations that would accompany the consecration of his church, he commissioned a hanging that glorified King William’s exploits in England and flattered Odo's own role. The Romanesque cathedral Notre-Dame de Bayeux was completed and dedicated in 1077, only eleven years after the conquest of England. So the date of the Bayeux Tapestry's completion was most likely 1077 as well.
The tapestry was an enormous piece of hand-worked embroidery in coloured wools on unbleached linen. Rather than being designed as covers for large panels of wallspace, the Bayeux Tapestry pieces were sewn together into a 70m long filmstrip; it was only 50cm high. I am using the past tense because the tapestry may be a bit shorter than it was originally and some of the stitching may have been repaired over the centuries.
It was divided into a large number of scenes and featured hundreds of people and animals. Even though contemporary audiences would have known who was who, each of these 75 scenes was explained in bold, clear Latin captions. Tapestry For Dummies!
Along the top and the bottom ran decorative borders with figures of animals, tales from Aesop’s fables, scenes from husbandry and the chase, familiar scenes in a rural community. And there were figures falling out of the central part of the tapestry, overflowing into the borders either for dramatic effect or because the main images would have otherwise been very cramped.
Drawing and stitching the central story would have been under the strict control of Bishop Odo and his French supervisors in a workshop in Canterbury associated with St Augustine’s Abbey. Control of the angry and sulky English was essential, if the embroidery was to tell the French version of history.
But Joanna Laynesmith has asked whether the less important border images might have been composed by the English embroiderers themselves. This historian was interested in the enigmatic central scene where an unknown cleric touched Elfgyva’s face. Who was the mysterious, but important woman? Who was the powerful cleric? What was the connection of this event to that of Harold swearing on the Bayeux relics (that William’s claim was superior in God’s eyes to Harold’s own)?
top and borders: decorative animals.
I want to tackle a much simpler issue. The borders of the Bayeux Tapestry were indeed decorative, but they also added a great deal of accurate information about contemporary animals, clothing and headgear, buildings and weapons. Now there is another possibility - that the decorative borders could have been read as observations on greed, sexual immorality, property acquired by trickery or other deeply moral offences perpetrated against the English people by the invading Frenchmen. Or perhaps by some of their own treacherous Englishmen.
The depiction of the naked man with enormous genitalia, directly below Elfgyva, was not just to titillate the gentle lady embroiderers in Kent, nor to amuse Bishop Odo and his flock back in Bayeux. Rather the cleric’s extending arm and caressing hand exactly replicated (in mirror image) the gesture of the naked man below. In the past in England, there had indeed been accusations against queens of consorting with senior clerics. Was another royal sexual scandal occurring in the 1066 era?
King Edward VII should have been grateful that the Bayeux Tapestry was not created during his reign.
central panel: Harold being killed by an arrow in the eye
bottom border: dead soldiers, uniforms, weapons