Monday 4 October 2010

Women do it better: The Bayeux Tapestry

Men fought and died in England in the battle of Hastings in 1066. The kingdom and crown passed to a foreigner, William of Normandy.

This event is recorded in spectacular detail by the Bayeux Tapestry, made by women. There are only a few women shown on the tapestry in this story of feudal rights and obligations, claims, counter-claims and war, but scholars now agree that women made it.

The 'tapestry' is in fact an embroidery, done on strips of linen joined together to form a huge running narrative of the events leading up to and beyond the decisive battle. The seven joints are done with great skill and are almost invisible. At one time the tapestry was even longer, but the end is now damaged and incomplete. However the rest is a stunning, detailed account, a unique primary source.

Who were the women who embroidered this massive tapestry? Evidence suggests they were English. Earlier French tradition claimed the tapestry had been embroidered by William's wife Matilda, but what seems increasingly likely is that the piece was made in England as a gift for the new queen.

English female embroiderers were famous throughout Europe for their wall-hangings and church garments. Earlier English queens, such as Edith, were acclaimed for their skill as embroiders. A wall hanging made by English embroiders, showing the defeat of the English at the battle of Maldon in 991, was given to the monastery at Ely by the defeated leader's widow, Aelflaed, as a memorial to the English dead. The Bayeux Tapestry may have partly served as a memorial to the English dead and have even been stitched by some English widows at either Winchester, the seat of the court and government in Anglo-Saxon England, or Canterbury, or the nunnery at the Minster in Sheppey in Kent - all famed centres of English embroidery. In some cases we may even know their names, such as the woman Leofgeat, who in 1086 in the Domesday Book is described as doing gold embroidery for the king.

Gold was not used in the Bayeux Tapestry, but wool thread dyed sage green, blue-green, red, buff and blue were stitched on the linen using an outline and stem stitch, then laid and couched stitches, making the whole stand out in low relief, like a sculptor’s frieze. The figures are active and the tumult of the battle is shown. The English warriors with their moustaches and longer hair are picked out, and the Normans with their cropped locks, and several of the key moments of 1066 are there – Halley’s comet, as a presager of trouble, William, lifting up his helmet to reveal his face and prove he’s still alive, and the climax of the battle, where Harold is felled by the arrow.

A woman is also behind a faithful facsimile of the tapestry. In 1885 Elizabeth Wardle saw the original at Bayeux and, along with 35 other women, was inspired to produce a copy, to be housed in England. This is now kept at the museum in Reading, England.

The fame of English embroidery led me to make Sunniva, the Anglo-Saxon heroine of A Knight's Captive, amongst her other talents a skilled seamstress. 

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Julia Rachel Barrett said...

Oh wow! I love coming here and reading these amazing facts - that nobody really talks about!

Savanna Kougar said...

Amazing! I love learning about things like this. Being a seamstress is not only practical, but incredibly creative. I know because I've sewn a lot in my life. Though, I didn't really do that much embroidery... still, I know how.

Renee Vincent said...

I love this tapestry...always have. What a great post, Lindsay!