Britain’s Bayeux tapestry

About the object

© Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)
© Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)

The replica tapestry

The full-size replica Bayeux tapestry was the idea of a skilled embroiderer called Elizabeth Wardle. The replica took thirty five women a year to compete and was exhibited across Britain, and in the USA and Germany. It was bought for Reading Museum in 1895.

The embroiderers made great efforts to ensure that their copy was as authentic as possible by using the same dye colours, wools and stitches. Elizabeth Wardle visited the original tapestry in Bayeux in 1885 and also referred to hand-coloured photographs of the tapestry held by the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The original Bayeux tapestry

The original Bayeux tapestry is preserved and displayed in Bayeux, in Normandy, France. It is over 70 metres long, divided into a series of connected panels. As well as being a source for political events, the tapestry also showcases 11th century textile arts, as it was stitched with skill using dyed, spun wool. It is probably incomplete, as it breaks off immediately after the battle of Hastings and does not show William the Conqueror’s coronation.

Little is known for certain about the tapestry’s origins. It was probably commissioned in the AD 1070s by William’s half-brother, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, who after the conquest acted as regent of England when William was out of the country. Some historians argue that the tapestry was made by English embroiderers in Canterbury or in the then famous embroidery works of Winchester, though some French historians maintain it was made in Normandy.

The lead up to the Norman invasion

Edward the Confessor had become the king of England in AD 1042. He was son of the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelred and Emma of Normandy. By the AD 1050s, it had become clear that King Edward would not produce an heir and several contenders for the throne emerged, including Duke Harold Godwinson, brother-in-law of Edward and Duke William of Normandy.

Several sections of the Bayeux tapestry are taken up with telling the story of what happened to Harold after he was shipwrecked in Ponthieu in northern France in AD 1064 and captured by Count Guy. Following his rescue by Duke William, Harold is shown fighting alongside William. He is then depicted swearing a solemn oath to William before sailing back to England and meeting a frail-looking King Edward. This is followed by the death of Edward and Harold’s acceptance of the crown from the English nobles.

Interpreting the tapestry

The oath Harold is shown making is at the heart of the narrative leading up to the invasion by William and has been much debated by historians. The tapestry makes it very clear that Harold swore an oath handing the English crown to William and that that the breaking of the oath was both the cause and justification for William’s invasion. Later Norman sources corroborate this might be expected. Some historians question the Norman version, arguing that Harold swore the oath under duress or was deceived into swearing and that it was thus invalid. Others suggest that the oath Harold swore was valid, but did not imply conceding the crown to William or that the breaking of oaths was commonplace at that time and William simply used this as a convenient pretext for his actions.

The absence of any evidence from Anglo-Saxon sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle means that there is no alternative version to set against the Norman. However, this does not invalidate attempts by historians to create an account that best explains the course of events in light of what we do know of the conduct and character of the people involved.

More information

Reading’s Bayeux tapestry


Bayeux tapestry scenes
Website dedicated to the tapestry with a scene-by-scene commentary and teaching resources.

The original Bayeux tapestry
The Victorian photographs of the original tapestry at the V&A Museum, on which the Reading replica is based.

Bayeux Museum
The Bayeux tapestry in France, with information in English about topics represented in the tapestry.

Images and discussion of the original Bayeux tapestry


The background to the Norman conquest from BBC History


The Norman conquest
A BBC history article about the Norman conquest and its aftermath, including the tapestry.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
Information about the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at the British Library and a short extract about the Norman Conquest.

Next section: A bigger picture

Britain’s Bayeux tapestry