II - 0004 © S. Maurice - Bayeux MuseumPhoto with permission from Tapisserie de Bayeux © S. Maurice - Bayeux Museum

The Battle of Hastings story on the Bayeux Tapestry
by Elizabeth Willoughby

(...continued from the origins of the Bayeux Tapestry)

There are a few still puzzling characters on the tapestry and there is disagreement by historians on a couple of points of interpretation. For example, who is the girl in the girl-and-priest scene? Is it William's daughter getting betrothed to Harold or is it a priest making an indecent pass at a maiden?

Another disagreement is over Harold's death. Harold is shown getting killed in battle by an arrow in the eye. When restorations of the tapestry were taking place, an arrow in the eye had symbolic meaning (struck down by God). Because of the needle holes in the tapestry, it is clear that something was indeed embroidered there before the restoration took place. Some think it might have been a sword, so Harold may have been killed by a sword, not an arrow in the eye.

Aside from the outstanding questions, here is a summary of the Bayeux Tapestry Museum's interpretation, where the Bayeux Tapestry, also known as the Cloth of Conquest, has been on display since 1983:

In 1064, Edward the Confessor, King of England, was an old man with no heir to the throne. He decided that his cousin, William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, should succeed him, and he sent his brother-in-law, Harold, Earl of Wessex, to go to Normandy to inform William of the decision.

At Harold's last meal on land, a servant at the top of the steps, arm outstretched, shows that the tide is right and it is time to embark. People wade barelegged into the sea to reach the ships and set sail. Blown off course, they arrive in Guy de Ponthieu's territory instead of in Normandy, and are immediately taken prisoner under the shipwreck laws. Harold must have been surprised indeed, as he didn't have time to put his shoes on.

A spy in Guy's chateau, maybe working for the Duke of Normandy, overhears discussions, which are probably about ransom. William receives news of Harold's imprisonment and sends word at full gallop to Guy to release Harold. Eventually Guy, half turned in his saddle and pointing to Harold, concedes. Harold is received by William in great splendor and Harold, in agitation, recounts his journey.

William invites Harold to participate in a war expedition against Conan, Duke of Brittany. They cross the plains around Mont Saint-Michel, and Harold saves two Norman soldiers from the quicksand. Conan flees from his town down a rope at the outer wall. He flees a second town and is finally beaten at a third when Norman torch bearers set it alight. Conan holds out the keys, on the end of a lance, to William.

William knights Harold, they return to Bayeux, and Harold swears allegiance to William. Arms outstretched, on his right a shrine and on his left the gospels, Harold swears his oath on the most distinguished relics in Normandy. Harold returns to England to recount his mission to King Edward. Faces in the windows have been anxiously awaiting his return.

The Archbishop recites the last prayers to a dying Edward, after which two servants begin shrouding the corpse amidst bell ringers and choristers, while a hand reaches down from heaven. Edward, King of England, has died and is buried at Westminster. Harold has himself crowned King of England.

Halley's Comet appears, a bad omen. The people are worried and consult the heavens. Harold is worried, too. William's spies set out to Normandy to inform him that Harold is King of England. II - 4542©Ville de Bayeux

William holds counsel with his half-brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. The decision is taken that they will punish Harold for breaking his oath. Trees are felled, timber is hewn, and a fleet of ships is built. The ships are loaded with coats of mail, lances, swords and helmets. A soldier carries a pig, another a water skin, another a cask of wine. The ships drop anchor at St Valery sur Somme, closer to the English coast, and with favorable winds, the fleet sets sail on the evening of September 27. The Ducal ship in the center, with its banner crowned with a cross, has the Pope's blessing. Even the horses are laughing.

The fleet arrives at Pevensey in Sussex on September 28. The equipment is unloaded and a camp is set up. Cattle, pigs and sheep are pillaged and homes are abandoned. At camp a cooking pot sits over the fire, skewered meat is prepared, and bread is taken out of the oven. When the meal is served, some make due using their shields as tables, while at the head table Bishop Odo, recognizable by his tonsure, blesses the food.

A fortified town is built, for which the Normans are famous, and a battle ground is prepared, burning any houses in the way. A Saxon scout warns Harold that the Normans have come, and on October 14, 1066 trumpets sound in both camps to announce the beginning of the battle.

The closely grouped Norman cavalry spreads out. The archers, with their arrows aimed upwards, fire onto the Saxon troops. The Saxons, armed with javelins and axes, are in a square formation behind shields. Dead bodies, chopped off heads, and broken swords litter the lower border.

Harold's two brothers are killed by the Normans. A Norman horseman attacks an English foot soldier armed with an axe, leaving just the handle in the soldier's hand. Another foot soldier, armed with a two-handed axe, cleaves the head of a horse whose rider is about to thrust his sword at him.

Losing badly, Harold plants stakes into a ravine in a last ditch effort. Stuck on a hillock, the Saxons are few and have no helmets or armor left, but the Norman horses fall onto the stakes, a devastating blow. Bishop Odo tries to assemble the Norman troops. William, who was thought dead, raises his helmet, re-motivating the troops, and the Norman archers come running. The Saxon army is conquered. Harold is killed by an arrow in the eye. Dead bodies are stripped and left naked on the ground.

The 14-hour battle over, William the Bastard becomes William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, and King of England.

This article was originally published in December 2015 here at
Read about the origins of the Tapestry here.

Photos with permission by ©Ville de Bayeux

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