1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford

The man who really killed King Harold

The Bayeux Tapestry is, by any reckoning, an amazing piece of work: a piece of 11th-century linen 70 metres long, hand-embroidered, telling the story of how and why Duke William of Normandy invaded England in 1066.

The traditional view is that it was sponsored by William's half-brother, Bishop Odo, to whom it allots a distinguished part in the battle, and tells the story from a Norman viewpoint. To the Normans, King Harold of England had sworn a sacred oath to support the Conqueror's claim to the throne, and his defeat at Hastings was God's will. Bridgeford argues that the artist has produced something that could be read as a piece of triumphalism but is, in fact, a subversive account which contradicts the Norman version, and tries to make sense of the conquest in terms of God's will.

Here's Harold, off, according to Norman sources, to tell Duke William that Edward the Confessor wants him to be the next king. (It didn't occur to them that Edward couldn't compel England's most powerful earl to support a rival). He's shown in a heroic role, fighting with William in Brittany. The purpose of his journey should have been made clear by an inscription at this point. Not a stitch.

Fifty years after the conquest, the monk Eadmer of Canterbury writes that the real reason for Harold's visit to Normandy was to negotiate the return of two English hostages. Here, amid the clean-shaven Normans, we see the bearded Englishman, and Harold's oath. The tapestry places this after the Brittany expedition, just before the Earl's departure, with the clear implication that he was swearing under duress. A crestfallen Harold is admonished by the king. Surely, according to the Normans, he has fulfilled his mission and should be congratulated? The artist is posing a dangerous contradiction to the party line. An oath was an oath, however obtained. Though the tapestry shows Harold's accession was legal, the presence at the coronation of the disgraced Archbishop Stigand (who was not there) showed that Harold's perjury tainted the whole kingdom.

One of Bridgeford's main contentions is that the tapestry gives a more prominent role than has previously been suspected to Count Eustace II of Bologne. In 1980, Beryl Platt identified the three roundels on the shield of the man leading the charge at Hastings as his crest. Bridgeford goes further and suggests convincingly that the text identifies Eustace as Harold's killer. It is the French, not the Normans (to contemporaries the distinction was important) who are the instruments of God's will.

Eustace was descended from Charlemagne, the hero of the Song of Roland which has a number of parallels in the tapestry, and contemporaries would have been quick to link Odo and the Song's fighting Archbishop Turpin, so this overt reference would flatter both of them. His conclusion is that the tapestry was made in England before 1072, possibly as a reconciliation gift to Odo from Eustace after the Count attacked Odo's castle in Dover.

The quality of Bridgeford's research, and the originality of his suggestions, is delightful. Some of the discoveries that alter our perspective have been made very recently. It was only in 1986 that David Bernstein suggested that the two winged lions that appear in the border near Duke William suggest that he is Nebuchadnezzer, and that England's subjugation, like that of the Babylonian Jews, will not last. It is by no means impossible that further discoveries wait to be made. One does hope so.

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