How useful is the Bayeux Tapestry as a source for the events surrounding the Norman invasion of England?

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The Bayeux Tapestry is unique and invaluable as an artefact of its time. It is not as simply as appears however and it is essential that we define its provenance and date. We must also understand the idiosyncrasies of its design if it's to take its place as a 'major authority for the events of the Norman conquest.'

A point that must be addressed at the start of this essay is that the Bayeux Tapestry finishes rather abruptly after Harold is slain and his army routed. The start of the Tapestry is bordered on three sides, so it's likely the end would have been the same. It is almost universally believed that the end of the Tapestry is missing. It could be presumed that the Tapestry finished as it started - with a rightful king seated upon his lion throne. However, these panels were either lost or never existed and as such the tapestry is not useful at all as a source for the events after the Battle of Hastings and certainly offers no information on William's systematic conquest of England in the next decade.

French folklore attributed the Tapestry to Matilda, William's wife. Its creation is now attributed to Bishop Odo, although French historians do still try as much as possible to connect her in some way or form to the Tapestry because it is 'both more gallant and more poetic.'

There are several clues that allow us to connect the tapestry to Odo. Firstly he is afforded prominence in the Tapestry out of sync with other contemporary accounts. He appears as advisor to the King, at one stage appearing to even suggest the invasion of England. He appears as a spiritual leader at the 'last meal' and as a warrior rallying the troops. H.P. Brooks and D.J. Berstein both note parallels between the portrayal of Odo at the meal scene and Christ's last meal scene in St. Augustine's Gospels. Berstein remarking;

It is Bishop Odo who dominates the scene. Looking directly at the viewer while all the diners, with one exception turn towards him, Odo commands our attention and theirs. Where is William?

Also, the Tapestry is very much a story of great men - Edward the Confessor, William, Harold - and only four characters of unimportance are given names in the inscriptions; Ælfgyva, Turold, Wadard and Vital. The first figure, Ælfgyva, is one of the mysteries of the tapestry and we know nothing about her, or her reason of inclusion. Turold, Wadard and Vital are peculiar in that they performed no great deeds of note in the conquest and are conspicuous in there naming. Investigation of the Doomsday book has shown that these three characters were in fact vassals to Odo and all held lands from Odo in Kent. Vital was specifically known as 'Vital of Canterbury.'

The final clue is that the oath scene in the Tapestry is set in Bayeux. The oath is absolutely crucial to the Norman justification of William's right to the throne, but where it took place is not known. Poitiers places it at Bonneville and Orderic Vitalis places it at Rouen.

If we accept that Odo did commission the Tapestry, we can attempt to date it. It is assumed that the tapestry was at least commissioned between 1066 and 1082, the date of Odo's fall from grace in England. If the Tapestry was created in France then there is a possibility that it could have been made after these dates but evidence points to it not only being created in England, but in St. Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury and designed by an educated, supremely talented English cleric.

St. Augustines Abbey enjoyed favourable relations with Odo. Additionally two of the knights - Wadard and Vital - held lands of St Augustine's. It was also a centre renowned for its excellence in drawing. Brooks points out that images in the Tapestry bear direct resemblance to images that can be found in the documents and illuminations residing in St. Augustines and her neighbour Christ Church at the time. Bernstein's work goes into much greater and convincing detail than I can include here. His studies certainly show a...
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