The Women of the Bayeux Tapestry

Written by Rebecca Mackay

In 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May, and French Premier Emmanuel Macron agreed, in a show of diplomatic goodwill, that the Bayeux Tapestry would travel to England for the first time in 950 years. While conservation concerns have put this plan on hold, the discussions have given rise to renewed interest in the work.

The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry, but a piece of Early Medieval embroidery depicting the invasion of England in 1066. Beyond this, however, the 230ft long and 20 inches wide tapestry is one of few ways to gain insight into life in Early Medieval Europe and understand the people that made it.

The Battle of Hasting, October 1066
(Image Credit: Wikicommons)

The Story

The tapestry begins with Edward the Confessor sending Harold Godwinson to Normandy. Harold arrives, fights with William, Duke of Normandy against the Duke of Brittany, and is knighted for his efforts. He swears an oath to William and returns to England. Edward dies, and seemingly places Harold in charge. Harold is coronated, but William is shown readying a fleet to sail to England, looking to claim the throne through his great-aunt Emma of Normandy: the mother of Edward. The Battle of Hastings is then depicted, with both sides taking losses but William ultimately taking victory.

It is left purposefully ambiguous as to exactly what the motivations for certain actions are: what did Harold promise William following their successful campaign; why did Edward send him to Normandy in the first place; did Edward appoint Harold king on his death, or merely protector while William sailed the Channel to claim his inheritance? We may never know: the tapestry doesn’t tell us, and any evidence for either case is largely lost to history. Most accounts from the time suggest Harold broke a promise to William – but then, most of those accounts are Norman.[i]

Who Commissioned It?

The tapestry’s ambiguity also makes it difficult to say definitively who wanted it made. There are, however, several theories.

It was long thought to be the work of Queen Matilda – wife of William the Conqueror – and her ladies of the court as a celebration of William’s victory. This held sway for many years, so much so that the work is often known as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde in France. Embroidery was one of the few acceptable pastimes of noble ladies, particularly in the eyes of later eras, so the romantic Medievalism of Victorian scholarship did little to contradict this theory.[ii] If it was not Queen Matilda, it was Queen Edith, wife of Edward I, who had embroidered this monstrously long fabric. At 230ft long and 20 inches wide, the idea that a small group of noble women may have constructed this to please an invading king seems farfetched, if only for the sheer number of years it would have taken.

The most likely candidate is Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William who would become Earl of Kent – not least because the tapestry would be hung in the cathedral that he would build. With a strong powerbase in Kent, he had access to the finest producers of opus anglicanum, andin Medieval Europe this was a prized luxury: an ornate style of embroidery used for royal and liturgical purpose. The Domesday records show the importance of embroidery to the area, particularly Canterbury, and analysis shows Anglo-Saxon spelling and style in the work. With the prominence of Bishop Odo emphasised in the tapestry, and that of his close vassals – vassals with little significance to events – it seems most likely a work of political propaganda to aid his brother, made in England before being transported to Bayeux Cathedral upon its completion in 1077.

Bishop Odo of Bayeux, represented prominently in the Bayeux Tapestry
(Image Credits: Wikicommons)

But Who Actually Made It?

The short answer is women.

In the Early Medieval period, embroidery was a female-only profession, and while later years would see men join their ranks it would not be until the 12th century[iii]. But this was not the project of courtly ladies in their leisure time: it was a vast managerial undertaking. The speed with which it was made makes it almost certain that the work was overseen by one supervisor, and it is very likely this would have been a woman with significant experience, and the knowledge to manage novice and expert workers.

This would not have been unique. There is record of a 9th century charter given to the embroideress Eansutha so that she may look after and manufacture textiles[iv]. In 1086, the Domesday Book even records that a woman named Aeflgyth held land in Buckinghamshire “which Goone the Sheriff granted her… on condition of teaching his daughter gold embroidery work.”[v] Nuns, meanwhile, were encouraged to pursue embroidery to create elaborate dress for the priest. The St. Augustine Abbey in Canterbury had on its grounds a nunnery, with surviving records showing vast output of embroidered materials. It is highly likely this nunnery had a big role in the making of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Example of English embroidery (opus Anglicanum), dating from the 14th century. Earliest known surviving embroidered book covering, held by the V&A in London.
(Image Credits: Wikicommons)

Female embroiderers were not just noblewomen and nuns, but business owners. In the following centuries, embroidery would become a major commercial export. In 1238, Adam de Basing became the wealthiest man in London from selling embroidery to noble courts[vi]. While men sold the work, it was women who made it. Women would list it as a profession, alongside their husband’s own work. It was not total freedom – women were paid up to 6 pence less than their male counterparts – but they were able to enter their own profession and earn a wage to support their families.[vii]

The Bayeux Tapestry was a huge political undertaking, and one that women were a major part of. We may never know for sure where or why the tapestry was made – if it was made in a commercial workshop or the work of a whole nunnery – but we can know that women were at every step of the process. These were professional women, masters of their craft. Far from dainty maidens, the women of Medieval Europe were economic contributors in their own right.

[i] Orderic Vitalis. William of Poitier: Gesta Willelmi ducis Normannorum et regis Anglorum, c. 1071.

[ii] Alice Chandler, “Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol 19. No 4. Pp 315 -332.

[iii] Margaret Wade Lebarge, “Stitches in Time: Medieval Embroidery in its Social Setting.” Florilegium, 16. 77-96.

[iv] Margaret Wade Lebarge, “Stitches in Time: Medieval Embroidery in its Social Setting.” Florilegium, 16. 77-96.

[v] Margaret Wade Lebarge, “Stitches in Time: Medieval Embroidery in its Social Setting.” Florilegium, 16. 77-96.

[vi] Gwyn A. Williams. Medieval London: From Commune to Capital. (London: Athlone Press, 1963.)

[vii] Gwyn A. Williams. Medieval London: From Commune to Capital. (London: Athlone Press, 1963.)


Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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