Bayeux Tapestry – the Backstory

All I wanted was to stay inside for an afternoon, out of the heat, and learn a little more about sail history.  “I bet historians have written about the ships on the Bayeux Tapestry,” I thought, “How long could it take to find out about that?”

Six weeks, five books, and one video later, I am slowly emerging from the world of the 11th century, full of information (but none of it on ships).

Norman ships in the Bayeux Tapestry

from Wikimedia Commons

The Bayeux Tapestry* depicts the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when William of Normandy invaded England and defeated its Anglo-Saxon king, Harold.  It is 70 meters long and 50 cm tall, and probably took a year or so to make, so I think it deserves more than one post.  I’m planning to do three – this one on the background story, then a shorter one on how it was made, and then one that sums up the resources I used.

I think it’s easier to understand who is doing what in the Tapestry, if you know what was going on with their families a generation or so before .  For me it boils down to three people who were at the heart of things. (Because this is just a blog post, and not an HBO series, I am going to leave out many many spouses, siblings, rebellions, exiles, and deaths.  Also, I am not a historian, and even real historians aren’t sure of all the details, so please view this as just a rough idea of what went on.)

Richard II, duke of Normandy, is the first person. He doesn’t come into the story much, but he’s a relation of half of the people that do.

The second is his sister Emma, who gets married twice, both times to men who have children from previous wives.  Emma does not fit the stereotype of demure, retiring medieval women.  She is ambitious and  manipulative, and she is involved in struggles between her sons, between her sons and their half-brothers, and between her sons and her advisers.

We know a lot about Emma, because she left us a book all about herself.  Written about 1041, by a hired writer, it is titled In Praise of Queen Emma (Encomium Emmae Reginae).  It may be the first book written strictly to put a positive public relations spin on the life of a living person.

As a piece of special pleading and blatant flattery, Emma’s Encomium had no precedent.  It was not the biography of a long-dead saint, but dealt with recent political events and the deeds of herself and her contemporaries.

-Carola Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece

Emma’s first marriage, in 1002, is to Æthelred, the king of England.  They have three children, Edward, Alfred, Godgifu.

Æthelred does not have a peaceful rule.  In 1013 and 1015, the Vikings invade England and set up a king.  The first time Æthelred takes his family to safety in Normandy, returns when circumstances allow, and rules again.  The second time, the children again flee to safety with their uncle, duke Richard II, but Æthelred has died.  Emma remains in England, and marries the new king, Cnut of Denmark**, and has a son with him, Harthacnut.

The third person, Godwine, is one of Cnut’s advisers.  We know that he is an  Englishman, but nothing else about his origins.  By 1018 he is made an earl, is married to Cnut’s sister-in-law, Gytha, and before too long is in charge of all of southern England.  We will skip over all their children except Harold and Edith.

Things run along as usual for the next 20 years – lots of territorial disputes, plots, feuds, death and destruction.  Over in Normandy, duke Richard II dies.  Edward and Alfred are living peacefully with their cousin Robert, who rules Normandy for about seven years.  He then suddenly decides to go off on Crusade, leaving the kingdom in the hands of his seven-year-old illegitimate son, William.  Robert never makes it back, dying on the way in 1035, and back in England, Cnut dies that same year.

Queen Emma wants her son Harthacnut, to be made king.  But there’s another son of Cnut from a previous marriage, Harold Harefoot***, so people pick sides, and the struggles resume.  Harthacnut is already king of Denmark and power struggles there keep him from rushing over to rule England.  After two years, his faction in England starts to lose patience, and everyone is thinking about switching to Harold Harefoot.

It looked as if the queen’s grip on power, assiduously maintained through her marriage to two English kings, was about to end because of her son’s continued absence.  It must have been around this point that she recalled she had two other sons living in exile across the channel…Emma appears to have turned to the sons of her first marriage in a desperate attempt to improve her diminishing political fortunes.

Marc Morris – The Norman Conquest: The Battle of Hastings and the Fall of Anglo-Saxon England

In 1036, her younger son Alfred comes back to England, but Godwine (being Cnut’s man), is pretty sure that this son of Æthelred will throw him out of power, and he engineers an attack on Alfred and his men.  Alfred is blinded and soon dies of his wounds.  (Emma says in her book that someone forged a letter in her name to convince her sons to return.  Historians believe “the woman doth protest too much.”)

Harold Harefoot does become king for a while and Emma is driven into exile.  Then in 1040, Harold dies,  Harthacnut finally gets to be king, and of course Emma is back in power as well.  By all accounts, Harthacnut is a terrible king –  he has Harold Harefoot’s body dug up and thrown into a fen, he raises the taxes 400%, and has his forces burn the city of Worcester when the citizens protest the tax.

And then, he suddenly invites his half-brother Edward, to come back from Normandy and be a co-ruler.  Because monarchs are famous for sharing power like that.  But Edward believes him and comes to England.

(One thing that amazes me in all these machinations, is that even though half the people who are sent or summoned to another kingdom end up imprisoned or killed, people continue to blithely accept invitations.  I would be afraid to set foot outside my hovel.)

According to the Encomium, Harthacnut, Edward, and Emma are “sharers of rule,” comparable even to the Trinity in heaven.  Historians have a hard time believing that this was Harthacnut’s idea, and think that he may have been pressured into it by other strong leaders, maybe even Godwine.

This little experiment doesn’t go on long, because in summer of 1042, Harthacnut drops down while drinking at a wedding, and dies.  Let me quote from my favorite, Marc Norris, again:

A good Viking way to go, to be sure, but also one with more that a hint of suspicion about it, given his massive unpopularity, and the cup that had been in his hand.

It might seem that Harthacnut’s death would make the road ahead all rosy for Edward, but he still has Godwine to contend with.  Before Edward even dreamed of ruling, Godwine was building power and wealth for 25 years.  Edward knows he must have Godwine’s support to stay in power, and even marries his daughter Edith.

Does Edward know that Godwine arranged for Alfred’s death?

In 1051, after six years of marriage to Edith, with no heir on the horizon, (and according to Edith, no consummation of the marriage) Edward announces that he is making William of Normandy his heir.  Other power struggles come to a head at the same time, and Godwine raises up men against Edward, but on the threshold of civil war, it becomes obvious that Godwine will lose.

He asks the king what he will have to do to come to terms of peace, and Edward reportedly says, “Give me back my brother alive.”

Godwine and all his grown sons (including the Harold that will be in the Tapestry) flee and go into exile, and Edward banishes Edith to a nunnery.

So!  We are almost caught up to the time of the Tapestry.  If you want to see it for yourself, this is a panorama. And this is an English replica, that has good short explanations of what is going on each scene.

* Any mention of the Bayeux Tapestry is honor-bound to explain that it is not really a tapestry, in which the picture is created as the fabric is being woven, but an embroidery, in which the picture is sewn on top of an existing piece of cloth.  Since the word “tapestry” isn’t found in the English language until 1467, and the first mention we have of the Bayeux Tapestry is from 1476, I really can’t get too exercised over this.  Terms change.

** A chronicler of the time said that Cnut ordered her to be fetched as his wife, but Emma’s version was that he wooed her back from Normandy with presents.

*** He gets his nickname later, and no one really even knows why, but I’m using it here to distinguish him from the other Harold, Godwine’s son.