Our quest is to investigate the true origin and meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry, to understand more about the characters who are named in it and with this to gain new insight into some of the darkest events of the Norman Conquest. This, of course, will require the story told in the tapestry's threads to be closely examined, but we will also need to compare it with the other contemporary accounts of the same events. There are a handful of these. Each has its own limitations; none has any inherent right to be regarded as inviolable truth.1 On the English side of the Channel, two versions of the annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle have accounts of the Norman invasion, whilst a third comes to an abrupt end in 1066 shortly before it took place.2 The fragile surviving manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are themselves national treasures. The monks who wrote the Chronicle attempted to distil the important events of each year, as they saw them, into single short paragraphs. Sometimes this can provide us with important information. The treatment of the events of the Conquest is pervaded by a memorable sense of sadness, but as a source for its key events and causes, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is disappointingly brief and superficial. It passes over in complete silence the crucial episode that opens the story in the Bayeux Tapestry: the strange journey that Earl Harold made to the continent in 1064 or 1065. It seems that the authors of the Chronicle either did not know or were unable to reveal the truth behind Harold's mission.
The Vita Ædwardi Regis (the Life of King Edward) is a work which King Edward's queen Edith commissioned in the 1060s from a Flemish monk residing at the royal court and it is therefore usually treated as another English source.3 Edith, who died in 1075, was Earl Harold's sister. She is seen (though not named) in the Bayeux Tapestry as a dutiful wife at King Edward's deathbed in January 1066 [plate 6]. The Life of King Edward survives in one near-contemporary manuscript copy, written out around 1100 in the small, neat handwriting of a single scribe. The work itself, though begun before 1066, seems to have been mostly written during King Harold's short reign. The author's original plan had been to celebrate the deeds of Edith's family, notably her father Earl Godwin and her brothers King Harold and Earl Tostig. The events of 1066, however, completely overtook this plan. The anonymous scribe, having optimistically begun his work in order to extol Harold's family, now had to make sense of the disaster that had overcome it. He turned to console the widowed and saddened queen by presenting her late husband Edward as a saint in heaven, and the Life of King Edward thenceforth dissolves into hagiography. Its contemporary character gives it many points of interest, including a dramatic account of Edward'sfinal hours, but the Life of King Edward is often obscure and the work as a whole seems to provide little that truly enlightens the reader about the key events that led up to the Norman Conquest. Here, too, Harold's strange journey to the continent is ignored. Even more surprising is the fact that Duke William of Normandy receives not a single direct mention.
In the written sources emanating from the Norman side of the Channel, Duke William cuts, as might be expected, a much larger figure. A Norman monk called William, working at the monastery of Jumieges, covered the period of the Conquest down to about 1070 in a Latin prose history known as the Gesta Normannorum Ducem (the Deeds of the Norman Dukes).4 More detailed is the biography of William the Conqueror written in the 1070s by one of his chaplains, William of Poitiers. His work, the Gesta Guillelmi Ducis (the Deeds of Duke William), survives only through an incomplete version that was printed in the sixteenth century, for the only known manuscript perished in a disastrous fire in 1731.5 It is by far the most detailed contemporary account of the events that concern us and its author was clearly well informed. As such the Deeds of Duke William will always be invaluable; but it is also biased. William of Poitiers was a Norman patriot. At each opportunity he loads praise upon Duke William and odium upon the evil and usurping Harold. His aim was to justify the Norman invasion, after it had happened; few doubt that he embellished the truth, and even knowingly lied, in what is quite patently a one-sided quest to make the Conquest appear lawful and justified. There are times when consulting William of Poitiers seems as useful as asking the editor of the Soviet Pravda about the inner dealings of the Kremlin, but in the absence of any similarly detailed English account of the same events it is William of Poitiers' story which has been widely accepted as history. He provides us, crucially, with the Norman interpretation of Harold's journey in 1064/5. He tells us that King Edward, nearing the end of his life, sent Earl Harold to Normandy with specific orders to confirm that he had chosen the Norman duke to be his successor as king of England. The Bayeux Tapestry is often interpreted as telling exactly the same Norman story. We shall uncover the clues in the tapestry that subtly tell a very different, and much more plausible, version of Harold's mission.
The earliest written account of the Battle of Hastings is neither English nor Norman. It was written in another part of northern France. What we call France today was then a patchwork of regions over which the French king, beyond his own limited domain, exercised little more than nominal authority, and sometimes none at all. Normandy was a largely autonomous region. It had been founded in 911 when King Charles the Simple, despairing of ever seeing an end to Viking incursions, agreed to sue for peace by ceding land around Rouen to the Viking leader Rollo. Duke William of Normandy was Rollo's great-great-great-grandson. By 1066 the Normans had consolidated their rule over a large territory stretching from the Cherbourg peninsula almost as far as the mouth of the River Somme. To outsiders they appeared thoroughly French in language, custom and religion. They nevertheless retained a distinctive sense of identity, aloof, as Norman rather than 'French' in a more limited sense. The French neighbours of Normandy, on the other hand, had much to fear from the growing power of the duchy and in no sense should they ever be called 'Normans'. To the north and east of Normandy lay the counties of important non-Norman magnates such as Count Guy of Ponthieu and his kinsman Count Eustace II of Boulogne. Both had been enemies of Normandy in the 1050s and in lending support to Duke William's invasion of 1066 they were moved only by their own concerns. It is, therefore, of considerable interest that the earliest surviving account of the Battle of Hastings was written by a non-Norman Frenchman, Bishop Guy of Amiens, who was the uncle of Count Guy of Ponthieu and an uncle or step-uncle of Count Eustace of Boulogne.
Bishop Guy's work is a substantial Latin poem called Carmen de Hastingae Proelio (the Song of the Battle of Hastings).6 Although long known to have existed, his account of the battle was not rediscovered until 1826, when the archivist to the king of Hanover happened to stumble across two twelfth-century copies while researching in the Royal Library in Brussels. It was a fortuitous find. The Carmen was possibly written as early as 1067 and certainly before Bishop Guy died in 1074 or 1075. It gives us a distinctively French, but non-Norman, perspective on the events of 1066, a continental counterpoint to the Norman biases of William of Poitiers. Unlike the Norman sources, but intriguingly like the tapestry, the author of the Carmen portrays Count Eustace II of Boulogne as the hero at Hastings.
As the years went by further writers added their own accounts. An English monk named Eadmer, working at the abbey of Christ Church in Canterbury, wrote the Historia Novorum in Anglia (the History of Recent Events in England) between about 1095 and 1123.7 Usually disregarded in favour of earlier sources, Eadmer's brief account of the Norman Conquest in his History flatly contradicts the Norman background to 1066 and it deserves much greater attention than it has conventionally been given. Other twelfth-century writers followed Eadmer's lead and showed a marked degree of sympathy for the conquered English, although they still justified the Norman victory as leading to improvements in standards of monasticism and morals in the country. In England there were John of Worcester, Henry of Huntingdon and William of Malmesbury; in Normandy there were Orderic Vitalis in the first half of the twelfth century and in the second the Jersey-born poet Wace.8
Orderic Vitalis was familiar with the complete version of William of Poitiers' Gesta, which he used extensively, though not without discretion, and he provides us with the most detailed and useful of the twelfth-century accounts of the Norman Conquest. Born near Shrewsbury in 1075 to an English mother and a Norman father, Orderic was placed by his parents in the Norman monastery of Saint-Evroul at the age of ten, 'a weeping child', he tells us, 'unknown to all, knowing no one'. He spent his whole life as a monk there, devoting himself to researching and writing. He wrote a continuation of the history of William of Jumieges, and then, between 1115 and 1141, he threw himself into a much larger project, a history of the Normans, which he called his Ecclesiastical History.Orderic's own beautifully neat copy of this work survives in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. Divided in his sympathies between the England of his boyhood and the Normandy of his education and adult years, Orderic justified the Conquest of 1066 as bringing Church reform to England, but at the same time he did not flinch, where necessary, from criticising the brutality of the conquerors. He even makes William the Conqueror refer to himself as a 'cruel murderer' as he lies dying in 1087 and has him make the following rather uncharacteristic (and unlikely) admission: 'I treated the native inhabitants [of England] with unreasonable severity, cruelly, oppressed high and low, unjustly disinherited many, and caused the death of thousands by starvation and war, especially in Yorkshire.'9
Written sources such as these are the bedrock of historical investigation. The story told in these black-letter records is exciting and revealing and puzzling. Yet when you close these books and pass to the Bayeux Tapestry your imagination still feels as if it has emerged out of the darkness of a cave into a world of sunlit colours. These busy little figures are not just eleventh-century cartoon characters stitched on to linen. They stand for real people, real people whose lives were changed, and in some cases ended, by the greatest of all events in English history. More than that, recorded in these threads are forgotten stories yet to be retold.