Mode of Execution and the Materials Employed

from The Bayeux Tapestry: A History and Description by Frank Rede Fowke (1913)

The Bayeux tapestry consists of a band of linen, probably originally unbleached, and which the lapse of ages has reduced to the colour of brown holland. The present length of this band is 70 metres 34 centimetres (230 ft. 9 1/3 in. English measure), and its width 50 centimetres (19 2/3 in. English measure). It formerly consisted of a single piece of linen without seam [i]; and although at one time divided into two parts, it has now been cleverly joined together again. In the upper margin a piece of cloth of a slightly inferior quality has been added at some time subsequent to the original manufacture of the tapestry. This additional strip, which is itself of a high antiquity, is joined to the main portion by a seam; it contains no figures, but displays blue stripes, as well as simple, double, and triple crosses; and before a kind of altar, a ladder, of which the sides are terminated by a cross and a little banded standard, the staff of which is surmounted by a cross. The width of this strip is 20 centimetres (nearly 8 in. English measure), and it may have been added to facilitate the exhibition of the main work[ii]. The whole tapestry is divided into seventy-two compartments [1] or scenes, which are generally separated from one another by conventionally-rendered trees or buildings. The tapestry contains [2] representations of :—

623 persons.
202 horses and mules.
55 dogs.
505 various other animals.
37 buildings.
41 ships and boats.
49 trees.
1,512 objects

These figures are worked with a needle in worsteds of eight different colours[iii], viz. : Dark and light blue, red, yellow, dark and light green, black, and dove colour. The intention of most of the compartments is explained by Latin inscriptions placed over them. The letters, like the figures, are stitched in worsted, and are about an inch in height. The drawing of all the objects is rude, nor has any great attention been paid to the representation of things in their natural colours. Thus horses are shown as blue, green, red, and yellow, a circumstance no doubt due to the limited number of colours at the artist's disposal. Working with flat tints, the embroiderers had no means of giving effects of light and shade ; and perspective is wholly disregarded. To indicate, therefore, objects at different distances from the spectator, they employed worsteds of different colours; thus a green horse has his off legs red, whilst those of a yellow horse are worked in blue, and so on.
If the drawing be rude the composition is bold and spirited, and is always rendered with great truth of expression, which is at times, however, exaggerated. The really historical portion of tapestry is for the most part confined to a width of 33 centimetres 5 millimetres (13 1/5 in. English measure) ; the top and bottom forming fantastic borders, containing lions, birds, camels, minotaurs, dragons, sphinxes, some fables of Æsop and Phaedrus, scenes of husbandry and of the chase, etc. Occasionally the border is taken into the thread of the story, and it frequently contains allegorical allusions to the scenes enacting within its bounds.

The mode of working has been to cover the figures with worsted threads laid down flat side by side, and then bound at intervals by cross fastenings: seams, joints, and folds being indicated by a species of twist. The faces of persons, their hands and, when bare, their legs also, are simply outlined in red, green, or blue, the features being frequently executed in yellow.

From the above description it will be seen that historical embroidery would be a more accurate title than tapestry for this work; time has, however, consecrated the misnomer, and it is improbable that it will ever bear a different appellation.

In concluding this notice of the tapestry it is fitting to offer some opinion as to its date and authorship. The chief facts upon which my judgment is based are as follows:

William and his wife were accustomed to recite their gifts to the Church, but neither the Duke on his deathbed nor Matilda in her will mentions the tapestry. This was called " La Grand Telle du Conquest d'Angleterre," when, for the first time, noticed in the inventories of 1369 and of 1476. In the latter document the canons of Bayeux recorded the traditions relating to other objects in their custody, but were silent when dealing with the tapestry, and a like silence was observed by subsequent writers. The date of its festal exhibition obtained for the tapestry the title of "La Toilette de St. Jean," and, when discovered by the Abbé Montfaucon, it was known in Bayeux as "La Toilette du Due Guillaume." The abbé recorded a tradition, as then current, that it was Queen Matilda "qui la fit faire "; this on dit was converted by Lancelot into " qui l'ait tissue elle-même avec ses femmes," and improved by Sir Joseph Ayloffe into " by her own hands and the assistance of the ladies of her court worked in arras and presented to the cathedral at Bajeux " (sic) etc., and only after its exhibition in Paris did the tapestry acquire the designation of "Le Tapis de la Reine Mathilde."

To so late a tradition which, if actually current, was confined to a place where nearly everything was ascribed to William and his Duchess, little importance can attach.

Failing tradition, recourse must be had to internal evidence, and here (whilst there is nothing to connect the work with Matilda) the evident attempt to preserve the characteristics of the principal figures (William and Eadward resembling their portraits on their seals), together with the accurate representation of eleventh century costume and of military details, which would certainly have been wanting at a later date, show it almost contemporary with the incidents depicted. Such words as Ælfgyva, Ceastra and Franci suggest an English origin, but admit of the explanation that the dialect spoken in Bayeux was a mixture of Saxon and Norman, Ceastra alone remaining untraced to the Bessin dialect or its source. [3] The prominence given to Odo and to obscurer persons who were subsequently his feudatories (Turold, Vital, and Wadard), the employment of a worsted characteristic of the Bessin district, the introduction of the local form of wine barrel and of such dialectic peculiarities as Bagias and Wilgelm, the coincidence of length in the tapestry and the nave which it served to decorate, and the choice of the anniversary of the cathedral's consecration for the date of exhibition, point to the moment of its presentation by Odo, who, as bishop, alone had power to display a profane history in a sacred edifice; these facts taken together afford strong evidence of locality of origin, and suggest the probable donor. Passing the foregoing points in review, I conclude the tapestry to be a contemporary work in which Queen Matilda had no part, and that it was probably ordered for his cathedral by Bishop Odo and made by Norman workpeople at Bayeux.


1. That is, following the subjects; for the different divisions or lengths are indicated by large numbers from 1 to 56 marked on the canvas outside the border. The form of these numbers is such that they cannot be more than a couple of centuries old. They are of no special interest, and were probably added by some custodian of the tapestry for convenience of exhibition.
2. "The Bayeux Tapestry, elucidated by Rev. John Collingwood Bruce." 4to. London, 1856. P. 13, note a.
3. Ceastra for Castra has been looked upon as another Saxon form; but M. Delauney points out that it is the same species of orthography as Eadwardus for Adwardus, which the author of the panegyric of Queen Emma employs; and that in modern French this mode of spelling is retained in Jean, protégea, and in all those words where the soft g precedes an a.

Editor's Notes

i. A more recent description of the tapestry provides additional detail: The embroidery was fashioned by needle on a thin, fairly even linen cloth. It is made up of nine identical widths of cloth, each of unequal length, assembled by oversewing. The embroidery is carried out using stem stitch for the outlines and couching stitch for filling in most of the figures. Also, chain stitch and split stitch, using coloured wool threads and bay-coloured linen threads, were used to give the effect of greater relief to certain letters and patterns, such as arrows, spears and ropes. The colours used have no naturalist function. (UNESCO submission).

ii. Chemical analysis has shown that the natural dyes used included weld, madder and either woad or indigo. (UNESCO submission).

iii. This appears to have been removed in subsequent restoration. (UNESCO submission).