1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry

It bears the name of the Norman town where it has been treasured for centuries.  Unique, mysterious and visually stunning, the Bayeux Tapestry is one of the world’s most significant artworks.  Almost 950 years old, and nearly 70 metres long, it vividly recounts the rivalry for the throne of England between Earl Harold of Wessex and Duke William of Normandy – a rivalry which famously culminated with William’s epoch-changing victory at Hastings on 14 October 1066, and the death of Harold.  My book traces how modern scholarship has substantially established that the Tapestry was made in England, contrary to much popular expectation, and that it was made, more specifically, at St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Kent.   My book also shows how the point of view expressed by the Tapestry is an ingenious English version of the succession crisis of 1066 and how the Tapestry throws light on the Anglo-Saxon view of their own nation’s defeat.  But most significantly, my book brings to the fore an elusive third actor in this great drama, Count Eustace II of Boulogne – the noble descendant of Charlemagne who, according to the Tapestry’s cryptic portrait, killed Harold.  

 

Who was Count Eustace II of Boulogne?  He was not a Norman but he was William’s foremost ally at Hastings from beyond the borders of Normandy. He was also a rival for influence in the brutal world of eleventh-century Northern Europe.  Their relationship was turbulent, and to appreciate the Bayeux Tapestry we must look at events after the battle ended.  It took less than a year for them to fall out. The reason is now obscure, but whatever occurred was evidently enough to provoke Eustace to violence.  The earliest source (William of Poitiers, Gesta Guillelmi) reports that Eustace had considerable English support amongst the men of Kent – despite his participation in the Norman invasion a year earlier – and he and his English allies now conspired to launch a surprise attack on Norman interests.  In the autumn of 1067, as darkness fell over Boulogne, Eustace led a band of Boulonnais knights in a small fleet of ships across the Channel and at dawn he joined up with his allies in Kent in an attempt to seize Dover castle from William’s half-brother, the warrior-bishop Odo of Bayeux.  

 

The attack was a humiliating failure.  Many of Eustace’s knights were killed or captured and Eustace himself was forced to retreat swiftly back to Boulogne.  What is more, one of the soldiers captured by Odo’s men was a young kinsman – a nepos, perhaps nephew, grandson or bastard son in the Latin of the day – who had accompanied Eustace for his very first battle and whose fate must have now weighed heavily on the Count’s mind.  Even worse than that, Eustace had also given his own legitimate young son as a hostage to a suspicious William before the invasion of 1066.  At what point this boy was released is not known, but if he was still being held by William in the autumn of 1067, the defeat at Dover had truly turned into a catastrophe. 

 

The Count of Boulogne was disgraced in Norman eyes.  Although he managed, a few years later, to negotiate a remarkable reconciliation with William, the immediately contemporary Norman writers sought to airbrush out of their accounts any significant contribution from Boulogne.  By and large they wrote the first draft of history; and by and large their view has prevailed.  Today few remember him.   But the Tapestry is different: and this is the point.  Eustace is treated as a valiant hero at Hastings, one of a trio of victorious men, fighting alongside each other in the Norman cause – William himself, Bishop Odo and Eustace of Boulogne.   We must bear in mind  that hundreds of figures are depicted along the length of the work but scarcely a dozen are given names; and  it is Eustace and Odo, and no others, who highlighted and given the honour of supporting William in battle.   Indeed Eustace carries the largest banner, shoulder to shoulder with the Norman Duke, and his name is placed highest of all.  And later on, Eustace is (I argue) cryptically shown as killing Harold in fulfilment of what contemporaries regarded as divine judgment - God’s sentence of death carried out upon Harold for his breach of oath to William.  The prominence given to Eustace of Boulogne ought to tell us much about the origin, meaning, and date of the work.  Unfortunately, however, historians of the Bayeux Tapestry have tended to focus too heavily on the work’s flattery of Odo of Bayeux – Odo, who was by then also Earl of Kent, is often suggested as the Tapestry’s patron – and the natural tendency at this distance in time to view the battle in purely binary terms, as a conflict between Normans and Anglo-Saxons, has obscured the need, in this context, for a more nuanced understanding of the differences which existed within William’s own army. Thus the Count of Boulogne tends to be ignored or forgotten, or at best treated as insignificant, or even misunderstood as a ‘Norman’ or a 'knight', and the incident at Dover in 1067, which had brought him into specific conflict with Bishop Odo, receives no mention at all.  

My book seeks to correct this fundamental error.  I argue that (whoever was the work’s patron – an unanswerable question) the Tapestry’s account of the battle of Hastings was designed, in various fascinating ways, to champion the Count of Boulogne, both in the eyes of the Normans with whom he had fallen out and in the eyes of his own supporters.  Whereas the first half of the Tapestry gives us an ingenious Canterbury version of Harold’s errors in the years leading up to 1066,  the second, with its stunning depiction of the battle of Hastings, is a Boulonnais account in which Eustace and his knights are instrumental in securing William’s victory.  The Tapestry is, I argue, contemporary with the accommodation reached between Eustace and the Norman ducal family which took place in the first half of the 1070s.  Designed by elements at Canterbury favourable to Eustace (and reflective of the support already given to him in 1067 by the men of Kent) it seeks to play a part in this reconciliation -  or, if not that, to celebrate its outcome: in short it formed the dramatic backcloth to Eustace’s triumphant return to Norman favour. The stakes were high.  For William, Boulogne was an important ally to the north of Normandy, a buffer state, with control over the short Channel crossing between Dover and the continent.  For Eustace, successful reconciliation with the Normans was to confirm his expectation of an enormous dividend for siding with William in 1066; the Domesday Book of 1086 records that the share of spoils accorded to the House of Boulogne made it the tenth richest landholder in England.  The reconciliation may also have been the occasion for the release of Eustace’s young nepos, whose fate is uncertain, and perhaps also the release of his own young son who had been given to William prior to the invasion as a hostage to guarantee the alliance with Boulogne.  

In promoting Eustace’s claim to be forgiven and rewarded by William, notwithstanding the Dover débâcle of 1067, the Tapestry reflects, in fact, the very earliest account of the battle of Hastings that survives.  This is a poem (dating from about 1068) written from a distinctive Northern French, but non-Norman perspective, by Eustace’s kinsman, Bishop Guy of Amiens (Carmen de Hastignae Proelio); this poem likewise portrays Eustace as a brave ally of the Normans at Hastings, lest this be forgotten by William, and in particular it also asserts that Eustace was one of four men who struck the last blows that rained upon the unfortunate Harold.  My book thus seeks to place the Bayeux Tapestry back into the political context of the early 1070's, when it was made, when Eustace of Boulogne was achieving his remarkable reconciliation with William of Normandy and Odo of Bayeux, and when St Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury, where the embroidery was designed and created, was in the course of being re-built in grand style with, some evidence suggests, dressed stone from the quarries of Boulogne.

 

A new essay I have written on the Bayeux Tapestry, Eustace of Boulogne and the death of Harold (with new evidence) will soon be available.

The book is available to buy in the following editions, please click on one of the links below:

 

1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry
(Fourth Estate, 2004; HarperCollins, 2005)

 

US Edition – 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry
(Walker, 2005, Bloomsbury)

 

French Edition – 1066: l’histoire secrète de la tapisserie de Bayeux
(2005, Editions du Rocher)