I don’t remember all that many historical dates, but one imprinted on my mind, is 1066 and the Battle of Hastings. So Bayeux meant a chance to see the Tapestry. We drove into town mid afternoon and were charmed by the streams, mills and narrow cobbled streets.
We stayed at the Churchill Hotel an old Bayeux institution. It is a gracious place with red flocked paper walls covered in memorabilia and photos from the Normandy invasion. There is a comfortable bar where you can have the local drink called Pommeau which is a mix of cidre and Calvados. The Churchill runs a day trip to Mont St. Michel in small vans (very popular so if you want to do this book well ahead) and is just around the corner from the Overlord tour stop. Overlord runs tours to the landing beaches. We choose an all day tour of the American beaches.
We were here for two nights and after a night spent at Mont St. Michel. This gave us a little time to visit the Cathedral and the Tapestry that first afternoon and a day for the World War II sites. The Cathedral is about 3 blocks from the hotel and a lovely stroll through narrow streets.
The Cathedral dates from around the time of the Norman Invasion and was originally built by Bishop Odo who is also thought to have commissioned the Tapestry, although that is not certain. He was a half brother of William the Conqueror and served as Bishop of Bayeux. It is at this site that Harold is said to have made the oath to William that he would succeed to the English throne after the death of Edward the Confessor.
but most were lost in the war and replaced with clear glass.
For me the highlight of a visit to Bayeux was a chance to see the Tapestry. To my surprise, since I knew nothing about it except that it commemorated the Battle of Hastings, it is not a tapestry, but rather a 70 meter long narrow embroidered tableau. It is less than two feet wide and bordered with a frieze of animals, soldiers; occasionally the action from the main story spills into the border pattern.
This is a fragment just before a scene where Harold and William sit down to parlay and the oath is sworn that will make William king. Or so William always said. Apparently Edward passed the kingship to Harold on his death bed and this provoked William to invade and defeat England and seize the throne. In this period of English history the king was chosen by council and not by primogeniture.
As you can see, the story is worked in colored wool yarn on a linen cloth which has darkened over the millennium since it was made. It was originally displayed in the Cathedral but has had quite a history. It was nearly lost during the revolution when it was taken as the ‘people’s property’ and used to cover munition wagons. At one point a town council decided to cut it up and use it to decorate a float for a parade; luckily at each juncture someone stepped up and rescued and preserved it. For a piece of work this size, nearly a thousand years old, it is remarkably well preserved. A few feet of its length have been lost and the beginning and ends are heavily restored, but it is for the most part the original work. And it is remarkably moving.
There are numerous scenes of ships sailing and battles being fought interspersed with the occasional conference of key figures. It is displayed beautifully and visitors walk the length of the tapestry with an audio guide to pick out the action. The display and taped narrative is designed to move the crowds quickly along. Luckily when we were there in late October of 2011, there was no line to get in and few visitors, so it was easy for us to go back to the beginning of the Tapestry and slowly walk aback down looking more closely at the scenes. Photography is not allowed in the display of the Tapestry and so the snapshots here were taken of reproductions and posters in the museum.
The Bayeux Tapestry is one of those things I have heard about all my life that actually more than lived up to its reputation. It is worth the trip to Bayeux to just see it. In the scene below early in the story, Norman soldiers are attacking near Dol and the Breton Duke Conan is escaping down a rope from his castle. The Normans chase Conan and his minions past Rennes, the Capital of Brittany.
This is a fragment from the Battle of Hastings where Harold was defeated and killed and William claimed the throne.
We didn’t spend enough time in Bayeux to see all it has to offer, but the chance to spend a day touring the landing beaches, and to realize a long dream to see the Bayeux Tapestry made the stop memorable. And we enjoyed this final glimpse of the Cathedral at night before heading to Honfleur the next morning.