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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

What is The Bayeux Tapestry? The Story from the 70m Embroidered Cloth

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At some time before 1082 in the south of England one of the most remarkable examples of Western art was produced. Now known as the Bayeux Tapestry, though in fact it is not strictly a tapestry but an embroidered linen strip, it depicts the events leading up to Duke William of Normandy’s invasion and the conquest of England in 066. What is remarkable about this monumental work, it measures some 224 feet (68.38 meters) in length, is its depiction of the whole panoply of the armies of both Normandy and England. It shows not only the arms and armor worn and used at the time, but the battle scenes give us some of the best information we have as to how armies fought in the eleventh century. It is this feature that is, perhaps, most important. Using it we can begin to see not only how the wars of the decades before 1066 were fought but also how the first crusaders went into battle against the Muslims at the end of the century.

Types of soldiers and equipment that are depicted on the Tapestry

The soldiers depicted on the Tapestry are of three basic types. The first, the greater majority, are shown fighting on horseback and wear mail shirts and helmets. Most carry kite-shaped shields and are armed with swords and lances while a few carry some form of club or mace. A second group also wears mail and helmets but fight on foot with swords. The last group, who also fight on foot, are armed with bows and arrows and are shown without any protective armor, mail, or helmets.


The mail shirts, called hauberks, shown in the Tapestry cover the torso and arms extending to just above the elbow. The upper parts of the legs of the soldiers are also protected with mail though whether these are legs in the same manner as the arms and completely enclose the thighs is not easy to determine. However in the margins of the battle scenes dead soldiers are shown being stripped of their armor and these would confirm that the mail was just a long shirt reaching down to just above the knee, split at front and back to enable enough movement to walk and ride a horse. The way the legs are shown covered in mail is probably just a convention of the Tapestry makers.

Spangenhelm and other types of Helmets

The helmets worn in the Tapestry are all very much alike and are the type known as spangenhelm, consisting of a wide band that encircles the head attached to which are two narrow bands—one from front to back, the other from side to side—which go over the head. The resulting triangular-shaped spaces are then filled with iron plates though the example from Benty Grange, admittedly much earlier in date, is thought to have been filled with horn. A projection, called the nasal, extends down from the front of the encircling band to cover the nose. This form of helmet shows some similarities to those found at Benty Grange and the Coppergate site in York, England, as well as helmets from Scandinavia, and appears to have been widespread throughout Europe from the late Roman period. Unfortunately, the haphazard way colors are used in the Tapestry means it is not possible to be clear about the materials used in their manufacture. Unlike the helmets mentioned earlier, those shown in the Tapestry are less rounded and come to a point at the top of the head.

Depictions of mail armor and types of Shields

Many of the soldiers are also wearing mail beneath their helmets as an additional protection. Though it has been claimed that this mail may be attached to the lower rear of the helmet and act solely as a neck defender, it is clear that this was separate from the helmet. This is confirmed by the fact that where a helmet has been displaced to one side or where a helmet is not being worn the mail is shown covering the head as well as protecting both the front and back of the neck—essentially a mail “helmet” or coif. Whether the coif was part of the main body of the shirt or is separate is not at all clear, though later evidence would suggest that the coif was attached to the shirt. An unusual feature on many of the mail shirts is a rectangular piece, outlined with a different color, in the top front of the shirt. This has not been satisfactorily explained but may be additional protection for the opening at the neck. The mail shirt, coif, and helmet are usually the only pieces of armor worn—the lower legs, feet, and hands are not normally protected in any way—just one or two figures, usually that of the Duke, are shown with mail protecting the lower limbs. However, most of the mounted soldiers are also carrying a distinctive kite-shaped shield—rounded at the top and extending down to a point—which also served as an effective additional defense. Made of wood, and probably covered with leather, all appear to have a binding, possibly of iron though this cannot be proved, round the edges. Though many are plain some are decorated with small discs, possibly rivet heads, around a central boss. A small number have very simple designs that may have acted as an identifier of some kind—the function of heraldry at a later date—though this is pure conjecture. Each shield is fitted with three straps at the rear. In action the left arm was inserted through two shorter straps and rested against a small internal pad. The shield could then be maneuvered effectively as a defense against both sword blows and arrows. A longer strap was used to sling the shield over the left shoulder when not in use. Although this type of shield is mostly shown being used by the mounted soldiers, some were also used by foot soldiers who could hold them side by side to form a “shield wall” for additional protection. Though the kite shape is ubiquitous there are a few examples of the round shield with a central boss. These appear to have been used exclusively by the English foot soldiers and, like the kite-shaped shield, they also appear to have their edges bound with iron. They have very prominent bosses—probably of iron as in many excavated examples. It is possible that the English were using the older form of shield and that the kite shield was fairly new at this period.

Offensive weapons of the mounted soldiers

The offensive weapons of the mounted soldiers were the sword, spear, and a variety of clubs or maces. The swords are all very similar to one another and of a simple shape. The broad blade, in the region of 3 feet (90 centimeters) long, is parallel for much of its length with a rounded, blunt point used primarily for slashing and cutting rather than for thrusting. The hand is protected by a very simple short cross guard, occasionally slightly curved toward the hand, and the pommel is usually of simple globular form. The scabbard appears to be attached to a simple waist belt at the left side; most seem to be plain, with no chape or locket, but occasionally a binding can be seen. No daggers are visible. The spear, apparently about 6–7 feet (2–2.3 meters) long, was fitted with a simple, sometimes barbed, leaf-shaped head. Where they are being used in attack the spear is more often than not shown in such a way that it is clear that it was thrown and not used as a couched lance, held under the arm, as would later become the norm. Only in one or two cases is the spear shown in a “couched” position. It seems likely that this was probably not the normal method of fighting at the time and that throwing the spear was the preferred way. Occasionally, too, the spear appears to have been used as a thrusting weapon with the soldier leaning forward in his saddle to extend his reach. The final weapon used by the mounted soldiers is some form of club or mace, though these are not common. Though some have a very definite mace-like head, others are just simple clubs that just thicken toward the end.

What are the foot soldiers wearing on the tapestry?

The foot soldiers can be divided, as already mentioned, into two types—those with and those without armor. Those wearing armor are dressed in exactly the same manner as those on horseback in a long mail shirt, helmet, and mail coif and again are not wearing defenses on their lower legs, feet, or hands. Many carry the same kite shaped shield, although some of the English soldiers are using the round shield noted above. The armored foot soldiers are carrying swords of the same type as those on horseback, and some are shown wielding spears, again using them both as a throwing or thrusting weapon. Just one armored soldier is shown wielding a bow and arrow—the stave of which is approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) long while the arrows are in the order of 30–36 inches (75–90 centimeters) long with barbed heads and flights. He has a sheaf, a cylindrical bag or container, of arrows secured to his waist belt and, rather strangely, is holding an additional four arrows in his left hand while actually appearing to be shooting. The final weapon depicted on the Tapestry is the battle-axe, which is shown being wielded by the English armored foot soldiers. Two types are evident. A smaller one-handed axe that could also be used as a club and that, in one or two cases, may be being thrown. The larger axe is usually wielded with both hands. Finally, there are completely unarmored foot soldiers. Most of these are shown armed with bows and arrows much like that of the armored soldier noted above—a bow about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long with arrows with barbed heads and flights. All have a sheaf of arrows at their right hip slung on either a waist or a shoulder strap. Unlike the later longbow, which was drawn so that the rear of the arrow came to the side of the face, these archers appear to be drawing the arrow back to their chest. Though unarmored, many of the archers are shown wearing a headpiece of some kind, although these appear to be more like caps or soft hats than helmets. Toward the end of the Tapestry a number of unarmored foot soldiers are also shown with kite-shaped shields and spears or else armed with a two-handed axe.

How important is this Tapestry?

The evidence from the Tapestry gives us not only a snapshot of the weapons used and the ways that each type of soldier was armed at the time but it also gives us some clues as to fighting tactics. Many soldiers, especially the Normans, fought on horseback and were protected with mail armor and helmets. They almost all carried a shield and fought primarily with the spear and the sword. The former was used mainly as a throwing weapon. Tactics appear to have been an initial charge with the spear, which was then thrown, and this was followed up by the use of the sword as a slashing and cutting weapon. The foot soldiers were divided into two types. The first, armored in exactly the same way as those on horseback, fought with a spear and sword. They too carried shields that could, when need arose, be held side by side to form a protective shield wall. Although some armored foot soldiers fought with bows, unarmored archers were widely used. What the Tapestry does tend to show is that the armor and weapons used by both the Normans and English were very similar so that it is clear that the victory of the Normans was not due to their technical superiority. Victory or defeat in battle was rarely if ever dictated by the actual hardware used but was more a consequence of a complex combination of factors—not least training, leadership, morale, and luck The wealth of artistic information in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is virtually unsurpassed until the early modern period, offers us a rare glimpse at the breadth and depth of the arms, armor, and tactics of Western Europe at the turn of the first millennium. When the armies of the First Crusade made their way to the Holy Land in 1096 they were essentially armed in the same way as the soldiers who took part in the battle of Hastings in 1066. Mounted soldiers wearing a long mail shirt and helmet and carrying a spear and sword formed the backbone of the forces that set out to free Jerusalem from the Muslims. And indeed there were few significant changes in arms and armor through the first half of the twelfth century. Among the small changes that are apparent, extending the sleeves to cover the arm down to the wrist is perhaps the most significant. What is also clear from other pictorial evidence, illustrations and sculpture, is that the forms of arms and armor depicted on the Tapestry were used throughout Europe.


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