by cheri block sabraw
In the dark winter of 2010, I listened to an engaging lecture on the Bayeux Tapestry given by Dr. Linda Paulson of Stanford University. On the screen behind the professor, colorful photos of the Tapestry moved from left to right reminding me of a medieval comic strip. The brightly colored panels of embroidery, depicting among many other things, the oath that Harold Godwin took in 1064 in the presence of Duke William of Normandy, captivated me. When Harold became King instead of Duke William, the oath became central to William’s decision to invade England from across the channel.
To accompany this segment of her class entitled War, Dr. Paulson assigned British historian David Howarth’s short novel titled 1066. As the course progressed, she selected a number of insightful and well-written books about war from Agincourt to Hastings, from Waterloo to the Civil War, and from World Wars I and II to Vietnam, yet Howarth’s 1066 stayed with me.
To this day, 1066 delights me in every way. Howarth is an engaging story-teller who animates people and events with his wit and brevity. His portrayal of all of the players whose actions culminated at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 is masterful, clean, and unbiased.
As I read of Edward the Confessor and his alleged unconsummated marriage to Edith, of barbaric Viking Harald Hadrada ( a Berserker) and his stunning military loss to Harold at the Stamford Bridge in York, of the ruthless and crafty Duke William of Normandy, and of sweet and brave Harold Godwin, King of England, for whom bad timing was to etch his name unfavorably in history books, the one event of the whole affair to park in my imagination, refusing to disembark, is the midnight channel crossing that occurred on September 27, 1066.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Duke William of Normandy’s journey across the English Channel, a feat accomplished in one night. One of the most amazing aspects of the crossing is that he commandeered approximately 800 ships that Norman ship builders had built from scratch in less that nine months. On many of these ships were knights and their warhorses. The knights accompanied their trained steeds on board along with their armor, saddles, and other accoutrements of war. It is thought that William the Conqueror brought 3000 stallions on these ships. Any of us who has ridden a high-spirited horse can only begin to appreciate the logistics of taking lots of horses, men, gear and feed in small ships across dark bumpy waters.
Does the Tapestry accurately depict this crossing?
I wrote about this event in 2010 and thought to share it with you.
Here is the beginning of
Sailing to Byzantium: The Bayeux Tapestry’s True Story of the Channel Crossing by Cheri Block Sabraw.
The Bayeux Tapestry, preserved today in a museum in Bayeux, France, is a 933 year-old-survivor of wear and tear, war and peace. One of the most famous textiles on earth, it is a pictorial treasure-trove of information about medieval warfare and provides historical evidence of the events that transpired before and during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The other works that do so are written documents: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, and the Carmen de Hastingae Proelio of Guy, Bishop of Amiens, stand together as annals, historical biography, and poetry, respectively, shedding light on the remarkable military accomplishment of Duke William of Normandy. All four sources comment in one way or another on one of the most miraculous aspects of the Norman Conquest—the nighttime English Channel crossing, led by Duke William himself, in ships laden with the finest warhorses and knights. Could the events of the crossing as depicted on the Tapestry, from embarkation to disembarkation, have happened as stitched in 1077? The answer is yes.
By the time our eyes have traveled from the 1st panel depicting King Edward the Confessor’s command that Harold, earl of Wessex, journey to Normandy in 1064, until we view the 93rd panel illustrating Norman knights and horses at sea on their way to England, we will have learned many facts about eleventh-century warfare. The Tapestry’s accuracy in its portrayal of scenes, such as knights riding in saddles with stirrups and couching their lances before the delivery, has assisted military historians in their search for information about the Norman Conquest. Although some specifics about the Tapestry’s genesis remain speculative, we can trust much of what it teaches us about the Battle of Hastings. The mastermind behind the Tapestry’s design is unidentified, but we do know that scholars admire his historical accuracy. We learn, for example, that some of the conical helmets worn by combatants on the Tapestry share similar features—nose and neck protectors—to those on Viking helmets found in York. However, the Tapestry is not historically perfect. One example of this imperfection is its illustration of the hauberk, the mail shirt worn by medieval infantry and cavalry. On the Tapestry, combatants protect themselves by wearing full hauberks, shirts, and leggings. While wearing the equivalent of a small-weave modern day suit of cyclone fencing seems prudent for the medieval footman, riding a horse with such pants not only would ruin the saddle—an expensive and vital piece of the knight’s equipment—but also would chafe the skin. Scholars have observed that in all probability, hauberks worn by the Norman cavalry were designed with a split-skirt that would protect the knight’s legs and groin, while at the same time give him the freedom to ride unrestrained. In most cases, however, the Tapestry’s pictorial representation of the armaments has been historically verified. This accurate information suggests that the Tapestry’s interpretation of ship design and horse transportation could be historically feasible as well, perhaps with some disparity.
A historical summary of the story on panels 93-103 is necessary to provide context for the current discussion. After nine months of planning an invasion of England, the stars align for William. Possibly it was his ordering that the relics of St. Valery be paraded though the streets that caused the south wind to cooperate on September 27, 1066. We are told that over eight hundred ships leave the estuary at high tide from St. Valery on their way to England, where they arrive in the early morning. The panels display nine brightly colored ships, three made smaller in the background, lending perspective and depth, and six full-sized in the foreground that move across the tapestry, pushed along by the stem-stitched waves. Aside from the serious facial expressions of the men, who work busily to control the sails and steady the horses, the ships and the horses dominate the ten panels. In panel 93, ten horses wait patiently in the first ship; several with their mouths open, seem to smile. In the next ship, eight more horses line up by the starboard gunwale in pairs facing each other, perhaps for comfort during the nighttime crossing. Our eyes continue to move from left to right, and as they do so, the number of the horses in the ships diminishes. The last scene depicts an effortless disembarkation by two calm and healthy-looking steeds that step out of the ship as the Normans land uneventfully in Pevensey, England.
What type of man could orchestrate such a complex military plan and see it through to its successful conclusion? What type of man could manage that many men, ships, and horses while they all waited for the right weather conditions? Only a man whose political will to power was tempered by incredible patience, whose reputation for ruthless battle tactics was condoned by the Church in Rome, and whose treasury was blessed with ample funds could execute such a plan. That man was Duke William of Normandy, humbly born a bastard to a tanner’s daughter.
 Jim Bradbury, The Battle of Hastings, (Sutton, 1998), p.78
 Ibid., 80
 John France, Ed. Medieval Warfare, 1000-1300, (Ashgate, 2006), Ian Pierce “Arms, Armour and Warfare in the Eleventh Century”, Anglo-Norman Studies, 10, p. 238
 Jim France, The Battle of Hastings, p.68:
 Elisabeth M. C. Van Houts, The Normans In Europe. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000. p.130
Ms. Houts translates the Three Latin Chronicles from the Anglo-Norman Realm and presents “The Ship List of William the Conqueror”, a list of the noblemen’s contribution of men and ships to the Norman side. I counted 811 ships, not including the ones that Duke William had built in seven months.
Dr. Bernard S. Bachrach stipulates that modern scholars regard the fleet as being able to transport 10,000 men and between 2000-3000 horses.
 Stephen Morillo, Ed.The Battle of Hastings: Sources and Interpretations. (Boydell Press, 1996), Carol Gillmor, “Naval Logistics of the Cross-Channel Operation 1066”Anglo-Norman Studies 1984 pp.114-5