The Bayeux Tapestry and the Channel Crossing

imagesby 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.[1] 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.[2] 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 [3]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.[4] 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[5] leave the estuary at high tide from St. Valery on their way to England, where they arrive in the early morning.[6] 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.

[1] Jim Bradbury, The Battle of Hastings, (Sutton, 1998), p.78

[2] Ibid., 80

[3] 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

[4] Jim France, The Battle of Hastings, p.68:

[5] 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.

[6] 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

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About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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36 Responses to The Bayeux Tapestry and the Channel Crossing

  1. It was an overwhelming experience to be in the room with the Bayeux Tapestry, and imagine the work which went into creating it. As a lover and creator of handwork myself, I definitely felt outranked.

  2. I now understand why our border controls broke down in 1066. Why didn’t he use the Eurotunnel?

  3. Brighid says:

    Enjoyed this greatly. Love this kind of history lesson!

  4. Cheri says:

    You and I love and ride (ridden for me) horses. My curiosity was all about the steeds! Can you imagine 10 stallions in a small boat? I have trouble visualizing that. My horses were always mares…What about yours?

    • Brighid says:

      I would like to know what they did to manage that many stallions… I can’t imagine handling 10 stallions in a small boat! Our horses were always geldings, as we didn’t have the time for all the hormone hell of dealing with breeding stock.

      • Cheri says:

        Because the written and pictorial accounts occurred between 12 and 100 years after the Norman Invasion (and Battle of Hastings), we will never know exactly how they handled them. My paper (which I may or may not post here again) concerned whether the Bayeux Tapestry was accurate in its portrayal. My research concerned the horses and the ships. I’ll look through the paper and see if there are any interesting (long) paragraphs! My horses were always mares…which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

  5. Christopher says:

    In what you wrote in 2010, why did you make your paragraphs so long?

    • Cheri says:

      Ha! They are double-spaced on the paper. Some are longer. I will post the whole paper in segments!

      • Christopher says:

        While your original paper may have been double-spaced, your posting wasn’t.

        So, for the purpose of this posting, you could easily have broken up what you wrote into digestible paragraphs,

        Remember, ours is the 21st century, not the 19th.

  6. Cheri says:

    Hi Christopher, I realize how it looks and also understand how lots of words and long paragraphs can discourage readers. Maybe I shouldn’t post the rest of the paper because if I broke it into more “digestible paragraphs,” the result would be a very long blog post…Thanks for your suggestions. I do appreciate your readership.

    • shoreacres says:

      When I began blogging, everyone in the world told me “Never post more than 300-500 words. No one will read it.” Well, so much for that. There is nothing at all indigestible about your paragraphs, or your content. Carry on. The web is filled with literate, eloquent writers who manage to keep interest with long paragraphs — even in this 21st century — and you’re one: even in this 21st century.

      • Cheri says:

        I heard the same advice 8 years ago and for the most part have adhered to that advice. I have also learned that what I might find fascinating, others might find banal. 🙂

  7. Richard says:

    In an age of soundbites, twitter, insult, short concentration and easy money it is essential to read books written before the first day of the year two thousand and one, Christopher, and I thoroughly recommend this pantheon of human experience to you, for no no life, especially not yours, one of perception, insight and goodwill, should be without it. We are privileged that history has handed down to us ideas of such complexity that even the English language with such wealth of expression and gift of conciseness that any writer, whatever his flair and depth of thought, can reduce them to a few, lightweight words or sentences. Many words were written and read, for example, before reasonable men were persuaded that women are their equals in this respect Serious writing is not a series of nursery rhymes for children since it addresses adults eager to to learn about others and their thoughts, whether they lived now or at any time in the past. That is true not only for for those who have gone before us but also for thoughtful individuals, like yourself, who are capable of extended concentration and critical capacity and are willing to give of themselves in the process of reading in an effort to match the selfless devotion that writers pay to their readers, for then it becomes life-enhancing for both. This paragraph sets out, inadequately, I know, through lack of space, time and talent, my position here and were I not eager to watch that addictive inanity, “Eastenders”, a drama shouting scenes of not more than thirty seconds each designed to prevent watchers from sinking into a dumb stupor and frequently descending into unnecessary violence, I would commence my next paragraph, the first of many to justify my stand, for I was taught that each should have a separate idea.

    • Christopher says:

      You may find of interest this *short piece*, about how e-books are changing the way we read, and the way novelists write.

      Almost needless to say, shorter than short paragraphs are integral to the new way we read and write. Hence you just have to “get with it”!!

      I’ve never read a book in the e-book form, and therefore don’t know how it would change my reading experience, particularly with novels. I’m interested to find out, and so am considering purchasing one of these here e-reader contraptions.

      • Cheri says:

        I’m sure you are correct, Christopher. I do think that the insistence on short paragraphs has to do with attention span and the multiplicity of distractions. After all, when the internet distracts us, it’s harder to find where our place in the reading. The eBooks have neat little bookmarks that drop down. Ray Bradbury would have been amused.

    • Richard says:

      From the conclusion of the Guardian Link:

      “….. Life itself has become more immersive. That’s what writers are really up against……..”:

      The learned author writes repetitiously, inconsistently and with references to obscure twentieth century novels to examine an age of digitalia that encourages such a prolixity that academics are tempted to scan or rely upon passages highlighted by other readers, which inevitably leads to superficiality and lack of individual and original thought.

      Lack of rigour and and self-discipline results in a conclusion only remotely connected with his long article surveying supposed virtues and vices of reading matter converted into electronic form, the simple and exclusive benefits of which are portability, speedy access to reference works and an appeal to those with failing eyesight.

      One is drawn to the view that his sudden allusion to an immersive life, an expression, I confess, I am not familiar with, can only have been the outcome of a violent collision in a busy highway with a pedestrian consulting a miniature communication device, so much a feature of twenty-first century life that it renders the users oblivious to the physical world around them.

      That is not to say that new literature, whether of this or any future age, is to be neglected in favour of false nostalgia or unwillingness to further life’s skills or experiences. Such obstinacy only halts mankind in its quest to seek its destiny, as does the refusal to learn thoroughly from the past simply because it is old. I venture to suggest, however, that the current fashion for brevity and excessive fracturing of layout derives more from a disdain by writers for the supposed inability of readers who through lack of sustained application are devoid of the elementary capacity to identify subject and predicate without a greater number of full-stops (in some dialects referred to as periods) interspersed with an over-abundance of spaces as for long used in children’s first reading matter to assist them in their early explorations of literature.

    • Cheri says:

      Nicely presented, Richard, and so clever. Of course, I agree.

  8. Cheri says:

    I was hoping readers would be as fascinated with the Bayeux Tapestry and the Channel Crossing as I was as opposed to being put off by my long paragraphs. I’m sure these are some of the same frustrations that King Harold of England had with the Normans.

    • Christopher says:

      But for your writing about the Bayeaux Tapestry in the way you did, this discussion about long paragraphs, and about the (baleful?) effect of e-books, wouldn’t have happened.

      It’s about Change, which, as we all know, is the only constant in life.

      “To every thing there is a season (turn turn turn?!!), and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
      A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;”

      Or as “Mad Men”‘s Don Draper said, “Change is neither or good or bad, it simply is”.

      What the writer of the Guardian’s article said about the importance of immersiveness when reading novels, has persuaded me to begin putting my computer away for long periods, the better that I become more immersed in what I read off the printed page.

      Already I’m feeling better……….

      • Cheri says:

        There is a new book out by Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, in which you may be interested. Your comments about e Readers and too much internet are just several of the topics he writes about. The book is called The Death of Culture. I have ordered it. I’m glad you are feeling better, Christopher!

  9. Richard says:

    Cheri, do you gather from the Tapestry that William was a man of virtue?

  10. shoreacres says:

    I’ve always been amused by the fact that whenever 1066 shows up in my life, I remember the Norman Conquest and the Battle of Hastings. It might be getting $10.66 in change in a store, but it’s enough to trigger the historical memory. Somewhere, a teacher did a good job.

    The single word that caught me here is “berserker.” I have no idea what that means, but of course it must be related to our word “berserk” — which my mother always transformed into “bersmerk.”

    And I confess I’ve never given any thought to how they got across that channel. I took the Dover ferry, myself, but it clearly was more complicated for them. I’m looking forward to more posts about this, for sure. And I just might read 1066. It sounds ever so appealing.

    As for the tapestry itself, I’ve not seen it, but I’ve seen tapestry work done by some truly skilled women, and have to admire the skill and the patience of the ones who created it. Not only that, you’ve given me the start for a new etheree. My thanks to you!

    • Cheri says:

      I look forward to your new etheree; now you have me curios about its content.

      The book is short and well-done. You would not be disappointed.

      Interesting that you would hone in on the women who embroidered it at the direction of its designer, the identity of whom has been the subject of numerous scholarly papers, usually landing in the Anglo-Norman Battle Conference journals (of which I have read most). Either the tapestry was made in Kent or Canterbury.

      Yes. Look up berserker. Howarth does a splendid job of describing Harald Hardrada. We wonder why the Vikings were such strong people!

  11. Cheri says:

    Hi,
    I have not read Pinker’s book but enjoyed the review! ( Notice no comma before but!)
    I have so many grammar and writing books, including the two McGrath references, that to add another-especially one that may suggest a relaxing of the rules-seems unnecessary. Not concerned about dangling modifiers? Annoyed, the clock reminded me to start dinner.

    If you do order it and read it, please let us, your readers, know how it came off. Drat! There’s that preposition at the end of my sentence.

    💆😋

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