Bayeux Tapestry, fake news at its finest?

Was Harold killed by an arrow in his eye?

The Bayeux Tapestry is a standard ‘go to’ source for teachers, authors and the general public. It covers the norman invasion, battle of hastings and the early stages of the conquest of England. Dividing the events of 1066 into those either side of the death of Edward the Confessor, it paints, well, embroiders, a series of images that are quite simply taken as fact. As a hugely significant source on English history, the tapestry is taken at face value. It is rarely challenged, why should it be questioned when there’s documents to pore over? Well, in simple terms because it is wrong on some of the basics.

Ask people how Harold Godwinson was killed during the Battle of Hastings and the most likely response is that he was killed by an arrow in his eye. It shows it the Bayeux Tapestry so it must have happened. Those with more knowledge may query this and suggest that the tapestry isn’t conclusive as it isn’t 100% clear which figure is Harold. Some may also know that contemporary accounts differ on the way that the latter stages of the battle were played out. A select band may note that the writers are using passed on information, are generally bias and that as Harold’s remains aren’t around to check, we will never know for certain.

It’s great fun looking at the varying accounts of the battle. Pupils like comparing the accounts. They can easily identify a bias towards William, or Harold. They feel like they are making progress, learning how to think like a historian. And, they are reassured by the fact that the basics are quite easy to grasp. The basics? Well Harold got killed, by an arrow in his eye…

Says who? Who actually said that Harold was killed by an arrow in the eye? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t say this. Nor does Ordelic Vitalic, William of Malmesbury or William of Poitiers. Here’s a snapshot of what they did say:

And William came upon him by surprise before his people were marshalled. Nevertheless the king fought very hard against him with those men who wanted to support him, and there was a great slaughter on either side. There were killed King Harold, and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyrth his brother, and many good men. And the French had possession of the place of slaughter, just as God granted them because of the people’s sins Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Worcester MS

And meanwhile Earl William [came] up at Hastings on the Feast of St Michael [September 28] and Harold came from the north, and fought with him before all his raiding-army had come; and there he fell, and his two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine. And William conquered this land, and came to Westminster, and Archbishop Aldred consecrated him as king. And men paid him tribute, and gave hostages, and afterwards bought their landsAnglo-Saxon Chronicle Peterborough MS

As before, several thousand [English] were bold enough to rush forward, as if on wings, to pursue those who they took to be fleeing, when the Normans suddenly turned their horse’s heads, stopped them in their tracks, crushed them completely and massacred them down to the last man. William of Poitiers

No mention of arrows here, or in many other accounts. These are a mix of accounts written in the immediate aftermath and by those like Vitalis who drew upon a range of sources a generation later to write a history of the events. This just leaves one major source that says, or shows, that Harold was hit in the eye by an arrow. And it is a believable source. The tapestry was made for the normans and it’s contents dictated by those who were victorious. They had won, Harold was killed, that happens in battle, any reason to make things up? Possibly plenty of reasons but that doesn’t matter so much here.

Norman Conquest Worksheets
Norman Conquest Teaching Resources

The assumption is that the source is reliable. A study of the provenance of the tapestry shows it was made by contemporaries and is now housed in Bayeux for anyone to visit and interpret. This however ignores the history of the tapestry. Where has the tapestry been kept, displayed and maintained over the course of the years? The answer to this presents some evidence that the tapestry is not credible as a source on the death of Harold.

Professor Martin Foys writes in HistoryExtra that the arrow is actually a late addition to the tapestry. Foys demonstrates that the tapestry has been adjusted with stitches added and removed. He notes that the first mention of an arrow in the tapestry is in copies made in the 19th century: the tapestry was restored in the 18th century. Foys states that reproductions prior to this restoration show the character believed to be Harold holding a spear. The embroidery on the tapestry shows that there are removed stitches in this area. The tapestry has been altered, 600 years after the event, to show an arrow.

Why change the tapestry though? Does this debunk the story of the arrow in the eye?

Confusingly, the tinkering with the tapestry does not debunk the story about an arrow in the eye at all. The tapestry may have been altered. However, it was likely altered to reflect a prevailing belief about events that are grounded on evidence. Italian writer, Amato di Montecassino, wrote in 1080 that Harold had his eye gouged by an arrow. A poem dedicated to the Conquerors daughter, written by Baudri of Bourgueil, notes that death was caused by an arrow. Norman chronicler Robert Wace, writing a century after the Battle of Hastings, also refers to an arrow hitting Harold.

The changes to the tapestry pose numerous questions. The evidence that is often overlooked by textbooks, such as the poems and songs dedicated to the battle and it’s participants, is perhaps worthy of consideration in History lessons.

The first of the four, piercing the king’s shield and chest with his lance, drenched the ground with a gushing stream of blood. The second with his sword cut off his head below the protection of his helm. The third liquefied his entrails with his spear. And the fourth cut off his thigh and carried it some distance away Carmen of Hastingae Proelio

Links – The Bayeux Tapestry

British history
The Normans
William the Conqueror
Odo of Bayeux
Battle of Hastings
The Norman Invasion
Worksheets – The Norman Conquest
Literacy Aid – The Normans
History Extra – Shot in the Eye?

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