An embroidered scene

Anglo-Saxon England's defeat unfolds across the Bayeux Tapestry

Measuring nearly 230 feet long, the medieval artwork celebrates William of Normandy's victory in 1066. Historians point to it as masterwork of propaganda.

In the chaotic battle scenes on the Bayeux Tapestry, Norman soldiers charge toward their English foes.

JEAN GOURBEIX, SIMON GUILLOT/RMN-GRAND PALAIS

The date 1066 is imprinted on the minds of generations of British schoolchildren. This was the year that William, Duke of Normandy, defeated King Harold II at Hastings and set in motion some of the most profound political and social changes in English history.

The Norman Conquest imposed on England an entirely new, French-speaking ruling class, a huge stock of new surnames—Warren, Lewis, Sinclair, Boyle, Churchill, to name a few—and planted the seeds of the modern English language. Yet the most vivid chronicle of this upheaval is not expressed in words, but in colored threads across nearly 230 feet of linen.

What is now known as the Bayeux Tapestry is not, in fact, a tapestry at all, but an embroidery of woolen thread stitched on to cloth. Ten colors create rich scenes that recount the story of the fateful clash between William and Harold: Scenes of pomp and diplomacy; a fleet of longboats filled with troops and supplies; and the fury of the battle itself, in which arrows fly and men and horses crash to the soil. The only missing scene is the conclusion, the depiction of William’s coronation as the English king. Captions in Latin label key figures and events. Progressing from scene to scene like a comic strip, the upper and lower bands are richly decorated with marginalia: Scenes from the fables of Aesop or of the pleasures of the hunt.

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