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Really look at the Tapestry – and not just the ‘important’ bits

What do you mean by ‘important bits’?

The bits which help to convey or support the general narrative. We know that the Bayeux Tapestry is supposed to be all about Harold visiting Normandy and swearing an oath not to stand in William`s way for the crown, so when we see evidence of that general narrative, we nod sagely and say, ‘Ah, yes, of course, that`s how it was; the Tapestry says so.’ We skip the details which appear not to confirm the narrative, or at least which do not somehow fit the overall picture.

For instance?

For instance, take the very next panels after the King has, supposedly, told Harold to go to Normandy. They show Harold setting off on a journey all right, but look at what he is taking with him – falcons and hounds.

Now we fall back again on gumption and general knowledge. If Harold is being sent abroad as some kind of ambassador to a foreign power, would he behave as if he were on a hunting expedition? That`s the gumption part. The general knowledge part tells us that noblemen who lived near the coast and who needed to travel often preferred going by boat to going by road. People were very much more water-orientated then than they are now. All over Russia they used the great rivers because the weather was so appalling and the roads were often worse. In London they habitually crossed the Thames by ferry rather than by bridge. There weren`t enough bridges.

There were seaports all along the Hampshire and Sussex shoreline, and Harold, as Earl of Wessex, would have had access to nearly all of them. Moreover, land travel at that time (indeed until the eighteenth century) was notoriously tedious, lengthy, uncomfortable, and even dangerous. So what the Tapestry was doing was simply pointing out general practice. The sewing ladies in Canterbury put in those details about going on board with falcons and hounds not because it was significant but because it was so ordinary. Like stitching a saddle on a horse. It could have been that Harold wasn`t doing anything in particular, so he could easily have had his hounds and falcons with him. Noblemen went hunting as casually and frequently as men today go to the local pub.

So Edward wasn`t ordering Harold to go anywhere? And Harold wasn`t going abroad at all?

We cannot be sure, but it does cast doubt on the whole idea. It is still possible of course that Harold may indeed have set out to visit Normandy, but there is nothing in the pictures which ‘proves’ that he did. And the presence of falcons and hounds appears to suggest otherwise. To repeat, we simply don`t know.

Well, if Harold wasn`t going to Normandy, how come the Tapestry takes up so much space with the shipwreck on the Norman coast?

Nothing could be more likely. If Harold really did put to sea, what more natural than that he should run into bad weather? The English Channel was not noted for its similarity to a millpond. The structure of eleventh-century ships did not allow much steering latitude in wind and high seas; as often as not, the skipper had little choice but to run before the storm. If that storm came from the west (and most did), where else would Harold have fetched up but the coast of northern Normandy – namely, the mouth of the River Somme?

He was taken by surprise then?

Storms and shipwrecks have a nasty habit of taking nearly everybody by surprise.

And, if the theory about a hunting expedition that went wrong is correct, that surprise would have been nothing to the shock the Norman high command had when news reached them that Earl Harold of Wessex, the second man in the kingdom, their potential deadly rival for the English throne, had been washed up on their northern coast. They would have had no idea he was coming.

They must have been absolutely dumbfounded.

You can say that again!


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Berwick Coates