An oath, extracted and broken
William, the Norman duke, sits to the right of the hill of Bayeux,
his power symbolized by the sword resting on his shoulder. The
second protagonist, the figure standing between two shrines, is the
English King Harold. In 1063 Harold was cast ashore on the coast of
France and held captive there. After ransoming him, William promised
Harold his daughter in marriage. Here he is shown swearing
allegiance to his new liege-lord. The shrines on which his hands are
laid contain relics.
The significance of the oath, a ritual whose function was pivotal to
contemporary society, was far from confined to the
context of the Bayeux narrative. An individual was not the citizen
of a state, but the vassal of a lord. Expressed in simple terms,
feudal society was constructed along the lines of a pyramid: the
peasants took their tenures from knights or barons; the baron was
invested with estate by a count; the count received his county as a
fief from the duke, while the duke himself was given land by the
king. To defend the country against aggressors the monarch needed
the military and financial assistance of his nobles, who, in turn,
required the service of their vassals. With few exceptions, feudal
obligation was established not by written contract, signed and
sealed, but sworn in the form of an oath.
Oaths were sworn at a ceremony, with the procedure fairly strictly
defined. Kneeling, the vassal recited a set formula by which he
acknowledged homage to his superior. He would then stand and swear
fealty to his new lord on the Holy Bible or on the authority of a
relic. Following this, the lord granted his vassal a fief in the
symbolic form of a branch, a staff or a ring.
The Bayeux Tapestry shows only the most important part of the
ceremony: the oath sworn on the relics. This act had the force of
conferring upon the church the office of official custodian. When
Harold broke his oath, mounting the English throne in 1066, William
sought the jurisdiction of the pope. Excommunicating the perjunous
Harold, the pope placed a papal standard at William's disposal to
accompany his Norman troops. William's campaign thus practically
gained the status of a Holy War.
Things looked rather different from Harold's point of view. In
swearing allegiance to William, he had not been a free man. By
paying Harold's ransom, the Norman duke had become his superior.
Harold's oath had acknowledged fealty to William, but without it, he
presumably could never have left Normandy and returned to England.
Furthermore, an English account of the event contests that Harold's
oath was sworn on a table under which relics were concealed - with
Harold quite ignorant of the trap William had set for him.
The previous king had promised the English throne to his cousin
William. Harold knew this. He may have used his powerful allies to
put pressure on the dying monarch. A contemporary chronicler cites
the following dialogue: King: "It is known to you that I have taken
steps to ensure my kingdom shall pass to William of Normandy after
my death. Were it to pass to Harold, I do not think he would keep
the peace." Harold: "Give it to me and I will look after it!" King:
"Then you shall have my kingdom, but if I know William and his
Normans, it will be the death of you."
To England with weapons and wine
William built a fleet and prepared it to carry his soldiers across
the Channel to England. The hanging shows swords and a battle-axe
being carried to the ships, a cart loaded with a row of twenty
spears, helmets ranged on posts along the side of the wagon,
following which three men carry suits of chain mail, the typical
armour of the day. The latter consisted of connected links of thin
iron covering the trunk and stretching to the elbows and knees, with
slits at the front and back ensuring freedom of movement on
horseback. In the centuries that followed, chain mail was replaced
by solid coats of armour, the spears by heavy lances. In the
eleventh century, however, soldiers were relatively lightly armed
and still quite mobile.
The prominence given to wine indicates its relative importance as a
provision: the embroidery shows a larger and smaller barrel, as well
as a leather bottle slung over one bearer's shoulder. In peacetime,
wine was imported to England by merchants; it was also grown in
England as far north as the Scottish borders. The most important
beverage of the age, wine was cherished less as a luxury than for
its nutritional value. With no effective means of storage, however,
it was generally drunk when little older than a year. Beer was more
perishable still, and, what was more, impossible to transport. It
could therefore be drunk solely in regions where it was produced.
Raising an army to conquer England proved something of a problem.
Like all vassals, those bound to a duke were obliged to perform only
certain clearly defined duties. William could set them smaller tasks
- punitive expeditions against unruly neighbours, for example - as
often as he wished, provided he did not require their services for
longer than a week at a time. Only once a year at the most could he
call upon his vassals to undertake a longer military campaign
covering larger distances, though even the duration of these
expeditions was limited to 40 days. All further services were seen
as voluntary, requiring additional remuneration by the duke.
Fighting which took them across the Channel was considered entirely
beyond the call of duty.
William therefore had to use all his powers of persuasion, an
undertaking whose success was undoubtedly facilitated by the pope's
blessing. However, the main form of enticement at his disposal was
the promise of enfeoffment: one of his followers was offered an
English monastery, another a town, a third might be lured with a
whole county. William had to make promises on a grand scale, for the
risks to which his vassals were putting their lives and livelihood
were equally great. There was no way of predicting the outcome of
Relatives were the most generous allies of all. At the time, power
usually rested in the hands of an individual ruler, whose entire
family profited as a result. In turn, it was in the family's best
interest to support the ruler. William's brother, Bishop Odo of
Bayeux, who took part in the campaign himself, provided financial
backing for a hundred ships. Forbidden as a member of the clergy to
wield a sword, he held a cudgel instead. William's other brother,
Robert de Mortain, paid for a further 70 boats.
The ships were over 20 metres long and up to five metres wide. They
had no deck, but planking drawn to a curve at prow and stern;
amidships was a square sail, and a tiller was attached aft on the
starboard side. This was the type of boat sailed by the Vikings, a
reminder that the Normans themselves were originally Northmen.
During the ninth and tenth centuries the Vikings had used such craft
to occupy the coastal regions of Europe, founding new states of
their own in England, Southern Italy and Normandy. To help him take
England, William, himself a descendent of the Vikings, exploited the
expansionist designs of the ruling Norwegian king, Ha-rald Hardrada.
He persuaded him to invade Northumberland, the most northerly county
of today's England. The Norwegians landed and forced Harald to march
north to meet them. The invading army was routed and the Norwegian
king killed in the struggle.
King Harold falls in battle
Scarcely had Harold warded off the Norwegian attack when William
landed south of Dover. Harold rode swiftly south, arriving with an
army worn out after a hard-won battle and two forced marches. Taking
up position on a ridge, he
had ditches dug to thwart the Norman cavalry and waited for the
onslaught. The Normans stormed the English position again and again,
but could make no headway against the English shield-wall. Their
principal obstacle was the English axemen, who cut down even their
horses. One chronicle reports that "three horses were killed under
William, one with a blow so great that the English axe, after
severing his horse's head, cut deeply into the earth."
Realizing the ineffectiveness of frontal attack, William used
cunning instead: making a pretence of retreat, he lured the English
from their position. With their powerful formation broken, the
English were no match for the Normans. Two brothers of Harold, both
generals in his army, were killed. One of them had pleaded in vain
with Harold to leave the fighting to them; for Harold, whether under
coercion or not, had sworn allegiance to William, an oath that could
not be broken lightly. Harold, too, fell in battle. The inscription
in the detail reproduced above left reads: "King Harold is killed."
The English king is shown with an arrow piercing one eye. The
hanging shows the maimed king struck down by a Norman cavalryman
while attempting to extract the arrow. The cavalryman was later
banished by William, according to one chronicle, for to kill a
defenceless opponent constituted a breach of chivalrous conduct.
In fact, such battles involved relatively little slaughter. The
corpses heaped in the lower border are an exaggeration. Vassals,
fighting to advance the - more or less - private interests of their
feudal lords, were inclined to see their own interests best served
by maintaining a certain reticence in battle. In any case, it was
less worth their while to kill an enemy than take him prisoner.
Prisoners could be exchanged for a ransom: the more powerful the
captive, the greater the sum that could be demanded for his release.
The mutual obligations agreed by vassals and their lords usually
foresaw the provision of ransom, should either party fall into enemy
Fighting took place only at certain times. In winter, at night and
in wet weather, swords remained in their sheaths. Furthermore,
William's war was hardly a protracted affair: the Battle of
Hastings, important as it was, was over in a day. By the evening of
14 October 1066 the last obstacle had been removed between William
and London, where he was crowned on 25 December. Thus England and
France began a period of common history that was to last 400 years.
And since history is always the history of the victor, the Normans
provided a testimony to their conquest of England in the form of the
Bayeux Tapestry. Hung in the church of a bishop who rose to power in
the land of the vanquished, the embroidery served both to vindicate
and to advertise. No less astonishing than the quality and scope of
the work is the fact that it has survived for 900 years - despite
the Hundred Years' War between England and France, the repeated
destruction of the cathedral, the struggles between Calvinists and
Catholics and the Revolution of 1789.
The hanging was to serve propaganda purposes on two further
occasions. Contemplating an invasion of England at the beginning of
the 19th century, Napoleon had the historic tapestry brought to
Paris for six months in 1803 in order to rouse "the passions and
general enthusiasm of the people". While Adolf Hitler was concocting
plans for an invasion, a book on the tapestry appeared under the
title: "A sword thrust against England." But the Norman Duke William
has remained the sole conqueror of the island kingdom.
Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen