Daily Dose of Europe: Bayeux Tapestry

This skinny, 70-yard-long strip of cloth depicts a crucial historical event that helped shape the Europe we know.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

Like a graphic novel, the Bayeux Tapestry tells the mesmerizing story of how William the Conqueror and Harold of England competed for the English crown. The tale culminates in one of the most pivotal battles in history: The Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The story begins in London. In the opening scene — the first of about 60 in the tapestry — the reigning King of England, Edward, is presiding on the throne in his palace. He orders his brother-in-law Duke Harold to ride off to France. At that time, Normandy (northern France) was under English rule. Harold was to announce to all the subjects that Edward had decided who his successor as king would be — a seemingly illegitimate duke called “William the Bastard,” known today as “William the Conqueror.”

The tapestry is realistic enough that even an illiterate peasant could understand what’s happening. The Latin titles reinforce the main characters and key events. Down-to-earth details keep you “reading.” The narrative is framed by a border (top and bottom) with more eye candy — some related to the story, some mere decoration.

The climax of the whole tapestry is the Battle of Hastings, which pitted the invading Normans of France, led by William, against the Anglo-Saxons of England, led by Harold. It was a fierce, 14-hour battle. Knights on horseback charge, swordsmen clash, and archers launch arrows, leaving the battlefield strewn with mangled corpses. According to historical accounts, Harold fell from his horse. He lifts his visor to shout to his men, when suddenly — shoop! — Harold gets hit with an arrow, right in the eye. Finally, an enemy horseman bends down to finish Harold off with a sword. The title above says it all: “Here King Harold is slain.”

The Battle was won by William. The Normans now ruled England. This illegitimate child, until then known as “William the Bastard,” could now call himself “William the Conqueror.” Unfortunately, that’s where the Bayeux tapestry ends, because the final scene is missing, lost to history.

But we know the rest of the story. William marched to London, claimed his throne, and (though he spoke no English) became king of England. This set in motion 400 years of conflict between England and France — not to be resolved until the 15th century. However, on the plus side, the Norman conquest of England brought that country into the European mainstream. Because of the events depicted on the Bayeux tapestry, England got a stable government, contact with the rest of Europe, and a chance to eventually grow into a great European power.

And today, historians and tourists alike can stand in the presence of this precious document, stroll slowly along, and see those momentous events from nearly a thousand years ago unfold before their eyes.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book, “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces,” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find clips related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Bayeux.