Some new interpretations of the Bayeux Tapestry

In researching 'The Battle of Hastings at Sedlescombe', we had a few novel insights about the Bayeux Tapestry that we would like to share. At least, they were novel to us. Shirley Ann Brown lists 307 books and reference papers about the Bayeux Tapestry in her 1988 reference 'The Bayeux Tapestry History and Bibliography'. We have not read half of them. Worse, she says that it only covers the best known publications, and a lot more have appeared since, many of which have passed us by. We can only apologise and give due credit if any part of what we write below is covered in a publication we have not read.

Like everyone that writes about the Conquest or the Battle of Hastings, we use the Bayeux Tapestry as a placeholder for the key events. We totally understand that it is not a medieval photograph album. We accept that some of the captions might have been added or amended over the years. Yet, as far as we know, it supports every aspect of our revised narrative. Indeed, every description of the landing, camps and battle in all the contemporary accounts corroborates our revised narrative, bar acts of Norman valour, claims that Battle Abbey was built on the battlefield, and exaggeration of numbers.

Conversely, if our narrative is right, there are new meanings or new interpretations of some contemporary account descriptions that have hitherto been presumed to be mistakes, ambiguities or enigmas. Here we will describe those pertaining to the Tapestry.

Panel 38

Panel 38 shows the Norman fleet crossing the Channel. It is captioned that William: '... crossed the sea and came to Pevenesæ'. Nearly all historians interpret it to mean that William 'came to Pevensey and landed', but then why would it not simply say that he: '... crossed the sea and landed at Pevenesæ'? Our interpretation, corroborated by four other contemporary accounts, is that the Norman fleet came near to Pevensey, where they moored in shallow water before sailing somewhere else to land.

Panel 40

Panel 40 shows the Norman cavalry soon after landing. It is captioned: "and here the knights have hurried to Hestinga to seize food". Nearly all historians interpret this 'Hestinga' to mean Hastings, but why would the Norman knights go to the end of a long narrow sea cliff to forage for food? They would be lucky to bag a few seagulls, which would not go far at a dinner table for 10,000. It has occasionally been said that this 'Hestinga' referred to 'Hæstinga port', but a port is an equally unpromising foraging location, unlikely to offer more than a few goats and hens. In the absence of plausible alternatives, we think this 'Hestinga' has to refer to the Hastings Peninsula, and we provide a dozen or so clues in our book why we think it did. One important consequence if we are right is that the Norman fleet did not land on the Hastings Peninsula, but nearby at a place connected to it by land. 

Panel 41

Panel 41 shows the first Norman campsite. Note that it is on the baseline. All the other outdoor scenes are depicted on a bobbly base, which we presume to mean fields or heathland. The flat base is otherwise reserved for indoor scenes. We interpret this to mean that the Norman camp is somewhere as smooth as an indoor floor. In the background are three huts. The one to the left has a shingle roof, the one to the right a tile roof, the one on the middle a plank roof. This at a time when most dwellings in England had a thatched roof, especially as here, when plentiful reeds were nearby. We suspect that the Norman camp is on a billiard table flat plain of dried out salt-pans and that the huts are evaporation chambers. We consulted an expert in medieval buildings who told us that they are not necessarily salt-houses but that it would be unusual for them to be normal dwellings.

Panel 42/43

Panel 42/43 shows William and his brothers having a meal at their camp. There is a building behind the servants. It is usually interpreted to be the kit fortress that the Normans built at their first camp. It is not. According to Wace, the kit fortress was made of timber planks fixed together with pegs. They did not have time to dig a motte, so it must have been constructed on flat ground. This building is made of stone, with windows and cupola roofs. It is built on stone foundations on a short section of bobbly base. There are no other examples of this on the entire Tapestry. We guess it is trying to depict a building on fields or heathland in the far distance. It looks like a building to dry fishing nets but we suspect it was a pre-existing fortress.

Panel 45

Panel 45 shows the second Norman camp. It is captioned: "He ordered that a motte should be dug at Hestenga Ceastra". Poitiers, Jumièges, Wace and others tell us that the Normans built a second kit fortress at their second camp. Historians nearly always interpret this scene to be showing the second kit fortress on top of the hill, with the men digging a moat around it. But a motte is the level ground on which to build a fortress. The men are still digging the motte, so they have not yet started to construct the second kit fortress. The building on top of the hill is therefore something else that was there when they arrived. It has the word CEASTRA written in the middle of it. We think it is 'Hæstinga ceastre', a former Roman fortress that was converted into one of Alfred's burh fortresses.

Why then would the Normans build a kit fortress below the level of an existing fortress? The answer, we think, is that the scene is at modern Winchelsea, so the kit fortress guards the narrow neck which was the only easy access point. If the established fortress on the top of the hill was indeed a burh, its main purpose would have been to watch for viking invaders.

What then of the tower to the right? It is timber framed on stone foundations, which means it was there before the invasion. But why build a tower that is below the level of the fortress? We guess it had a dual purpose, as a navigation beacon to guide ships into 'Hæstinga port' and for messaging the docks below at Old Winchelsea. If so, presumably the view from the burh fortress to the docks below was blocked by foliage and/or the eastern cliff edge.

Panel 48

Panel 48 shows the Normans leaving their battle camp to attack Harold. It is captioned: "Here the knights have left Hestenga and have come to the battle against King Harold". Historians interpret this 'Hestenga' to mean Hastings. But if this 'Hestenga' means the same as 'Hestinga' in Panel 40 - and Latin 'e' and 'i' are interchangeable in transcriptions of foreign place names, so it probably does - then it means the Hastings Peninsula. In other words, it is saying that the Norman cavalry leave the Hastings Peninsula to attack Harold, so the battle did not happen on the Hastings Peninsula. There is a section about this in our book where we provide three other clues that the battle took place near to the Hastings Peninsula but not on it.

Panel 52

Panel 52 shows an early part of the battle. It is captioned: "Here fell Leofwine and Gyrth, brothers of King Harold". The base is level and bobbly, which indicates fields or heathland. Yet many of the contemporary accounts say that the English shield wall was deployed on a hill and that the Normans were attacking up a steep slope. It is possible that the Tapestry designer chose to ignore the topography or that he was poorly advised but we suspect that Leofwine and Gyrth had been drawn out of the shield wall onto the plain below. Wace describes exactly this happening early in the battle, long before the feigned retreat, when the English chase some retreating Norman infantrymen. Perhaps Leofwine and Gyrth were part of the chasing group or, more likely we think, they were trying to call the men back into position.

Panel 53/54

Panel 53/54 shows the English being attacked on a hill. The English are fighting back-to-back with the Normans attacking from both sides. Two Englishmen seem to have been drawn down off the hill onto the plain below. We interpret this scene as the Norman view looking at the front of the shield wall. If so, the battlefield hill was narrow, steep-sided, flat topped and rugged. If the English were fighting back-to-back, they were deployed in an enclosed loop. We list 12 clues from the contemporary accounts in the relevant section of our book which suggests that the English were deployed as a wedge-shaped enclosed loop on a ridge spur.

Panel 58

Panel 58 is the last. It is captioned: "and the English have turned in flight". The English have some sort of double-decker escape route. We interpret this to be depicting the scene at the Malfosse, again viewed from the Norman side. If so, the bottom row of Englishmen were fleeing along the ditch base while the top row were fleeing along the far side of the ditch.