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Harold, King of the English

Interpretation of "Harold, King of the English"

The Significance of "Harold, King of the English" in the Bayeux Tapestry
(based on an interpretation by Kishlansky et al. 1994)

by Mathias Ricken

Several years after the coronation of William the Conqueror, his half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeux commissioned an unknown artist with the creation of a tapestry [actually: an embroidery, S.K.] 230 feet long and 20 inches high, an immense piece of needlecraft even by today's standards. This strip of linen was intended to display the Norman conquest of England and William's victory.

Using narrative techniques also found in modern movie-making, the tapestry gives an elaborate insight into eleventh-century culture. The artist had cities and farms, peasants and craftsmen, cooking and fighting accurately embroidered. The illustration may even have been too detailed, at least from the Norman point of view, if the following interpretation holds.

After the death of King Edward the Confessor, three noblemen claimed the English throne: William of Normandy, the Norwegian king Harald III, and Harold Godwinson, an earl of Wessex and son of the powerful earl Godwin. Harold of Wessex was favored by the Anglo-Saxon council of elders, who knew and trusted him to be a good leader. William, however, insisted that the deceased Edward the Confessor had chosen him to be the successor to the throne. In addition, William claimed that Harold Godwinson had, when shipwrecked years before, sworn to help him, William, to ascend to the English throne.

Harold Godwinson was crowned by the Anglo-Saxon elders immediately after Edward's death, but this caused William to mobilize his troops and prepare to sail for England to seize the throne he claimed for himself. Harold, after beating off an invasion by Harald of Norway in the north, quickly marched south and with his exhausted troops met William's army in battle near Hastings.

Harold was killed in the Battle of Hastings near the end of a long day of fighting. His demoralized troops broke ranks and were defeated. Even though the tapestry shows the killing of Harold Godwinson as divine revenge, as ordered by Bishop Odo, the artist may have introduced a different idea: In the scene following Harold Godwinson's coronation, the tapestry says: "Here sits Harold, King of the English." Nowhere does the artist mention in the text that Harold was crowned without a rightful claim to the throne; rather, this caption suggests that it was the legitimate king who had been enthroned and later killed. The presence of all parts of society in the surrounding illustrations, i.e. workers, fighters, and clergymen, reinforces this understanding.

This special Anglo-Saxon view of history found in the tapestry, however, is so subtle that most likely the Normans who commissioned the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry, as it is called now, never even noticed it.

Pictures of the entire Bayeux Tapestry, in sequence, can be found online at The Bayeux Tapestry. The part in question can be found in Image 15.

Reference

Kishlansky, Mark, Patrick Geary, Patricia O'Brian, and R. Bin Wong, 1994. Societies and Cultures in World History, Vol. I, p. 285. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Essay edited by Suzanne Kemmer



Last modified 21 Aug 13