The Bayeux Tapestry

One of the Great Art Treasures of France

••• Bayeux Tapestry. © Bayeux Tapestry

One of the world’s most stunning pieces of art, and a great historical work, the Bayeux Tapestry never fails to impress. It’s housed in the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant in an 18th-century building in the center of Bayeux which is a delightful old city.

The Tapestry gives a wonderful and detailed account, in 58 different scenes, of the events of 1066. It’s a tale of warfare and conquest, of double-dealing by the English King and of an epic battle.

It covers a long period, but the main sections show William the Conqueror setting off to defeat King Harold of England at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th, 1066. It changed the face of English history forever and started William on his upward path to become one of the most powerful monarchs in Western Europe.

The Tapestry is not technically a tapestry which is woven, but a band of linen embroidered with ten different colors during the Middle Ages. It is huge: 19.7 inches (50 cm) high and around 230 feet (70 meters) long. It’s been described as the world’s first comic strip, a wonderful, graphic account of the story. 25 of the scenes are in France; 33 are in England of which 10 take up the Battle of Hastings itself.

It’s easy to follow (and there is a very good audio guide to accompany you). The characters are clearly recognizable: the English have moustaches and long hair; the Normans' hair is cut typically short; the clergy are distinguished by their tonsures and the women (only 3 of them) by their flowing dresses and veiled heads.

And in the strips running above and below the main narrative you see real animals as well as mythological creatures: manticores (lions with human heads), female centaurs, winged horses, dragons and other flights of medieval fantasy.

Apart from the heroic battle, the tapestry is a window into the life of the times, showing the ships and their construction, weaponry, farming, fishing, feasting and lifestyle of the 11th century, all in exquisite detail.

It makes an excellent exhibition for children who are fascinated by the simplicity of the story and the individual scenes.

After seeing the tapestry itself, you go upstairs into a large general exhibition arranged into different sections. There are models, a film and dioramas that flesh out the story.

The tapestry was attributed in the 18th century to Queen Matilda, William’s wife, but it is now believed to have been commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William’s half brother. It was probably embroidered at Canterbury in Kent and completed by 1092.

It’s a magnificent piece of propaganda as well as a jewel of Romanesque art; you come out incensed with the apparent treachery of Harold. According to this account, the saintly (and childless) King of England, Edward the Confessor, had ordered Harold to go to France to hand over the Kingdom of England to Duke William of Normandy. But Harold, on the death of Edward, seized the throne for himself -- with fatal consequences. 

Tips on the visit:

  • Take the audio guide and don’t be pushed along by the crowds; this really is a piece of art to linger over and take in at your own pace.
  • If you have children, buy the William the Conqueror Activity Booklet in English (aimed at 7 to 12 year olds). It’s 3 euros at the shop and available from other tourist attractions in the area. (It’s a very good short introduction for adults as well!)
  • It gets crowded during the peak summer season, so get there as early as you can.

Address

Centre Guillaume-le-Conquérant
Rue de Nesmond
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 31 51 25 50
Website

Opening Times and Prices

  • Jan 28 to Feb 28 and Nov 1 to Dec 31: 9.30am-12.30pm and 2-6pm. 
  • Mar 1 to Oct 31 9am-6.30pm (to 7pm May to Aug)  

Closed: 

  • From 24th December afternoon to 26th December morning incl.
  • From 31st December afternoon to 27th January 2017 incl.
  • Admission:
    Adults 9 euros, children 4 euros, under 10s free. Audio guide included in admission price.
    Last entry is 45 minutes before the museum closes

    Getting to Bayeux

    Bayeux is an ideal add-on to a trip to the Normandy Landing beaches
  • By car: Direct access by motorway, A13 and A84, then the N13
  • By train: Bayeux is on the Paris-St Lazare-Cherbourg line. Paris-Bayeux direct takes 2 hours. The train station is 700m from the museum
  • Car ferry: Port of Ouistreham (30km)
  • There are buses to Bayeux from Caen and Ouistreham: take the green bus line.

Accommodation

You can book a hotel through the Tourist Office

I also recommend a hotel 12 kilometers (5 miles) outside Bayeux
La Ferme de la Rançonnière at Crepon

Medieval Normandy

There's a lot to see associated with medieval Normandy and William the Conqueror and 2016 sees special events to celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. If you're here, check out the medieval fairs and festivals throughout the region. Many of them take place every year. 

Start with this Guide to Medieval Normandy. It takes in places like Falaise and its great castle where William spent his childhood. Don't miss Caen for its castle and the abbeys that William built to bribe the Pope into accepting his marriage to his cousin; and romantic, ruined Jumieges Abbey. Take the tour through Normandy taking in the main sites of William the Conqueror.

Also check out this picture gallery of the life of William the Conqueror.