I have a confession to make–when I first became interested in history, it was military and not something more politically correct like art, social or political history that caught my attention. I did eventually branch out into more humanitarian studies but military history still has a soft spot in my heart. Last May, we went to Bayeux as part of a larger visit to the D-Day beaches. Bayeux is home to the Tapisserie de la reine Mathilde more commonly known as the Bayeux Tapestry. For fans of both medieval and military history, the tapestry alone merits the trip to Bayeux. The tapestry is a 68.80 metres long, 50 centimetres high embroidered cloth that tells the story of William the Conquerors 1066 conquest of England via carefully sewn colorful images. Completed in England in the 1070s, the tapestry was designed to be shown in the Bayeux Cathedral. Today, it has its own museum and a listing in the UNESCO Memory of the World List! As you can imagine, the tapestry/museum is a popular spot for tour groups. Both free bus and car parking is located within easy walking distance of the museum. picnicking and bathroom facilities are also located next to the parking lot. For restaurant lovers, cafés, bakeries and a variety of eateries are located a short walk away in the center of town. (The historic center of Bayeux is a relatively small area and easily covered on foot.)
The tapestry museum is housed in a 17th century seminary. The chapel on the grounds is even older (13th century Norman Gothic architecture) and hosts mini-exhibits. Depending on the season, the museum is open from 9/9:30 to 17:30/18:30. We arrived in Bayeux, picnicked early and timed our arrival at the museum for lunchtime. I do not like to feel rushed when visiting a museum or have the impression that an entire tour group is breathing down my neck. With kids, I like to have as much time and space as possible available. Visiting at lunchtime allowed us to pass four different tour and school groups that were leaving the museum and have the tapestry almost to ourselves. Adults pay 7.80€/person and children under 10 are free. Your visit starts with the tapestry. Audio guides are available and are included in your ticket price. For someone who is not a big fan of audio guides, I have to admit I did enjoy this one. The music and commentary were a nice complement to the tapestry and, most importantly it was easy to pause it at will. You will notice that I’m using postcards and not photographs today–in order to preserve the cloth, flash photography is forbidden and I found it easier to not take pictures at all.
The Bayeux Tapestry can be simplified down to an embroidered comic strip and it’s bright and clear graphics appeal to all ages (moody, angst-filled middle-school tour groups excepted). Our girls, at the time both toddlers, loved it! In addition to the soldiers and battle scenes, horses, mythic animals, ships and bits of everyday camp life can be found throughout the cloth. Laura and even Elise kept pointing out all sorts of (random) details to us and enjoyed the visit as much as us and more than some of the other people present! “Junior” audio guides and a coloring area are available for older children. Themed activity guides also exist for school age children. The museum is also handicapped accessible which translates into stroller-accessible for families with small children. Depending on your child’s attention span or even your own schedule, you can spend as little as 30 minutes in the museum (ie the time needed to see just the tapestry). With additional time, you can take in the tapestry, the film describing the events in the tapestry and the (very basic) displays above. The displays can easily be browsed over or skipped if you’re short on time. The film, on the other hand, is worth watching. That said, the star of the museum is the tapestry and it is the tapestry that will leave you with a lasting impression.
To give you a very brief summary–the tapestry starts with Edward the Confessor, king of England, sending Harold to Normandy. Harold arrives but is taken prisoner and eventually released to William. Harold joins William in his campaign against Conan II, Duke of Brittany. It is worth pointing out that in this early part of the tapestry, Harold is portrayed as brave and upstanding–nothing in his comportment hints at his future role as the usurper and villain of the tapestry. Following, Conan’s defeat the tapestry shows William bestowing arms on Harold and, most importantly for the story, Harold swearing an oath of fealty on holy relics to William. Harold returns to England whereupon Edward’s death he takes the crown! The tapestry shows Halley’s comet–during the Middle Ages, comets were considered to be bad omens. The message to Harold and the viewer is clear, no good can come to someone who has stolen his crown! The rest of the tapestry shows William preparing his army, setting sail, and defeating Harold to take his place as the rightful King of England. All of this is set out to the viewer, originally William’s subjects, in storybook fashion with bright clear pictures and limited text for the more educated. One of the wonderful things about the tapestry are the details of both military and every day life in the Middle Ages. For example, you see dead knights being stripped of their armor after a battle, food being prepared for the soldiers, or even farmers working in their fields. If you can’t afford to go to Bayeux, you can scroll the Tapestry online here.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibits. This year’s big exhibit brings together medieval treasures from Japan and France. It’s running until December 30th so you still have time to see it over the holiday break. When we arrived, I was particularly excited at the chance to see the Bayeux Tapestry (11th century) face-to-face with the Scroll of the Great Minister Ban (Ban Dainagon emaki) (12th century), a National Treasure in Japan. Perhaps I was a little naive but based on the poster, I was expecting to see the actual emaki and not a copy. As a national treasure, however, the Scroll is not allowed to leave Japan. Once over this minor disappointment, I did enjoy looking at the two together. The two medieval pictures/narratives are placed side-by-side using high quality copies. The copies are actually collotypes or photographs enhanced which has been enhanced with watercolors. The Japanese scroll is on loan from Tokyo’s Idemitsu Museum (and perhaps why I thought the exhibit had the original scroll from Japan). Explanatory notes are also given so that you know what you’re looking at (particularly helpful for the Japanese scroll). In addition to the full-length comparison, there is a section devoted to comparing specific subjects (soldiers, birds, etc.) and their treatment in the two texts. Additional exhibit space is devoted to explaining emakimono and their place in Japanese art history. The exhibit is well done but not designed for children–ours were content to look at the side-by-side comparison but not interested in the details of how emaki were made. While not what I originally expected, I enjoyed the exhibit and it left me wanting to see an original emakimono myself.
While you can look at copies, French, Japanese or other and enjoy them, they don’t give you the same feel for just how long the tapestry truly is–seeing the Bayeux Tapestry in person is a magical experience and one you can even share with your family!