Symbolism and Iconography of the Hawk in the Main Panel of the Bayeux Tapestry

Symbolism and Iconography of the Hawk in the Main Panel of the Bayeux Tapestry

By Makra Péter

Published Online (2001)

Introduction: The main panel of the Bayeux Tapestry features a large predatory bird carried by human figures on several occasions. More precisely, this predatory bird can be found in plates [2], [5], [10], [15] and [17], where the plates (scenes) are numbered according to Stenton et al. Considering the fact that, apart from horses, very few animals are depicted in the main panel of the Tapestry, the repeated occurrence of this bird deserves closer attention. The aim of the present essay is to elaborate on the possible significance carried by the representation of this predatory bird from various points of view.

It seems rather obvious to think that the bird in question is either a falcon or a hawk, as these two birds are usually used in falconry and thus can naturally be depicted as sitting on someone’s fist. For further classification, I shall turn to W Brunsdon Yapp. Yapp observes that the wings of the bird in the Tapestry do not reach to the end of the tail, unlike those of a falcon. He also rules out the peregrine falcon, another species used by the wealthy for falconry, judging from the short tail and the absence of the moustachial stripe characteristic of that bird. Considering the fact that the wings stop near the base of the tail, Yapp arrives at the conclusion that the bird must be a hawk, so in the following I shall consistently refer to it as such.

In many books there appeared a suggestion that in medieval falconry different species of birds were attributed to different ranks of society, for example, a peregrine falcon was the correct bird for an earl. Yapp refers to Schegel and van Wulverhorst, who argue that Harold’s being accompanied by such an ‘inferior bird’ as the hawk instead of the peregrine falcon that would suit his rank indicates the contempt that the Norman designer of the Tapestry felt for the English. Yapp rejects this notion, saying that this differentiation ‘has no basis in fact and is unknown before the fifteenth century.’

Click here to read this article from the Falconry Heritage Trust

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