The Bayeux Tapestry: The Case of the Phantom Fleet
David Hill (Department of English and American Studies, University of Manchester)
Bulletin of the John Rylands Library: Vol. 80:1 (1998)
There is a large bibliography of secondary works concerning the Bayeux Tapestry, but when one reads much of the published material it is clear that a high proportion of this comment, as one would expect, copies and builds on previous authors. It is the contention of this article that much of this writing is flawed by the acceptance of a specious ‘tradition’ that has accumulated in the face of common sense and the use of one’s own eyes. Perhaps what is needed is an innocent eye, for the Tapestry appears uncomplicated enough and it is difficult to believe that it was composed for a small and select audience consisting of a committee of academics and a laity able to comprehend the symbolism of a series of arcane subjects without need of an interlocutor. Although the concept of a commentator or guide would explain the apparent keys given for an explanation of various points, it is not something that has yet been postulated, and therefore we must hope for simple and clear answers arising from the Tapestry itself, assuming the audience thought in an equally simple and clear way. The aspect of the Tapestry I wish to discuss begins at 29.2 metres from the left-hand margin of the Tapestry with Harold II Godwinson enthroned. There are many explanations of this scene, and perhaps we should start with the example of Denny and Filmer-Sankey, which links the main elements of the narrative into the present-day accepted form:
A strange star appears in the sky, a comet with a fiery tail, and the people gaze at it in terror. An astrologer tells Harold that this is an omen of misfortune. In the border below this scene we see the ghostly outlines of ships stealing across the sea. Perhaps this was Harold’s dream as he lay troubled by the thought of the oath he had broken and the doom which might follow the breaking of his oath.
There are many inter-related discussions of this episode, but the ‘modern’ interpretation possibly began with Bruce,4who wrote a description of the scene:
King Harold on his throne, bending down his ear very eagerly to a messenger who has arrived with important intelligence. The nature of it is explained by the dreamy-like flotilla which is shown in the lower border.