Kingship-in-Death in the Bayeux Tapestry
By Victoria Thompson
Reading Medieval Studies, Vol.25 (1999)
Introduction: The interpretation of the purpose of the Bayeux tapestry hinges on two key scenes, Harold’s oath-taking at Bayeux and the death-bed of King Edward. Both scenes are highly ambiguous and both have been brought forward to support party-political claims, in favour of either the Norman or the English faction. This article argues that, in fact, the tapestry explicitly avoids endorsing a view of history that supports one ethnic team over the other, seeking instead a narrative that emphasizes their common interests. The indisputable fact, in the years after the Conquest, was that the Normans ruled the country and that therefore, from the perspective of Christian hindsight, God must have given it to them and taken it away from the English. The tapestry takes for granted this providential view of history and seeks a conciliatory reading in which the crucially important part of the narrative of recent events is the safe passage of the crown and the function of anointed kingship from one worthy figure, Edward, to another, William. Edward is set up as an image of static perfection, an icon of kingship, against which the flawed and variable figure of Harold is measured and found wanting. The designer’s fascination with concepts of kingship emerges most clearly in the scenes of the dying and death of Edward which are the focus of this discussion.
The death of a king is always a period of crisis, even when succession is assured, much more so when the future of his kingdom is in dispute. At a time of extreme stress, powerful images of institutional continuity provide a source of reassurance: the Bayeux tapestry may have provided just such an image, and a highly visible one at that. To quote an anthropological study of kingship among the Dinka and Sbilluk peoples of Sudan:
the most powerful symbol for the continuity of any community, large or small, simple or complex, is, by a strange and dynamic paradox, to be found in the death of its leader, and in the representation of that striking event.