Bayeux Tapestry: Centuries-Old Mystery Regarding One of Most Important Artefacts in British History Unraveled

Researchers have unraveled a long standing mystery regarding the history of the Bayeux Tapestry—an embroidered cloth measuring around 230 foot long and 20 inches tall which tells the story of how the Normans conquered England in the 11th century.

Several aspects of the tapestry's history have remained a topic of hot debate for hundreds of years. For example, there has been little consensus among experts about where it was manufactured, who commissioned the work and whether it was first displayed in England or France—where the Normans originated.

Furthermore, scholars have not been able to agree over what its exact dimensions were and for which venue it was made. But now a study published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association has shed new light on one of the most important documents in English history.

The paper indicates that the tapestry was designed specifically to fit inside one section of the Bayeux cathedral in Normandy, northwestern France. Namely, it was intended to be hung along the north, south and west sides of the cathedral's nave—or the central part of the building.

Experts already knew that the tapestry had been hung in the cathedral during the fifteenth century, but the new evidence reveals that the site was its original home.

"It has always been the case that the simplest explanation is that it was designed for Bayeux Cathedral," Christopher Norton, an author of the paper from the University of York in the U.K., said in a statement. "This general proposition can now be corroborated by the specific evidence that the physical and narrative structure of the tapestry are perfectly adapted to fit the nave of the 11th-century cathedral."

"We knew it was there by 1476, but didn't know if it always had been," Tom Nickson, Editor of the Journal of the British Archaeological Association told Newsweek. "Many scholars have proposed competing theories as to its display. It is always surprising to find something new to say about the tapestry as it has been studied so many times! Many scholars had thought it was probably made for Bayeux in the first place, but had never been able to prove it."

Norton came to his conclusion after analyzing the linen fabric which the tapestry is made out of and the surviving architectural features of the cathedral.

"Christopher was able to show that the so-called 'tapestry' was embroidered onto linen cloths of standard lengths, which enabled him to reconstruct its probable original length," Nickson said. "He was then able to show that it would have fitted perfectly into the nave of Bayeux cathedral as it was in the years after 1066."

According to the researchers, the findings provide a clue as to the identity of the creator/s because whoever designed it must have visited Bayeux and known the exact dimensions of the nave.

The findings are particularly timely given that France is preparing to loan the tapestry to the U.K.—although not before next year at the very least due to the fragility of the fabric.

Bayeux Tapestry
The Death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings, 1066. Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry, a long embroidered cloth depicting the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England as well as the events of the invasion itself, annotated in Latin. Culture Club/Getty Images

The promise made by French President Emmanuel Macron would see the tapestry exhibited in the U.K. for the first time in history—a significant gesture given the importance of the work in British history and the current nature of the country's relationship with the rest of Europe with Brexit approaching.

"This would be a major loan, probably the most significant ever from France to the U.K.," Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum in London, said in a statement last year reacting to the news. "It is a gesture of extraordinary generosity and proof of the deep ties that link our countries. The Bayeux tapestry is of huge importance, as it recounts a crucial moment in British and French history, 1066."

This fabled date is the year which William, Duke of Normandy defeated Harold Godwinson—the last crowned Anglo-Saxon King of England—at the Battle of Hastings, kickstarting the Norman Conquest. The invasion led by William the Conqueror—as he would later come to be known—fundamentally altered the trajectory of English history, reshaping everything from the nation's language to its laws. In fact, the current British monarchy can trace its origins back to William.

"[The tapestry] shows the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The final section is missing, but it probably ended with the coronation of William I as king of England," Nickson said. "It is unique among surviving art objects from the 11th century, but speaks to a seminal moment in the relationship between England and Europe. The likes of Napoleon and Himmler have sought to capitalize on its relevance to the politics of their own time."

According to Norton, the findings of the latest study suggest that the tapestry—which tells the tale of the events up to and including the Battle of Hastings—should be displayed along three sides of a rectangular space measuring around 31 meters (102 feet) long x 9 meters (30 feet) wide. Hanging it in this way would mirror how it was originally displayed.