In 1064, Edward the Confessor, King of England, received at his castle (very probably Winchester) his brother-in-law, the Earl of Wessex, Harold Godwinson, the principal representative of the Anglo-Saxons for the succession to the throne. During these discussions, the king charges him to go to Normandy to inform his cousin, Duke William, that as there was no direct heir, he has chosen him as successor. He thus confirms the promise that the king is said to have made to the Duke of Normandy several years before in 1051. Scenes 1 to 6.
But Harold’s ship goes adrift. Instead of landing on the Normandy coast, he and his companions land near the mouth of the Somme on the inhospitable territory of Count Guy de Ponthieu, who intends to use his seigniorial rights to the shipwreck.
Guy I, Count of Ponthieu had ruled his county since the death of his brother Enguerrand II, killed in 1053 in a battle against William of Normandy. After this episode, the count became a vassal of the Norman duchy.
The Duke of Normandy was forced to negotiate the freedom of Harold, who was held in Beaurain castle in the region of Abbeville, for a ransom: a large castle bordering the duchy and the land around it! Scenes 7 to 13
Harold was now the guest of the Duke of Normandy, who invited him to his castle at Brionne. He granted him a very lively solemn audience. Harold probably spoke of his shipwreck and of the mission King Edward had given him. As for William, he presumably informed Harold of his decision to assume the crown of England.
As clever compensation to Harold for his possible disappointment, he is assured that William will give him the hand of his eldest daughter. Under a portico an adolescent girl receives a slight slap in the face, a possible sign of the confirmation of an engagement.
Later, the Duke invites Harold to take part in the military expedition he is leading against Conan II, Duke of Brittany. Crossing the bay of Mont St Michel, recognisable by its church built on the rock, the troops lay siege to Dol, Rennes, then Dinan. Shut inside the vulnerable wooden fortifications of the town, Conan soon capitulates and, with the tip of his lance, gives the keys of the town to his conqueror.
During this campaign, Duke William pays tribute to Harold for his bravery, and gives him arms and armour. A newly made Norman knight, he is now one of William’s liegemen. Scenes 14 to 21.
Finally, the Earl of Wessex takes an oath of loyalty to the Duke of Normandy on the relics in Bayeux Cathedral. The witnesses of the scene, who are very attentive, emphasise the gravity of this sacred commitment by the expression on their faces and their raised index fingers. Scenes 22 to 24.
Bound by this fateful oath, Harold returns to England where he meets the old King Edward, who, exhausted by his illness, dies in the night of 4 to 5 January 1066. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, just recently finished and consecrated to Saint Peter the Apostle on 28 December 1065.
The day after the funeral, the Witangemot, the council of noblemen, decide to offer Harold the crown of England. In spite of his oath, he accepts and reigns under the name of Harold II. He was crowned by Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, on 6 January 1066.
But soon a bad omen appears in the sky: the passage of a strange star with sparkling hair. It was in fact Halley’s comet, visible for a whole week from 24 April to 1 May 1066. Scenes 25 to 33.
Hearing the news, the Duke of Normandy solicits the advice of his half-brother Odo of Conteville, bishop of Bayeux, who suggests that he should prepare a fleet and sail to England to punish this perjury.
In mid-August 1066, the fleet gathered at the mouth of the river Dives and the neighbouring harbours. But the crossing is postponed until the evening of 27 September 1066.
During that night, nearly four hundred ships set sail with almost fifteen thousand men and two thousand horses on board. One of the ships was the Mora, the Duke’s ship given to him by the Duchess Matilda, which bore at the top of the mast a fanal blessed by the Pope, the famous vexillum sancti Petri. Scenes 34 to 38.
In the morning of 28 September 1066, the fleet landed at the little port of Pevensey, in Sussex, and the Normans headed for Hastings where they set up their position. Scenes 39 to 47.
Harold’s troops had just won a bloody victory near York at Stamford Bridge on 25 September 1066 over the Viking allies of Tostig, the King’s own brother. They arrived in Hastings, therefore, reduced in number and exhausted.
In the morning of 14 October 1066, the decisive battle began. As was the custom of the time, William, armed with the rod of command, pronounced the customary commander’s harangue.
Preceded by archers, the Norman cavalry galloped in a long cavalcade and swooped down on the English infantry who were protected by a wall of shields. During the combat, the King’s brothers, Lewine and Gyrd, were killed. There were so many dead that they overran into the lower border of the Tapestry. But the heavy Norman cavalry collapsed at the foot of a hill surrounded by a marsh reinforced with pointed stakes.
This bloody ravine was later named “Malfosse”. It was on this hill that the English had gathered. The Normans withdrew in chaos. The result of the battle was undecided. To reassure his men, William was obliged to lift his helmet so that his soldiers would recognise him. Near him, Eustache de Boulogne, who held the ducal gonfanon, confirmed that he was indeed Duke William by pointing to him. The Normans took courage from this and launched into a final attack. In spite of the protection of his elite soldiers, Harold was mortally wounded by an arrow in his right eye. The English army then retreated in total chaos. Scenes 48 to 58
Thus ends the tale embroidered on the Tapestry, suddenly, on the evening of 14 October 1066.