The Bayeux Tapestry and the Norman Conquest

An introduction to primary source analysis in a world-history classroom

Laura Wangerin (Latin School of Chicago)

The Bayeux Tapestry is a remarkable work, and one that never fails to fascinate those who examine it.  Thus, it seems a natural way to introduce the medieval world to high school students and get them excited about looking at primary source material.  This three-day lesson built around the Bayeux Tapestry was first developed in 2002 as an introduction to the Middle Ages for a sophomore-level world history course at Cranbrook Kingswood Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  It served as a great way to get students to start thinking creatively about how to use primary sources and engage them in the process of being historians through the analysis of primary source material.

The Bayeux Tapestry and the accompanying documents related to the Norman Conquest used in this lesson (excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and William of Malmesbury) served as a point of reference for much of our study of medieval Europe, providing students with primary source material that they understood well and could refer back to throughout that unit.  For example, when we read excerpts from R. W. Southern’s classic The Making of the Middle Ages, we reexamined these sources from the Bayeux Tapestry unit for examples of homage and the ecclesiastical influence on society.  As part of a world history course, we were able to continue to refer to these sources once we moved beyond medieval Europe.  For Feudal Japan, students went back to William of Malmesbury and the Bayeux Tapestry as a starting point for a project comparing Japanese and European warriors (samurai vs. knights).  Then, when we looked at Song China, we compared the Bayeux Tapestry to the 12th century scroll “Along the River During the Qingming Festival” by Zhang Zeduan, discussing stylistic differences between east and west, the different audiences of each work, and the intended purposes of each. When we made the transition into the Renaissance, the Bayeux Tapestry once more was used in conjunction with other examples of medieval art to help students understand the dramatic changes that occurred in the artistic representation of the world.

In addition to being able to continue to refer to the sources for the Norman Conquest in succeeding units, concepts relating to this mini-unit also recurred throughout the first semester.  The idea of a power vacuum and competing heirs, for example, is significant to understanding the origins of the 13th– century Mongol and Mali Empires, and Kamakura Japan.

Since this unit was taught in the first weeks of the school year, it also offered a valuable opportunity to review with students the difference between primary and secondary sources, and to address important questions about bias and objectivity.  The documentary sources are brief and accessible, and, when combined with an examination of the Bayeux Tapestry, offer great insight into the 11th-century Saxon and Norman worlds. I taught this lesson over three class days, but this could very easily be abbreviated or extended to meet a teacher’s specific needs.

I found that the Aesop’s Fables section of the lesson was particularly interesting for students. Having the students read the fables aloud (most are only a couple of paragraphs long) then discussing the applications as they might relate to the circumstances surrounding the conquest, the provenance of the tapestry (would the application of the moral be different if different people had created or commissioned it?), and the personality of William the Conqueror himself always made for an exciting class.  This segued into the homework, readings from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and William of Malmesbury, and invariably led to a lively discussion on the third day as students could now discuss the tapestry itself, the primary source readings, and the morals of the fables as they interrelated to each other and the Norman Conquest.

As a last note, finding the full Bayeux Tapestry online in images that are of sufficient size to analyze, for free, can be a challenge; the site I initially used in 2002 now charges $18US per year for access.  All web sites listed in the resources for this unit are free.


Unit Objectives:

Primary Source Analysis: Understand and learn to identify bias in primary sources. Understand how artifacts can serve as primary sources.  Understand how primary sources can be analyzed on several levels.

Writing: Produce a three- to five-paragraph essay with a thesis, topic sentences, transitions, and supporting evidence. Use Chicago-style endnotes to cite sources.

Historic Understanding: Understand the political milieu surrounding the Battle of Hastings, and the historic importance of the Norman Conquest.


Resources used in this unit:

Primary Sources:

“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Assessment of William I.” on the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, sub anno 1086, this translation originally published in F. A. Ogg, A Source Book of Medieval History (New York, 1907).

Crack, Glen Ray. “The Full Bayeux Tapestry.”  Battle, East Sussex: Glen Ray Crack, 2009 (1998).

“The Domesday Book 1086: Instructions and Extract.” on the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. From University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, published for the Dept. of History of the University of Pennsylvania., (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?])Vol III:2, pp.6-7.

“William of Malmesbury, d. 1143?: The Battle of Hastings, 1066.” on the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. From James Harvey Robinson, ed. Readings in European History, 2 vols. (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1904-06), Vol I: From the Breaking up of the Roman Empire to the Protestant Revolt, pp. 224-229. Scanned and modernized by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Ph. D., Cal. State Fullerton.

Aesop.  Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated Children’s Library. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1975 (1947).

Secondary Sources:

“Bayeux Tapestry, c1066.” Toronto: The Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts, 2008 (2000).

Essential Norman Conquest. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2006.


Day 1 – Objective Observation and Lecture.

For Teachers:

Objective Observation:  Show a section of the Bayeux Tapestry and have students fill out the observation worksheet.  Then, discuss their ideas of what it is in class, paying particular attention to the questions they frame about it.  Give a brief explanation about what the Bayeux Tapestry is and why it is important.

Lecture: “Quick and Dirty Overview” followed by an exploration of Osprey Publishing’s Essential Norman Conquest with interactive content (battlefields, armor, audio samples of Norman French and Saxon English, etc.)

Lecture Outline: Quick and Dirty Overview of the Power Struggle for England

The Normans and Saxons were descended from Danes who in the 5th – 11th centuries attacked, invaded, and settled in England, and in the 10th century settled in Seine Valley in France (“Norman” is derived from “Northmen,” and Normandy is the North of France where Normans lived)

Duke Richard II of Normandy’s sister, Emma, was responsible for the critical relationship between Normandy & England, and England & Denmark:

1st she married King Ethelred of England in 1002, and they had a son who became Edward I (The Confessor)

2nd she married King Cnut of Denmark & England 1016

In 1042 Edward I came to the English throne and re-established the Anglo-Saxon dynasty in England (the Danish dynasty had two more rulers after Cnut, Harold I and Harthacnut).

Edward died on January 5, 1066 and had no heir.  This left a POWER VACUUM  (a vacuum has no air, a power vacuum has no heir).  Like a physical vacuum, when a power vacuum is opened, heirs rush in to fill it.  There were three contenders for the English throne:

1. Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson claimed that Edward gave him the right of succession as he lay dying, saying, “Into Harold’s hands I commit my kingdom.”  The witan (an Anglo Saxon king’s council) was in charge of choosing a successor if there was no heir, and it confirmed Harold as king: Harold II.

2. Harald Hardrada of Norway believed he had a claim to the English throne.  Harald had ruled Norway jointly with his nephew Mangus until Mangus died in 1047.  In 1042, since neither Mangus nor Harthacnut (the last Danish ruler of England) had an heir, they made a deal to promise their kingdoms to each other when they died.  When Harthacnut died, Mangus was busy fighting for control of Denmark and was unable to challenge Edward’s claim to the English throne.  But now, with both Mangus and Edward dead, Harald Hardrada figured he was Mangus’ rightful heir to England.  He tried to take the crown by force.

On Sept. 25, 1066, at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Harold I defeated Harald Hardrada so badly that only 24 of Harald’s 240 Viking ships made it back to Norway.  While resting after this victory, Harold I received word that William of Normandy had landed near Hastings.

3. William of Normandy (a.k.a. William the Bastard, William the Conqueror) was a distant cousin of Edward I (but a BLOOD relative), and he claimed that in 1064 Harold himself had brought him a message from Edward that he (William) was to be the next king, AND he claimed that Harold had sworn on saints’ relics that he (Harold) would support William’s claim to the throne.  The Pope excommunicated Harold based on this claim, and William attacked.

Harold rushed south to address this new threat, and on October 14 his men were defeated by William’s forces.  By evening of that day, almost all of the Saxon aristocracy was dead, and Harold himself died of an arrow through the eye.

On Christmas day, 1066, William was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey.

Homework For Students:

“Bayeux Tapestry, c1066” and “The Full Bayeux Tapestry”

Go online and read first the overview of the Bayeux Tapestry’s history and then examine the tapestry itself. Look carefully at all of the panels (click on them to enlarge) and read the translations of the Latin text that accompanies them.  Can you follow the progress of the story?  How do the pictures relate to the text? What kinds of things are in the decorative borders? The main characters are (of course) William and Harold. Try to sum up how the Bayeux Tapestry portrays each, and give examples (panel numbers) from the tapestry to support your assessment.


Day 2 –The Bayeux Tapestry as a Primary Source

For Teachers


1. Audience: From the reading the night before, discuss who made the Bayeux Tapestry and who the intended audience was.  How does this affect how the story will be told? Can you detect bias?  Does this information affect the Bayeux Tapestry’s use as a historical document?  Discuss 3 levels of understanding (literate/Latin, illiterate/pictorial, allegorical).  Enlarge the thumbnails of one of the panels that has a fable in the border.  Have the students describe what they see. Next, have one of the students read the story from Aesop’s Fables.  Draw attention to the moral or application.  Then, based on what students know about the likely provenance of the Bayeux Tapestry from their reading the night before, discuss why that particular fable might be represented.  Who was the message intended for? What might that message be, when interpreted to reflect the events surrounding the conquest?  Why was it included in this way?

Six Fables from the Tapestry Borders1  The Fox and the Crow (left center bottom border, “Application: Flatterers are not to be trusted.”2), The Wolf and the Lamb (right center bottom border, “Application: Any excuse will serve a tyrant.”3)  The Lion and the Other Beasts go Hunting (left bottom border, “Application: Many may share in the labors but not in the spoils.”4), The Mouse and the Frog (center bottom border, “Application: He who compasses the destruction of his neighbor often is caught in his own snare.”5) The Wolf and the Crane (center top border, “Application: Those who live on expectation are sure to be disappointed.”6)  The Wolf and the Goat (right top border, “Application: Beware of a friend with an ulterior motive.”7)

2. What can we learn about 11th century society from the Bayeux Tapestry? How can it serve as a primary source?  Get students to think not just about the political drama that is portrayed, but also about hairstyles, clothing (are they different for Saxons and Normans?), weapons, boat-building, etc.

Homework for Students:

“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Assessment of William I” and “William of Malmesbury, d. 1143?:The Battle of Hastings, 1066.”

Analyze each document using the method suggested in the Reading Primary Sources guide. Write out answers to Questions #3 and #4 for each source.


Day 3 – Primary Source Analysis and Discussion

For Teachers


Discuss the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and William of Malmesbury texts using the Reading Primary Sources guide as the foundation for analysis. Then, compare the two – which personalities are featured in each? How are William and the Normans portrayed? Does the knowledge that one was written less than one generation after the conquest and one more than two generations after the conquest account for the differences in tone?

Domesday – this important census is mentioned in both of these documents. Hand out copies of “The Domesday Book 1086: Instructions and Extract.” in class and discuss how it is characterized by the two chroniclers and why it is such an important source.

Homework for Students:

Written Assessment.  Compare how William is portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry and in the two primary source documents in a three to five paragraph essay.  Have a clearly stated THESIS in your introduction and use EXAMPLES (using Chicago-style citation format) from the sources to support your assertions.

Additional Sources for Teachers:

Bloch, R. Howard. A Needle in the Right Hand of God: The Norman Conquest of 1066 and the Making and Meaning of the Bayeux Tapestry. New York: Random House, 2006.

“The History of the Norman Conquest.” Oxford: Osprey Publishing, Ltd., 2006.

Howarth, David. 1066: The Year of the Conquest. New York: Penguin Group, 1977.

Southern, R.W. The Making of the Middle Ages. New Haven: Yale UP, 1953.

Williams, Ann, and G.H. Martin, eds. Domesday Book: A Complete Translation. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.
Objective Observation: The Bayeux Tapestry8


Objective Observation
Describe what you see in the tapestry panel in such a way that someone who has never seen the panel will be able to visualize or recreate it. What images are there? How are they arranged?
Subjective Interpretation
Describe any personal feelings or associations that the panel evokes, identifying what the specific image is that causes your emotional response (“I see . . . and it makes me think of . . .”)

List two to three questions about what you see on the Bayeux Tapestry panel we are examining:

List two to three questions that would lead to greater understanding of the Bayeux Tapestry as an artifact:

Reading Primary Sources9

While some of the sources that we will look at in class may seem intimidating, there is nothing here that you are not capable of reading and understanding on several levels. Think of the first time you read Shakespeare – the language probably seemed awkward and you may not have understood all of the words, but once you got into it, it started to make sense. Some of it is even funny. You will find the same thing with these texts.

The easiest way to approach these texts is to analyze them on three different levels.

1. Read for the literal meaning of the text. What is going on? Who are the characters or people involved, and what is the situation or conflict? What is the author describing?

2. Examine the larger meaning of the text. What is the author trying to communicate to his audience? What is his approach? Why do you think he chose this way of getting his point across?

3. Dig for the historical significance of the text. What can we tell about the cultural milieu that produced this work? About the attitudes and biases of the person who wrote it? Are there any details that give us insight into particular aspects of that society – values, activities, personal lives, relationships, even things like types of clothing and what they ate?

4. Once you can answer these types of questions regarding the text, you are ready to critically analyze its usefulness as a historical document. What are the benefits of using the text you are reading as a historical document? What are the drawbacks? Do the plusses outweigh the minuses? What other types of documents or sources might be helpful in comparison with the text you are examining to help determine its validity?


1All panel links and references are to Glen Ray Crack. “The Full Bayeux Tapestry.” Battle, East Sussex: Glen Ray Crack, 2009 (1998).

2Aesop. Aesop’s Fables. Illustrated Children’s Library. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1975 (1947), 6.

3Ibid, 128.

4Ibid, 160.

5Ibid, 180.

6Ibid, 147.

7Ibid, 135.

8Adapted from “Explorations in American Environmental History – Worksheet: Objective Observation,” a Library of Congress Learning Page, 2002,

9Laura Wangerin. “Reading Primary Sources,” Chicago: Laura Wangerin, 2007.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VII, Issue 2, Fall 2009

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.   No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies