Written by Naomi Wallace
In the seventy metres of the Bayeux Tapestry there are 626 men, 190 horses, 541 other animals, 93 penises … and only 3 women. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the equine population considerably outnumbers the female, given that the Tapestry, “an embroidery of testosterone”, depicts what was a largely male episode of history. However, this has arguably resulted in a lack of recognition that women were behind its creation. Though very little is known about them, it was a group of women that crafted the Tapestry, and they deserve to be a more widely remembered facet of its history.
Historians generally agree upon the theory that the Bayeux Tapestry was commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, who was the half-brother of William the Conqueror. It was most likely made in England, as Anglo-Saxon women were considered the best embroiderers of the time; this is substantiated by aspects of the Tapestry itself, such as anglicised spellings of names and comparisons to pre-conquest manuscripts that indicate an English provenance.
So, who were the group of English women behind what is arguably the most famous surviving piece of medieval art? Unfortunately, little is known about female embroiders of the time. Those we do know about were wealthy and therefore embroidered with gold thread, which is not used in the Bayeux Tapestry, so the evidence points to it being a group of ordinary women, probably nuns.
While the Tapestry would have been commissioned and overseen by someone who gave specific instructions to the women, there are still echoes of their creativity within the piece. One of the three women depicted in the Tapestry stands with her child outside a burning house in a representation of war victims in the Norman Conquest, a poignant image that one could suggest was the touch of a woman. Some have also theorised that the border of the Tapestry was left to the nuns to design themselves, margins that provide a beautiful glimpse into the lives of an elusive group of medieval women who are otherwise lost to history. Medieval monks are well-known for placing illustrations in the margins of manuscripts, and perhaps this group of nuns saw the Bayeux Tapestry as their opportunity to do the same.
It is difficult not to feel rather sad that there is not more to be said about the women behind the Bayeux Tapestry, given its historical significance and the vast scholarship that surrounds it. But the important thing is that we know they did exist, regardless of how little evidence there is of them. We can imagine that they socialised and talked over the years that they created it, across the hours of meticulous and careful work they put into producing one of the most famous artworks of all time. They may not be tangible, and their individual identities are likely irretrievable; but this does not mean that we cannot recontextualise the Bayeux Tapestry and recognise it to be the beautiful, intricate work of a group of women whose role was to fall into the background of the history that they were depicting as they embroidered the iconic masterpiece of medieval artwork that remains vitally important to this day.
Bernstein, David J. The Mystery of The Bayeux Tapestry. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986.
Musgrove, David. “Are women at the heart of the action in the Norman Conquest?” History Extra, 27 June 2020. https://www.historyextra.com/period/norman/women-role-norman-conquest-bayeux-tapestry/ (Accessed 11/11/2022).
Ward-Lowery, Mary, “Women in Stitches: The Making of the Bayeux Tapestry” (BBC Radio 4, 22 February 2022). https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001327r (Accessed 11/11/2022).
Jenner, Greg, with Dr Janina Ramirez and Lou Sanders. “The Bayeux Tapestry”. You’re Dead to Me (BBC Radio 4, 24 June 2022). https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0cgn8tz (Accessed 11/11/2022).
“People of the Bayeux Tapestry”. https://www.readingmuseum.org.uk/collections/britains-bayeux-tapestry/people-bayeux-tapestry (Accessed 11/11/2022).