Bayeux Tapestry

I will be writing a fuller article on the vessels depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, but for now will highlight some aspects that have aroused my curiosity.

First a short background which has coloured my thinking. The craft were rapidly built for an invasion fleet put together between March and September of 1066, and unlikely to require much in the way of rowing. The fleet had to carry as part of its cargo many horses which would not be used to the conditions on board a relatively small craft . The invasion fleet set sail two weeks prior to the final invasion but were driven back by a storm that turned the fleet around and drove many craft onto the beaches of France. With this in mind I wondered what type of sail would be easily reefed by relatively inexperienced crew in bad conditions (late September was an uncertain time to set sail anyway). According to the Bayeux Tapestry, the first 5 ships at the head of the fleet with sails still remaining aloft appear to be made from three long tappered lengths of cloth which were long enough to reach the helmsman, too long for a normal sail. The following six ships have sails with a more random pattern and my theory is that, this is either creative licence on the part of the individuals sewing the tapestry or these sails were hastily converted from the original rectangular sails as a means of meeting the challenge of the bad weather.

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I took a standard rectangular sail (10' x 15') and cut it into three tappering strips as per the sketch below (sketch will be added soon). This creates no waste and results in a triangular sail with diagonal markings as on the Bayeux Tapestry.


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This sail might not have been brilliant but it would have been easily reefed to adapt to the changing weather.

In the case of both types of sail the Tapestry shows the sail being reefed by the aid of either some form of collar or in one case a knot created by possibly twisting the cloth repeatedly until it folded over on itself.


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A spinnaker is not an effective directional sail and I believe, to improve directional capability, the shields were strategically placed to either the stem or stern depending on weather conditions, and these can be seen on other craft in the Tapestry in various numbers and positions. On the night of the invasion, William set off in a specially built ship ( a present from his wife, Matilda ) with a light aloft for all the ships to follow. However, the following morning he had outpaced all of them and it was only after dropping anchor and eating a hearty breakfast that a man sent aloft finally spotted the invasion fleet on his third attempt . This not only emphasises the quality of his crew and ship but also how slow the rest were. I do not necessarily think the sail was a brilliant means of propulsion but a good and safe way to move an invading fleet quietly , safely in one direction without the chaos and shouting of a crew trying to reef a square sail over the heads of many nervous men horses and cargo in changeable seas.