With its perfectly preserved medieval ensemble, magnificent cathedral and world-famous tapestry, Bayeux is smaller and much more intimate than its near neighbour Caen, and a far more enjoyable place to visit. A mere 10km from the coast, Bayeux was the first French city to be liberated in 1944, the day after D-Day. Occupied so quickly that it escaped serious damage, it briefly became capital of Free France.
A grand eighteenth-century seminary, now remodelled as the Centre Guillaume le Conquérant, houses the extraordinary Bayeux Tapestry, known to the French as the Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. Created more than nine centuries ago, the 70m strip of linen recounts the story of the Norman Conquest of England. The brilliance of its coloured wools has barely faded, and the tale is enlivened throughout with scenes of medieval life, popular fables and mythical beasts; its draughtsmanship, and the sheer vigour and detail, are stunning. Commissioned by Bishop Oddo, William’s half-brother, for the inauguration of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077, the work is thought to have been carried out by nuns in England, most likely in Canterbury.
The tapestry looks, and reads, like a modern comic strip. While it’s generally considered to be historically accurate, William’s justification for his invasion – that during an enforced sojourn after he was rescued by William following a shipwreck on the coast of northern France, Harold had sworn to accept him as King of England – remains in dispute.
In the tapestry itself, Harold is every inch the villain, with his dastardly little moustache and shifty eyes. At the point when he breaks his oath and seizes the throne, Harold looks extremely pleased with himself; however, his comeuppance swiftly follows, as William crosses the Channel and defeats the English armies at Hastings.