The Battle Scene
The Bayeux Tapestry has been scrutinised for clues about costume, armour and for the battle of Hastings. One dispute centres on the landing of the Norman horses. They are shown literally stepping out of the transports, which resemble the clinker-built Viking ships of the time. In 1963 Danish Sea Scouts, using a replica of the 9th-century Ladby ship, took horses on board and managed to jump them over the low gunwales of the ship in just this fashion. However, the replica was only taken along the coast and not tried in the open sea, where any noticeable swell would probably result in the horses being damaged or thrown overboard. Were deeper-bodied transports used in reality?
Depictions of armour also cause problems. The large, net-like appearance of the coats worn by both sides is today accepted as artistic licence for mail, which consisted of
thousands of interlinked iron rings. The squares on the chests of some coats are usually now interpreted as flaps to cover the throat, or perhaps the neck opening. Three garments, however, seem to be covered in triangular shapes, variously interpreted as scale armour, padding, or a form of coat worn by high-ranking lords as a sort of badge.
The battle scenes do not appear to include any heavy infantry among the Norman ranks, when Poitiers states they were present. This may reflect an aristocratic view that such people were only shown when of importance to the story, as were the archers.
The English line is shown with overlapping shields, illustrating the ‘shield wall’ of Anglo-Saxon poems. It may be that such a formation was broken up in order to use such weapons as the two-handed axe and the sword.
The scene showing English and French falling together in battle is usually accepted as the flight of the Bretons, with the hillock and reedy stream close by, though some think this represents the main ridge itself. The chaos is echoed by William portrayed pushing his helmet back to show he is alive, probably next to the papal banner. Odo is seen armed and rallying the fleeing horsemen in a prominent military role he may not have held in reality. The unarmoured Englishmen are probably those trapped by William’s counterattack, and have led many to suggest this was an undisciplined rush by some fyrdmen. Gyrth and Leofwine appear dying in the panel before the debacle; were they leading a more serious counter-attack, and did their deaths deter their followers? It is also rather surprising that the brothers are shown together; it would be expected that they commanded their own troops at different parts of the line, unless this is simply artistic licence. No feigned flights are mentioned or obviously shown in the Bayeux Tapestry.