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The Bayeux Tapestry thegardiancom (Photographer Getty Images)

The Bayeux Tapestry (thegardian.com) (Photographer: Spencer Arnold/Getty Images)

As I was researching the story of the Great Seal of the United States, it came to my attention that the first team appointed by Congress to design the afore-mentioned Great Seal of the United States had to hire Geneva-born expert Pierre Eugene du Simitière (originally Pierre-Eugène du Cimetière [cemetery]).

It was an élite team: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, the 2nd President of the United States, and Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States, but heraldry is for specialists. The second and third teams would also require the services of experts Charles Thomson and William Barton.

After the Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776), the Thirteen Colonies were no longer thirteen colonies, but a country that would be named the United States of America as of the day it won its independence. The new country would need its coat of arms, its seal, and its flag, the purpose of which would be authentication and identification. These disciplines are called heraldry (coat of arms) and vexillology (flags) and use “symbols and “emblems.” Symbols are called a “forest” by French poet Charles Baudelaire (9 April 1821 – 31 August 1867) in a poem entitled “Correspondances.” (See Les Fleurs du mal or The Flowers of Evil).

Heraldry and Vexillology 

“Heraldry is the profession, study, or art of creating, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on question of rank or protocol as exercised by an officer of arms. Heraldry comes from the Anglo-Norman herald [le héraut] and from the Germanic harja-waldaz, “army commander.” The word, in its most general sense, encompasses all matters relating to the duties and responsibilities of an officer of arms. To most, though, heraldry is the practice of designing, displaying, describing, and recording coats of arms and heraldic badges.” (See Heraldry, Wikipedia)

In Wikipedia’s definition of heraldry we see the word badges. Police officers and scouts wear badges, which indicates that heraldic terms have gone beyond the world of arms. A badge is an authenticating device, as are passports, license plates, etc.

As for vexillology, from the Latin “vexillum [flag],” it is the “scientific study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags or, by extension, any interest in flags in general.” (See Vexillology, Wikipedia.)

A flag that displays a coat of arms/ seal/ insignia, i.e. a graphic design, has meaning. Without its “colours” (its graphic design), a flag is a mere piece of cloth.

Distinguishing “Friend” from “Foe”

The Great Seal is a heraldic device and heraldry is probably as old as the world. However, for Europeans, the use of heraldic symbols dates back to the 12th century and “originated when most people were illiterate but could easily recognize a bold, striking, and simple design. The use of heraldry in medieval warfare enabled combatants to distinguish one mail-clad knight from another and thus to  distinguish between friend and foe.”[i]

Identification and authentication (through an inscription or engraving) was the original purpose of heraldry. The graphic design and the words could be affixed to the shield, or “escutcheon,” and would be the shields identifying element. Therefore, without a coat of arms, a seal, an insignia, or another sigh, the shield would not mean anything. An unidentified shield would be no more than an object, or device, used by combatants to protect themselves.

A modern example of identification and authentication can be found in sports. Members of hockey, soccer, football or other team wear a uniform on which a number is printed. This is how spectators can tell teams and players apart. They have their “colours,” so to speak.

Parts of a Seal or Crest

Parts of a Seal or Coat of Arms (Photo credit: Google images)

The Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is interesting because it is fabric, linen to be precise, unto which an embroidered graphic design has been affixed. In heraldry the graphic design—a coat of arms or other symbol—is usually affixed on an element other than fabric.

However, according to Wikipedia “[f]rom the beginning of heraldry, coats of arms have been executed in a wide variety of media, including on paper, painted wood, embroidery, enamel stonework and stained glass.” (See Heraldry, Wikipedia.)

 Shield or Escutcheon

Shield or Escutcheon

The Bayeux Tapestry is also interesting in that it is the first work of art portraying combatants using a shield or escutcheon (un écusson), that has been emblazoned. It tells the story of the conquest of England, by William the Conqueror (Guillaume le conquérant), at the Battle of Hastings, which took place on October 14, 1066, almost a thousand years ago. Without the embroidery and the tituli, the linen would be meaningless. The same is true of the Great Seal of the United States. Without its graphic design: the eagle, etc., it too would be meaningless. So we have entered the field a semiotics or semiology. Yes, it is that simple.

A segment of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Odo, Earl of Kent rallying Duke William's troops at the Battle of Hastings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A segment of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Odo, Earl of Kent rallying Duke William‘s troops at the Battle of Hastings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bayeux Tapestry, King Harold is Killed Photo credit: Goggle Images)

Bayeux Tapestry, King Harold is Killed (Photo credit: Goggle Images)

An Embroidery, not a Tapestry

To be exact, the Bayeux tapestry is not a tapestry. Tapestries are woven using coloured wool or thread. Our tapestry is an embroidery or, to be precise, crewel work (wool yarns) on linen. It is kept at Bayeux, Normandy, but may have been woven in England. It was probably commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent. Odo was a half-brother to William the Conqueror. Harold is the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. The tapestry is housed at Bayeux, a lovely small town in Normandy.

Moreover, adding to its significance, the Bayeux tapestry is the combination of “mottoes,” words called tituli (labels), and pictorial elements, or its graphic design. The same is true of the Great Seal of the United States.

The use of distinguishing symbols is an ancient practice that probably predates recorded history. As noted above, the Bayeux tapestry may constitute the first European work of art displaying the use of shields as emblems or symbols. The Bayeux tapestry dates back to the Norman conquest of Britain, or the Battle of Hastings (14 October 1066). It is 70 meters (230 ft.) long and presents 70 “scenes,” but this figure could be an approximation. Some scenes may have been lost.

Rumour has it that Mathilda, William’s wife, and ladies-in-waiting, embroidered the Bayeux tapestry, but it was probably embroidered in England by nuns and would be an example of Opus Anglicanum, the best form of British embroidery.

In 1792, during the French Revolution, the tapestry “was confiscated as public property to be used for covering military wagons,” but was rescued by a lawyer and returned to the state when it was no longer threatened. During World War II, it was again threatened. Himmler asked that it be taken to Berlin, but he did so when the Nazis were leaving Paris. (See Bayeux Tapestry, Wikipedia.) All segments of the tapestry can be seen if one clicks on Bayeux Tapestry Tituli.


Having defined heraldry and vexillology, we can return to the subject of designing the Great Seal of the United States, which was created between 1776 and 1782, and was completed when the Treaty of Paris of 1883 was signed. Moreover, the four signatories: Benjamin Franklin, John Jay, John Adams, representing the United States, and David Hartley, representing Britain, each left an imprinted wax seal.

My kindest regards to all of you.

Treaty of Paris 1883

Treaty of Paris 1883 (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)



[i] “heraldry“. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 27 May. 2014

[ii] Ibid.

The Bayeux Tapestry
© Micheline Walker
29 May 2014

 The Comet, Bayeux Tapestry