Britain’s Replica of the Bayeux Tapestry

Reading, a busy town in the south east of England, is just a 20-minute train ride from London Paddington, bustling with hurried commuters and office workers. Modern, glass-fronted apartment and office blocks pierce the sky and the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafts out from almost every neon-signed street corner. There's the constant, rumbling hum of cars, buses, trains and taxis. And, deep in a quiet gallery in the heart of this vibrant town is a full-size, hand-stitched replica of the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry. 

The original tapestry documents William the Conqueror's journey from Normandy and his accession to the English throne is held in Bayeux in Normandy. It was made shortly after 1066, once William defeated the Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and was crowned on Christmas Day of that year. The tapestry has been vitally important in helping historians understand more about the political events leading up to the battle, and including the invasion as well as social details about contemporary armour and warfare, food and drink, transport and everyday life during the era.

Journey to Normandy: Edward and Harold at Westminster, followed by Harold heading for Bosham
PHOTOGRAPH BY Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)

Reading's replica is just as important. It was made in 1885 by a group of 35 embroiderers who have included all the Medieval details - but also a glimpse into the Victorian world. The women have embroidered their names underneath their completed parts of the tapestry, along with a trace of Victorian prudishness: a stitched pair of underwear covering one character's pelvis that appears naked on the original. Apparently this wasn't the embroiderer's decision, they were working from a 'cleaned up' photograph of the original tapestry.

The replica tapestry
PHOTOGRAPH BY Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)

The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday and is free to enter, although there's a suggested donation of £5 per person, which helps the museum continue their important work. The building is on or close to most of the town centre bus routes and is just 5-minutes’ walk from Reading train station.

Snaked around a dimly-lit gallery, which only adds to its mysterious atmosphere, the 70-metre tapestry is a remarkable achievement. The detail is incredible - you can see every stitch revealing the story of the Norman invasion of England. It starts with the reign of Edward the Confessor, through to his death, William's invasion and the Norman victory at Hastings.

All the tiny, historical details are complete: the depictions of Edward with beard, scepter and crown; the blazing Halley's Comet in the sky above and the carefully-stitched oarsmen that row diligently back and forth between England and France. There are hens, dogs, feasts, buildings and farming scenes.

It helps, of course, if you can view the tapestry in its historical context, and the collection has been thoughtfully arranged. A sign shows you where to begin and as you follow the tale, you'll see exhibits relating to people and events from the story, including artefacts from Reading Abbey, which was founded by William's son, Henry I and an ancient sword, lifted from the Thames. The Latin inscriptions threaded into the tapestry are also translated into English on accompanying boards which helpfully keep you up with events as you take in the story.

With the illustrative nature of the tapestry, young visitors can be entertained - especially if you point out the swords, the famous arrow in the eye moment and of course the character with the sewn-on pants - but if not, there is also a dressing up area and a small throne, which is perfect for taking selfies while they proudly assert their own right to the English crown. Guided tours are available but do check availability on the Reading Museum website before you set off. And by viewing the tapestry you'll be in good company, too. It was once taken to Windsor Castle so that it could be seen by Queen Victoria.

The Battle of Hastings: The death of Harold
PHOTOGRAPH BY Reading Museum (Reading Borough Council)

The dedicated and quiet gallery, dim lighting and the awe-inspiring realisation that these stitches must have taken hours of wrist-aching needlework to complete all add to the quiet, reflective atmosphere in which to enjoy the tapestry. I felt grateful that these 35 women worked together sewing and threading so that we could enjoy these scenes today. I did wonder if the experience could be improved with an app, where you could be guided through the tapestry with links to other information and articles for example - but then I think some of that serenity and the human link would be lost. You don't want to enter a museum exhibit, especially one as thoughtfully put together as this one, and spend most of your visit gazing down at your phone.

For something as immersive as this, a record not just of William's invasion but of real human time spent creating it - you need to be fully present. Switch your phone off and engage with Britain's Victorian replica of the Bayeux Tapestry, right here in Reading's town centre.

To see it, you need to visit the tapestry's dedicated gallery in Reading Museum, within the town's historic Town Hall on Blagrave Street. Work began on this red-bricked building in the 1700s, although most of the architecture we see today - complete with carved friezes and fairytale-like turrets - date from the nineteenth-century. It sits close to the ancient site of Reading Abbey, which was founded in 1121 and the Medieval church of St Laurence.

The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday and is free to enter, although there's a suggested donation of £5 per person, which helps the museum continue their important work. The building is on or close to most of the town centre bus routes and is just 5-minutes’ walk from Reading train station.

As well as the museum, the building houses a concert hall, art gallery, cafe and museum shop. Don't miss the other exhibits - temporary ones as well as more permanent displays about Reading's famous Medieval Abbey (complete with rich, choral music), life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and artefacts from Roman Silchester, nearby. For the tapestry, walk up past the front desk and up the steps (with wheelchair-friendly ramp) to the left. Venture up the stairs (or take the lift) and follow the signs.

All information is correct at the time of writing - before visiting do check the Reading Museum website to ensure the gallery is open as sometimes exhibits are closed for conservation work or private events.

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Jo Romero

Jo Romero is a history blogger, writer and historic sketcher based in Reading in the UK. She has been featured in The Historians Magazine and runs the Love British History Blog where she works on articles, reviews and modern recreations of historic recipes. She lives with her husband, children and two dogs.