Odo of Bayeux: Sharing the Spoils Under William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror was without a doubt one of history’s most important leaders. His conquest of Anglo-Saxon England set in motion events that would change the future of the world for many. However, he could not have accomplished this feat all on his own. At his side were noblemen, pious Norman knights and cunning feudal lords. Bishop Odo of Bayeux was one such person. William’s right hand man, in time he would become the second most powerful man in England. But who is this enigmatic nobleman, and was he truly a bishop in the common sense of the word?
Who Was the Formidable Odo of Bayeux?
The name of Odo of Bayeux is often mentioned in classical history in relation to both the Normans and their conquest of England. However, there is still a lot about his life that remains obscure. One thing though is infinitely clear: his power. In the writings of all prominent chroniclers of Norman history, Odo’s name is always included amongst the most prominent figures of the period.
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Born around 1036, Odo was the son of a minor lord of moderate income, one Herluin of Conteville. His mother was Herleva, a daughter of a Falaise tanner named Fulbert. From this marriage was also born Robert of Mortain, Odo’s brother and another of William the Conqueror’s closest supporters. What is more, Herleva had an illegitimate son, born from an extra-marital union with Robert I, Duke of Normandy. Often called “the Bastard,” that son was William the Conqueror.
Being the half-brother of William the Conqueror was beneficial for Odo, but only later in life. Early on, Odo was brought up in the Court of Normandy, and both his lofty education and prominence were settled very early on. As William rose in prominence, so did his brothers. They were evidently closely connected, and supported each other as they rose in the ranks.
The three sons of Herleva: Bishop Odo on the left, William in the center and Robert on the right. (Public domain)
Odo of Bayeux and His Support of the Invasion of England
William bestowed a very lofty position upon Odo quite early on. Around October 1049 AD, William made Odo the Bishop of Bayeux at the Council of Rheims. The upper religious positions were highly influential, powerful, and lucrative at the time. His name comes up again the following year as being one of the witnesses to the signing of the charter of Saint Evroul on 25 September 1050. He is also noted as being present on numerous ecclesiastical councils held at the time, as was fitting for someone of his status. He was, for example, at the councils of Rouen in 1055, 1061, and 1063.
Odo of Bayeux was seemingly involved in all of his brother's important affairs He was also a crucial contributor for the invasion of England. William had long set his sights on the ripe prize that was England, and Odo was by his side at the council of Lillebonne in 1066 where the projected invasion of England was considered in great detail. Several sources also claim that Odo contributed no less than a hundred fully furnished ships to William’s massive fleet of 768 vessels that sailed across the Channel towards England. Needless to say, supplying a hundred ships was a massive investment, and it bears testament to the wealth and prominence of Odo of Bayeux.
William the Conqueror is famed for his conquest of Anglo-Saxon England. But without the support of noblemen, pious Norman knights and cunning feudal lords, it would have been impossible. One of the most important of these was Odo of Bayeux. (Public domain)
The Life and Deeds of the Warrior Bishop
Whether or not Odo had a religious character we’ll probably never know. No sources can claim with certainty that he was a religious person who pursued a life of devotion and humility. On the contrary, everything points to the fact that he became a bishop simply because of the power that lay behind that position. Even so, several contemporaries go to great lengths to portray his spiritual side and religious benevolence. Some say that he had big ambitions to become the Pope, after a soothsayer allegedly claimed that the heir of Pope Gregory VII would be named Odo.
Whatever the true story, what is certain is that Odo was not your run-of-the-mill Bishop. On the eve of the invasion of England, Odo was one of the leading men in the Norman host. He is noted to have encouraged the men and bolstered their hopes the night before the battle. Furthermore, despite being a Bishop, Odo wore full armor and armed with a mace fought in the Battle of Hastings. He was one of the most skilled Norman warriors and excelled in battle, and was remembered for having rallied the men during the ordeal and kept them in the fight. That is also the manner in which he is portrayed on the famed Bayeux tapestry.
Odo has been credited as having commissioned the Bayeux tapestry which remains one of the best records of the era in existence today. (Public domain)
Odo of Bayeux and the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux tapestry remains as one of the principal depictions of the Battle of Hastings, and is an important relic of that period, as it depicts in detail many of the prominent men of the time. Most scholars agree that it was likely commissioned by Bishop Odo himself, probably to be a central piece of his cathedral in Bayeux. It is a stunning piece of medieval embroidery, depicting numerous scenes on a cloth that is roughly 70 meters (230 ft) long and 50 centimeters (20 in) tall.
Historians have for a long time attempted to understand the role of Odo of Bayeux during the Battle of Hastings. On the Bayeux tapestry he is depicted in full armor, on a horse, with a club raised high. An inscription in Latin stands above him: " Hic Odo Eps [Episcopus] Baculu[m] Tenens Confortat Pueros" (which translates as "here Odo the Bishop holding a club strengthens the boys"). Several sources claim that he didn’t actually fight in the battle, but merely encouraged the men from the rear lines. They also say that his religious position did not allow him to carry a sword. Is there any truth to this?
The general consensus definitely states that these claims are not true. Odo is depicted carrying a club simply because clubs and maces were one of the most popular Norman weapons, and a clear symbol of feudal power and command. What is more, William the Conqueror himself carried a light Norman mace, which is clearly depicted on the tapestry. Of course, as a powerful person, Odo of Bayeux would not be in battle all on his own. He would have been surrounded by an elite group of retainers: one is documented as being the carrier of his crozier (an ornate staff that symbolizes the position of a Bishop), and the others as his servants and the noblemen of his household.
In the Bayeux Tapestry Odo of Bayeux is depicted as an active participant in the Battle of Hastings, as seen here in the detail of him in full armor, on a horse. Note he is depicted fighting wwith a club rather than sword. (Public domain)
Odo of Bayeux and His Steady Rise to Power
When the Battle of Hastings was won and William succeeded in his invasion, his closest retainers and bravest knights could rejoice and enjoy sharing the spoils of war. England was vast, and William promptly granted land and titles to numerous knights and lords. To his half-brother Odo of Bayeux, he bestowed the Earldom of Kent, as well as Dover Castle, greatly increasing his power and wealth.
Odo had been given the title of the Royal minister early on in William’s rule. When the Conqueror had to depart for Normandy just three months after his coronation, he left Odo of Bayeux and William FitzOsbern, another of William’s very close advisors, as viceroys in his absence. This proves that Odo was one of his most trusted men. As the Earl of Kent, the closest county to France, Odo was instrumental in keeping communications with Normandy and to protect it from any surprise attacks from the interior of England.
It seems that Odo of Bayeux was one of the biggest supporters of William’s harsh, feudal policies. During this period there was a major emphasis on castle building as the central aspect of Norman militaristic feudal rule. While ruling as a viceroy, Odo was reportedly quite harsh, placing great pressures on the common folk, vigorously pursuing the policy of castle building (increasing his popularity with the nobility) and protecting his licentious and plundering noblemen.
Odo was ruthless in any dealing with insurrections, and was in time nicknamed as the “Great Tamer of the English.” This harsh rule, which was common during feudal times, led to great unrest in Kent. While Odo was absent in the north, the Kentishmen rose in revolt. They were aided by another one of William’s prominent noblemen, Eustace of Boulogne. The latter was seemingly angered by the meagre share he received after the conquest.
This brief revolt in Kent was quickly dealt with. The Kentishmen attempted to seize Dover Castle but were quickly repulsed by the Norman garrison. In the meantime, Odo rushed back with an army and dealt with the insurrection in a cruel manner. This threat, however, prompted William the Conqueror to hurriedly return to England in 1067 and to deal with the discontent that was caused by the harsh rule of the viceroys.
After William returned, Odo of Bayeux would not again hold a position as lofty as that of a viceroy, but would nonetheless continue to be the second in power in England for fifteen years afterwards. He was also a crucial leader in the suppression of the so-called Revolt of the Earls in 1075, when his army helped crush the rebellion of Ralph de Guader.
The Everlasting Desire for More
In 1076 Odo of Bayeux entered into a brief feud with the Church of Canterbury and was closely scrutinized at the Trial of Penenden Heath. This scrutiny was an attempt by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, to restore the lands that the Church of Canterbury held before the Norman conquest. Lanfranc was granted permission by William to perform an inquiry into the activities of Odo during his lengthy tenure as Earl of Kent.
Odo was accused of having defrauded the Crown and the Diocese of Canterbury. The whole event was basically centered on land holdings, some of which previously belonged to the Church of Canterbury, and had been a point of contention even before the Norman Conquest. In the end, after a three-day trial in front of a senior assembly, Odo had to return several of his properties, and his lands were re-apportioned.
Alas, Odo’s larger-than-life machinations finally caught up with him in his later years. History is quite hazy at this point, but several details are certain. Around 1082 Odo seemingly made attempts to secure for himself the position of the Pope. Whether or not this was his ambition remains unclear, but there was a crisis in the papacy at the time, known as the Investiture Contest . Nevertheless, Odo was determined to embark to Rome, and gathered a retinue of close followers, knights, and noblemen to accompany him. These he seemingly attracted with many bribes.
As he was leaving England to Rome, Odo was met by William the Conqueror, who hurried from Normandy once he heard of his half-brother’s intentions. Odo was accused of having planned a “military expedition” to Italy, and was confronted by William on Isle of Wight, with the latter bringing forth all manner of accusations. Some say that these actions by Odo were an attempt to secure the English throne in case of William’s death.
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The Fast Drop from the Top for Odo of Bayeux
Either way, Odo of Bayeux was arrested and spent the next five years of his life imprisoned. His estates in England were repossessed by the King, as was his office as Earl of Kent. However, he remained the Bishop of Bayeux throughout. In 1087, when William the Conqueror was on his deathbed, he was persuaded with difficulty to finally release Odo from prison.
Even after he was free, Odo’s power had waned considerably. Never again did he reach the heights of power he had held before. In the power struggles that occurred after the death of William, Odo of Bayeux supported William’s son, Robert Curthose, in his claims to the throne. However, their brief rebellion in 1088 ultimately failed, and Odo left England, continuing his life in Normandy. He ultimately joined the First Crusade and embarked towards Palestine, but died on the way in 1097, in Palermo. He was buried in the Palermo Cathedral.
Opportunistic, ruthless, and skilled in maintaining his alliances and enlarging his estates, the life story of Odo of Bayeux represents the epitome of a Norman feudal lord. There is no doubt that, although a Bishop, Odo was far from a clergyman: he was a true Norman knight and a warrior with all the appetites that this calling entailed. However, his thirst for power ultimately led to his downfall.
Top image: Odo of Bayeux was for a time the right-hand man of William the Conqueror and shared in the spoils of his conquest of Anglo-Saxon England. Source: diter / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
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Tower, R. 1927. “Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent” in Archaeologia Cantiana.