Earl of Kent
Bishop of Bayeux
Born c 1031 Died 1097
Odo was the son of the Norman baron Herluin of Conteville and Herleva of Falaise and therefore the brother of Robert of Mortain and half-brother of William the Bastard later Duke of Normandy.
Little is really known of Odo's childhood and even the date of his birth is uncertain. According to William of Malmesbury he was born in 1031, which seems the most likely given that he was made a bishop eighteen years later, but others have argued for a date after 1035. In any case, it must be presumed that he receieved some sort of clerical education, as in 1049 he was appointed bishop of Bayeux in Normandy.
He might well have lived his entire life as the bishop of a relatively obscure diocese in northern France were it not for the fact that is half brother William had ambitions to rule in England, and believed that he had been promised the succession by Edward the Confessor himself.
Following the death of Edward in 1066, Odo was invited to the council of war called by William after he'd received the news that Harold Godwinson had taken the crown of England for himself and become Harold II. Alongside his brother Robert of Mortain and other members of William's extended family he agreed to provide troops and ships for the intended invasion of England.
Odo therefore accompanied William on his expedition to England and fought at the Battle of Hastings, where he rode a white horse and wielded a baston1 and helped rally the Norman forces when panic began to set it and urge them on to their eventual victory and consequent seizure of the kingdom of the English.
After his coronation as king on the Christmas Day of 1066, William I set out to share out the spoils amongst his family and supporters.
Odo was given a total of four hundred and thirty-nine lordships in England; a hundred and eighty-four in Kent, in Essex thirty-nine, in Oxfordshire thirty-two, Herefordshire twenty-three, Buckinghamshire thirty, Worcestershire two, Bedfordshire eight, Northamptonshire twelve, Nottinghamshire five, Norfolk twenty-two, Warwickshire six, and finally in Lincolnshire seventy-six. He was also created Earl of Kent and given custody of Dover Castle; he was appointed as Chief Justiciar of England and therefore responsible for administration of the law throughout the kingdom and acted as William's viceroy when the latter was attending to affairs in Normandy. All of which made Odo an extremely rich and powerful magnate in this new Norman England.
Despite the immense wealth and power bestowed upon him Odo appears to have become somewhat disenchanted with William, firstly because Lanfranc was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury (Odo rather fancied the job himself) secondly because he was forced to release certain lordships of the Archbishop that he had previously seized. Initially this made little difference to Odo's loyalty; he was instrumental in putting down the Revolt of the Earls in 1075, and in 1080 lead an army into the north to suppress a further insurrection there, taking full advantage of the opportunity whilst he was there to loot Durham Cathedral. In fact, looting and pillaging was one of Odo's favourite hobbies and one in which he seems to have taken every opportunity to indulge himself, with Kent particularly suffering from his depredations.
Thereafter Odo formed the view that he was the ideal person to succeed Gregory VII as Pope and took steps to further this ambition; he acquired premises in Rome, installed a small private army there and began the process of transferring much of the loot he'd seized to fund the bribes that would be a necessary part of his campaign for the papacy.
William I was less than enthralled at the prospect of his brother's elevation (as well as the numerous complaints that had reached his ears of Odo's activities) and in 1082 cornered him at the Isle of Wight and had him arrested. According to Orderic Vitalis when Odo protested that as a cleric he had immunity from arrest by any secular authority; William responded that he was being detained in his capacity as earl of Kent rather than as bishop. Having placed Odo under arrest William had him transported to Rouen, where he remained a prisoner for the remainder of William's reign.
In the September of 1087, William died and was succeeded by his son William Rufus, who became William II. The new William ordered Odo's release and restored him to his position as earl of Kent.
Odo however showed no gratitude to William and began conspiring to replace him with his older brother Robert Curthose. Odo was joined in his rebellion by his brothers Robert of Mortain and Richard Fitz Gilbert as well as Roger of Montgomery, the earl of Shrewsbury and a clutch of other Norman lords from the border regions of Wales. Odo saw this as an opportunity to ravage Kent and steal what he could and store the booty in his castle at Rochester, before proceeding to Pevensey, then held by his brother, Robert of Mortain.
It was there that William Rufus found him, when arrived with a considerable force and laid siege to Pevensey. After six weeks, with provisions running low, and no prospect of relief, Odo surrendered both Pevensey and later Rochester Castle to the king in return for safe passage back to Normandy.
In Normandy Again
Naturally Odo was well received by the Duke Robert, who put him in effective charge of the government of Normandy. Odo however displayed little interest in quelling the rising lawlessness within the duchy that has arisen due to the ineffectivess of Robert's leadership, but rather concentrated on the business of formenting further discord between Robert and William Rufus. When he heard that his nephew Henry and Roger of Belleme had made their peace with William, Odo waited until they both returned to Normandy Odo seized them both and imprisoned Henry at Bayeux and Robert of Belleme at Neuilly.
Roger of Montgomery, now pardoned for his earlier rebellion, and angry about his son's (that is Robert of Belleme) incarceration then came over to Normandy to seek his release. Odo was instrumental in urging Robert Curthose to take up arms against Roger and led the duchy's forces in their initial assault on Roger's possessions in Normandy, in particular distinguishing himself by taking the Castle of St. Ceneri and subsequently multilating a number of the defenders after they'd surrendered.
Presumably this was to discourage resistence from the remainder of Roger's strongholds, and it may well have had the desired effect had Robert Curthose not decided to accept the offer of a truce from Roger, disbanded his army and released Robert of Belleme.
Odo then seems to have decided to retire from the business of government and returned to his bishopric at Bayeux where he spent the next six or so years rebuilding Bayeux Cathedral. He did however find the time in 1093 he conducted the marriage ceremony of Philip I king of France to Bertrade the Countess of Anjou, when no other bishop would do so2, and was rewarded for his services by being given the churches of the town of Mantes.
In September 1096, Robert Curthose set out to join what became known as the First Crusade, and Odo, perhaps excited at the prospect of looting some towns in the east, decided to go with him. Odo accompanied his nephew to Rome, and from there travelled to Palermo in Sicily which is where he died in February 1097, at the approximate age of sixty-six. And there he was buried at the Church of Santa Maria where Roger, the Count of Sicily ordered a tomb to be built over his corpse.
Ambitious, arrogant, rapacious, turbulent, tyranical, ungrateful and licentious,
this bold bad man appears to have been destitute of every virtue.
To be blunt, Odo was basically a thug and a thief, less of a bishop and more of a piratical Viking of old. The only thing that can be said in his favour is that much of what he looted was later given away; as Orderic Vitalis put it "what he iniquitously amassed was freely bestowed on churches and the poor."
His one real tangible contribution to posterity, is that on William I's instructions, he was responsible for organising the production of what became known as the Bayeux Tapestry and for arranging the eventual storage and display of that work at his cathedral in Bayeux from which its title was later derived. 3
1 Basically a studded club, and an early version of the iron mace of the later Middle Ages.
2 No French bishop could be found to perform the ceremony for the simple reason that Bertrade already had a husband in the form of Fulk Rechin and Philip already had a wife in Bertha. These technicalties did not seem to bother Odo who married them anyway. They did however bother Pope Urban II who excommunicated Philip for the double crime of adultery and bigamy.
3 Athough the French call it Queen Matilda's tapestry, recording the fable that it was embroidered by Matilda of Flanders herself.
David C Douglas The Normans (Folio, 2002)
J.R. Planché The Conqueror and His Companions (Tinsley Brothers, 1874)
Odo of Bayeux at the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica at