Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent

B_T_, 55, Bishop Odo in battle_jpgOdo may have been made a bishop at the age of twenty but it have very little to do with a spiritual vocation.  Not only did William the Conqueror’s half-brother play an active military role but he was also notorious for his womanising and greed.

William, Odo and Robert of Motain shared a mother – Herleva, the tanner’s daughter.  William’s father, Duke Robert of Normandy, married Herleva off to Herluin de Conteville. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Odo as playing a leading role in the planning and execution of the invasion of England in 1066.  Of course, given that he probably commissioned the embroidery it would relay that particular message.  He certainly supplied one hundred ships for the expedition and is depicted virtually sharing a seat with William at the feast before the battle.  He is shown on numerous occasions with his club or mace in hand during the battle.  As a cleric he was not supposed to spill blood – so bashing in his enemies skulls was an effective alternative.

In the aftermath of the battle Odo was given control of Dover where he managed to make himself unpopular by using the guildhall as his own place of residence and allowing a mill to be built at the mouth of the harbour.

In the spring of 1067 Odo took on the role of William’s deputy in England when William returned to Normandy.  So he played an active role crushing English revolts in East Anglia and in the north of the country.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that he became, according to the Domesday Book, one of the wealthiest landholders in the country.  He held; 184 lordships, manors in twelve other counties besides Kent and had an income somewhere in the region of £3,000 a year.  In fact, the Domesday Book shows him to be the richest tenant-in-chief in the kingdom by far.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle and the Orderic Vitalis make clear that his spiritual capital was rather less significant describing the bishop as ‘destitute of virtue,’  ‘a ravening wolf,’  ‘ambitious,’ ‘rapacious,’ ‘greedy,’ ‘ruthless,’ ‘arrogant’ and ‘tyrannical’ – in short a real charmer.


Unfortunately for Odo, his ambition matched that of his half brother and it was discovered that the Bishop of Bayeux was plotting to become pope.  William locked his brother up and he was only released upon William’s death.  By way of gratitude Odo led a rebellion in 1088 against William Rufus in favour of Robert Curthose, William’s elder brother who was Duke of Normandy at that time.

Odo never returned to Britain, something for which the people of Kent were probably deeply grateful.  He died and was buried in Palermo, Sicily on his way to the First Crusade.

To find out more about the chronology of the period click on the picture to open the page relating to the eleventh century in my ‘timeline of history’ or use the tabs at the top of the blog.

3 thoughts on “Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent

  1. Susan, “interesting” as in the legendary curse “may you live in interesting times”?

    Orderic Vitalis collected a variety of opinions about Bishop Odo, ranging from praise for his rule of England in 1067 to the views expressed above. He was a complex character: while in exile in Normandy, Odo gave his underlings and the Duke sage advice that doesn’t square with his own behaviour.

    That the Bishop’s loyalties, such as they were, were subsumed by personal ambition became obvious to William I in 1082 when Odo was left in charge of the defence of the English realm, but decided that in the King’s absence he would lead the Norman barons and knights out of England, bringing a fortune in gold to pursue his intentions in a strife-torn Rome. (The reforming pope, Gregory VII, had lost most of his authority and was losing a war with the German Emperor, Henry IV, who was supporting an anti-Pope of his own choosing.)

    At the time of Odo’s dereliction of duty, William was fighting a defensive war against Anjou and endeavouring to suppress a widespread rebellion in Maine. Very plausibly, the king was engaged in the first stage of the Siege of Sainte-Suzanne, the last castle remaining in rebel hands, when Odo’s actions were reported to him. William took most of his troops to England, leaving a token force of royal household knights led by his most loyal officer, Count Alan, to hold the fort at Camp Beugy.

    William intercepted Odo at the Isle of Wight, as Odo was preparing to board ship, took him into custody and had him tried on several treason charges, including attempting to become Pope. William’s first charge, though, was that Odo’s disobedience had forced the king to interrupt a vital military campaign.

    Meanwhile back in Maine, the strongest and most ambitious knights from all over France converged on Sainte-Suzanne to bolster the castle’s defences and to seize Norman lords and knights on foray, and to demand exorbitant ransoms for their return. This fiasco continued for three years, as William was distracted by dealing with Odo, followed by Queen Matilda’s mortal illness and her death, then grave threats of invasion from Denmark. As William’s favourite knights were slain, and the Danish invasion forces took ominous shape, he changed tack, offering a diplomatic solution to the lord of Sainte-Suzanne, which was gladly accepted as it involved a gift of land in England.

    During most of this, Odo chafed in what has been described as comfortable house arrest in the Norman capital, Rouen.

    In 1087, while the Conqueror lay dying in Rouen, he made arrangements for his eldest son Robert “Curthose” to become the next Duke of Normandy, and his second son William to inherit the throne of England. He ordered the release of political prisoners, except Odo, and sent William II to England, possibly with Alan. Once the party had left, Odo’s full-brother Count Robert of Mortain pleaded with William to release Odo, too, and the King’s resistance was eventually worn down.

    Odo returned to England, expecting to regain the influence and power that he’d had before 1082. At first he was not disappointed, as he was restored to his lands and rank as Earl of Kent. But he increasingly became aware that the new King was listening to William de Saint-Calais, who was Bishop of Durham and the leading commissioner of the Domesday Survey that had been held in Odo’s absence. More vexing was that his long-time rival in court, Count Alan, had not only survived Camp Beugy but had become the chief lay counsellor.

    This was dangerous to Odo, as the Bishop had twice devasated Alan’s lands on the pretext of punishing the English: in 1069-70 and even more severely in 1080. When Alan persuaded William II to bring the royal court up to York and officially found the Abbey of St Mary’s, built on Alan’s orders to commemorate the English dead as a sign of Norman contrition, Odo, forced to sign witness to this veiled statement of his own crimes, had had enough. He conspired with the many other disaffected Norman magnates to put a stop to this before it went any further.

    The first the King knew of the Rebellion was when most of the barons were found absent from the Easter Court. Then the ravaging of the royal demesnes began. William II was out-resourced, outmanned, and surrounded, helpless while his inherited wealth was systematically despoiled. Regarded by many as impious, to whom could he appeal? He was flummoxed.

    Count Alan, however, who had frequently had to fend off Odo’s depredations, had prepared for this eventuality. Of good reputation with the clergy courtesy of his many generous donations, Alan cashed in his credits and requested the support of the Bishops in England. They threw their moral weight behind the King. Those bishops who had military expertise, such as Archbishop Thomas of York, who’d served as a Canon at Bayeux and knew Odo’s mind all too well, led armies against the rebels.

    Alan summoned his fellow Breton soldiers, whom he’d long paid not with the onerous Danegeld, but out of his own ample pockets. They marched south, defeating baron after baron and forcing their surrender, eventually meeting the King outside London. But much of England remained in the hands of the strongest magnates: Odo, Robert and Earl Roger de Montgomery, who were supported by Geoffrey Montbray (the Bishop of Coutances) and his nephew Robert Mowbray (Earl of Northumbria).

    Alan and Odo had often fallen out on the issue of the treatment of the English. Alan’s father was a cousin of Edward the Confessor, and one entry in Domesday states that in 1065 “Alan” had owned a farm of 120 acres (still extant) in Wyken, Suffolk. Alan often retained the old English lords on their lands, or compensated them materially for their losses. Almer of Bourn, a possible survivor from among the royal thanes in Earls Gyrth’s and Leofwine’s entourage, was one of Alan’s favourites, as were the Anglo-Danes of Yorkshire (particularly those with Cumbrian descents who were, after all, ancient kin to the Bretons). Alan had even gone to the length of excluding Norman lords from his lands in Yorkshire.

    So when the King promised good government and cash rewards to the English if they would support him, the people knew that Alan, known to those he’d helped as “our friend”, was with the King, but Odo, their worst oppressor, was in rebellion. Here was their chance to achieve vengeance, appear loyal, be blessed by churchman appointed and approved by their Norman masters, and be financially rewarded, all at the same time; with hope of better times ahead – finally.

    The English rose up in the midlands and the south-west and, astonishingly, defeated the rebel armies. Just as satisfyingly, the English navy sank the advance fleet of Duke Robert “Curthose”, and captured the survivors. This was how 1066 should have been.

    Earl Roger, sensing a change in the wind, pretended to change sides, while waiting to see how things would turn out. William II’s royal army pursued Bishop Odo and Count Robert from Rochester to Pevensey, and captured Pevensey Castle. Odo agreed to order Rochester castle to surrender; when he and his escort reached there, he duly spoke the words, but his facial expression told a different story, and the men of the castle seized the escort and brought Odo in. The ensuing siege of Rochester could have gone on for months, even though all the roads were blocked by siege engines, but a pestilence forced Odo’s surrender.

    The English bayed for Odo to be hanged, and William would gladly have acceded, but his advisers (Alan) proposed he be sent into exile for life (perhaps to cause mischief in Normandy instead?), a suggestion that evidently ticked all the right boxes.

    As for the other rebels, were they not old and foolish, or young and naive, and thus to be forgiven? Magnamity to the defeated would prove their fears unfounded and likely seal their loyalty; moreover, their support might prove very useful in future. (Invasions of Normandy, anyone?)

  2. From William’s era as Duke of Normandy, through his son, William “Rufus” to the Angevin kings, “blood ties” were intercepted by ambition and other motivations. Chronicles are valuable; however, Ordericus was writing this portion of the Historium Ecclesiastica well after this era. Which does not indicate that his historical chronicle should be discredited.

    Geoffrey, I’ve bookmarked this to read your response more closely. I have the 50-year-old Douglas biography of William l, but must read your comment more exhaustively, as I think you’ve researched this era in more depth than I have.

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