Post-classical history


A Connection with Bishop Odo of Bayeux

It is commonly assumed that a single wealthy patron would have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. Misgivings about Queen Matilda's supposed involvement - whether as patron, designer or embroiderer - began to be voiced in the early nineteenth century. Some, for instance, found that the occasional lewdness in the borders was not to their taste and accordingly they doubted that either of the esteemed Matildas could possibly have been responsible for such crude indelicacies. Taking up this point, a French antiquarian, Honore Francois Delauney, speculated in 1824 that the tapestry might have been given to Bayeux Cathedral by a cleric of perhaps less than perfect morals.1 Bishop Odo of Bayeux, William'shalf-brother, is depicted four times in the embroidery and he fitted in nicely with this somewhat anachronistic conjecture. Odo was known to have had a mistress and a son; he was present at Hastings; and his position of power gave him the requisite authority to commission such a vast work on the great events that had just taken place.

Delauney's observations prompted others to examine more closely Bishop Odo's appearances in the work. It was noted that the tapestry gives him much greater significance than any of the written sources. In those sources Odo is merely one of two distinguished prelates accompanying the expedition, neither of whom is described as playing any significant role during the battle itself. In the tapestry Odo is not only the sole Norman ecclesiastic identified, he also appears (and indeed virtually steals the scene) at some of the most important moments: he is present at William's council at which the decision is taken to construct an invasion fleet; he says grace at the banquet after the landing at Pevensey [plate 7]; he dominates the subsequent council of war; and he rallies the young knights at a critical juncture at the Battle of Hastings [plate 10]. A further scene in which Bishop Odo had an interest is Harold's oath scene, which seems to be sited by the tapestry at or near Odo's cathedral city of Bayeux. The main written sources place it either at Bonneville (William of Poitiers) or Rouen (Orderic Vitalis).2

Another clue then emerged. There are only four obscure characters identified by name in the whole tapestry: Turold, Ælfgyva, Wadard and Vital. The last two are minor Norman knights depicted as taking part in the invasion. Their names are more unusual than the others, particularly Wadard's. In 1838 an English antiquarian named Bolton Corney wondered whether the Domesday Book might assist us in understanding who they were and why they are named in the Bayeux Tapestry.3 It was found that Wadard and Vital had at least one thing in common: both were knights who owed allegiance to Bishop Odo and in the great share-out of the spoils of victory they were granted lands in Kent under the protection and patronage of Odo. Wadard also held lands from Odo in several other counties. In Lincolnshire he is nine times called 'homo episcopi baiocensis' (the Bishop of Bayeux'sman).

Even some of the very first observers concluded that the style and presentation of the story meant that the tapestry was much more likely to be broadly contemporary with the events depicted than to be of subsequent date. In particular, the inclusion of these obscure characters suggests that the tapestry was made at a time close enough to 1066 for observers to remember these people and why they were being portrayed.4 Historians also noted that the styles of dress and armour are not inconsistent with an eleventh-century date. Today no one doubts that the work was made quite soon after 1066.

These clues, together with the tapestry's historical association with Bayeux (although this cannot be proved earlier than 1476), seemed to link it firmly with Bishop Odo. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Matilda theory was beginning to be eclipsed. The hypothesis that Bishop Odo was the patron also seems to dovetail neatly with the Canterbury connection. After the victory at Hastings, William made Odo Earl of Kent. Canterbury was the principal town in Kent; it was also its artistic centre; and both Wadard and Vital held land in Kent from Bishop Odo. A general consensus has therefore emerged that the Bayeux Tapestry was 'probably' made to the orders of Bishop Odo of Bayeux, at a workshop in or near Canterbury, perhaps with a view to adorning his new cathedral at Bayeux, which was consecrated with great pomp in 1077, and at any rate before Odo dramatically lost favour and was imprisoned by his half-brother King William in 1082. In popular books, or where space precludes the usual caveats, the 'probably' and the 'perhaps' have been hardened into statements of fact.

Presented in this way these conclusions can, indeed, seem entirely reasonable. But there are many problems. In precisely those respects where one would expect the tapestry to be most emphatic, to proclaim loudly and expressly Duke William's case, it is silent, shifty or ambiguous and ultimately downright subversive. The closer one looks the more the Norman case evaporates before our eyes. We see the true reason for Harold's journey to the continent; we see that in the early 1060s King Edward the Confessor did not support Duke William's claim;and at the Battle of Hastings it is the French under Count Eustace II of Boulogne who take the starring role - the same Eustace who, for obscure reasons, attacked Odo's castle at Dover in 1067 and was promptly disgraced. None of this could conceivably be described as a 'Norman point of view'. Bishop Odo of Bayeux was the Conqueror's own half-brother. He was one of the architects of the Norman invasion. His castle was attacked by Eustace in 1067. Can it really be that the Bayeux Tapestry was produced under his directive eye? There may, moreover, be yet another, even more astonishing, anti Norman undercurrent running through the work - a subversive parallel with the Babylonian Conquest of the Jews in the sixth century BC.

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