Post-classical history


The Tanner's Grandsons

The Bayeux Tapestry gives us only a snapshot of the colourful life of Bishop Odo of Bayeux.1 It is a mere cross-section of a long career, lived out by a flawed man, on a grand scale, a career that encompassed everything from the heights of power to the loneliness and disgrace of imprisonment. The key to this turbulent life was the patronage of Duke William of Normandy and the key to that patronage was the fact that Odo and William shared the same mother, a lowborn woman called Herleva. Herleva was the daughter of Fulbert, a tanner (some say undertaker) of Falaise. At the age of about seventeen she became the lover of Robert of Hiesmois, brother of the then reigning Duke of Normandy. William was the illegitimate son of this union; Odo and his brother Robert were the offspring of Herleva's subsequent marriage to Herluin of Conteville.

The story of Herleva's beauty and of her first meeting with Robert of Hiesmois is a captivating tale that has long passed into legend.2 According to the most well-known version, Robert first set eyes on Herleva when he returned to his castle at the end of a day's hunting. He happened to look down from within his keep and caught sight of the beautiful young Herleva, her lily-white legs exposed to the sun as she washed linen in a nearby stream. At length Robert persuaded Fulbert to allow his daughter to pay him a secret visit at his castle but she, in turn, insisted on arriving in broad daylight and on a fine horse, which she rode proudly, for all to see, through the main gates of the building. Inside the castle, the poets of the twelfth century continued the tale with relish. Within the privacy of the comital bedchamber the lowly maiden was at once more erotic and yet strangely more demure. Herleva, so it was said, ripped open her underskirt, tearing it from top to bottom, so that her torn and unworthy clothes lay open and her pure white skin was revealed in the flickering candlelight. She had done this, so the story goes, so that her lowly garment would need to be lifted up towards Robert's face or mouth. We are then told by the poet Wace that the two of them remained awake for some time ('for I do not wish to say anything more,' he explained, 'about the way a man disports himself with his beloved'). In the fullness of time Herleva fell asleep; but as she lay beside Robert, sleeping, her body suddenly began to shudder uncontrollably before once again resuming a state of peaceful slumber. On awakening at dawn, Herleva explained that she had had a strange dream. She had dreamt that her womb had suddenly begun to grow - it had grown out of her body, she said, like an enormous tree, becoming bigger and bigger until it was eventually so vast that the whole of Normandy and the whole of England lay under its incredible shade.3 Such, according to the old stories, were the portentous circumstances in which William the Bastard, the future Duke of Normandy and King of England, was conceived one night by his parents.

This story is, of course, almost entirely legendary. There is no contemporary account of the meeting of Robert and Herleva; and during William's lifetime the subject of his illegitimacy remained strictly taboo. It was the poets of the twelfth century who invented these tales, giving them an aura of romance and mystical, divine approval, in order to please a courtly Plantagenet audience who were then the inheritors of William's achievements. The essential facts remain: in the late 1020s Robert formed a non-marital liaison with Herleva, the daughter of Fulbert, a tanner or undertaker of Falaise, and that William was the child of this union. Robert seems to have treated Herleva well, but presumably wishing at some stage to make a more advantageous match he found her a suitable husband, Herluin of Conteville, a minor lord with some land on the south bank of the estuary of the River Seine. The bastard William was to remain distinctly touchy on the subject of his birth. It was a matter which could be broached with him only circumspectly, indeed if at all. Many years later, when as Duke of Normandy he was besieging the town of Alencon, a number of the townsmen thought it would be a good idea to string out animal hides in order to taunt him about the low birth of his mother. Once in control of the place, he had the culprits rounded up.4 He then had their limbs cut off and their eyes put out. It is not recorded that the jest was ever repeated.

Not long after William was born, Duke Richard III of Normandy died and Robert of Hiesmois inherited the duchy. It was rumoured that Richard had been poisoned by Robert. At this distance in time a charge of fratricide can neither be sustained nor rebutted, although Robert certainly had the motive, and presumably the opportunity, to do away with his brother. His own rule of Normandy was short and unsettled. It came to an abrupt end in July 1035 when he died in Nicea, in modern-day Turkey, on the journey home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Thus it was that one of the most turbulent territories in Europe fell to the rule of his only son, an illegitimate boy of some seven or eight years.

There followed a decade of grim disorder, from which the child duke was lucky to escape with his life, let alone with his position intact. William's two half-brothers, Robert, afterwards count of Mortain, and Odo, the future bishop of Bayeux, were born to Herleva and Herluin in the 1030s and also grew up during this period of civil unrest. In theory they could expect to gain substantially from a connection with the duke. In practice the little boy's position was desperately insecure. Rival magnates vied for control; for long periods any authority at all was widely lacking. William's own life seems to have been sorely threatened several times. Four of his guardians were murdered in turn and one of them, Osbern the Seneschal, was stabbed to death in the very room where William slept. Such was the danger that Walter, Herleva'sbrother, had to smuggle the young duke out of his castle at night in order to conceal him for his own safety in poor men's houses. This was a harsh and unsettled upbringing. William's ruthless determination - without which the conquest of England can hardly be imagined - was born out of the brutalising experiences of his youth. The turning point did not come until 1047. In that year, the twentieth of his life, Duke William won a crucial victory over the rebels at the Battle of Val-es-Dunes, near Caen. This had not been achieved without the welcome support of King Henry I of France who had ridden out of Paris at the head of his own army in order to come to his young vassal's aid. Nevertheless the victory at Val-es-Dunes marks the true starting point of Duke William's effective rule over Normandy.

Odo's life and whereabouts during this dark period remain unknown. It is only in about 1049 that we hear of him, at which point it is recorded that William, who was now able to exert his authority more firmly in western Normandy, appointed him as the Bishop of Bayeux. Odo was certainly young for such an important promotion. There is conflicting evidence as to his precise year of birth, but it is quite possible that he was only thirteen years old and at any rate he would have been well below the canonical age of thirty. Despite William's sensitivity on the subject of his bastardy, he remained on close terms with his mother and the preferment of Odo was the first of many favours that he would grant his half-brothers. This is not surprising. Nepotism was a widely accepted practice, and in a dangerous and untrustworthy world reliance on ties of blood cannot be said to be entirely without purpose. William governed Normandy, and afterwards conquered England, with a closely knit network of loyal nobles, often related to the ducal family. Odo's brother Robert was made Count of Mortain around 1055 and so began his own long and rather colourless career of loyal service to William. Odo was made of different stuff: he was too self-important to be a sycophant and his ambitions knew few bounds. Before 1066, however, the evidence of his activities is sparse. The office of bishop that Odo had acquired was as much political as religious. It also promised considerable rewards, something which no doubt stimulated his appetite for further wealth and luxury. He appears as a witness to some of William's charters, attended ecclesiastical councils and would have overseen the establishment of the cathedral school at Bayeux, which later became something of a training ground for Norman bishops and administrators in conquered England. The cathedral itself, so intimately connected with the later history of the Bayeux Tapestry, was at this time steadily being rebuilt on the foundations of an older Carolingian edifice. The construction of the new building, which had already commenced under Bishop Odo's predecessor, continued under his youthful direction.

In about 1051 William married Matilda, the daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. Politically, it was a good match and it was achieved despite the initial opposition of the Pope on grounds of consanguinity. William's continued attachment to his lowborn mother is illustrated by the fact that prior to the wedding Matilda, a lady of the noblest blood, was placed in the care of Herleva. Not long afterwards the newly-weds founded two abbeys in Caen and the two abbatial churches still stand there today, proud monuments to their founders, gazing across at each other from opposite sides of the town. So far as is known, William remained faithful to his wife and together they had nine children. They must have made an odd couple, though. William was a large man, increasingly given to corpulence as he grew older, whereas Matilda was unusually small. The lady to whom the Bayeux Tapestry was so often attributed was (on the evidence of the bones discovered in her grave at her church at the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen) only about 4 feet 3 inches tall.5

Despite this astute marriage, the early 1050s were a time of considerable danger for William. There was nothing certain about his hold on the duchy, still less was his rise to preeminence in northern France inevitable. To the leaders of neighbouring territories his growing power was an increasing threat and they readily joined attempts to depose him. In 1053 Duke William's uncle, William of Arques, plotted to usurp the duchy for himself and to this end assembled a coalition of neighbouring rulers hostile to William. To make mattersworse, King Henry dramatically reversed his earlier policy and in alliance with Count Geoffrey of Anjou launched an invasion of the duchy as well. The duke swiftly besieged and defeated William of Arques; amongst the latter's supporters, Count Enguerrand of Ponthieu, brother of the tapestry's Guy, was killed in action. King Henry retreated for the moment but he and Count Geoffrey were soon back, in the early part of 1054, and this time they had a much larger force that contained warriors from many regions of France. William split his own army into two parts. The first blocked Henry's advance towards Rouen; the second launched a surprise attack against the French at Mortemer, where they had been enjoying the spoils of plunder. So great was the rout at Mortemer that upon hearing the news the French king hastily retreated to Paris. The victory was significant, not least in the way it pacified Normandy's easterly borders. In particular Count Guy of Pon­thieu was captured and imprisoned at Bayeux, an experience he would remember. By the time Guy was released two years later Ponthieu had been reduced to the status of a client state.

King Henry's last invasion of Normandy was defeated by Duke William at Varaville in 1057. The political circumstances of northern France now became remarkably favourable to Normandy. In 1060 William's principal enemies on the continent, King Henry of France and Count Geoffrey of Anjou, both died in quick succession. The new French king, Philip I, was a minor whose regent was Count Baldwin of Flanders, William's compliant father-in-law. A peace treaty with the king of France was shortly agreed; Anjou succumbed to a decade of weak rule and disputed succession. In 1063 William's position was further enhanced by his conquest of Maine, a smaller territory lying to the south of Normandy.William's pretence for invading Maine, following the death of the reigning count, appears to have been extremely slender. His main rival, Count Walter of Maine, soon surrendered and both Walter and his wife Biota died shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances in William's custody. Walter was Edward the Confessor's last surviving nephew and might have been considered a contender for the English throne in 1066.William's show of force into Brittany in 1064 or 1065, depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, was sufficiently effective to complete 'the curtain of friendly or acquiescent powers around the Norman duchy's borders'.6 The way had been cleared for what was to come. By strong rule, astute generalship and good fortune, William had transformed beyond all recognition the precarious position in which he began his reign thirty years earlier.

William must never have abandoned the hope that he might one day succeed to the English throne. Edward's tantalising words of encouragement, apparently first heard when William was a boy, before Edward's return to England, and later, it seems, confirmed in 1051, had not been forgotten. It mattered not a jot that Edward had since changed his mind. When Earl Harold of Wessex unexpectedly fell into his lap, William seized the opportunity and exploited his luck superbly. Now, with the invasion of England, Bishop Odo of Bayeux comes out of the shadows and moves into the centre stage of history. It was a major turning point in his career, just as it was, in different ways, for Count Eustace II of Boulogne.

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