Post-classical history


The Downfall of Bishop Odo

The conquest of England was the great watershed in Odo's life.1 As the new king's grip on the country tightened, he divided the lands of the dead and dispossessed English among his followers. Bishop Odo's share of these spoils was immense. His initial reward was the earldom of Kent, and in that county alone, as well as holding Dover Castle, he possessed at least 184 manors; he has been described as 'perhaps the greatest single figure in Kentish history'.2 By the 1080s Odo held large estates in twenty-two counties dotted throughout England. The Domesday Book of 1086 records that Odo's total landed income was in the region of £3,000 per annum, an extraordinary amount for the times; it was at least three times more than the amount Eustace gleaned from his own English lands and that in itself was a very sizeable sum. Domesday also reveals that the yield extracted from the men and women who day-long toiled in Odo's fields and did his bidding had risen by 40 per cent from what it had been in 1066.

A striking measure of Odo's newfound wealth was provided by the Sunday Times in 2000 when it compiled a list of the richest non-royal Britons during the last millennium, the 'Richest of the Rich' list.3Odo's English fortune was estimated in modern terms as £43.2 billion, putting him in fourth place overall. Such estimates are deceptively precise but they certainly reveal the broad scale of Odo's wealth. Such was the rapaciousness of the invaders of the Norman Conquest that three out of the first four places in the Sunday Times's list, covering the whole of the period from 1066 to date, were held by men who accompanied William the Conqueror to England and who owed their fortunes to the spoils of invasion: William of Warenne (£57.6 billion), Odo's own brother Robert of Mortain (£46.1 billion) and Bishop Odo himself. When one takes into account the sizeable income Odo continued to receive in his capacity as Bishop of Bayeux, he must have as good a claim as anybody, so far as evidence permits, to be regarded as the richest non-monarch ever to have lived in England during the whole of the last millennium. This should have pleased the tanner's grandson, but the appetite of a greedy man is rarely sated and ultimately Odo's boundless greed and ambition were to be the cause of a sudden downfall.

Not all the land that Odo claimed was of unimpeachable title or undisputed by others. The most famous dispute of all brought him into direct conflict with the Italian-born Lanfranc, the new Archbishop of Canterbury who had been appointed by King William in 1070 from the Abbaye aux Hommes at Caen. The encroachments that Odo was accused of seem to have dated back to pre-Conquest times; they were already part of the Kentish lands of the Godwin family that Odo had 'inherited' following the victory at Hastings. Odo, however, strove hard to retain as much as he could. A dispute such as this between two of William's closest advisers, the scholarly Lanfranc and the avaricious Odo, had to be settled by due process of law. It gave rise to one of the most important legal trials of William's reign. The old shire court of Kent was convened at its traditional meeting place on Penenden Heath, where the Anglo-Saxons had met in the years before. It was presided over by another great Norman magnate, Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances, who, like Odo, was renowned for his secular lifestyle and leadership of knights. No one was deemed wiser as to the laws of England than old Æthelric, the deposed English bishop of Selsey. An invalid in his declining years, he was wheeled before the court in a cart in order to give forth his valued and learned opinions. After three days of evidence the judgment, in the main, favoured Lanfranc; Odo lost out. Lanfranc evidently had a poor view of Odo and the two remained legally and politically at odds. It was not long before their personal relations degenerated into little short of hatred and it was, perhaps, under Lanfranc's influence that William began for the first time to suspect Odo's loyalty and to disapprove of his greed.

As his wealth and power increased, the baronial, worldly-wise side of Odo's character came to the fore and on this side of the Channel he emerges as a fully-fledged secular baron, more at home in his castles and halls than in the quietude of any church. A surviving drawing of Odo's seal revealingly depicts him, on the one side, as a dutiful man of the cloth and, on the other, as a proud knight riding on his horse. When William was absent in Normandy Odo seems to have had wide powers to rule the country in his stead, together with William Fitz-Osbern. It is clear that he used his powers with considerable severity. The English would long remember their sufferings under his rule. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D), when Odo was left in charge of England in 1067 the people were sorely oppressed: 'Bishop Odo and Earl William [Fitz-Osbern] . . . built castles widely throughout this nation and oppressed the wretched people and afterwards it always grew very much worse. When God wills it, may the end be good.' In the first half of the next century, the half-English, half-Norman Orderic Vitalis also complained that Odo and Fitz-Osbern protected Normans and paid no heed to the legitimate complaints of the English: thus, said Orderic, 'when their men-at-arms were guilty of plunder and rape, they protected them by force, and wreaked their wrath all the more violently upon those who complained of the cruel wrongs they suffered. And so the English groaned aloud for their lost liberty.'4 On another occasion, Orderic wrote that Odo was 'dreaded by Englishmen everywhere'.5 In 1075 Odo was called upon to lead an army against the rebellious Earls Walthe of and Ralf the Staller. Five years later he led a ferocious reprisal against the turbulent north of the country following the murder of Bishop Walcher of Durham.

Wealth poured into Odo's coffers, and it was wealth from England that must have given the final impetus for the completion of Bayeux Cathedral in 1077. Certainly Odo did not forget his episcopal city. He also built a palace there for himself, constructed several houses for canons and funded the education of young clerics. The cathedral, which was served by a body of clergy of unprecedented size, was completed in grand Romanesque style. The edifice he built has, of course, been much altered since 1077; but the two monumental cliff like towers framing the western portal and the crypt beneath the nave remain as reminders of Odo's great building. Orderic Vitalis commented that Odo did both good and evil in the fifty years that he ruled over the see of Bayeux, but the Anglo-Norman monk was evidently impressed by Odo's conventionally pious largesse, ostentatious as it was. Odo, he commented, 'enriched his church in every way with gifts of precious ornaments. There is evidence of this in the buildings he raised and the furnishings - gold and silver vessels and precious vestments - which he lavished on the cathedral and clergy.'6 Another monk who visited Odo's cathedral commented approvingly that he had never seen the like.7 There is, however, no mention of the Bayeux Tapestry in any of these reports, no indication that it was among the ornaments which Odo provided for his cathedral, as is so often stated. All that is known is that the tapestry was at Bayeux Cathedral 400 years later - in 1476 and that at that time it was the practice to hang it around the nave on certain days.

By the early 1080s Odo was at the height of his power and wealth. He would have done well to follow the example of his brother, Robert of Mortain. Robert contented himself with the role of an unimaginative servant in the shadow of William's triumph, and he benefited enormously in the process, with almost 800 manors to his name, from the moors of Yorkshire to the meadows of Cornwall, and a string of valuable castles to boot. One later account called Robert 'dense and slow-witted'8 but he was evidently shrewd enough to keep on the right side of the king. Odo, however, was not Robert. Greedy and energetic, arrogant and irrepressible, and with a thoroughly misplaced sense of his own importance, he forgot that he owed his position solely to William's grace and favour, and his downfall, when it came, was dramatic.

The precise cause can only be gleaned from later accounts;the matter was passed over circumspectly by contemporary chroniclers.9 It seems that Odo heard that a soothsayer in Rome had predicted that the next pope would be called 'Odo'. It did not take much to spark the flames of new ambition in Odo's heart. Thus he set about bribing his way to succeed the reformist and altogether more spiritually minded Pope Gregory VII, stuffing the wallets of pilgrims with letters and coins in order to smooth the way for a grand arrival at the papal see. Through agents, he acquired a splendid palace in Rome, furnishing it at great expense; and with lavish gifts and promises he secured the alliance of the leading Roman families. In England he assembled a large body of knights, and by 1082 they had moved with him to the Isle of Wight in readiness to depart. None of this seems to have had William's foreknowledge, and certainly not his approval. Gathering such a private army and removing it from the country was both a threat to the security of the land and an affront to William's authority. Odo, in any event, was meant to be one of those responsible for the government of England in William's absence. It was the final straw. The king was in Normandy when he learnt of Odo's plans. He raced back across the Channel and arrested Odo without warning on the Isle of Wight. The bishop'sunderlings were compelled to reveal the whereabouts of his treasure. Hidden in various secret places, wrote William of Malmesbury in about 1125, was such a quantity of gold that it 'surpassed anything that our age could imagine'. Many sacks of beaten gold were hauled out of rivers, where they had been secretly stashed away; and apparently those who already knew the whereabouts of Odo's secret hoards were able to make off with much of the treasure before the king's men arrived.

Odo protested that he was a clerk and a priest of God and that William had no right to condemn a bishop without papal authority. To this William replied, on the advice of Archbishop Lanfranc, that he was arresting not the Bishop of Bayeux but the Earl of Kent, subtly turning Odo's hitherto successful duality firmly against him. Wace, writing in the second half of the twelfth century, tells us that at times Odo had even coveted the throne of England, making discreet enquiries as to whether there was any precedent for a bishop to succeed to a kingdom.10 Whatever the truth in this, William now conceived an utter hatred for his half-brother. The arrogant and over-mighty Odo languished as William's prisoner in the dungeon of Rouen for the next four years.

In July 1087 King William was fatally injured while fighting at Mantes. His last years had not matched the achievements that preceded them; it would have been remarkable if they had. In the period between 1068 and 1075 William ruthlessly suppressed a series of revolts in England, of which the cruel harrying of the north in 1070 was the most notorious example, and he saw off the threat of invasion from abroad. By the mid-1070s Norman rule was firmly established across the country and William increasingly turned his attention to safeguarding his continental interests. The last chapter of his life was marked by military setbacks in France and disunity within his family. His army was routed by the Bretons at Dol in 1076. His eldest son Robert Curthose rebelled against him and inflicted another defeat at Gerberoi in 1079. Odo's disloyalty in 1082, Queen Matilda's death a year later and a fresh rupture with Robert shortly afterwards must have all taken their toll. Moreover it soon became clear that there was a new danger on the horizon, for King Canute IV of Denmark and his uncle Robert the Frisian, Count of Flanders, were planning to mount a massive invasion of England. It was in this context, at Christmas 1085, that William ordered the preparation of the famous Domesday Book, a record of landholding in England that seems to have had a dual purpose: to enable the inevitably numerous disputes over possession to land to be settled and to pave the way for an increased tax, partly in order to fund a defensive war against the Danes. A combination of English administrative efficiency and Norman zeal, the Domesday Book was an incomparable achievement for its age and it remains one of the most remarkable legacies of William's reign. Though the threat remained, the invasion from Denmark never arrived. It was entirely in keeping with William's character that he should have received his last injury in the saddle, aggressively campaigning in the French Vexin in the summer of 1087. One account tells us that when his horse attempted to jump over a ditch William was pushed forward in the saddle and the pommel ripped into his stomach.

Taken to a monastery just outside Rouen, the ailing Conqueror issued his last wishes. Robert Curthose, his rebellious son, was now to be the Duke of Normandy, as he had always been promised, but the kingdom of England passed to the second son William Rufus. The third surviving son, Henry, had to be content with a gift of £5,000, but it was to be under Henry, as King Henry I, that Normandy and England were eventually to be reunited under single rule in the early twelfth century. The old king, now faced with prospect of imminent death, made a pious display of gifts to churches and ordered the merciful release of all prisoners - all, that is, except one: Odo.11

The darkest dungeons were to be emptied of murderers and thieves; disloyal barons and political hostages were happily to see the light of day at last; but on no account, said William, was his half-brother Odo ever to be released. To those who urged him otherwise, William was adamant. Describing the scene from the perspective of the 1130s, Orderic Vitalis put his own opinion of Odo into William's mouth. In Orderic's account the dying William now launched into a tirade of invective against Odo. Odo, he said, had long held religion in con tempt, he was a cunning instigator of rebellion, he was the worst oppressor of the English, he was a destroyer of monasteries, he was frivolous, he was ambitious, he was devoted to the delights of the flesh and to deeds of great cruelty, he would never give up his vices and frivolities. 'I imprisoned not a bishop but a tyrant,' Orderic has William continue, 'and if he goes free, without doubt he will disturb the whole kingdom and bring thousands to destruction.'12

This, of course, is Orderic's opinion. Odo's spoliation of monastic land was probably not as great as Orderic here (and elsewhere) implies, and as evidence of Odo's sexual liaisons only one bastard is known - John of Bayeux, afterwards found 'in the court of King Henry'.13 Nevertheless it is undeniable that William's hatred for Odo, his once trusted lieutenant, was still as extreme as it was implacable. The men gathered around William's bedside, including Robert of Mortain, continued to press him to have pity on Odo, offering to give security for the bishop's future conduct. William, a weak and dying man, finally gave way to their constant entreaties. 'Unwillingly I grant that my brother may be released from prison but I warn you that he will be the cause of death and grievous harm to many.' William died soon after, on 9 September 1087, and was buried in the enormous cathedral-like church he had had built at the Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen, one the greatest of all Romanesque churches still standing, just a*s Matilda was buried at her Abbaye aux Dames.

With William dead, four years in the dungeons of Rouen had left Odo neither contrite nor subdued but ready and eager to quench his thirst on the drug of power that had been so abruptly denied him. He swiftly ingratiated himself with Robert Curthose, the new Duke of Normandy, and by early 1088 they were together plotting to overthrow King William Rufus of England and reunite Normandy and England under Robert's single authority. There would be little difficulty, Odo thought, in overcoming King William Rufus; he may well have considered him weak and effeminate. Later chroniclers, all monks, agreed that times had changed for the worse; they complained that the new king's courtiers wore their hair long and in curls, and that they minced around effeminately in wide-sleeved robes and wore shoes that curled up extravagantly at the toes like scorpions' tails.14 It was all a far cry from the hard men in crew cuts who had invaded England in 1066. Others were persuaded to join Odo's plot, including old Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances and (with the events at Dover in 1067 now long forgotten) the young Count Eustace III of Boulogne. The plan seems to have been that Odo would secure a strong foothold in the south-east of England and Robert would invade from Normandy. One of Odo's first acts in this rebellion was to send his knights on a petulant rampage through the lands of his old adversary Archbishop Lanfranc. Odo then marched from Rochester to the castle at Pevensey, where he holed up, waiting patiently for Duke Robert's invasion.

Faced with this widening Franco-Norman revolt, King William Rufus had no choice but to appeal to his lowly English subjects for help. He made rash promises of good government and low taxation that, as ever, were rather over-optimistically accepted by the populace: 'he promised them,' theAnglo Saxon Chronicle (E) advises us, 'the best law that ever was in this land; and forbade every unjust tax and gave men their woods and their coursing - but it did not last long'. By dint of these promises, Rufus was able to assemble a large Anglo Norman force which surrounded the castle at Pevensey so that Odo could not escape. The English, so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle continued, were particularly keen 'to get Bishop Odo' whom they regarded as the brains behind the 'foolish'revolt. After six weeks the besieged bishop's provisions ran out and, with no sign of any serious attempt at invasion by Duke Robert, he was forced to surrender. He promised, perhaps already without sincerity, to hand over Rochester, and that he would then leave the shores of England and never return without the king's consent.

Odo was taken under relatively light guard to Rochester in order to arrange for the fortification there to be delivered up. Within its walls, however, were his allies Count Eustace III of Boulogne, the three sons of Earl Roger of Montgomery and perhaps as many as 500 knights. They were in no mood to surrender. Sallying out, they captured the king's men and then took them back within the castle. Odo, seizing the moment, also scurried within. Once more Rufus had to lay siege to Odo. Once more the young king proved a shrewder and more formidable enemy than the bishop had expected. During May 1088 Rufus blockaded the walls of Rochester Castle and erected two siege towers to cut off his uncle's escape. Over the next weeks provisions within ran out and conditions rapidly deteriorated. If we are to believe Orderic Vitalis, Odo and his allies were additionally inconvenienced by a plague of flies truly biblical in scale.15 Unable to endure any longer, they finally opened negotiations to surrender.

It was the custom of the time for the victors at a siege to herald their triumph over the defeated with a fanfare of trumpets.16 To avoid this final humiliation, Odo tried to win from the king the concession that, although he might be defeated, banished and deprived of his wealth, at least the trumpets would not be blown. Rufus refused. Not for 1,000 gold marks would he agree to his uncle's request; he wanted to enjoy the moment. So it was that Odo and his allies emerged in shame from Rochester to a loud blast of trumpets; apparently Englishmen all around jeered at 'the traitor bishop' and taunted him with cries that he deserved no better than to be strung up from a gallows. Although King William Rufus subsequently forgave many who had taken part in the revolt, including Count Eustace III of Boulogne, Odo was deprived once and for all of his vast possessions in England. He was banished for good, never to set foot on English soil again.

The great English adventure, begun in hope and trepidation in 1066 and recorded so remarkably in the stitches of the Bayeux Tapestry, was finally over for Odo. Now in his fifties, he contrived to interfere, as best he could, in the government of Normandy under the ineffectual rule of Robert Curthose. In November 1095 Odo journeyed to the centre of France, into the rounded mountains of the Auvergne, in order to attend a great council of bishops at the city of Clermont, one of the periodic gatherings of the Catholic Church. In the event it was to be a momentous occasion and its outcome defined the age to come. Over 300 clerics were present; Pope Urban II himself presided. The first nine days of the Council of Clermont proceeded uneventfully, or at least as expected, but as the council neared its end it was announced that Pope Urban was to make a momentous statement. News spread around the city. People flocked to hear what Urban had to say and they arrived in such vast numbers that the council had to be moved from within the cathedral to an open field beyond the city gates. Urban's words survive in only second-hand and mutually inconsistent versions (including one by Baudri of Bourgueil). But the gist is known. He appealed to Western Christians to aid their co-religionists in the East. The beleaguered Emperor of Byzantium had asked for help in his battles against the Turks. Pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem were facing greater and greater difficulties. All this time the knights and armies of the West were slaying each other when it was the duty of Christians, he said, to march in aid of their brethren on a 'righteous war'. For those who died there would be absolution and remission of sins. The enthusiasm with which this revolutionary call was taken up took everyone, including Urban, by surprise. Its primary goal became, if it had not already been at the outset, the capture of Jerusalem from Muslim hands. Thus was born the terrible, tragic, bloodthirsty and ultimately fruitless movement now known as the Crusades.

Hardly in the first flush of youth, Odo was amongst those who decided to take the cross. He may have been fired by religious fervour. Duke Robert himself decided to become a Crusader and, having made his peace with King William Rufus, mortgaged the duchy of Normandy in Rufus's favour. The prospect of being left behind at the mercy of his old enemy Rufus may well have influenced Odo in his decision. We do not know the whereabouts of the Bayeux Tapestry, but if it was now in Odo's possession it is not difficult to imagine the old bishop, on eve of his departure, having the tapestry spread out and displayed for him for one last time. If so, he would have probably received fresh inspiration from what he saw; if not, he would have at least remembered what it showed. By his words, his advice, his prayers, his very presence at the battlefield, he had influenced the outcome of the fight against the English at Hastings. Might he not now also affect the outcome of the forthcoming struggles in the Holy Land?

After travelling around Normandy with the papal legate, presumably in order to preach the Crusade, Odo finally departed the duchy in September 1096. Different crusading armies took different routes. The famous brothers Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin of Boulogne took an overland route through central Europe. Odo of Bayeux travelled southwards through France and Italy in the company of Duke Robert of Normandy and, it seems, Count Eustace III of Boulogne. He visited Rome and afterwards met Pope Urban at Lucca. The large party moved south again and wintered in Apulia and Calabria at the southern end of Italy. All talk, no doubt, was of plans for the coming year. Northern Frenchmen would have felt at home in these parts, for these were territories which were ruled by Normans, too. Earlier in the century Norman adventurers had carved out their own principalities in Italy, a private enterprise by hardened mercenaries that had succeeded beyond their dreams. By 1059 Robert Guiscard, whose family hailed from Hauteville, not far from Bayeux, had become the powerful Duke of Apulia and Calabria. Under his command the island of Sicily had been invaded in 1061. Long in Muslim hands, Sicily had now been added to the empire of the Hautevilles.

As 1096 drew to a close, Bishop Odo, apparently still in good health, made the short sea crossing to Sicily in order to visit Count Roger the Great, Guiscard's brother, at Palermo. It was here, in January 1097, that Odo caught his last illness. Gilbert of Evreux, Odo's episcopal colleague from Normandy, remained at his bedside to the end. His final ambition dashed, Odo's last act was to leave his movable wealth, of which there was no doubt plenty, to Arnulf of Choques, a churchman of Boulonnais birth who was to end an eventful career as Patriarch of Jerusalem. A fine tomb in Palermo Cathedral was erected for Odo by Count Roger, but in the last quarter of the twelfth century it was taken down and nothing of it now remains. It is possible that Odo's bones were removed and that they now lie, together with those of other noble Normans, in a side chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene.

Two eventful lives had ended: Eustace, the noble heir of Charlemagne, who sought to raise the fortunes of his comital house of Boulogne, and Odo, grandson of a tanner, a man who became rich and powerful thanks to his half-brother's achievements but whose greed and ambition ultimately caused a dramatic downfall. Their paths had crossed as a result of Duke William's audacious plan to seize the English throne and they came into conflict only a year later when Eustace launched his attack on Dover Castle. Why should these two men, so recently foes, be highlighted on either side of Duke William in the Bayeux Tapestry?17 An intriguing alternative to the orthodox theory of Odo's patronage of the work has long been overlooked. Was the patron of the tapestry not Odo at all, but rather Count Eustace II of Boulogne?18

On the face of it, this overlooked possibility has a great deal of explanatory power. Eustace could have commissioned the tapestry as a gift to Odo, as part of the process of their reconciliation in the early 1070s and perhaps also in order to gain the release of thenepos who had been captured by Odo's knights. The tapestry's highlighting of Odo, in the various ways that it does, would then be a case of flattery rather than self-promotion, but at the same time the role of Eustace and his French army at Hastings, the great charge under the banner of Boulogne and Eustace's role in felling Harold, were all subtly rendered in threads. The English undercurrent consistent with the fact that in 1067 Eustace sided with English rebels. Despite earlier events, he had evidently found some common ground with the men of Kent. Moreover, as a non Norman, Eustace could easily have been open to alternative views about the legitimacy of William's claim to the throne. Could it, therefore, be that this forgotten and enigmatic man, Count Eustace II of Boulogne, was ultimately responsible for the most famous work of art in English history?

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