Odo’s Cathedral of Bayeux (Dennis Aubrey)


“Ambitious, arrogant, rapacious, turbulent, tyrannical, ungrateful and licentious, this bold bad man appears to have been destitute of every virtue”.” (J.R. Planché, The Conqueror and his Companions, 1874).

Nave, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

Nave, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

The unseemly character described in Planché’s quote was the bellicose Bishop of Bayeux, Odo de Conteville, half-brother to William the Conqueror. During the Battle of Hastings, this man of God distinguished himself as the fiercest of warriors. Because the church had moved broadly to forbid clerics from carrying arms, Odo could not fight with a bladed weapon. His more acceptable choice? An iron-tipped club – the mace! The logic of how this skirted the prohibition against shedding blood is far too subtle for me to grasp.

At any rate the bravery and savagery which Odo display during the battle got him the approval of his stepbrother. He was granted the title of Earl of Kent and given 439 lordships. In addition, he was given the title of Justice of England, which made Odo the senior judiciary of the kingdom.

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

Side aisle, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

Planché says, “This stunning accession of extraordinary power and immense wealth had an evil influence over an ambitious and rapacious nature.”

Despite receiving these honors Odo was disgruntled because he was not accorded the honor of being named the archbishop of Canterbury, which went instead to the great cleric Lanfranc. Odo extracted his revenge by taking over dependencies of the Archbishop for his own personal use. Lanfranc appealed to his patron – William – and asked for justice. A court of Odo’s peers was convened and adjudicated the case in the favor of Lanfranc. The setback infuriated the Bishop of Bayeux and he cast his net further afield.

Crossing vault, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

Crossing vault, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

The first Odo seemed content to pillage both his own properties and those of his neighbors, but soon his ambition overcame even his greed. He received word of a prophecy by a soothsayer in Rome, who claimed that the current pope Gregory VII would be succeeded at his death by a pope called Odo. This, of course, was enough to set our good bishop on another path. He purchased a magnificent villa in Rome and furnished it sumptuously. He convinced a number of his retainers and several very important nobles in England to go with him to Rome to support his claim for the Papacy. As they gathered to leave their charge of guarding and protecting the kingdom of England for William, William heard about the adventure and showed up to stop them.

Chapel, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

South side aisle, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

William confronted his audacious bishop and his retinue at the Isle of Wight, where they were preparing to depart for Italy. He accused Odo and his followers of abandoning their charge of protecting England and ordered his arrest. Odo replied that he was a cleric and a minister of God and therefore subject to nobody but the Pope. William replied back immediately, saying “I do not arrest a clerk or bishop, but I arrest an Earl by myself created.” It is said that the ingenious response was prepared by Lanfranc. Odo was imprisoned in Normandy, where he remained for the rest of William the Conqueror’s life.

Chancel, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

Chancel, Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, Bayeux (Calvados). Photos by Dennis Aubrey

As William lay dying, Odo’s supporters interceded for his release. William agreed to let him go but predicted dire consequences. The predictions turned out to be correct and Odo spent the rest of his life stirring up controversy and conflict among Williams various heirs. This “turbulent Bishop” died in 1097 on the way to the First Crusade in Sicily and was buried in the Cathedral of Palermo with great pomp befitting his stature a major figure of the Christian world.

However, we might say that even Odo contributed something to this world. He commissioned the Bayeux tapestry that told the story of the Norman invasion – of course the work featured his own part in that invasion. He also built the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, and despite some rebuilding, this Romanesque and early Gothic work is the glory of that Norman town. It may be that Odo built this in conscious expiation of his many sins or it might believe it is just another example of his great self-centered pomp. Either way the people of Normandy did at last benefit from Odo de Conteville.

Location: 49.275068° -0.702503°

16 responses to “Odo’s Cathedral of Bayeux (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Thanks for the interesting history lesson. Odo sounds like a beast, but he certainly was responsible for great beauty as well… an interesting contradiction.

  2. Even Odo contributed something to this world… No one is 100% useless. But sometimes we have to think about a character for a thousand years to work out what made their life worthwhile. This post was fantastic!

    • Trish, sorry I did not answer earlier, but this post was written in the hospital two days after my surgery in a brief period of lucidity. I’m only now getting back to some of the comments. Thanks for your comment, the point of the post was exactly what you said, even Odo contributed something beautiful to this world.

  3. This is a post of two halves – a chilling story of the notorious Odo and his machinations, punctuating a vision of loveliness and peace.

    Have you read Needle in the Blood, by Susan Bower? It is a novel of the reimagined life of William the Conqueror’s half-brother Bishop Odo of Bayeaux and his mysterious mistress, threaded through the story of the Bayeux tapestry.

  4. Pingback: Carnivalesque #91 « Dr Kate Ash

  5. Congratulations on this exquisitely crafted summary of Odo of Bayeux’s career from 1066 onward. It is an ideal accompaniment to the beautifully photographed perspective of the cathedral.

    Odo’s character is neatly depicted in the following historical but inspired drawing of his second downfall in 1088: http://www.gettyimages.com.au/detail/news-photo/departure-of-bishop-odo-from-rochester-1088-the-half-news-photo/567614035

    William the Conqueror’s companions are a diverse and fascinating bunch: each of them merits a detailed report. If Odo was the worst of them, as the English people clearly thought he was, then William’s Breton cousin Alan Rufus was perhaps the best.

    Alan was the commander of King William’s royal household knights, whose primary job was to protect the king’s life: at Hastings, they did just that, and Alan was rewarded with a share of Earl Gyrth’s estate equal to that taken by the new king.

    He also received most of the lands of Harold’s first wife Edith the Fair for unknown reasons.

    Where Odo was oppressing, robbing, destroying and murdering, Alan was doing his best to defend: he retained far more English lords and ladies than any other magnate and excluded Normans from his lands as far as he could: Odo in particular was kept out of the North. This of course did not persuade Odo to think well of him. Twice, in 1069-70 and 1080, Odo devastated Alan’s North Yorkshire properties, with peasants streaming from their burning farms to the hills where Alan’s brothers and knights could protect them.

    Odo’s little escapade in 1082 occurred during William’s long campaign against Anjou and Maine. The king had reconquered all of Maine except one castle, Hubert of Beaumont’s formidable Sainte-Suzanne, and was setting up a siege camp at Beugy when he was informed of Odo’s actions. He immediately took most of his army to intercept him, leaving only his household knights to continue the siege: 200 men in the open against 300 in an impregnable stone castle.

    The bravery and fame of that little band attracted the attention of ambitious knights all over France, who poured into the battlefield hoping to gain fame and fortune by defending Sainte-Suzanne and capturing Norman knights for ransom. A year into the Siege Alan, who’d been paying the soldiers wages, was recalled, and in subsequent engagements his successor Anvrai and many other brave knights were killed, while William of Warenne was injured during an assault on the castle. After three years, the king had still not sent an army to relieve his men, but he was finally persuaded to come to terms with Hubert, granting him lands in England to end hostilities.

    At William I’s death-bed, Robert of Mortain and his friends waited until William’s son William (II) and Count Alan had left for England before pleading for Odo’s release. In January or February of 1088, William II brought the royal court to York to found St Mary’s Abbey, a project devised by Alan to demonstrate Norman contrition for their misdeeds against the English. Odo was required to sign as a witness, but his conspiracy began very soon afterward: if he could succeed in deposing William II and replacing him with the pliable Robert Curthose, then he could presumably get rid of Alan.

    The rebellion went well at first, but William II and Alan had cultivated good relations with the church leaders in England, including Archbishop Thomas of York who proved an especially effective fighting cleric. The English, being persuaded by Alan’s good treatment of them and William’s gifts of money and promises of better laws, defended the crown and defeated the soldiers of Roger Montgomery thus forcing him to cease active aggression. William gave Alan authority to seize enemy barons’ lands and Alan was quick to act, bringing numerous rebels to heel.

    When Odo and all the obdurate rebels were finally defeated, the English wanted them hanged, and so did William. However, Alan and the other loyalists argued that this was a terrible precedent and the crown needed servants, so it was better to exile Odo, forgive the senile old men who would soon pass on, and demonstrate wisdom and magnanimity to the rash young men whose hearts would be won and whose talents could then be put to good use.

    It’s a wry fact that at the treason trial of William de St Calais, Bishop of Durham, prompted by his abandoning the royal army in its darkest hour to defend his own lands, the forgiven rebels were among the loudest to condemn St Calais, while Alan, who had led the army that arrested him, was the Bishop’s only defender. In the event, Alan won the king’s approval for his proposal to escort St Calais to Southampton to take ship to Normandy and exile.

    While in Normandy, St Calais vied with Odo for Robert’s attention, so successfully that after William II invaded Normandy in early February 1091, St Calais was retrieved and restored. Alan may have been on this campaign, as he had witnessed a royal charter at Dover in late January.

    Alan died on 4 August 1093 and buried at the Abbey of St Edmunds in Suffolk. His death occurred in obscure circumstances, elucidated only by the use of the word “cineratur” in his epitaph. Alan was often in London in the later 80s and early 90s and London suffered one of its many devastating fires in that year, so that may explain his sudden demise. The epitaph claimed that England was “turbatur”, perturbed, by his passing: certainly some English people had cause to be, among whom the most remarkable must be Gunhild, daughter of King Harold II Godwinson, who shortly thereafter wrote to Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, that she had loved Alan, and he had loved her.

    Anselm took this to mean a romantic affair and responded with two exceptionally harsh letters, but almost identical words were used to describe the contemporary relationship between Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, and Pope Gregory VII, whom she staunchly defended against her own relative Emperor Henry IV.

    It’s possible that Alan Rufus was Gunhilda’s appointed guardian, as he was a blood relation to Edward the Confessor, as her mother seems to have been: there was surely no safer place for Harold’s daughter than in the care of a relative who was the most formidable and trustworthy knight commander in Norman England. Continuance of this duty would explain why Alan Rufus’s brother and heir Alan Niger took her under his wing, albeit to Anselm’s chagrin.

    Perhaps Anselm later realised that he been profoundly mistaken, for his own copies of these letters were removed from his archive. However, his biographer Eadmer repeated the allegation.

  6. Geoffrey, what a response! I hope you don’t mind me using your name, but was able to find it after discovering your blog post on Count Alan. You certainly have been able to mine an enormous amount of information on the Norman, Breton and English participants at the time of the Conquest. I appreciate your contribution to Via Lucis; these Romanesque structures that we document are infused with history and legend, as the story of Odo and Bayeux demonstrates.

    • Dennis, thank you! I have scores of pages of notes on Alan, with much more information scattered across several people’s history blogs. I had hoped to collect it all on one website (count-alan.blogspot.com) but the site seems insufficiently flexible for the purpose, so that part of the project is on hold. Incidentally, your surname is the christian name of one of Alan’s more prominent men, Aubrey de Vere, ancestor of the Earls of Oxford. For what it’s worth, my surname Tobin is short for “de St Aubin”, i.e. they were from one of the many locales across Europe named after this Breton saint. But John Tobin of London was my step-great-grandfather. My patronym is Driscoll, which is handy because this Irish surname can be traced back through the Corcu Loigde chiefs of the Dairine tribe of the Eireann people, which sceptics might think fanciful, except that in the early 2nd century Claudius Ptolemy recorded the position of the “Darini” in the east of Ulster in his “Geographia”, the first serious world atlas.

      My mother’s Kitchen surname is from Cornwall: they’re related to the Carlyons and indirectly to the Vyvyans and the Arundells. Her mother’s Tweed family spent several centuries in Cambridgeshire, always on estates that Alan Rufus had held. In that line are Wisbey (presumably from Wisbech in the Fens) and Dere.

      Curiously there are two charters from Sibton (Coastal Suffolk) in 1230 in which several members of a Dere family are detailed and called “nativi” (native low-class serfs – perhaps descendants of the ancient Britons who had been enslaved by the invading Anglo-Saxons?). Despite their humble station, they still paid a shilling or two in rent each year. They were hired out by the lord of Sibton Manor to Sibton Abbey, which I suppose is why they came to be recorded in the cartulary.

      The lords of Sibton were descendants of Gemma, daughter of Orwen, the nutrix (wet-nurse) to Alan Rufus in his infancy, and Orwen’s elderly husband Mainard, who had been Alan’s chamberlain. For some reason, Henry V saw fit to have these two charters copied into his own records.

      As it happens, Henry V’s step-brother was Arthur de Richemont, one of Alan’s heirs. Arthur was denied his patrimony in England and so supported the French claim to France. After a long fight to control the French government, Arthur succeeded in reforming their whole military and financial systems and led their army to decisive victories against the English, driving them out of France and thus precipitating the recriminations that swiftly became the War of the Roses. (Peculiarly, Alan’s Breton epithet is “ar-Rouz”.)

      • Arthur de Richemont is called “the precursor, companion and successor of Joan of Arc”, which brings us to another link between Alan and the Hundred Years’ War. Alan’s Church of the Holy Saviour, which he donated to the Abbey of St Ouen in 1066×1067 with Duke/King William’s assent, is in the Old Market Square of Rouen. So when the English bound Joan to the stake, she may have been looking directly at a church once owned by someone else who was killed by fire, and whose heir, whom she knew well, would avenge her death.

  7. The Pope who followed Gregory VII (born Hildebrand) only reigned for a year: he was formerly Desiderius, Abbot of Monte Cassino. Odo of Chatillon succeeded: we know him as Urban II, the First Crusade Pope.

    Urban II and Alan Rufus crossed swords, so to speak, during the English conquest of Normandy in early 1091. The French King was so alarmed at the ease (it was bloodless) and rapidity of Upper Normandy’s capitulation (what might it bode for France?) that he called on his fellow countryman the Pope to intercede.

    Henry I had observed Alan’s strategies and applied them, with less finesse, in the leadup to 1106. Fortunately for Henry’s plans, the Pope then was Italian and not so concerned about any implications for France.

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