“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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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