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Odo, earl of Kentlocked

(d. 1097)
  • David Bates

Odo, earl of Kent (d. 1097)

embroidery (Bayeux Tapestry) [seated, third from right]

by special permission of the City of Bayeux

Odo, earl of Kent (d. 1097), bishop of Bayeux and magnate, was the son of Herluin de Conteville (d. c.1066), a Norman magnate of vicomte status who held lands around Grestain to the south of the Seine estuary, and of Herleva (fl. c.1010–c.1055), the former concubine of Robert (II), duke of Normandy (d. 1035). He was thus the half-brother of William the Conqueror.

Origins and family

Herluin and Herleva are known to have produced one further son, Robert (d. 1095), who was appointed count of Mortain in the late 1050s, and two daughters, Adelaide, who married in succession Enguerrand, count of Ponthieu, Lambert of Lens, and Odo, count of Champagne, and Muriel, who married the Norman magnate Eudo, vicomte of the Cotentin. Two other half-brothers, Ralph and John, sons of Herluin's second marriage, are known, both relatively minor figures who held some lands in Normandy. In all probability there was also at least one other sister, or half-sister, who married the southern Norman magnate William de La Ferté-Macé, but whose name is unknown. Odo had one son, John of Bayeux, who was one of Henry I's chaplains; his mother's name has not been recorded. The date of Odo's birth is uncertain because the earliest sources, Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury, both writing in the twelfth century, disagree as to whether Herleva was married to Herluin before or after Duke Robert's death. It is also unclear which of Odo and Robert, count of Mortain, was the senior; Robert's succession to Herluin's lands may well indicate that he was the elder. On balance, a birth date in the early 1030s fits the evidence best. Odo was certainly well below thirty, the canonically required age for promotion to a bishopric, when he became bishop of Bayeux at a date between his predecessor's death, some time after attending the Council of Rheims in October 1049, and 23 April 1050. Little is known about his education; William of Poitiers implies that he was educated in the ducal household.

Early career and invasion of England

Odo's appointment to Bayeux on the say-so of his half-brother William was a typical promotion for a close male kinsman of a Norman duke. Politically it was an aspect of William's consolidation of his rule in western Normandy after his victory at the battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047. Although Odo's importance in Normandy before 1066 is indicated by his prominence among the attestations to ducal charters, this period of his life is a relatively obscure one. It is primarily his status in England and Normandy after the conquest and his accomplishments at Bayeux on the basis of foundations laid before 1066 which show how active and important he must already have become.

Odo was prominent in the crucial discussions which preceded the invasion of England. According to an early twelfth-century ship list, he supplied one hundred ships to the invasion fleet. His role in the battle of Hastings is known mainly from the Bayeux tapestry, of which Odo was beyond any reasonable doubt the patron and on which his importance has probably been inflated. He and Count Robert are portrayed in council with William immediately before the battle, with Odo speaking animatedly to an attentive duke, as if laying out the battle plan. During the battle he appears in a quasi-military role, arrayed in a haubergon (but without the full protection afforded by a hauberk), carrying a mace-like instrument and rallying troops at a strategically significant moment in the battle. This portrayal is not necessarily in conflict with William of Poitiers's statement that Odo was not personally responsible for the shedding of blood at Hastings, but it does suggest that his opinion that Odo and Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances, were there to help with their prayers was less than the truth.

Earl and regent, 1067–1082/3

Along with William fitz Osbern, Odo acted as William I's deputy in England after the newly crowned king had returned to Normandy in February 1067. He was created earl of Kent soon after 1066, and his initial responsibilities involved him in supervising the defence and subjugation of the south-eastern part of the kingdom. The months until William's return to England in December were principally occupied in building castles, overcoming English revolts, and, specifically, moving towards Dover when the castle there was attacked by William's former ally, Eustace, count of Boulogne. The treatment of Odo's conduct during this period in the main literary sources raises immediately the problem of interpreting his role in the history of the Norman conquest of England. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in key respects echoed by Orderic Vitalis (who wrote in the 1120s), tells of oppression and illegality. William of Poitiers (whose panegyric of William the Conqueror was completed before 1077), in contrast, praises Odo's activities and remarks that the English will in due course come to appreciate him. The perspectives from which each author approached his subject are of course crucial. The dichotomy is fundamental to interpreting Odo's career in England (see below).

The period between 1066 and his arrest and imprisonment by William in late 1082 or early 1083 is the apogee of Odo's career. A range of literary sources concur that he ruled England when William was in Normandy. Domesday Book shows that he had become the wealthiest English landholder after the king, with estates scattered throughout twenty-two counties in the south and east of the kingdom. His chief residences appear to have been at Dover, Rochester, Deddington in Oxfordshire, and Snettisham in Norfolk. His charter attestations show that his itinerary was that of a cross-channel magnate, present at such great events as Queen Mathilda's coronation at Whitsun 1068 and the settlement of the primacy dispute at Windsor at Whitsun 1072; and that he was usually at the great crown-wearings and assemblies which were a feature of the Conqueror's rule on both sides of the channel, as well as at ecclesiastical councils of the Norman church. He was one of the royal generals in eastern England during the 1075 revolt of the three earls; and in the autumn of 1080 he led an army which devastated Northumbria to avenge the murder in the previous year of Walcher, bishop of Durham. In 1074 the king gave the large estate of Le Plessis-Grimoult to Odo's cathedral; and on 14 July 1077, Odo's new cathedral church was consecrated in the presence of the king and many Norman notables. Odo is addressed in his capacity of earl in most of the surviving royal writs concerned with Kent; and he exchanged and granted lands to the major churches of the shire, notably the abbey of St Augustine's, Canterbury.

The nature of Odo's role in England between 1066 and 1082/3 has posed problems for historians. Although clearly identified in contemporary sources as having been regent when the king was in Normandy, Odo was himself often in Normandy with William. Also, there were others, notably Archbishop Lanfranc, who clearly acted in England as William's deputy. Lanfranc in particular appears as the first addressee in numerous royal writs in a way which Odo does not and was manifestly playing the central co-ordinating role during the 1075 revolt. The most plausible interpretation of the evidence of the literary sources is that Odo alone could act with the equivalent of royal authority when William was not in England; this interpretation is seemingly confirmed by Domesday Book's insistence that only Odo's seal had the same status as the king's and by its frequent references to, and acceptance of, property disputes settled on Odo's authority. There would probably have been periods of time, most notably from late 1077 to early 1080 when William was dealing with the warfare provoked by his eldest son, Robert Curthose, when Odo was de jure presiding over the settlement of conquered England.

The way in which Odo exercised his responsibilities attracted strong criticism; Orderic Vitalis, for example, places him in the category of the tyranni, rulers who disregard equity and law. Surviving accounts of land pleas convey an ambivalent impression. A Rochester text shows him going to considerable lengths to restore an estate to the church and to demonstrate that English witnesses had perjured themselves because of threats made by a Norman sheriff. The Evesham chronicle describes his role in an inquiry into the abbey's lands held at Four-Shire Stone, Warwickshire, as that of a ravening wolf; it should, however, be noted that even in this case some of the lands which Odo appropriated to himself were not the abbey's, but had been granted to Abbot Æthelwig (d. 1078) on a temporary basis. These charges of unfairness and oppression need to be set in the context of other evidence for Odo's conduct. Domesday Book certainly shows that Odo and his tenants in some places acted aggressively to expand their lands. In 1072 he and his tenants in Kent were involved in the great land plea held at Penenden Heath near Maidstone, at which they were adjudged to have illegally taken over a considerable number of estates belonging to the archbishop and monks of Christ Church, Canterbury. Even though much of the litigation had its origins in pre-1066 tenurial disputes, and taking into account that all the surviving testimony was written by Odo's opponents, the protracted disputes which followed the Penenden plea undoubtedly reinforced a general impression of acquisitiveness and overweening power. The overall charge of oppression cannot in the end be gainsaid. But there is plenty of evidence to show that Odo's rule in England was neither entirely arbitrary nor entirely self-seeking. And there is also no doubt that after the Norman conquest Odo was given responsibility for a situation of great tenurial and political complexity.

Bishop of Bayeux and the Bayeux tapestry

While there is good evidence to indicate that the new cathedral church at Bayeux had been begun by Odo's predecessor, the architecture of the building's surviving eleventh-century parts suggests that most of the construction took place in Odo's time. Two Bayeux charters dating from 1092 and 1093 provide the earliest extensive evidence of the personnel of the cathedral chapter, mentioning nine chapter dignitaries and thirty canons. As a measure of the extent of the chapter's evolution, these figures need to be set against the twelve dignitaries and forty-nine canons of the fully-fledged thirteenth-century Bayeux chapter. It was once thought that Odo formally instituted at Bayeux the ‘four-square’ chapter typical of several English medieval cathedrals; that idea must now be abandoned in favour of an evolutionary and conceptually derivative view of the chapter's development. It remains certain that English developments were influenced through the activities of Odo's protégés. Odo also founded the abbey of St Vigor outside Bayeux at an unknown date before 1082, intending it to be the burial church for himself and future bishops of Bayeux; he was able to attract the distinguished scholar Robert de Tombelaine to be its first abbot. A considerable body of charter evidence shows Odo making grants of limited exemption from episcopal authority to abbeys within his diocese, accumulating property for his church and protecting his clergy. Despite his many absences, Odo was undoubtedly a successful and committed bishop of Bayeux. Comparison with the parallel contemporary developments in other Norman bishoprics demonstrates, however, that he operated on a much grander and more lavish scale than his colleagues; sculpture surviving from the cathedral, for example, indicates a monumentality, ambition, and stylistic range of reference of a quite remarkable kind.

The most famous product of Odo's artistic and intellectual patronage is the unique Bayeux tapestry. Almost certainly produced in England, this complex and brilliant embroidery is the most spectacular illustration of a wide-ranging patronage whose ramifications were felt not only throughout Normandy and England, but in many regions of France north of the Loire. Odo's patronage supported scholars for study at Liège and elsewhere, nurtured poets writing at Bayeux and throughout northern France, and assisted the development of Bayeux as an intellectual centre. Nine of Odo's protégés obtained bishoprics in either England or Normandy and four became abbots. Although their personal qualities varied, and some, such as Samson, bishop of Worcester (d. 1112), or the notorious Ranulf Flambard (d. 1128), were certainly excessively worldly, the likes of Thomas (I), archbishop of York (d. 1100), William de Rots, abbot of Fécamp (d. 1107), and William of St Calais, bishop of Durham (d. 1096), were churchmen of either high personal and moral character or exceptional administrative competence. Odo's patronage also extended to include some of the most significant poets of the time, such as Marbod of Rennes and Hildebert de Lavardin, and controversial theologians, such as the grammarian Roscelin of Compiègne. The intellectual tone of Odo's Bayeux, to judge principally from the works of the poet Serlo of Bayeux, tended to the conservative, praising the virtues of the secular clergy and critical of fashionable Benedictine monasticism and many of the ideas being advanced by the Gregorian reformers.


Either late in the year 1082, or early in 1083, Odo was seized by the king and, after a trial, was imprisoned. Although the earliest source for this event, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, places it in 1082, the statement by Orderic Vitalis that Odo was in prison for four years would probably place the arrest in early 1083; Odo's attestation of a charter at Downton, Wiltshire, in the autumn of 1082 and William's return to Normandy by Easter 1083 provide the chronological limits. The chronicle offers no explanation of the arrest. While the next earliest source, Guibert of Nogent, writing c.1108, suggests that Odo was planning to seize the English kingdom after William's death, the opinion that Odo was preparing an expedition to Rome to become pope after Gregory VII (r. 1073–85), which appears with different embellishments in Orderic, William of Malmesbury's Gesta regum, and the so-called Hyde chronicle, is generally preferred. This story has no echoes in papal sources. Orderic's dramatic account of the trial stresses that Odo was diverting warriors from England for an expedition overseas and that William was disturbed by his oppressive and arrogant rule in England; he also suggests that William himself had to seize Odo because the magnates assembled at court feared him so much. Odo remained in prison at Rouen until released by the dying king in September 1087; Orderic suggests that only the supplications of the magnates present, led by Count Robert, weakened William's resolve to keep Odo in prison for ever.

Rebellion, crusade, and death

After attending the Conqueror's funeral at Caen in September 1087, Odo crossed to England and regained his lands and his earldom. He attended the Christmas court of the new king of England, William Rufus, but by April 1088 at the latest he was in arms at the head of an extensive coalition of many of the most powerful magnates of the conquest generation, which was seeking to overthrow the Conqueror's death-bed division of Normandy and England between Robert Curthose and William Rufus in Robert's favour. While superficially imposing, the conspiracy failed because Rufus and his allies were able to defeat their opponents before they could unite their forces, and because Robert Curthose failed to land in England. Odo himself was besieged in his brother Count Robert's castle at Pevensey and then at Rochester. After Rochester's capitulation, Odo was exiled from England for ever. Back in Normandy, he participated in Robert Curthose's campaigns in Maine and southern Normandy in late 1088 and was with Robert when he sought assistance from the French king in 1089. He also took personal responsibility for the imprisonment in 1088 of the youngest of the Conqueror's sons, the future Henry I, whose activities in western Normandy threatened to destabilize the duchy. He continued as far as possible to intrigue against William Rufus. Orderic portrays Odo as Robert Curthose's chief counsellor during these years, but comments that the wayward duke did not always follow his advice.

Odo also set about regaining estates lost to his cathedral during his imprisonment and restoring the monastic community of St Vigor, which had been plundered by the Conqueror and had disbanded. His intellectual and clerical patronage also revived. It is clear, however, that Odo was unable to restore fully his church's possessions or to do much to prevent the disintegration of Robert's rule in Normandy. In 1095 he was among the Norman bishops who attended the Council of Clermont at which Pope Urban II preached the first crusade. In the months that followed he made arrangements for the re-established monastery of St Vigor to become a priory of the strict abbey of St Bénigne of Dijon, before departing for the crusade with Duke Robert's army. The army wintered with their fellow Normans in southern Italy and around Christmas Odo crossed to Sicily to visit the Norman ruler of the island, Roger the Great Count. He died on 6 January 1097 and was buried in the cathedral at Palermo. His last illness, of which nothing is known, must have been a short one.


Orderic Vitalis's verdict on Odo that, although excessively worldly, he was none the less a curious mixture of virtues and vices, and that he did a lot of good, remains a just one. He was regarded at Bayeux as a good bishop and his activities in England, while undoubtedly at times oppressive and tyrannical, have sometimes been too severely censured because overmuch attention has been given to the testimony of those who suffered at his hands. He was undeniably the most colourful and flamboyant of the Norman conquerors of England, a forceful character whose energy contributed mightily to the success of the conquest. On the other hand his restlessness and turbulence led to quarrels with the Conqueror, Archbishop Lanfranc, and William Rufus and must have contributed significantly to destabilizing Norman rule in England and Normandy. A prince-bishop on a grand scale, his generosity and patronage shaped the careers of many laymen and clergy who played significant roles in the Norman achievement and in the society of the eleventh-century medieval West. The Bayeux tapestry survives as brilliant testimony to the many strands of a remarkable career.


  • A. Farley, ed., Domesday Book, 2 vols. (1783)
  • D. Bates, ‘The character and career of Bishop Odo of Bayeux, 1049/50–1097’, Speculum, 50 (1975), 1–20
  • D. Bates, ‘The land pleas of William I's reign: Penenden Heath revisited’, BIHR, 51 (1978), 1–19
  • D. Bates, ‘The origins of the justiciarship’, Anglo-Norman Studies, 4 (1981), 1–12, 167–71
  • D. Bates, ‘Le patronage clérical et intellectual de l'évêque Odon de Bayeux, 1049/50–1097’, in S. Lemagnen, Chapitres et cathédrales en Normandie [Bayeux 1996] (1997), 104–5
  • The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, ed. and trans. R. H. C. Davis and M. Chibnall, OMT (1998)
  • D. M. Wilson, ed., The Bayeux tapestry (1985)
  • V. Bourrienne, ed., Antiquus cartularius ecclesiae Baiocensis (Livre Noir), 2 vols. (1902–3)



Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research
Oxford Medieval Texts
Orderic Vitalis, ed. and trans. M. Chibnall, 6 vols., OMT (1969–80); repr. (1990)