© Michael Leete 2005
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Odo, born about the year 10301, was a uterine brother of William the Conqueror2. He was appointed bishop of Bayeux in about 1049, when he was well below the canonical age of thirty. He was immune to the moral strictures of the clerical reformers in Normandy and went his own way to achieve personal aggrandisement. That is to say, he emphasised his secular life. Even his seal (Figure 6), of which we have a partial copy, showed him as a bishop on one side but a warrior on the other. Immediately after the Invasion he began to get a bad name in his new earldom of Kent3 that was only mitigated in the eyes of the clerical annalists by his munificence to ecclesiastical foundations. The two, of course, are connected in that his lavish gifts were funded by systematically plundering his new estates.
Part of Odo's munificence included the rebuilding of Bayeux cathedral, which had been started in the time of his predecessor, bishop Hugh. The cathedral was dedicated on 14 July 1077 and there is a strong body of opinion that argues that the Tapestry was completed in time to mark this event. David Bernstein4 neatly summed up the modern consensus when he wrote:
Given what we know of his enormous ego and ambitions, his acquisition of spectacular wealth and power, his patronage of learning and his munificent gifts to his cathedral, it is not surprising that a worldly bishop like Odo was the patron who commanded that the epic events of 1066 be celebrated on a grand scale in a wall-hanging over 200 feet (60 metres) long. Here was to be a triumphal moment unequalled in the West since the fall of the Roman Empire. It is also not surprising that the relics of his cathedral are singled out for notice, that no other Norman cleric be depicted, and that Odo would be allotted a prominent role in the Tapestry as cleric, counsellor and fighter. What is somewhat surprising, however, is where Odo turned to have the tapestry made.
With all due respect to Professor Bernstein to compare the conquest of England with the fall of the Roman Empire is absurd, quite apart from the fact the king Sweyn of Denmark had already conquered England in 1013 and his son, Cnut, had been king of England for nineteen years until his death on 10th November 1035. In other words, the triumphal moment in 1066 had been equalled only fifty-three years earlier. Furthermore, that the epic events of 1066 be celebrated on a grand scale we would expect something far more lavish. The Tapestry neither fits Bayeux cathedral nor is it a wall hanging 'on a grand scale'. As we look at the Tapestry today, it is impossible not to be impressed with both its length and its survival. Today, it is magnificent. In its time, it was a pretty cheap example of the superb skills of the Anglo-Saxon embroiderers. Where is the gold thread?5 Where are the precious gems and pearls that were so dear to Odo's heart?
It so happens that due south of Bayeux, just north of the river Loire, there stands the formidable castle of Angers (Figure 7), the home of the counts of Anjou. There lived Geoffrey the Fair, nicknamed Plantagenet from the sprig of broom he wore in his helmet, a descendant of the formidable Geoffrey Martel, with his wife Matilda, former Empress of Germany and grand-daughter of William the Conqueror. They were the parents of Henry II, king of England. Two centuries after their time, the Apocalypse tapestry was commissioned by Louis of Anjou6 in 1373, based upon an illuminated manuscript of the Book of Revelation, lent to him by Charles V, king of France. Once again, there are neither gold threads nor gems but the Apocalypse tapestry may justly be called magnificent (Figure 8). It is huge, colourful and detailed. As with the Bayeux Tapestry, Angers cathedral exhibited the Apocalypse tapestry on important religious occasions. Originally it was six metres high and a staggering one hundred and forty metres in length. The technology of the eleventh century was not sufficiently advanced to have made something like the Apocalypse tapestry but it is hard to see Odo of Bayeux being satisfied with a work a mere half metre high.
If the Tapestry had been intended from the start for display in the nave of Bayeux cathedral, it must surely have been designed in two halves ― half for the north and half for the south sides. As it happens, the Tapestry is joined at what may have been the middle. The first three pieces go to a join just to the left of the man carrying a bundle towards William's ships (Panels 90-91). If a little under three metres, to accommodate the closing scenes that are missing, were added to the end of the Tapestry as it now is, this join would be exactly halfway. Having said that, it is hard to imagine any reasonable explanation for the cathedral to have joined the pieces back together again.
While we are considering the pieces of the Tapestry (Figure 9), it is worth noting that piece 1 approximately equals pieces 4 plus 5 in length and pieces 2 and 3 approximately equal pieces 6 and 7 with piece 8 and the missing length. In other words, using three of the known joins, it would have been possible to display the Tapestry in a symmetrical rectangle with four extra joins to account for openings in a chamber for doors and windows. If the pieces had been fitted into the corners of a chamber, there would have been eight spaces for openings made by doors and windows. It is also perfectly obvious that the warp of the linen backing could only be made to a certain length. A length of fifteen metres seems enormous for hand spinning but the first two lengths show that something of that order was possible. If fifteen metres was the standard, the Tapestry may originally have been embroidered in five lengths, being piece 1; piece 2; piece 3 plus piece 4; pieces 5 and 6; pieces 7 and 8. In this case, the first embroidery would go to the trees after the meeting between William, Guy and Harold (Panels 33-34); the second to the death of king Edward (Panels 69-70); the third to the men carrying what have been stupidly called kebabs before the meal at Hastings (Panels 110-111); the fourth to the advance towards the shield wall of the Anglo-Saxons (Panels 142-143); and the last to the end, presumed to have been the coronation of king William. There is a certain logic in these partitions, which tell the story in five, nearly self-contained parts: the preliminaries; the catalyst for the invasion; the preparations and landing; goading Harold; the battle and, as we may guess, William's coronation. Graphically, the divisions are reasonably satisfactory except at the third join, our central point, where the man loading his bundle on to the ships becomes isolated from his companions. On this evidence alone it is reasonable to conclude that if the Tapestry had been designed in two halves, what is clearly a single scene would not have been allowed to span the two pieces. Similarly, the third join was not a manufacturing necessity, since pieces three and four together are barely longer than either of the first two pieces. On the face of it, therefore, the third join - or cut, to say the same thing another way - can only have arisen when fitting the Tapestry for display where it had to be pierced by a door or a window or a pulpit. How was it, therefore, that the pieces were subsequently re-joined?
We should now look at the appearances of bishop Odo as cleric, counsellor and fighter in the Tapestry. He was certainly among the invaders and he was the half-brother to the commander-in-chief. It would be amazing if he were not in the Tapestry at all! As it is, he is said to have been in four scenes, but he was not in the oath-taking scene (Panel 59) where he would surely have been both prominent and impressive. It does not seem to have been contested that Odo made his second appearance under the inscription ET.HIC.EPISCOPVS:CIBV:ET:POTV:BENEDICIT (Panel 112). Of course, the question arising from this simple caption is, which bishop? Because this bishop has been identified as Odo, the man on his right hand has been identified as William. Whoever he was, he is the only one at the table listening to the bishop saying his grace but if he were William the Conqueror, would he have tolerated the bearded diner7 on his right sticking his elbow in his face? Certainly not! And, furthermore, William would have been centrally placed however strong the vanity of Odo, bishop of Bayeux. Now the converse argument applies. If the diner on the bishop's right hand side is not William then the bishop is probably not Odo. Surely this bishop might equally well be Geoffrey, bishop of Coutances, who received huge estates in England even if exhorting the troops and saying grace before meals was his only contribution to the war-effort. The diner on the bishop's left is pointing towards the words ODO:EPS: in the next scene. This has been taken to mean that bishop Odo is saying grace but pointing fingers are used frequently in the Tapestry simply to move the reader onwards. Besides, ODO:EPS: would have fitted into the caption over the dining table quite as easily as EPISOPVS. To have named him in the first scene and merely called him EPICOPVS in the second would have been more logical if both scenes portray the same bishop.
The first (Panel 80) and third appearances of the bishop are of Odo the counsellor. In the first, the cleric with William is not named. In the third (Panel 113) he is named and sits in a little family group of the three brothers. He also appears to be doing all the talking!
The fourth and last appearance (Panel 158) may not quite depict Odo as he saw himself. The caption, ending squashed among the horses' legs which may be some indication that the writing did not always turn out as planned so that fingers pointing at words should not be taken too literally, is HIC.ODO EPS:BACVLV.TENENS:CONFORTAT PVEROS - here bishop Odo, holding a stick, 'confortat' the boys8. Presumably 'confortat' should be translated as 'comforts' or 'cheers' but Odo appears as if he might have been setting about them with his stick! Here we have Odo's participation in the battle as merely beating the boys back into line, which is hardly the heroic action that Odo would have preferred to see. His dress is heroic and distinctive and not unlike William's outfit in the scene from Brittany as he is passing Mont Saint Michel. To be fair, if Odo played a prominent part in preventing what could so easily have become a rout, then Odo's role was significant and important. It just does not portray the fighter.
Furthermore, there is one fact that has not had much made of it. Silver pennies struck in 1066 show the head of Harold with a beard9. It is possible that the beard on the coins was symbolic rather than actual although Harold himself must have approved the dies. It is also possible he removed his beard just before the battle of Hastings but if he did not, could Odo have failed to notice the beard during the battle? Or was Odo so far to the rear that he could not recognise king Harold and later order him to be properly portrayed in the Tapestry? At no point in the Tapestry is Harold shown with a beard10. Queen Matilda , of course, did not see king Harold after 1064, before he grew his beard if, as is supposed, the early pictures of him in the Tapestry are correct. She as the patron, and her Norman designer (who may easily not have seen the king either) would have no reason to give him a beard during the events of 1066. But did Odo, as patron, have a good reason not to?
Odo, therefore, appears in the Tapestry two times with certainty. Of the other alleged pictures of him, the best we can say is that the first bishop is probably him but the second is probably not. As a cleric he missed his best chance for a starring role in Bayeux. Since it may not have been him saying grace he is not shown as a functioning cleric at all, apart from his tonsure when he is sitting with his brothers (Panel 113) or sitting with William when building the fleet is ordered (Panel 80). He also missed a chance of a further appearance in the preliminaries to the battle of Hastings either hearing the confessions of the troops or, better still, officiating at a private Mass for William11. As a counsellor he seems to come across strongly. However, his image as a fighter, though tactically significant, is not that of the warrior that he chose to depict on his seal. In short, the case for Odo to have been the patron of the Tapestry has been a matter of counting the hits and ignoring the misses.
A final point in Professor Bernstein's summary concerns the relics of Bayeux. The reliquary on the right of the picture may be assumed to have been the local treasure - be it Rouen, Bonneville sur Touques or Bayeux. The reliquary on the left was surely a portable affair that, all things being equal, might have come from anywhere12. The Tapestry is the only source to place Harold in Bayeux when he took his oath.
Shortly after the battle, Odo was made the earl of Kent, which must have annoyed Eustace of Boulogne, who had clearly set his heart on controlling the port of Dover. By the autumn of 1067, Odo had so alienated the people of Kent that they invited Eustace to relieve them. Choosing a moment when Odo was away from Kent, Eustace sailed for Dover and, with Kentish supporters, attacked the castle. The defenders repulsed them and, ultimately, drove Eustace's force into the sea. Eustace escaped but was later brought to England to stand trial for treason.
Odo's ambitions multiplied. He formed the notion of becoming Pope and began soliciting men to join his forces. King William could not tolerate the departure of trained soldiers from England at that time. Nor, indeed, was he sympathetic to Odo's plans since if, by chance, he were successful, Odo would be elevated to a higher status than himself, the elder brother. Accordingly, Odo was imprisoned13 and only released, on the insistent plea of his brother Robert, in time to attend William the Conqueror's funeral.
1 William the Conqueror (1969), David Douglas, Appx. A.
2 It is convenient shorthand to name William, the future duke of Normandy, with hindsight as the Conqueror rather than to offer some kind of description at every mention to identify him with clarity.
3 Anglo Saxon Chronicles, D, sub anno 1066: (William) went oversea to Normandy in the spring taking with him archbishop Stigand, Æthelnoth, abbot of Glastonbury, prince Edgar, earl Edwin, earl Morcar, earl Waltheof, and many other good men from England. Bishop Odo and earl William were left behind here, and they built castles far and wide throughout the land, oppressing the unhappy people, and things went ever from bad to worse.
4 The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry (1986), David Bernstein, teacher of medieval art and history at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York
5 Anglo-Saxon Art, C R Dodwell: 'A cloak that king Edgar gave to Ely, so laden with gold embroidery that it looked like chain mail', and, the House of Cluny received from Queen Matilda 'a chasuble so stiff with gold that it could hardly be bent.'
6 Louis I of Anjou was more famous, architecturally, for his transformation of the chateau at Saumur on its earlier foundations. These foundations, today, are in danger of sliding into the Loire!
7 The Bayeux Tapestry (Paris 1983, trans. William Courtney), Michel Parisse, quoted in The Bayeux Tapestry Digital Edition, Martin Foys: Roger de Beaumont who distinguished himself at the Battle of Hastings was commonly known as 'The Beard'.
8 BACULUM may also be translated as WAND, or the staff of a crozier. It must be said, however, that the article that Odo is holding is hardly less substantial than the mace held by William when exhorting his troops.
9 British Museum (struck at Chichester) and the Ashmoleum Museum, Oxford. Over 100 moneyers struck coins for king Harold in 1066.
10 In the scene following the appearance of Halley's comet, Harold has even lost his moustache.
11 Thus putting William in a Christian setting and himself in a scene with powerful connotations.
12 See below in Chapter 8, SACRAMENTUM.
13 ASC E sa.1082 In this year the king arrested Bishop Odo; and in this year there was a great famine.