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Odo Bishop of Bayeaux was the tyrannical Earl of Kent
Bayeux Tapestry
Bishop Odo feasting with the Normans before the battle

Odo, Earl of Kent, is one of the least popular figures in Kent's history.

The son of Herluin of Conteville and Herleva of Falaise, Odo was William of Normandy's half-brother.

His exact date of birth is unknown, but was probably around 1035, meaning he was considerably underage when William made him Bishop of Bayeux in 1049.

This was a political appointment if ever there was one, and an indication towards William's future habit of "keeping things in the family".

The Conquest

Bayeux Tapestry
It is believed Odo commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry

Odo was involved in the Norman invasion of England right from the start, as a trusted associate of William. He is said to have contributed 100 ships to the invasion fleet, and the Bayeux Tapestry, that most amazing monument to the Norman victory at Hastings in 1066, shows Odo active in battle.

In fact the Tapestry gives Odo a prominent role in the campaign - in one scene before the battle it shows William listening to Odo in council, implying Odo was the architect of the invasion. Whilst this representation is undoubtedly an exaggeration - probably due to the fact that it was Odo himself who commissioned the tapestry - nevertheless, he was certainly an important figure in the conquest.

Success at the Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harold may have secured William the kingdom, but by no means were the English totally subdued - the spirit of resistance they displayed at Hastings was still very much alive, and the following years were ones of unrest and turmoil, for which Odo was partly responsible.

To deal with this simmering resentment and secure his hold on the new kingdom, William placed his most loyal and trusted associates in strategic positions across the country. In fact, he tried to "keep things in the family" whenever possible, often relying on his relatives to rule in his name, as other Norman dukes and princely families had done before him. And this is how Odo arrived in Kent.

Securing the kingdom

Dover Castle
Dover Castle was the "lock and key of England"

William reorganised his new kingdom, destroying some of the sprawling earldoms of his predecessor's day, but also creating several new ones, like Kent, so that the country was surrounded by a series of protective strongholds. Then, as now, the Kent coastline was vitally important in terms of security, and so William made the loyal Odo Earl of Kent, and gave him custody of Dover castle - the "lock and key" of England.

Odo became a huge landowner in Kent, holding 184 lordships in the county. He also held manors in 12 other counties, which gave him £3,000 a year, and the Domesday Book shows him to be the richest tenant-in-chief in the kingdom by far.

"Destitute of virtue"

Odo was an infamous figure in 11th Century England: "ambitious", "rapacious", "greedy", "ruthless", "arrogant", "tyrannical" and "destitute of virtue" are just some of the words that have been used to describe him. He was certainly not the most popular of rulers, either in Kent or elsewhere, and was almost universally portrayed in a negative light by contemporary chroniclers. Orderic Vitalis, a chronicler monk, creates an unattractive image of Odo as a regent who abused his responsibilities, oppressing the poor and unfairly seizing England's wealth and land.

Odo destroyed and plundered the landowners of Kent, amassing a huge fortune in both land and gold. He forcibly seized lands for his friends and family - one chronicler called him a "ravening wolf", and the Domesday Book, argues historian David Bates, reveals "numerous instances of apparently unjust acquisitions". In Dover, Odo confiscated homes and even the Old Guildhall for his household, and he allowed one of his tenants to build a mill at the harbour entrance in Dover, which had a devastating impact on shipping.

Making enemies in Kent

Canterbury Cathedral
Odo quarrelled with the Archbishop of Canterbury

Odo's tyrannical behaviour made him many enemies in Kent, and it was only a matter of months before his severity drove the county into open revolt in 1067. This revolt, the first major rising under the Normans, was focused around Dover, the centre of Odo's oppressions. The Kentish rebels appealed to Eustace of Boulogne for help, and together they launched a failed attempt on Dover castle. Eustace had been involved in a quarrel with the citizens of Dover on a previous occasion, and so the rebels' appeal to him suggests just how desperate they were to be liberated from Odo.

Odo's position as Earl of Kent brought him - almost inevitably - into conflict with the Archbishop of Canterbury, another strong landholder in the area. The Archbishop Lanfranc resented Odo's encroachments upon his "patch", and this personal feud eventually made its way into the law courts, with the two men vying for control of Kentish land at trials like that of Penenden Heath, which lasted for three days.

The feud even led to bloodshed, and the Earl Waltheof, a client of Lanfranc, was beheaded by a group of men led by Odo. Though this dispute had roots in controversies which predated the Norman invasion, it is still symptomatic of Odo's character, and desire to eradicate competing authorities within his Earldom of Kent.

Odo certainly seems to have had a great desire for power. His main powerbase was in Kent, but as Count Palatine he possessed power over all other earls and magnates in England. He was one of William's most trusted deputies, and in the king's absence acted as regent, alongside William fitz Obern until 1071 and later alone.

Odo seems to have carried out his tasks with relish, creating resentment across the country. Orderic Vitalis said that Odo and fitz Obern "oppressed all the inhabitants of high and lower degree" and "heaped shameful burdens upon them".

Power-hungry

Odo leaving Rochester Castle
Odo left Rochester to jeers from his Kentish subjects

Not even satisfied with this authority, however, in 1082 Odo made a bid to purchase the papacy, causing a split with William, who arrested his half-brother himself. Odo was tried and imprisoned for sedition, and only released following William's death.

But a leopard never changes its spots, and Odo was soon causing trouble again, leading a revolt against the new King - William Rufus. Again Kent suffered at Odo's hands, as the revolt was played out on Kentish soil. Odo and his supporters ravaged the royal possessions in the county, as well as those of Lanfranc, but Rufus soon crushed the rebellion, which ended with siege of Rochester Castle, and Odo was exiled from England for good.

Effective but unpopular

There was no other Earl of Kent after Odo: despite his tyrannical behaviour and the unrest he created, Odo had served his purpose, securing the county and defending the coast while the Norman kingdom was still vulnerable in its infancy. Odo's final split with William should not disguise the fact that he was almost indispensable to his half-brother's government.

And yet, in Kent, Odo's ruthlessness and arrogance won him only enemies. The legend of his final surrender at Rochester is perhaps the most fitting testimony to his unpopularity in Kent. As he left Rochester castle the jeers of his English subjects demanded the hangman's noose - Odo's harsh rule had left a bitter taste amongst the men of Kent.




SEE ALSO
Uncovering Norman history in Kent
21 Jul 10 |  History
Anglo-Norman language still used
21 Jul 10 |  History
A Norman Walk in New Romney Kent
02 Jul 10 |  History

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