Odo of Bayeux and the Warrior’s Soul

Five images survive of Bishop Odo of Bayeux (c. 1030-1097), three occurring on the Bayeux Tapestry, two on his episcopal seal.  To be precise, the seal itself has gone missing, but a nineteenth-century drawing of it survives.  The first image on the Tapestry shows him giving the blessing at a chicken dinner; the second has him seated at the right hand of the Duke of Normandy; the third depicts him at the Battle of Hastings.  On the seal, the obverse shows him on horseback with a sword in his right hand, while the reverse shows him wearing vestments and holding a crozier in his left hand.

The third image on the Tapestry is the most eye-catching, a representation that today seems incongruous:  A bishop in chain mail and helmet, riding a horse into battle; his right hand wields a wooden club.  The Latin caption above him reads, Hic Odo ep[iscopu]s baculu[m] tenens confortat pueros, “Here Bishop Odo, holding a club, rallies the boys.”

While once or twice in Church history a bishop may have been reputed to seem bellicose, it is hard to recall many wearing armor, brandishing a club, and roaring onto the field of battle.  While one must see Odo in the context of his times, he is best understood as an example of military chaplaincy.  Civilians can exhibit inhumanity, wrote Joseph Conrad, but “There is nothing incompatible between humanity and a warrior’s soul.”

Two contemporary chroniclers, William of Poitiers and Orderic Vitalis, recorded Odo’s checkered career.  Odo was the son of Herluin de Conteville and Herleva de Falaise; through his mother Odo was half-brother to William, Duke of Normandy and future conqueror and king of England.  In 1049, William, two years into his reign as duke, appointed Odo Bishop of Bayeux.  After the Conquest in October, 1066, William made Odo the Earl of Kent, a rank he held for twenty-one years.

As a temporal ruler, Odo’s single-minded governance of his vast estates led to legal controversy and unpopularity.  Worse, in 1082 William arrested and tried Odo for sedition:  With the mutual depositions declared upon each other by Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV, Odo sought to resolve the scandalous chaos by recruiting William’s knights and claiming the papacy for himself.  As Marc Morris summed it up in The Norman Conquest (2012), “A man of God, a man of the world, Odo was also clearly a man of war.”

In the eleventh century it was common for dukes and kings to appoint bishops.  Popes before and after the Benedictine Gregory VII worked to reform that procedure, insisting that only the Pope could name bishops.  Odo came from a political family, and he shared the cultural ideals of fighting men such as his half-brother.  Yet he also shared their Catholic faith, and he bridged two domains, the court and the Church.  At Hastings, certainly, he filled a role we would recognize as military chaplain.

In his contribution to The Sword of the Lord (2004), a collection of twelve essays about military chaplains through the centuries, Michael McCormick wrote, “As combat loomed, early medieval chaplains sought to maintain the morale of their fighters and seized the moment to accomplish their broader mission of pastoral care.”  Odo’s role boosting morale during the battle received commemoration on the Bayeux Tapestry, but his wider pastoral role requires imaginative reconstruction.  “Before battle,” McCormick wrote, “the chaplains and their flock staged spectacular and participatory liturgical services, including special votive Masses.”  Odo the club-wielding bishop on horseback was also Odo the pastor, offering Mass for his men before they went to risk their lives.

In an insight born of practical experience, Terry Schappert, in his television series Warriors (2009), noted that on the night before the Battle of Agincourt (1415), about the only sound to be heard in the English and French camps was from men confessing their sins to priests.  A master sergeant in the United States Army, Schappert served in the Gulf War and the Iraq War.

Mention of current wars against Muslim forces in the Middle East brings us back to Odo’s time.  In 1095, at a council at Clermont, Pope Urban II, formerly prior of the Benedictine abbey of Cluny, unveiled in a homily a new idea that combined several old ideas.  In order to defend Christians in the Holy Land and to liberate Jerusalem from Muslim occupation, Pope Urban proposed a penitential pilgrimage for knights, whereby if they fulfilled their vows as armed penitent pilgrims to Jerusalem, they would receive a plenary indulgence, complete forgiveness of all their sins and the temporal punishment resulting from those sins.

This proposal has become known as the First Crusade.  Among the first to take the vow for this new form of penance was Odo of Bayeux; more than most of us, he knew he had much publicly to repent.  With other Norman nobles dedicated to this new cause, he set out for Jerusalem, but early in 1097, after a brief illness, he died at Palermo, Sicily.  Since he died before he could fulfill his vow, under the terms of Pope Urban’s plan, Odo received a plenary indulgence.

For dreamers of co-existence, it is a stretch to see Odo the Club-wielder being in Heaven.  As Pope Urban understood, however, Heaven is not only for people who enjoy the peace and comfort secured by others standing ready to fight.  From Saint Cornelius the Centurion to the Swiss Guard, the Church has had room for Christians in uniform, not least when the enemy’s flag is blazoned with a prophet’s sword.

Modern perspective comes from another American warrior, Chris Kyle (1974-2013).  In his memoir, American Sniper (2012), he recounted an attack in Ramadi that took a heavy toll on his unit.  Afterwards, he and his brothers in arms became subdued and introspective.  “I spent a lot of time praying to God,” Kyle remembered, adding, “I find some comfort in faith, and I found it in those days after my friends had been shot up.”  Along with prayer, he spent time reading the Bible.  “With all hell breaking loose around me,” he said, “it felt better to know I was part of something bigger.”

Being part of something bigger, being deployed in a just cause, defending one’s fellow Christians and countrymen:  Therein lies the key to Odo of Bayeux and men like him throughout the ages.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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