Pevensey siege thwarted second Norman invasion

Last week I said I would write more of the enigmatic Bishop Odo, a staunch comrade-in-arms to his half-brother, William the Conqueror, at the Battle of Hastings fought in this very week 950 years ago in 1066.

Friday, 14th October 2016, 4:34 pm
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 12:08 am
Pevensey Castle SUS-161013-093307004

Senior clergymen in those days were commonly ruthless warriors, their appointment to the church being more a political statement concerning allegiance to an earthly leader rather than allegiance to God.

Odo was born around 1030AD. His mother was Herleva and his father was Herluin de Conteville. By coincidence some 30 years ago a friend and I bought a barn in the village of Conteville just a few miles from picturesque Honfleur on the Seine estuary in Normandy. Our idea was to convert it into a holiday home. For various reasons this ambition never came to fruition. But I do remember the local mayor proudly informing us that Conteville had historic ties with Duke William, the Norman nobleman destined to rule England.

It turned out that Duke William’s mother was the very same Herleva who, when younger, had been mistress to Robert, 1st Duke of Normandy. Thus William was born out of wedlock. Herleva later became the legitimate wife of Herluin hence making Odo and his younger sibling Robert, half-brothers to William.

Family relationships must have been good for Duke William made the young Odo Bishop of Bayeaux in 1049. Pre-invasion, Odo assembled a multitude of ships for William’s fleet. He is depicted on the famous Bayeaux Tapestry wielding a club at the Battle of Hastings. Indeed, Odo’s name appears several times; only William gets more of the limelight. This may well be because Odo, as Bishop and the tapestry’s likely “scriptwriter”, was supremely well placed to ensure his place in history.

Odo’s role in helping his half-brother become King of England was richly rewarded. He was made Earl of Kent and became trusted enough to serve as “caretaker” of England when William was absent fighting in Normandy. One troublemaker there was the other half-brother, Robert, who had become Duke of Mortain. Odo remained on good terms with Robert; a relationship I suspect required considerable tightrope diplomacy on the bishop’s part.

Odo chanced his arm many times in the course of acquiring more and more English land including estates in Sussex. His opportunism made him plenty of enemies. In 1076 Odo faced trial for defrauding the Diocese of Canterbury and as a result had to relinquish several properties and return large sums of money.

In 1082 Odo’s further machinations earned him five years in prison for planning a military incursion to Rome with the aim of installing himself as Pope. All his English lands were forfeit and he lost his earldom though remained Bishop of Bayeaux.

In 1087, an ailing King William was persuaded by Robert of Mortain to pardon his brother Odo. William then declared his youngest son, William Rufus, as his successor to the English throne. The eldest son, Robert, was made Duke of Normandy.

Trouble soon brewed. In 1088 Odo and Robert of Mortain rebelled against King William II and prepared to receive Duke Robert and an army of Normans who were to land at Pevensey, on the very same site where the great Conqueror had arrived in 1066. However Rufus proved a canny soldier and moved south with his army, intent on swiftly stifling the revolt. Odo and Robert of Mortain retreated behind Pevensey Castle’s high walls confident that the Duke of Normandy’s men would soon arrive. Meanwhile Rufus brought up siege engines including battlement-busting “trebuchet” catapults.

A combination of English attacks and bad weather scattered the Norman fleet and the surviving ships limped back to France. Odo lacked supplies to sustain a long siege and after six weeks the starving rebels surrendered. One notable casualty was William de Warenne. He had fought alongside Odo and Duke William at Hastings in 1066. Badly wounded fighting for Rufus at Pevensey, de Warenne was taken to Lewes where he died on 24th June 1088 in the very priory he had founded.

Odo’s punishment was banishment. Instead the slippery bishop escaped and sought refuge in Rochester Castle. An angry Rufus followed and again laid siege. Soon Odo was forced to yield. This time William Rufus declared he would hang every one of the rebels including Odo.

The clergyman was saved by the intervention of William’s own nobles who pleaded for clemency. I can only think that Odo’s saviours had self-preservation in mind; the frequent and murderous Medieval games of thrones could see tables turned at any time and those same “magnanimous” nobles no doubt might then expect an equal display of mercy should the boot be on the other foot.

Bishop Odo was exiled to Normandy. In 1096 he set out for Palestine on the First Crusade but en route succumbed to sickness and died in Sicily.

Bishop Odo was much more sinner than saint. How odd then that through his starring role on the Bayeaux Tapestry, this dubious cleric’s name will endure for centuries to come whilst the deeds of so many good men and women will be long forgotten.

Yes, indeed, history loves a villain!

This weekend is your last chance to visit the “Great 1066 Invasion” exhibition in Pevensey’s Court House Museum. It is open 11am – 4pm this Saturday and Sunday with adult admission just £2 and accompanied children free. One of the exhibits is an actual coin from the reign of William Rufus that would have been minted around the time of the 1088 siege.