First chief justice of England was no officer of the law. He was, though, a great soldier and a master political intriguer.

Younger step-brother to William the Conqueror, Odo was thought to have been born in Normandy, France in about 1037 or 1038.

He chose the priesthood at an early age but was evidently, much inclined towards military endeavours.

He learned both his Roman law and canon law as all young French priests were want to do in that era.

In 1049, his step-brother had started his consolidation of power over Normandy. Along the way, he made the wise move of granting to his teenage half-brother, Odo, the bishopric of Bayeux. Indeed, even today, Odo is best known as Odo of Bayeux, or Odo, Bishop of Bayeux.

Bayeux tapestryPriest though he may be, he was also a formidable soldier and possessed a keen military mind, which helped his brother complete the conquest of Normandy. When  the English king Edward the Confessor died in January of 1066, without a clear heir, William turned his interests to across the English Channel.

Odo preached the virtues of the invasion from his pulpit at Bayeux and raised a private army to form part of the invading force.

When the fleet landed at Pevensey in the South of England, Odo was one of the first to jump ashore.

But there were no English soldiers to war with; they had retreated to make a stand elsewhere. At the Battle of Hastings, on October 14, 1066, the English King, Harold, was killed and William was The Conqueror.

Odo was omnipresent throughout the battle, wearing an arrow-proof vest under his bishop's gown. In the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the victory, Odo is shown without a sword and holding only a staff, with the inscription in Latin: Hic Odo Epis. baculum tenens confortat ("Bishop Odo, bearing a staff, encourages the soldiers" - see adjacent image).

In another part of the Tapestry, Odo is shown sitting to William's right (see below).

William decided to implement a strong central authority, anathema to the English. This required a central judicial authority. As he had in Normandy, he sought to appoint a chief justice for the new land, a justiciar or grand justiciar. This also gave a convenient appearance of legality to William's organization of a new government to a conquered people.

The chief justice was an invaluable administrative tool in closing the wagons around a tight, new and very lucrative feudal land system William imposed on the English, all organized under regional landlords or, simply, Lords, and a higher caste of barons and earls. Thus began the office sometimes referred to as Curia Regis, sometimes referred to as Aula Regis: the Royal Court.

In these medieval times, there was not always a discernible separation between church and state or church and judiciary.

Few had legal training and the trust of William but his half-brother, the bishop Odo, who was named as first chief justice of the new realm.

 Odo was also made a powerful land baron, granted the lucrative earldom of Kent, and he held the alternate title of the Earl of Kent.

Odo's responsibilities were not just as a final appellate court. The chief justice was also first officer in charge of finances and public order. He also stood as William's agent when, as he often did, William left England to return to Normandy. The English historian Henry of Huntingdon, writing in the first century after the conquest, referred to Odo as:

Odo Episcopus Baiocensis, Justiciarus et Princeps totius Angliae.

Translation: Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, Justiciar and Chief of all England.Odo of Bayeux

But even Odo could not prevent a rebellion against the conqueror on the very first occasion of William's absence, in 1067. William had to return and put down the resistance.

In Lord Campbell's ornate series of books on the chief justice of England, he reports locating but a single law report of a case heard and disposed of by Justice Odo. It involved Gundulph, the English Bishop of Rochester. After the conquest, part of the bishopric was seized in the name of the Conqueror and Gundulph sued to have it returned to him, claiming that it belonged to St. Andrew. Odo summoned a jury of land-holders, called a freemote, and they found in favour of the Crown.

There was another reported case at the time, involving Odo but not as judge, as defendant. This time, Odo was accused of taking Church land. The trial was presided over by Geoffrey of Counstance. The Court upheld the charge against the Chief Justice.

The legacy of Odo was rich by any standard but not for this chief justice.

As he suppressed rebellions, he kept much of the land of the rebels.

Soon, his land holdings were immense and he held a personal fortune. As any good, medieval and rich bishop might be inclined to do, he began to aspire to the papacy. Houses and lands were bought up in Italy and Rome and he put together a fleet and was poised to sail to Rome to claim the Holy See when a small detail caught up to him. He had forgotten to run this by William who heard of it in the nick of time and rushed to the port of departure. The King ordered his soldiers to arrest Odo but they cowered as the chief justice was decked in ecclesiastic robes. William himself stepped forward and arrested Odo uttering the famous words:

"God forbid that I should touch the Bishop of Bayeux, but I make the Earl of Kent my prisoner."

Odo was sent back to France where he was imprisoned at the Castle of Rouen for five years, until William died in September of 1087.

Instantly, Odo threw himself into the intrigue of Royal succession and he backed the claim of Rufus. In 1087, Odo was returned to his former positions including Chief Justiciar but he was bitten by the bug of political conspiracy. Soon, he was in league with Geoffrey of Counstance and others in a proposed coup d'etat in favour of pretender to the throne Robert of Normandy. But Rufus recognized Odo as the ringleader and attacked him immediately. Odo's troops were overwhelmed and Odo ran into the castle of Paverny. After seven weeks, Odo surrendered and was once again, banished from England.

He retreated to Bayeux under the protection of Robert. In 1095, he was present at the famous Council of Clermont at which Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade.

Odo began the pilgrimage to the Holy Land where Robert eventually died during the siege of Antioch. Odo had decided to stop over at Palermo to visit his old friend, Roger, the Count of Sicily. There, he died in 1096 or 1097.

REFERENCES:

  • Campbell, J., The Lives of The Chief Justice of England (New York: Edward Thompson Co., 1894), pages 1-16
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Law's Hall of Fame
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Law's Hall of Shame
  • Foss, E., The Judges of England (London: LOngman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848), pages 68-72
  • Tyerman, C., Who's Who in Early Medieval England, 1066-1272 (Lancaster: Stackpole Books, 2001).