The Church and the Conquest


Geoff Boxell

One of the reasons given by the Norman's for the invasion of England in 1066 was the state of the English Church. Indeed, it was a key selling point used in the recruiting of mercenaries by William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy. He claimed to have not only Pope Alexander II's blessing for the 'crusade', but a papal banner!

The grounds for these claims were manifold. There was the accusation of pluralism, that is the holding of more than one Church office in order to give an increased income to the incumbent. There was a claim of concubinage, that is priests either being married or having a hand fast wife. There was an accusation of simony, the selling of Church offices, and there was the fact that many of the clergy were 'worldly' men. All the accusations have an element of truth, however the English Church under the Normans was little different in these areas, and the Church in Normandy worse than that in pre-invasion England. It must be acknowledged that William of Normandy did not condone corruption in the Church be it in England or Normandy. In 1055 he had been a prime mover in removing his uncle, Archbishop Malger of Ruen from his post. Malger was accused of simony, unchastity (he had several bastards by a variety of women) and demonology (he had a familiar spirit called Thoret with whom he used to hold scandalous conversations at the dinner table). Whilst the pre-invasion English Church was no more or less sinful than the Norman one, it did have a unique problem; Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury.

King Edward the Confessor had appointed Stigand Archbishop of Canterbury. Stigand's predecessor as Archbishop, the Norman Robert of Jumieges, deserted his post when Earl Godwin and his sons returned to power in 1052. The Witan held that Robert had been a bad advisor to the King and had largely been responsible for the troubles between Edward and Earl Godwin that had led to the Earl's exile. The appointment of a new Archbishop whilst the previous one not only lived but still claimed the role, was highly irregular.

The canonical irregularity of Stigand's position was clearly recognised in England, both in terms of his appointment to Canterbury and his retention of his earlier position as Bishop of Winchester. He did not consecrate any bishops or kings, except during the brief reign of Pope Benedict X in 1058, when his role at Canterbury was recognised. He was not even invited to consecrate Earl Harold Godwinson's new Church at Waltham Holy Cross in Essex. He did however sit with the Papal Legates when they visited England in 1062 to supervise the pluralist Archbishop Ealdred of York's surrender of the Bishopric of Worcester, and they did not raise any objections. Another office holder, whose gaining of his position was in circumstances of a similar ilk, was Bishop Wulfwig of Dorchester. He replaced the Norman Ulf who fled with Robert of Jumieges in 1052. The lack of complaint against Wulfwig may be either the fact that Ulf had made such a habit of selling Church offices that Pope Leo IX had threatened to depose him, or the lesser role that Wulwig played in national life.

There were, however, some background factors that disfavoured the English Church in the eyes of Rome and the Papacy. In 1054 had occurred the schism between the Greek and Latin churches, with the Pope in Rome excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the latter returning the compliment. Although the English Church gave, and continued to give its loyalty to Rome, it did have many connections with the Greek Church, which it was unwilling to give up. Indeed the whole Church prior to the schism was in communion with all its branches in all the lands where there were Christians. The concept of there being only one way to worship, or one way of interpreting scripture, dictated by a central and autocratic authority, was unknown.

Another factor that needs to be born in mind was the presence of Normans in Italy. In fact in 1053 they had kidnapped the then current pope, Leo IX. The later pope, Alexander II relied on the Normans in Italy for military support in his struggles with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. In exchange he recognised them as the rulers of the lands they had seized in southern Italy and Sicily. At the same time the Church in Rome was influenced by the reforms started at Cluny. These reforms aimed to reform and cleanse the clergy and the papacy. They also emphasised the need for the Church to be independent of the power of the state and the Pope to be arbiter of all Church decisions. The English kings refused to relinquish the power to appoint who they saw fit to positions of authority within the English Church, albeit with the later blessing of the Pope. William of Normandy may have promised to do otherwise when making representations to the Papal Court in support of his attempt to usurp the English throne. Subsequent to his becoming King of England, William carried on as the Kings of the English had done before him and appointed whom he liked!

A question has been raised in recent times as to whether William did in actual fact gain a papal blessing for his invasion of England and his usurpation of its throne. The contemporary Norman chronicler, William of Jumieges, makes no mentioned of it, though the later Norman chronicler, William of Poitiers does. The assumption here being that William of Poitiers' comments reflect a retrospective sanction of a fait accompli represented by William's conquest. The penance imposed in 1070 on those who took part in the invasion and Conquest suggests that it was not seen by the Papacy as a 'just war'. This would explain why King Harold had not made any diplomatic response to William's claim at the Papal Court, as there had in fact been no representation there regarding William's claim to the throne of England. There is, however, correspondence between William and Hildebrand, the later Pope Gregory VII, which indicates some sort of support at the Court for William in this matter, though in itself it is insufficient to indicate a formal papal ruling on William's claim to the throne.

After being crowned king, William made few changes to the English Church; he even left Stigand as Archbishop of Canterbury. More than that, William allowed Stigand to consecrate Remigius as Bishop of Dorchester in 1067, something neither King Edward or King Harold would have allowed him to do. As time went by William replaced the existing English churchmen with men of his own choosing, though he initially only replaced those who took up arms against him. As the Archbishops, Bishops and Abbots died the English Church slowly became Normanised. Stigand was eventually replaced in 1070 when William felt politically strong enough to do so. William invited a Papal Legation to formally crown him in the Pope's name. Whilst there the legates were asked to examine the English Church. Of the two archbishoprics, Canterbury was held by the uncanonical Stigand and that of York was vacant following the death of Aldred earlier in the year. Of the fifteen bishoprics at the time, only eight were regarded as being free from reproach. Of these eight, five were foreigners appointed by William. As a result of the investigation Archbishop Stigand, his brother Æþelmer, Bishop of East Anglia, and Leofric, Bishop of Lichfield, all Englishmen, were deposed. Later that year another Church Council was held and many English abbots and the English Bishop of Selsey, Æþelric, were removed on grounds that even the Pope himself did not approve. Amongst the new Norman appointments was that of Herfast as the Bishop of East Anglia. Herfast was totally illiterate and had been much mocked within the Norman Church prior to the Conquest!

None of the newly appointed replacements were English. Most were Norman or French, although the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, was an Italian. Lanfranc, who had earlier resisted William's attempt to have him appointed Archbishop of Rouen, only accepted the position after a sharp admonition from Pope Alexander II. Despite a row with the new Archbishop of York over seniority that was not resolved until a Church Council in 1072, Lanfranc soon set about reforming the English Church.

While Lanfranc upset the English by reforming the church calendar and removing all but two of the English Saints, he shewed more discretion with regards to the married clergy. The new pope, Gregory VII, who as Hildebrand had been a strong advocate of William in his claim for the English throne, had issued a series of decrees ordering summary changes in church customs, notably those of the English Church. These included a celibate priesthood. Rather than lose a large part of the clergy, Lanfranc allowed those who were already married to remain so, though banning any unmarried clergy from later marrying. Another reform was the establishment of separate ecclesiastical courts. In the past both lay and church matters had been decided at the Hundred and Shire Moots.

Whilst the higher hierarchy became Normanised, the lower clergy mainly remained English. This lead to several incidents as the new church leaders clashed with their English subordinates. The most infamous incident involved Lanfranc's appointee to Glastonbury, Abbot Tousain. This 'tyrannical abbot', as the chronicler Orderic Vitalis called him, ordered the English monks to stop using the Gregorian chants that had been introduced by Saint Augustine when he evangelised the southern English, and use new ones approved by Rome. The monks refused, so Tousain sent in archers who shot at the monks killing three and wounding another eighteen. King William sent Tousain back to Normandy as a result, though the man later bought his abbacy back from William II for 500 pounds of silver.

The English Church was plundered of its treasures and the spoils were sent to Normandy, France and Rome. The great art works were dispersed, the gold and silver melted down and the books for which the English religious houses were famed sent abroad.

With the passage of time clerics looked to the saintly Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester as the one surviving native prelate who could advise and counsel the new Norman appointees as the heirs to their English predecessors, on how to conduct themselves. This prompted his foundation of a co-fraternity association, which drew together the surviving heads of English religious houses with their French counterparts. As time went by it was the Church that helped bring healing to a ravaged England.

A Norman knight called Reinfrid started the northern revival. Like many other Normans, he had became a monk to assuage his conscience for what he had done during the Conquest, in Renfrid's case the Harrowing of the North. He made his monastic profession to Æþelwig at the English monastic house of Evesham where many of the refugees from the harrowing had fled. With an English monk called Ealdwine, and Elwy the Deacon from Winchcombe, he set out for the north and refounded Whitby in Yorkshire, whilst his later companions re-established the houses at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. From there they were able to help the people of the north recover from the trauma and devastation that the Norman Conquest had brought.