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The conquered English Church

14 October 2016

On the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, Peter Street looks at the religious significance of the Norman Conquest


Controversy: the section of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing the excommunicated Archbishop Stigand at Harold’s coronation

Controversy: the section of the Bayeux Tapestry, showing the excommunicated Archbishop Stigand at Harold’s coronation

LTHOUGH best-known for its title, the book 1066 And All That, first published in 1930, remains one of the most celebrated parodies of English history. The authors, W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, chose to include in their title the most famous date in the nation’s history. It was, they claimed, one of only two “genuine dates” in the work. The other was Julius Caesar’s first invasion of England in 55 BC. Norman writers often linked these invasions, too.

Sellar and Yeatman describe the Norman Conquest as “a Good Thing” because “England stopped being conquered and thus was able to become Top Nation.” Indeed, much has been made of the 1066 battle as the last successful invasion of this country, and of the political, economic, and social consequences of Duke William’s victory and ensuing reign. The religious dimens­ion to the invasion, and the subsequent impact on the Christian Church in England, may be less well understood, but were no less significant.


DUKE WILLIAM II of Normandy, a distant cousin of the childless King Edward the Confessor, understood that Edward had promised him the English throne on his death. Fur­ther­more, Harold, Earl of Wessex, had, in William’s presence, sworn to uphold such a succession. But, when Edward died in January 1066, Harold claimed the throne, arguing that the late King had changed his mind, and that the oath that he had made before William was invalid, as it had been sworn under duress.

Harold was almost immediately crowned king by the Archbishop of York in the Confessor’s newly consecrated Westminster Abbey — the first such ceremony to be held there. Norman sources, however (including the Bayeaux Tapestry), claimed that Harold’s coronation was invalid because it had been conducted by Stigand, the excommunicated Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been appointed by the Antipope Benedict X.

William was determined to win what he had been promised: he sought and secured Pope Alexander II’s blessing to become king, arguing that it would re-establish a right relationship between England and the papacy. Pope Alexander provided a consecrated banner, relics, and the prayers of the Church. In his view, William’s mission constituted a Holy War.


WILLIAM landed at Pevensey Bay on 28 September, and prepared accordingly. His army attended mass on the eve of battle, and all sought God’s forgiveness for the killing that was to come. Finally, an early-12th-century source says, William vowed that, should God grant him victory, he would found a new monastery on the battle
site. During the battle, William flew the papal banner, and wore the relics from Alexander around his neck.

In an equally matched encounter that involved about 14,000 soldiers, more than 2500 Normans and 3500 English were killed. Battle Abbey was established where the conflict had been fought, six miles from Hastings, thereby naming the area. The building of the abbey may have been honouring William’s promise, but it was more probably the result of a visit from papal legates in 1070, who ordered an act of atonement for the injury and death resulting from the fighting. The high altar occupied the spot where Harold had been slain.

For William, Battle Abbey was of strategic value, too. The Benedictine community and the probable rise of a surrounding lay settlement would now defend an area that had recently provided a successful invasion route. William took a close interest in the construction and layout of the abbey, overruling those who wished to modify his plans because of the difficulties that the site presented. The community thrived, and by the time of the Dissolution had become the 15th wealthiest monastery.

William also showed his gratitude to God for the victory by giving English land to monasteries in Normandy, and by establishing new monasteries in England — some 34 by 1087, more than half of them as daughters of Continental houses. Similarly, the penitential ordinance of Easter 1067, listing the penances owed by Normans who had injured or killed opponents in battle, led many to establish, rebuild, or endow their parish churches.


WILLIAM was crowned at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day 1066. Both the timing and the nature of his coronation service have religious significance. By making himself king, William had set himself apart from others in the Duchy, and allies elsewhere in Continental Europe. He was, in effect, claiming equal status with the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. William’s choice of a Christmas Day corona­tion was deliberate, as those who occupied the Imperial and Byzantine thrones had also had Christ­mas Day coronations.

Changes to the English corona­tion service reinforced the point. From an English perspective, it was important that the service showed him to be “elected” by both the Anglo-Saxons and the occupying Normans; acclamation was invited first in French by the Bishop of Coutances, then in English by the Archbishop of York. The latter anointed William, who then took the oath. Such ordering was new, designed to enhance the sanctity of his anointing and, in effect, bestow on William the status of priest-king.

As evidence of his special powers, William may have subsequently inaugurated, or at least practised, in England, “the touching of the King’s Evil”. This involved a laying-on of hands to heal scrofula: a swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck caused by tuberculosis.


OVER the course of his reign (1066-87), William had a significant influence over the way the Church in England was organised. Some of the changes reflected concurrent reforms in the papacy, although William always remained in control, which was evid­­ent in his many cathedral reloca­tions and religious appoint­ments.

William’s supporters replaced all but two of the great abbots and most English bishops (in 1087, Wulfstan of Worcester was the last still in post). In the wake of a visit to Rome by William’s close ally Abbot Lanfranc, Stigand was deposed by papal legates, and Lanfranc was appointed Archbishop of Canter­bury in his stead, in 1070.

He and William continued to enjoy a good relationship with Pope Alexander II, but less so with his successor, Pope Gregory VII. William had benefited from the support of Alexander, but he was not prepared to lose his powers over the English Church once his position was secure.

Lanfranc championed the primacy of his province of Canter­bury over York, styling himself Primate of All Britain and holding councils that represented the whole of the English Church. Between 1070 and 1076, five such councils were held to initiate reform. Outcomes in­­cluded moves against clerical marriage.

Although the number and size of dioceses remained unchanged until the early 12th century, several cathe­drals were moved to larger centres, notably Dorchester (Oxford­shire) to Lincoln; Selsey (Sussex) to Chi­chester; and Sherborne (Dorset) to Salisbury. Elmham (Norfolk) was transferred initially to Thetford and, eventually, to Norwich.

Dioceses were gradually divided into territorial archdeaconries, which became, in effect, units of government control. The position of archdeacon developed under Lanfranc, and resulted in greater supervision of parish priests. Mon­astic life, too, flourished in the later 11th century; it has been argued that the new Continental abbots were more forceful than indigenous holders.


THE Conquest also affected religious culture in England. Some of the new European appointees were often unhappy with the size and style of their ecclesiastical buildings. As a result, 16 English cathedrals were built between 1070 and 1130, and abbey churches were often altered or demolished; the replacements were deliber­ately designed to impress, perhaps even overawe. Winchester provides some insight into the interior of a late-11th-century cathedral; at the time of its comple­tion in 1093, it was the largest cathedral in Europe.

Lanfranc also introduced new ecclesiastical law to replace what had prevailed in the Saxon Church; this included the development of independent church courts. Previously, ordinary courts had, in addition to secular matters, considered ecclesiastical and moral cases, but these became the sole responsibility of the new church courts.

There was also, initially, a rejec­tion of certain Saxon saints. The Norman Abbot of St Albans even demolished shrines and burnt relics. When, in 1083, the monks of Glaston­bury resisted a change from their traditional Gregorian chant to the kind of chant used at Fécamp, soldiers shot arrows from the choir loft and killed many of the protesting monks.


WILLIAM’s victory at Hastings came to be seen as the ultimate trial by combat: God’s just verdict on Harold’s perjury. William saw himself as “King of the English by the grant of God”, and such an outlook influenced the subse­quent changes to the Church in England and its relationship with Europe. It would fall to another king, Henry VIII, to attempt the reverse: to conquer France and extricate the Church from Europe.

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