The English Church After 1066: Did the Conquest & Subsequent Arrival of Archbishop Lanfranc Mark a New Beginning?

THERE is little doubt that, prior to his death on October 14th, 1066, the Church fully supported the aspirations of Harold Godwinson. Indeed, the very fact that Harold had been legitimately chosen to succeed the ailing King Edward and ascend to the English throne meant that he was able to command immediate respect from an institution loyal to the concept of divine patronage. Harold was already well-known amongst the hierarchy of the eleventh-century Church and, as Frank Barlow rightly contends, when the threat of Anglo-Norman conflict began to loom upon the horizon it “helped him to get effective control of the kingdom, made no contact with the invaders, and sent its contingents to the royal army.”[1] Indeed, at the time of the Norman invasion “all the English monasteries, with the partial exception of Westminster, were wholly national in sympathies.”[2] The Anglo-Saxon Church, however, was notoriously submissive to the demands of the continually-evolving state and changed its allegiance almost as frequently as England changed her rulers. Due to the fact that a victorious Duke William professed to uphold the spiritual tenets of the very same religion, he was shown an invariable degree of loyalty and respect. On the other hand, although Christianity’s internationalist world-view enabled it to weather the tumultuous storms of inter-state rivalry, the Normans were not greeted with the same enthusiasm by the ordinary rank and file. The fact that William openly plundered some of England’s finest monastic institutions in order to finance his own victory parade through the streets and towns of Normandy, however, did not endear the King to his new subjects. Paradoxically, William was eager to secure the co-operation of the Church in order to facilitate his systematic repression of those who, quite understandably, were still opposed to the sudden imposition of a foreign regime.

William’s first task was to deal with Archbishop Stigand, a figure who – at least prior to the Conquest – had been fiercely loyal to Edward the Confessor and implacably hostile to the aims and objectives of the incoming Norman usurpers. Stigand, however, was committing a flagrant breach of canonical tradition by simultaneously stamping his authority over the sees of Winchester and Canterbury. Ever the tactician, and fully aware of the great influence the Archbishop was able to exert, William I

“deliberately left the initiative in his removal to the Roman curia, and for a time allowed him uncontested enjoyment of his rank, his place in council, and the large property which he had accumulated.” [3]

By sending a legatine commission to remove Stigand from office, therefore, the Pope would inevitably deal with the King’s stubborn ecclesiastical opponent on his behalf. Consequently, when Stigand was forced to come to terms with his own indefensible behaviour he accused his monarchical counterpart of bad faith due to the fact that his temporary reprieve in the wake of the invasion had revealed William’s attitude towards him to have been “purely opportunist.”[4] William, however, had already undermined the power of his adversary by allowing Archbishop Ealdred of York to officiate at his coronation. But when Ealdred passed away on September 11th, 1069, it soon became apparent that Stigand was at the helm of the only metropolitan see left in the country and that Pope Alexander II was naturally eager to have him replaced. Once Stigand had actually been deposed, the King was able to concentrate upon two other vital issues affecting the relationship between Church and State. Firstly, William brought an end to the judicial ambiguity of Anglo-Saxon England by preventing bishops from having any say in the administrative procedure of the secular court and, secondly, reduced the power of autonomous bishoprics by making them directly answerable to a council which recognised that the ruling Archbishop was primate of the English Church as a whole. Thus far, we have seen how William I gradually restricted the activities of the English Church by waiting patiently until the Pope had removed his main enemy. But whilst the Church had undoubtedly embarked upon a new beginning during the first four years of William’s reign, far greater changes still lay ahead. Changes, of course, which were to have an effect on those at the grass roots.

When Lanfranc – an Italian – was elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, it is said that he bemoaned “his own incapacity, and his ignorance of the language and people.”[5] Such a statement, however, is illustrative of his own humility rather than of any real inability to cope with his new role as head of the English Church. During his priorate at Bec, Lanfranc had demonstrated just how capable he really was and had become greatly renowned for his holy virtues and theological commentaries. In addition, whilst he had been Abbot of St. Etienne in Caen his ability to support ducal power in the region had impressed the Conqueror so much so that, consequently, he became the natural choice for an archbishopric which was so obviously vital to Norman interests. Prior to Lanfranc’s election, the Christ Church community at Canterbury had been far from being a bastion of Christian piety and “he found not only a ruined church, but a patrimony reduced by the carelessness of his predecessors.”[6] In the coming months – and despite the fact that the “monks of Christ Church, though coming together at the King’s order, received him happily and festively”[7] – Lanfranc was forced to write a letter to Pope Alexander II in order to elaborate upon what he perceived to be

“unrest among different people, such distress and injuries, such hardness of heart, greed and dishonesty, such a decline in holy church, that I am weary of my life and grieve exceedingly to have lived into times like these.” [8]

So Lanfranc’s reign was not only poised to precipitate a new beginning for the English Church, it also marked a new beginning for the Archbishop himself! But even without the spiritual crisis which racked the very cradle of English Christianity, the fact that Canterbury’s monastic community had become deeply imbued with the Anglo-Saxon ideals of SS. Elphege and Dunstan made Lanfranc’s attempts at reform far more difficult than expected. His initial decision to suspend the cults surrounding these two influential and saintly figures was eventually overturned in 1080[9]. Indeed, if Canterbury was to assert her primacy over York – which was an extremely contentious issue in the eleventh century – Lanfranc had to rely upon what became known as the forged privileges. By doing so, he not only strengthened the power of his Canterbury archbishopric but also raised the profile of its resident community. In fact the forged privileges were highly significant in that they expressed the community’s confidence in its Anglo-Saxon past and, as Margaret Gibson points out, “Lanfranc could scarcely ignore the privileges, whatever he thought of their authenticity.”[10] Z. N. Brooke has suggested that, in order to have produced the documents in such a short space of time, Lanfranc must have had the support of his English counterparts because it would have been impossible to avoid “the curiosity of the monks”[11] and the Christ Church community as a whole had always proved itself to be “as zealous for the privileges of Canterbury as their archbishop was; in the same way that the canons of York showed an even greater zeal than their archbishop on the other side”[12].

It appears, therefore, that Lanfranc’s desire to assert the primacy of Canterbury may have had a dual purpose. Firstly, to provide the Kentish see with a degree of unquestioning power and, secondly, to enable Lanfranc to win the support of his closest subordinates by raising their ecclesiastical status and appealing to their parochial desires. The primacy, then, was both a new beginning and a prelude to a series of more sweeping reforms. Once Lanfranc had settled the question of the primacy, he began the great Norman restoration of the English Church. One of the most important features of this cultural renovation was the revival of conciliar action. The organisation of the Church had fallen into decline and as the English bishops had become more isolated, “[l]axity of discipline, secularisation of spiritual life and decay of learning became prevalent.”[13] As a result, Lanfranc began a determined process of centralisation and set about resurrecting a series of ecclesiastical councils in order to advance the community’s supremacy even further. In addition, monasteries were dilapidated and their lands had been put to various other uses whilst the communities themselves had become widely dispersed. At Christ Church, the monks had abandoned the regular discipline and “hunted, hawked, rode on horseback, and played with dice. They indulged in fine cloaks and delicate food, and were waited upon”[14]. The sad decline of monastic discipline in England had such an effect upon Archbishop Lanfranc that, between 1075 and 1077, he began to recruit abbots from the European mainland. Elsewhere, Norman monasticism was flourishing and, despite his own Italian ancestry, Lanfranc “wished the English houses to reflect all that was best across the Channel.”[15] His Monastic Constitutions were poised to become the spearhead of such a revival and lay at the forefront of Lanfranc’s attempts to remedy the worst aspects of English monastic life.

The art of copying and painting manuscripts severely reduced physical labour. Servants were now in control of those duties formerly undertaken by child novices and meditation – once purged of its spiritual essence – now became merged with intellectual activities, as monasteries slowly began to reflect the developing core of their thriving communities. According to David Knowles, another major shift in emphasis revolved around the fact that the monk – at one time devoted to his own spiritual advancement – now devoted his life “to the liturgical service of God and to intercession for the world; he is one of the class of those who pray for society while others fight for it or till the soil for its support.”[16] Indeed, whilst those brothers adhering to the Rule of St. Benedict had come to terms with a fair degree of asceticism, Lanfranc’s Constitutions went even further in that they demanded “a life of prayer and penance that shall earn for him after death a special reward.”[17]

However, despite Lanfranc’s organisational expertise it seems fairly certain that his reforms did not always meet with the approval of those who found themselves on the receiving end of such measures. We are informed by Eadmer, for instance, that at Christ Church the Archbishop was often forced to implement his reforms “simply by the imposition of his own authority.”[18] In order to maintain discipline within the community, excessive familiarity between monks was heavily discouraged and one had to give one’s total allegiance to the community as a whole. During the rebuilding of the cathedral, Lanfranc’s insistence upon such regulations was validated in the most colourful terms as one monk descended into madness and began to blaspheme and finally accuse one of his companions of sharing his depraved affliction. Put simply, Lanfranc “could not present monasticism primarily in terms of inquiry or vocation: basic good order had to be established first.”[19] Another divisive matter which affected the Christ Church community during Lanfranc’s term of office, was the fierce rivalry which took place between its Anglo-Saxon and Norman inhabitants.

Initially, Lanfranc had been able “to make little impression on a large and unruly body of Englishmen who formed the greater part of the community under his rule”[20], although, once again, by establishing the concept of good order as a foundation upon which to build such rivalries were soon forgotten due to the intensity of Lanfranc’s monastic programme and the fact that “[a]s the community grew, the monks of continental origin were increasingly outnumbered [and] they transferred their loyalty to Christ Church or were promoted elsewhere”[21]. By the end of Lanfranc’s archiepiscopate the monks had relinquished their opposition to cultural imperialism and were beginning to rediscover past glories. As a result, Anglo-Norman relations became fairly harmonious and, paradoxically, there was far more friction between Christ Church and the neighbouring monastic community of St. Augustine’s Abbey. Although the Abbey had a far older community, there is little doubt that “the greater prestige was enjoyed by Christ Church”[22]. Indeed, the Conquest had caused such confusion in the ranks of the English Church that the Norman reformers were able to take full advantage of the jealous rivalry which proliferated within it.Another mark of the Norman reforms was the extensive building work which was carried out in Canterbury Cathedral. Whilst Lanfranc’s constitutional changes sought to improve the spirituality of the individual, the redevelopment of the community’s immediate surroundings must have helped to divert “the minds of the English monks from past regrets and to reconcile them to the disciplinary and liturgical innovations which the new buildings must have seemed to justify and even to demand.”[23] The monks of Christ Church may also have been inspired by the fact that Lanfranc was acting not only in the interests of the English Church as a whole, but also for the advancement of her primary community. During the implementation of such reforms, Canterbury must have been a very exciting place in which to find oneself and despite the resistance of men such as Bishop Wakelin and others, anything Lanfranc did must have been regarded as being in the best interests of the community at large. The Archbishop’s great humility meant that he never lost sight of his monastic roots, and he refused to accept that “a collection of monks”[24] was unable to function without a staff of clergy well versed in secular business. When Lanfranc finally obtained a long-awaited Papal ruling from Alexander II on the actual position of Christ Church – in which the Pope made reference to a “nefarious plot, they are attempting to secure the extirpation of the order of monks in every Episcopal see, as though the authority of religion were not valid in the case of the monks.”[25] – his popularity began to increase accordingly amongst his most loyal monastic supporters. The radical methods employed by England’s Norman overlords were gradually being accepted.

It has been said of Lanfranc that the Christ Church community was a living memorial to his own charity and devotion[26]. It has also been noted that “by self-discipline he had made mellow what was harsh.”[27] But Lanfranc’s popularity – and, in a wider sense, that of the Norman reforms as a whole – is probably best measured by examining the attitude of those around him at the time of his death in May 1089. Although he had few personal friends, among them Pope Alexander II, as a result of the prevailing belief of his age that “[m]en worshipped in confraternities [and] fought in crusades”[28], during his lifetime Lanfranc had managed to gain the respect – if not always the co-operation – of his contemporaries. In light of the enduring attitudes of his day, this can be seen as a complimentary appreciation of a man who fiercely defended the principles of monastic life. Lanfranc’s example was one which never sought to

“win men by complying half-heartedly with their policy, if it failed to measure up to his standards of what was wise and what was expedient.” [29]

In the long term, this committed attitude undoubtedly endeared him to his monks. So by concentrating mainly upon the combined effects of William’s invasion and Lanfranc’s monastic reforms at a distinctly local level, it has been possible to ascertain whether such factors really did mark a new beginning for the English Church. The obvious answer, of course, is that whilst the noble tenth-century achievements of SS. Dunstan, Oswald and Ethelwold had already transformed the Church into a formidable infrastructure ripe for Norman exploitation just one century later, the fact that it went into severe decline meant that the crucial timing of Lanfranc’s ecclesiastical renaissance was perfect. The talented Italian archbishop became, inevitably, the catalyst which revived the glories of a former age by injecting a little Continental spirit into what had since become a sleeping giant. In short, the Norman influence which began to permeate Anglo-Saxon society from 1066 onwards was simply the latest phase of a process considered by those who place their faith in divine providence to be God’s intervention on behalf of a nation which had already been committed to the care of St. Augustine five centuries earlier.


1. Frank Barlow; The English Church: 1066-1154 (Longman, 1979), p. 54.

2. David Knowles; The Monastic Order in England: 940-1216 (Cambridge University Press, 1963), p. 103.

3. Sir Frank Stenton; Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 264.

4. Ibid.

5. A. J. MacDonald; Lanfranc (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1944), pp. 64-5.

6. Ibid., p. 126.

7. Ibid., p. 66.

8. Helen Clover & Margaret Gibson (ed.); The Letters of Lanfranc Archbishop of Canterbury (Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 33.

9. Margaret Gibson; Lanfranc of Bec (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 171.

10. Ibid., p. 170.

11. Z. N. Brookes; The English Church and the Papacy (Cambridge University Press, 1968), p. 121.

12. Ibid., p. 124.

13. A. J. MacDonald, op. cit., p. 75.

14. Ibid., pp. 137-8.

15. David Knowles (ed.); The Monastic Constitutions of Lanfranc (Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1951), p. xi.

16. Ibid., p. xv.

17. Ibid.

18. R. W. Southern (ed.); Eadmer’s Life of Saint Anselm (Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 51.

19. Margaret Gibson, op. cit., p. 175.

20. R. W. Southern; Saint Anselm and His Biographer (Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 247.

21. Margaret Gibson, op. cit., p. 176.

22. A. J. MacDonald, op. cit., p. 247.

23. David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England, op. cit., p. 121.

24. A. J. MacDonald, op. cit., p. 148.

25. Ibid., p. 149.

26. David Knowles, The Monastic Order in England, op. cit., p. 109.

27. Ibid.

28. A. J. MacDonald, op. cit., p. 268.

29. Ibid., p. 270.


David C. Douglas & George W. Greenaway (ed.); English Historical Documents: 1042-1189 (Eyre Methuen, 1981).

G. N. Garmonsway (ed.); The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (J. M. Dent, 1994).

C. H. Lawrence; Medieval Monasticism (Longman, 1989).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.