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William the Conqueror and the reform of the English Church

By Edited Mar 22, 2014 0 0

William and the appointment of foreign clergy

William 1 of England, Duke of Normandy , was also known as "William the Conqueror" and is believed to have been a pious christian who was known for his zeal in reforming and purifying the English church.

Once he gained the crown of England in battle in 1066 he played a direct role in the organisation of the church. He appointed a Norman Archbishop, Lanfranc who was himself a zealous, hard working man and personally selected all of the Bishops in England. The King was seen as the link between the Church in England and the Church in Normandy. William acted as a coordinator of the ecclesiastical councils of the two churches.

One of King William's first policies was to appoint foreigners, usually Normans, into the key positions of the English church. At the end of his reign in 1087 there remained ony one or two Anglo- Saxon Bishops in the English church and no Englishman was promoted to the role of Abbot- this was reserved for Norman priests.King Wiiam believed that many of the English abbots were quietly leading a resistance movement against him ,the King sent the Abbot of Croyland into confinement at Glastonbury simply because he had been friends with Earl Waltheof who was executed for treason. It is not known how the rank and file regarded their "new and foreign" bishops but it is not believed to have been a cordial relationship.

The clerics were also able administrators and some were actually interested in preaching or even had some level of faith. The clerics communicated in Latin, the language of the International Cleric and therefore it was possible for a cleric to change countries and continue his work without knowledge of the Local language no such thing as pastoral visits to the poor!

King William and the Papacy

William's relationship with the Papacy was never quite clear. William maintained the independence of his churches and his ability to appoint men to the posts of Bishops and Abbots. The idea of the Pope centrally controlling the churches in Europe was distasteful to William. There were certain tasks that William was prepared for the Papacy to do such as confirming his appointments to the church and making decisions on matters of canon law. On occasions  the King was happy to use the services of a papal legate to remove a particularly obstinate English bishop. It was forbidden to write to the Pope until the King had read the letter and approved the contents. Similarly visits by English clerics to the Pope were forbidden unless permission had been granted by the King.

William 1- an artists impression
Credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Archbishop Lanfranc and the Councils of the English Church

Archbishop Lanfranc held three important councils of the English church, in 1072, 1075 and 1076. The first council in 1072 stated that all bishops should have Arch Deacons whilst the second council in 1075 concentrated on the organisation of the bishoprics of England. The third council of 1076 covered the question of celibacy and the role of priests in the parish.

Celibacy of the priests was a major dilemma as many bishops as well as parish priests were married men with families. The dilemma was that rules could be changed for new priests but how coud they be enforced when older priests still had their families and were no doubt sympathetic to the new celibate priests. A culture grew up with the new priests having "house keepers" or mistresses with only a few priests living in strict monasteries, remaining celibate. This was not just an English problem, it was to be the church policy in France as well. It was an unwelcome move in Normandy where the Archbishop, John of Rouen was forced to flee a church under a hail of stones thrown by priests who he had insisted should remain celibate.

A scupture of William 1 at Canterbury Cathedral(106610)
Credit: By User:Saforrest (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Establishment of Spiritual Courts

The council of 1072 also split the spiritual courts from the judicial courts. Spiritual questions sometimes came before the Country courts to be dealt with by the Bishops. However most spiritual questions were heard in one of the " Hundred Courts" a subdivision of the county court which was not overseen by the Bishop. Therefore behaviour and discipline was lax in the church as punishment was rarely applied. The decree of 1072 withdrew ecclesiastical cases from the Hundred Courts and empowered the Bishops and Arch Deacons to set up their own courts according to church canons and laws.

The council of 1075 gave new definitions to the sees of the Bishops, moving them from mainy rural to more urban areas which increased their income. Lichfield was transferred to Chester, Sherborne to Salisbury and Dorcheter to Lincoln . The Bishops had the opportunity to get richer and as they were a supporters of the King it was in his interests to arrange this.

A builder for Christ

 

William the Conqueror was a builder for christ, he had an abbey initially called Holy Trinity, built on the site of his victory at Battle (which is near Hastings) and this became known as Battle Abbey- only the ruins now remain. He encouraged church building ,William of Warenne, one of his supporters at Hastings founded a Cistercian priory at Lewes in Sussex . The new bishops led by Lanfranc added to the number of cathedrals increasing their number from four to seven, including the rebuilding of  the cathedral at Canterbury. Work began at Durham Cathedral near the end  of the King's reign and took forty years to complete! At the time it was believed to have been a quick and efficient project!

King William 1 is mainly remembered for his victory against the Saxons at Hastings in 1066 yet he left his legacy on the English landscape with buildings such as Battle Abbey and Durham Cathedral.

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