Church power and the State in England

Faith was always equally important as force in the mind of William of Normandy. He had been responsible for beginning the building of new monasteries in Normandy in the 1060s, including the Abbey of Caen where Lanfranc, a lawyer and monk from Italy, was put in charge as abbot. William was personally devout in his religious practice and could follow the Latin Church service, even though he could not read or write. He had always been a loyal follower of the Pope and placed great value on papal support in his conquest of England.

Church and the State

There were three key leaders who were involved in the relations between the Church and the State in Norman England: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the king and the Pope.

The three key leaders in the relations between the Church and the State in Norman England

The Archbishop of Canterbury had become the leading churchman in England. There was another archbishop, at York, who would regularly argue that he was the equal of Canterbury. Stigand was a controversial Archbishop of Canterbury because he also held on to being Bishop of Winchester, to hold more power (pluralism). The Pope was opposed to Stigand, but William kept him in his position until 1070.

The king was not the head of the Church – this did not happen until Henry VIII in the 16th century – but he was always involved in decisions about the leaders of the Church, because they had so much power and so much land. Church leaders were vital to the king’s resources and to guide the legal and religious life of the country. William the Conqueror was a devoted Christian king, as well as being a strong warrior, and he wanted to bring more Norman men over to run the churches in England. However, he waited until 1070 to make those changes.

The Pope was the head of the Church throughout the world. His headquarters were in Rome. All priests and Christian people owed obedience to the Pope in Rome. He was supposed to approve and consecrate all new church leaders. The Pope’s biggest problems were with the Holy Roman Emperors, because they believed they had the right to decide who should be the leading churchmen in their German empire. This was called the investiture controversy. It had knock-on effects everywhere. Pope Alexander II refused to consecrate the Archbishop of Canterbury because of his pluralism. Pope Alexander II gave his blessing to William’s invasion of England to sort out that matter.

1070 – A turning-point for the Anglo-Norman Church

All three leaders were involved in a major change in the Church in England.

The Pope, Alexander II, sent an ambassador to England in 1070 to carry out the second coronation of King William I, after he had successfully overcome the rebellious north of England. The Pope’s men crowned William at Easter, and then they deposed both Stigand from his position as Archbishop of Canterbury and his brother Aethelmaer as the Bishop of Elmham in East Anglia. A few weeks later, at Whitsun, a Church council meeting appointed Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas of Bayeux as Archbishop of York (replacing Ealdred who died in 1069). Other bishops were also replaced by Normans.

Church organisation

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc made the organisation of the churches much tighter and made sure that the local priests were kept under the control of the central church bishops and archbishops.

Bishops controlled an area called a diocese, and each diocese was now given an archdeacon to help the bishop manage the churches. Then the diocese was divided into smaller regions called deaneries, with a dean who made sure that religious laws (called canon law) were being kept and that the priests were conducting themselves well.

Pyramid showing the power structure of the church in Norman England

King William I and Lanfranc made sure that the church leaders met in synods, or national church councils, to discuss key matters of organisation, church law and spiritual life. They held eight synods between 1071 and 1086.

Church courts were established as quite separate from the secular courts, and any matters of canon law, which included adultery, had to be dealt with by the church courts. Bishops were responsible for organizing the church courts in their diocese.

The Primacy debate

Once Lanfranc and Thomas of Bayeux had established themselves as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the dispute about Canterbury’s superiority – or primacy – over York heated up again.

They both went to Rome in 1071 to have their new positions authorised by the Pope, and Thomas brought up the issue of primacy with Pope Alexander II. The Pope decided not to get involved in taking sides in this dispute, which might have upset the king.

His decision was to get an English synod to decide the issue. In 1072 the synod decided that Canterbury was the leading archbishopric, and Thomas had to accept the primacy of Lanfranc.