In January 1066, King Edward the Confessor died. He had no children, and his closest relative was a cousin, Edgar the Atheling. Edgar was a teenage boy who had spent his childhood in Hungary, and the English nobles thought him both too young and too foreign to become king; instead, they chose an English earl, Harold Godwinson. This would probably have been a good choice, but unfortunately for Harold there was someone else who felt he had the right to the English throne: William, Duke of Normandy.* In 1064 Harold had been shipwrecked off the coast of Normandy and had found himself a guest of William at the Norman court. Duke William claimed Harold had sworn a solemn oath that he would help William to become king of England after Edward the Confessor’s death. When William heard that Harold had broken his oath and taken the crown for himself, he prepared to invade.
William not only gathered together an army, he asked for help from the Pope. As Harold’s oath had been sworn on holy relics, the breaking of the oath was a matter for the Church. Pope Alexander II approved William’s invasion plans, and sent a papal banner for him to carry into battle. While oath-breaking was a serious matter, the Pope also had other reasons for encouraging William. At this time the popes were determined to reform certain aspects of the Church. They insisted that priests must remain single (until this time many had been married, or even living with women who were not their wives); they wanted to ensure that no positions in the Church were sold for money; and most important of all, they wanted to stop kings and other rulers appointing bishops and other Church officials in their own lands. This mattered a great deal as it made it look as though kings were in charge of the Church, instead of the Church being responsible only to God. The Norman Church had already been reformed, and Pope Alexander hoped that if William became King of England he would bring about reform there.
William invaded England and defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings on October 16th 1066. After the battle he went to London to be crowned. Although the archbishop of Canterbury normally crowns English kings, William chose to be crowned by the archbishop of York instead. For over fifteen hundred years all Catholic archbishops have been sent a kind of lambs wool necklace called a pallium by the Pope as a sign that the pope approves their appointment. Stigand, the last Anglo-Saxon archbishop of Canterbury, had been made archbishop while his predecessor was still alive and in exile, and never received a pallium. This meant the pope did not recognize him as the true archbishop, and was probably another reason why Pope Alexander supported William’s invasion. In 1070 Stigand was deposed and replaced as archbishop by a great Norman scholar, Lanfranc of Bec. Lanfranc and King William worked closely together and the Church in England became more like the Church in Normandy and other parts of Europe.
The abbey of Bec in Normandy was an important place at this time, and a leading centre for scholars – this was in the days before universities were founded, when the greatest places of learning were often monasteries. Pope Alexander himself had been a monk there with Lanfranc, and in 1060 another future archbishop of Canterbury, and also a future saint, had joined the community. This was a young man from Aosta in Northern Italy named Anselm. His father refused to let him become a monk, but after his mother’s death he ran away from home and traveled to Normandy, where he joined the brothers at Bec. Anselm studied under Lanfranc, was made prior and later abbot, and became famous as a great theologian. In 1093 he followed his former master as archbishop of Canterbury, under William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus. Unfortunately for Anselm, neither William Rufus nor the next king, his brother Henry, shared their father’s close relationship with the Church. Anselm had to fight to keep the independence of the English Church and twice had to leave England after an argument with the king, but eventually he came to an agreement with King Henry I that protected the rights of the Church. Anselm died in 1109 while a monk was reading him the Gospel of the day, and in 1720 he was declared a “doctor of the Church”, a title reserved for only the greatest theologians.
* Normandy is part of Northern France, and in the eleventh century was ruled independently by a duke.
PRAYER OF ST. ANSELM:
Grant O Lord, that we may
Worship you without wearying,
Cleave to you without parting,
Serve you without failing,
Faithfully seek you,
Happily find you,
For ever possess you,
The one only God, blessed,
World without end.
FEAST DAY: Saint Anselm, April 21st
Norman Conquest 1066
Lanfranc, died 1089
Saint Anselm, 1033-1109
HISTORICAL NOTES: We know a lot about Saint Anselm because another monk at Bec, Eadmer, wrote the story of his life.
The young Anglo-Saxon prince Edgar the Atheling had a sister Margaret who married King Matilda of Scotland. She is known to us as Saint Margaret of Scotland – a holy queen, generous to the poor and an example of Christian piety. Her daughter married King Henry I of England, uniting the Norman and Saxon royal families.
Historians are still arguing over how much changed when the Normans conquered England. The Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc thought that the Norman Conquest was very important because it made England fully part of Catholic Europe. In fact, England and the English Church were probably already closer to the rest of Europe than he realized.
© Kathryn Faulkner 2005. All rights reserved.