The Creation of the Anglo-Norman Church

Carrying on with my talks on church reform, we will have a quick look at the case of the Anglo-Norman church following the conquest of 1066. Pre-conquest England had a relatively coherent religious agenda and structure, founded on the Regularis Concordia and an active cult of saints. The Anglo-Saxon monasteries were prosperous thanks to the ritual donations of their patrons and the wealth obtained from their different economic exploitations. One cannot help but wonder if there was a real need to transform a well-established religious system. Leaving aside William’s personal interests and political agenda, it could be argued that the English Church was rather static and conservative.

Let’s take a look at the stance the Conqueror took regarding Papal control over the English Church. It was William I’s intention to keep the English Church development under the guidelines provided by Rome, but at the same time he took measures to avoid papal intrusion in the affairs of the state. The effort of the pontiffs to get English high-ranking clergymen to travel to Rome and do homage to the Pope only made the situation degrade. This is reflected in the events that took place in autumn of 1079 with the announcement of the forthcoming Lenten synod when William refused to allow any of his clergy to go to the synod. On top of that it was decreed that any legate sent by the Pope would only be admitted as a diplomatic envoy and not as someone with an interest towards the affairs of the English Church. It was only thanks to Anselm, during the reign of William Rufus, that the barrier between the papacy and England was partially broken, but to the eyes of Rome, England was like the prodigal son.

Perhaps some of the most noticeable changes in this re-structure involved the liturgical discourse, which required a changed in religious architecture and processional space. The most significant elements that configured the new buildings were the twin tower façade without a porch or narthex, the lantern tower, the three-bay presbytery, the apse-echelon plan of five chapels and the three-story elevation with full tribune. Moreover, metropolitan offices such as Canterbury added the use of a crypt to host the relics of their patron saints. Furthermore, there was a redistribution of the different altars and their function regarding the processional route that the lay community would take within the church. These customs were adopted by many churches, but not all. A clear example is Winchester, which carried on the traditions imposed by the Regularis Concordia, incorporating odd elements within its architecture. The most relevant is the west end that most likely represents the continuation of the Anglo-Saxon customs of crown-wearing rituals.

Nevertheless, the most significant changes that the English Church underwent in the post-Conquest era are those related with monastic foundations. The Norman settlers invested a great deal of their fortunes in these religious houses. There were several reasons that encouraged the lay population to invest in such foundations such as the protection for the benefactors’ soul, the display of power and wealth, and in many cases profitable land revenues. New monastic houses were introduced in England between 1066 and 1086, although admittedly most of them were of Norman origin. This process carried out during the reign of William II who commissioned some of the important ‘alien’ houses of the island: Binham (1093), Norwich cathedral priory (1096) and Wymondham (1107). Due to the arrival of these institutions two new types of foundations were created; daughter houses, which were directly dependent of their mother house in the continent, and monastic cells that acted as centres of administration for these English properties. Of course, the old  foundations were still used – or re-purposed in some cases. This is the case of the cell of Bec at Clare, Suffolk, that Gilbert of Tanbridge re-founded around 1090. The foundation of new nunneries after the conquest is somehow obscure – it seems that some monastic orders did not want to be associated with the female communities…Nonetheless, new women houses were founded, although the reasons and circumstances about their establishment might differ from those of the monasteries. For instance, Elstow was established by Countess Judith (1076-86), as she became the widow of Earl Waltheof, who was executed due to treachery, therefore buying herself a way to survive in the new regime. In addition, it seems that men of lower social and political status with not enough money to found a monastery, set up nunneries instead, especially in the northern areas of the country. Some old nunneries continued under Norman patronage.  The appointment of abbesses like Cecily who run the house from 1107, and was the daughter of Robert fitz Hamon and sister-in-law of the Earl of Gloucester, is an example of this continuity.

However, it is clear that despite all these changes there was a degree of continuity of the Anglo-Saxon traditions incorporated within the Norman rule. This is most clearly shown by the revitalising of old religious houses, like Gloucester Abbey. Such a place was important for the Normans; its location provided easy access to the problematic Welsh marches. Besides, it was a nodal point for communication, a profitable town and a good site for hunting. Maintaining and advancing its Anglo-Saxons roots was, therefore, crucial and so many investments were done in the abbey and other local churches, especially during the reign of William Rufus. Another example of continuity is the cult of saints. Despite it has been actively argued that the Normans erased all the native saints from their calendar and replaced their relics for others of their taste, recent studies demonstrate that the previous statement is wrong. Even Lanfranc shows a personal devotion to an Anglo-Saxon saint, St.Dustan, whose relics were moved with the majority of the other holy remains to his newly reformed Christ Church cathedral. Most importantly the fact that despite all the efforts to try to distinguish the secular from the regular clergy, the Normans adopted and carried on the old tradition of monastic cathedrals, unique of Anglo-Saxon England is significant.

Therefore, in order to understand the nature of the Anglo-Norman church and the developments of the English church for years, and even centuries to come, it is crucial we recognise the importance of the previous Anglo-Saxon traditions, as well as the political context in which the Normans had to liaise the control over liturgy and practice.

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