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About this book

The relationship between kings and bishops in Medieval England could be tricky. Thomas Becket summed it up succinctly when he said to Henry II, 'You are my lord, you are my king, you are my spiritual son.' Bishops were the king's greatest subjects, and yet no man could be secure as King without being crowned and anointed by a bishop. For much of the period, kings and bishops worked harmoniously to shape England into a country with one of the most sophisticated governments in Western Europe. Yet sometimes, as in the case of Henry II and Becket, there was conflict between them.

This introductory text explores the central relationship between the kings of England and their bishops, from the Norman Conquest to Magna Carta. Wickson provides an approachable overview of the key scholarship on this subject, from historical to contemporary viewpoints. He also draws readers to the major primary sources, such as monastic chroniclers, making this an ideal starting-point for anyone studying high medieval England.

Table of Contents

1. The Norman Conquest and the Church in England

Abstract
On 25 December 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, was crowned king of the English in Westminster Abbey. The service had some novel features. Music played a significant part in the coronation ceremony. From the time of Edgar the Te Deum had been sung, William the Conqueror introduced the liturgical acclamations known as the Laudes Regiae. They had been sung at the coronation of Charlemagne in 800 and during festivals in Normandy, but not in England before 1066. As another innovation imported from France and to become an integral part of the coronation service, Geoffrey, the Norman bishop of Coutances, speaking French, and Archbishop Aldred of York, speaking English, asked the assembled congregation whether they would accept the new king. Unfortunately the cries of acclamation were misunderstood by the guards outside the abbey. The atmosphere was tense and they misinterpreted the positive support for the king as sounds of a rebellion. They panicked and set fire to the surrounding buildings.
Roger Wickson

2. The Sons of the Conqueror and their Bishops

Abstract
Of William the Conqueror’s four sons two, William and Henry, became kings of England. One, Richard, had a fatal hunting accident when still a teenager; Robert succeeded to Normandy. Under pressure from some of his barons he showed some aspirations to the English throne, but these were hardly realistic. He could not maintain authority in Normandy, and although he distinguished himself on Crusade it was said that he declined the offer to make him king of Jerusalem on the grounds that it would involve too much hard work. He remained an irritant to his brothers until his defeat at Tinchebrai in 1106 and subsequent lifelong imprisonment, when his son William Clito became a focus of hostility to Henry.
Roger Wickson

3. The Struggle for the Primacy

Abstract
A feature of the history of the church in England in the half-century or so following Lanfranc’s becoming archbishop of Canterbury was the struggle between the archbishops of Canterbury and York to determine which of the two had ultimate authority over all the bishops in the country, that is, which bishop was to be regarded and respected as primate of all England. The struggle for power was prolonged and at times unedifying, and this chapter will discuss why archbishops of Canterbury were so determined to assert their primacy and why archbishops of York were equally determined to resist them. We shall examine how far this was a matter of concern to their kings and the extent to which the papacy was drawn into what was an essentially insular matter. For kings and popes the prolonged dispute was irksome and time-consuming, but it could not be ignored, for it had implications for the king’s authority over two of his greatest subjects and for the nature of his relationship with the papacy. It was a dispute during which tempers were lost in public and subterfuges of questionable honesty resorted to. Behind each archbishop was his respective cathedral chapter, the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury and the canons of York. The chapters expected their archbishops to fight their corner with all possible determination and vigour and were reluctant to concede defeat. Each chapter had its own publicist whose writing provides the principal sources for following the struggle (see Further Reading).
Roger Wickson

4. Mitred Civil Servants: The Rise and Fall of the Salisbury Dynasty

Abstract
The bishops were among the most powerful men in any kingdom. They were the dominant members of an exclusive sector within society, the clergy, and they were great lords and landowners. Some notorious exceptions apart, they were well educated and literate, with the administrative skills and experience required to run their own households and dioceses. To attain the office of bishop was the goal of many very intelligent, highly ambitious young men, some of whom owed their worldly success to their ability to make themselves indispensable to the effective working of the king’s government. Of William the Conqueror’s chancellors four — Herfast, Osbern, Osmund and Maurice — became bishops, of Elmham, Exeter, Salisbury and London, respectively. In twelfth-century England government and administration were becoming increasingly complex.
Roger Wickson

5. King Stephen and his Bishops

Abstract
King Stephen initially owed his throne to the support given by great churchmen, in particular his brother Henry of Winchester, Roger of Salisbury and the archbishop of Canterbury, William of Corbeil. However, while the premature death of his son Eustace in 1153 ruled out any chance of the succession passing to him, the decision of Archbishop Theobald to back the Angevins had already made it clear that Stephen’s successor would not be his younger son William, but Henry of Anjou, and this was confirmed by Stephen in the Treaty of Winchester of November 1153. Stephen did not live long enough to contest this later, and following his death on 25 October 1154 Henry succeeded unchallenged. So secure did he feel that he was not crowned until 19 December. In 1135 Stephen was supported by the senior English bishops because they saw this as the most effective way to prevent civil war. More than that, Henry of Winchester in particular was confident of his ability to ensure that, through him, his brother would protect the liberties of the church. According to William of Malmesbury,1 when addressing the council in 1141 which confirmed Matilda as the lady of England, Bishop Henry claimed that he had made himself guarantor between Stephen and God that he would honour and exalt Holy Church, maintain good laws and repeal bad ones.
Roger Wickson

6. The Becket Conflict in Perspective

Abstract
The conflict between Becket and Henry II is different from that between Anselm and his two kings. Much of it was about technicalities and it did little to alter the long-term relationship between the secular and spiritual authorities. Becket was archbishop for less than a quarter of Henry’s reign and for much of that time in exile. He was not the first archbishop of Canterbury to be murdered. Aelfheah had been brutally killed by Danes in 1012, but these were heathen invaders. The murder of an archbishop in his own cathedral apparently on the orders of his king created a sensation that reverberated throughout Christendom. Very soon miracles were attributed to him and his reputation benefited from a great deal of subsequent sympathetic writing. Becket came to be revered as far away as Poland, Hungary, the Scandinavian countries and Iceland. His murder turned a problematical man into a martyr and a saint, elevating Canterbury to one of the leading centres of pilgrimage and inspiring one of the greatest works in English literature, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Tennyson and T.S. Eliot wrote plays about Becket, as did Jean Anouilh.
Roger Wickson

7. England without a King

Abstract
In one of C.R. Cheney’s aphorisms he stated: ‘The church’s government, as then constituted, required the service of sinners as well as saints.’1 The king’s government did, too, and Richard I was dependent on the work of the bishop of Ely and the archbishops of Rouen and Canterbury. This is not the place for a philosophical debate on the nature of sin, but loyalty, hard work and efficiency were virtues to offset such faults of character as shown by these three men. Hubert Walter was clearly the greatest of them, William Longchamp the least attractive, but if their actions at times invited criticism or even contempt, their concern was the king’s business and the maintenance of order in the kingdom from which he was absent. Twenty-six different men held sees in the reign of Richard I, of whom sixteen were elected in his reign. It would be too easy and wrong to claim that, as Richard I was absent from England for all but six months of his reign, he had no interest in English affairs or appointments. As John Gillingham makes clear, Richard was a far more complex and sophisticated person than the traditional image of the macho warrior suggests.2 That centralised government did not break down in his absence, as it had in the reign of Stephen, but positively flourished was due partly to the legacy that Richard had inherited from his father, and very much to the quality of the men who were entrusted with the responsibility of making it work. Richard was responsible for their appointment, which suggests that he had an understanding of the complexities of government and administration and had the interest and ability to appoint men of the calibre to make it work.
Roger Wickson

8. Stephen Langton, the Bishops and Magna Carta

Abstract
Despite his earlier plans to retire, Hubert Walter continued to play a prominent part in John’s reign, both as archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor, until his death on 13 July 1205. For much of this time John was in Normandy. Hubert’s death led to a prolonged crisis which was not finally resolved until May 1213. This was one of a number of crises besetting John culminating in baronial rebellion, civil war and the imposition of Magna Carta, followed by a French invasion led by Louis, son of King Philip Augustus, in May 1216. The relationship of Philip Augustus (1180–1223) with John is fundamental to the understanding of his reign. Philip was shrewd and coldly calculating, prepared to bide his time until the opportunity arose to assert and establish his control. He could take advantage of Norman and English traitors when it suited him and it was related that when the great William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, asked Philip why he bothered to have anything to do with contemptible traitors, Philip replied that such men were torches, to be used and then thrown in the cesspool.1
Roger Wickson

Epilogue

Abstract
The relationship of the kings of England with their bishops was influenced by the fact that from the Norman Conquest to the early years of King John’s reign they were also lords of considerable territories in France and, theoretically at least, subjects of the French kings for their French lands. Consequently, with the exception of William II before his brother mortgaged Normandy to him, and Stephen, kings of England spent a considerable part of their reigns governing and defending their continental territories. Richard I’s absence from England for all but six months of a ten-year reign was exceptional, but nevertheless he maintained a considerable interest in English affairs. Likewise many members of the aristocracy held territories in France and England, and of few bishops could it be said ‘he is an Englishman’. As late as 1205 foreigners filled the majority of English sees; eight were held by Frenchmen, Bernard of Ragusa, the unconsecrated bishop of Carlisle, was an Italian, and there were only four English bishops, including the Anglo-Norman Giles of Briouse. Nevertheless, by the end of the twelfth century the concept of Englishness was developing and bishops like William Longchamp and Peter des Roches were seen as aliens in English politics. The northern borders of England were not precisely defined and fluctuated depending on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the kings of England and Scotland. Nor were English politics, secular and ecclesiastical, uninfluenced by events in Wales and Ireland.
Roger Wickson
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