Was the Papacy involved in the Norman Conquest?

In 1066, the Normans invaded England.  Did the Papacy support the action?  There are numerous accounts of the invasion and the events that led up to it?  Multiple reasons are given for William’s invasion: Edward declared William heir while in Normandy; his rival Harold Godwine, swore an oath on holy relics to so support William and then usurped the throne; Harold’s coronation was illicitly performed by Stigand; William was Edward’s kin; Harold was Edward’s kin through marriage; and, William unlawfully invaded as Harold was named successor while Edward was on his death bed.  Of course, we cannot really know definitively, but we can evaluate the accounts of the situation made by authors and scholars.

Anglo-Saxons long had a very tight relationship with the Papacy, but there is an element of Norman diplomacy, particularly in this age of the 11th century reform, that begins to explain the startling change in relations with the Papacy and the Anglo-Saxons.  Furthermore there are the questions of the papal banner, or gonfanon, with which the Normans went to war: Did it exist?  Presuming it did, what does it imply about the Papacy’s perception of the events?

I found the implications of the Papacy’s involvement have been largely left unstated despite the copious literature written about the Conquest and its aftermath in England.  Consider that in 1066 the Papacy may have endorsed a military campaign by a Norman against a church that had long been its darling in Europe with the presentation of a papal banner.  In the following pope’s reign, Gregory VII’s (Bishop Hildebrand was consecrated Pope Gregory VII after the Norman invasion) more military campaigns will be conducted under a papal banner and against Christian laity threatening church lands.  In 1098, the First Crusade is called and the Crusade institution is begun.  The Norman Conquest, thus, potentially contributes to an important evolution of thought.

Beginning with Gregory the Great’s mission in England, to Bede and the missions of Boniface and down to the invading Danes in the beginning of the 11th century, Anglo-Saxons had a revered relationship with Rome.  James Campbell, Henry Mayr-Harting and John Blair all demonstrate the friendship, reverence and devotion which the young Anglo-Saxon Church paid to the Church in Rome.  The tradition was of such strength and durability that even the invading Danish king, Cnut, sought to comply with the traditions of building churches devoted to Rome’s saints and become thoroughly indoctrinated in Christianity.  In The English Church and the Continent, Veronica Ortenberg describes presence of an Anglo-Saxon community within Rome itself, which received special privileges from taxation.  This neighborhood tended to the large number of English pilgrims from every rank in its society.  Under Alfred, and possibly Offa, the crown levied a Peter’s Pence, or Romscot, to be sent to Rome.

The Bayeux Tapestry: The Anglo-Saxon Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury

The first culprit to indicate a separation from this love is the Bishop Stigand.  Stigand, a simoniac, is a focal point for a new papal movements set on reform.  He was appointed by the king and does not go to Rome to receive his pallium from the rightful pope, Pope Leo IX who refused to consecrate him, but to the anti-pope Benedict X.  Eric John points out that King Edward was able to further undermine the rival Godwine family’s position in England when Spearhafoc was refused the episcopal see of London by Rome and Archbishop Robert because he was a simoniac, as well.  Not only did he lose the see, he lost his abbey at Abingdon, despite having been the canonical abbot there.

Stigand appears in the Bayeux Tapestry and the image is considered by H. E. J. Cowdrey’s paper, “Towards an interpretation of the Bayeux Tapestry,” in particular with the placement and occupation of his hands.  Cowdrey’s interpretation focuses on the negative connotation of Stigand’s left hands and he hypothesizes his inclusion on the tapestry—especially with his left hand when holding the maniple—is intended to discredit him as bishop and Harold as king.  It is an ironic representation as the maniple is taken by the recipient with a prayer asking God to cleanse one’s hands.  Stigand and Spearhafoc represent a clergy which would raise the ire of the Church’s reformers in the eleventh century.

This segues nicely into the next point, that of the relationship of William, Duke of Normandy, and the Papacy of Alexander II, itself highly influenced by the reform bishop Hildebrand.  First, as Margaret Gibson points out, William had done everything he could in order to gain control over his own bishops.  This sort of lay interference was being targeted by the reformers, but William endeared himself to many influential clergymen, nonetheless, through other reforms, finance and defense.

The Bayeux Tapestry: Harold swearing allegiance to William on holy relics before King Edward's death

Frank Barlow indicates that William had welcomed the Truce of God movement which had been put forth by leading reform clergy.  The Truce, itself an extension of the Peace of God movement which declared that certain persons were never to be harmed, was intended to restrict violence during certain days and seasons.  William’s intent as expressed to his vassals was to have disputes among them settled in the ducal court instead through arms.  Both the Peace and Truce aimed to curtail lay violence since little central authority existed following the (gradual) collapse of the Carolingians.  As Kathleen Cushing has suggested, this measure was in no small way intended to protect the clergy and Church lands from lay violence, often in the form of heirs taking back land that had been given as donations and by ancestors.  In order to defend the Peace and maintain Truces, oaths were taken and the Church enlisted portions of the warrior laity to enforce it.

Gregory VII later coined the term milites Sancti Petri, refering to knights fighting on behalf of the Papacy in the years following the Conquest and leading up to the First Crusade.  Jonathan Riley-Smith has pointed out that this was in keeping with the trends of the clergy who blessed their defenders as milites of their patron saint.  Did Hildebrand in a sense do this with the Norman Conquest?  Hildebrand established himself as a leader in Church sanctioned violence, especially against Christian Europeans.  Carl Erdmann stresses that Hildebrand’s involvement can best be seen in the case of the Norman Conquest.  Erdmann quotes Gregory VII to William (from the collected Register of Gregory VII), who stated, “You know how zealously I exerted myself that you might obtain the royal office.  I was reviled for this by some brothers, who blamed me for the pains I took over such a bloodletting.”

For William’s part, R. Allen Brown credits him for doggedly pursuing diplomacy, especially with the clergymen in his domain.  Brown writes,

[B]y his own considerable efforts, the Conqueror won his reputation as the champion both of orthodoxy and reform, so that, when the time came, the Papacy was the chief prize of Norman diplomacy, and the expedition to England was undertaken by this favoured son of the Holy Church with papal blessing and a papal banner.

Gregory VII took the credit in the letter quoted by Erdmann.  There was a clear connection established and fostered between the two camps.

So, the question then remains, what is the significance of the Papal banner?  This is not easy to establish under Alexander II.  While some claim he sent a military mission to Spain under a Papal banner other scholars resist the notion.  Erdmann in particular stresses the banner’s importance.  Other than Gregory’s letter, this is the most formal demarcation we have of Papal approval.  It is not mentioned in the texts we have from  Alexander II, but numerous other sources surrounding the Conquest attest to it.  Many scholars, though not all, believe this to include the Bayeux Tapestry, in scene 46.  J. Bard McNulty does not include it in the body of his commentary of the tapestry but does include it in the appendix, interpreting; “[the lettering] HIC NUNTIAM EST WILLELMO DE HAROLD.  Here news of Harold is brought to William,” he writes, “William holds the banner, or gonfanon, sent him by Pope Alexander II, who endorsed the invasion.”

Is this evidence of a papal banner being granted to William?

The implication, therefore, is that the Papacy is sending William to defend the Church in England from the likes of simoniacs such as Stigand, elsewhere discredited in the tapestry as noted by Cowdrey above.  This presentation of a banner is generally understood to imply some obligation of a feudal type to the Papacy, but William and more so his son William Rufus will staunchly resist this.  For example, Stigand, still Archbishop of Canterbury at the conclusion of the conquest and denied the right to crown William king, is not immediately removed from his uncanonical position.

This feudal obligation to the Papacy will be altered in the calling of the First Crusade as the Crusaders are called to take up arms as milites Christi, creating new theological challenges for the laity and the clergy.  Regardless of this change, it is worth noting that, while William Rufus refused aid, a number of William the Conqueror’s family and dependents will answer the call to the First Crusade, including one of his sons who will grant the duchy of Normandy to William Rufus to acquire the necessary funds for the enterprise.

Additional and fresh study is warranted on the exact nature and implications of the papal banner.  Erdmann (who published in the 1930s) points out that the only visual representation we have is that of the Bayeux Tapestry, and the artist may never have seen it.  Its significance remains enigmatic in terms of the evolution of the Church’s regard for violence despite Erdmann contributions.

Further work must be done in characterizing this campaign as a Church authorized power play or something more in line of a proto-Crusade.  Additionally, the actions of the Anglo-Saxon laity and clergy deserve to have greater comparisons drawn (or contrasted) with others who similarly fell victim to the Papacy’s authorization of violence.  To what degree did a failing relationship with a reforming clergy justify endorsing this measure against them?  Is the simony of its clergy and oath breaking (a problem for reformers in the Peace ot Truce) of its king enough to warrant the actions of Alexander II, Hildebrand and William?  These questions require more research and have not been adequately answered in light of the evolution of sanctified violence.  One thing is clear, the Conquest had a part to play in contributing to new ideas of violence and hopefully its part will be fully understood in coming research.


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