George Austin on the changing and often fraught relationship between Church and State in eleventh- and early twelfth-century England and the emergence of cronyism on the bench of bishops

The years following the Synod of Whitby have been rightly described as a golden age’ for the Church, in scholarship, culture and spirituality. Even so, the Venerable Bede could write to Egbert, Bishop of York, to complain about the state of the Church in the north. There were bishops who were shamefully negligent of their duties in dioceses anyway too large for proper supervision, and whose clergy were ignorant and worldly.

From Germany, Boniface contrasted the ‘loose-living’ English with the more disciplined Germans. Moreover, it was not just a few individuals who complained: councils were held to correct ecclesiastical abuses. Bishops should be more conscientious in visiting their dioceses; they must see the clergy were properly trained and require uniformity in worship. They were to visit monasteries and ensure that monks dressed properly, and that nuns did not go about in gaudy, gay clothes such as lay girls use.’

Rather like the modern story of the two nuns from a community in Rome that had abandoned the wearing of the habit. Walking back to their convent late at night, they became increasingly panicky. To their relief, as they turned a corner, there was a uniformed policeman to whom they explained they were nuns and kept being propositioned. He looked them up and down and asked, ‘And how did you know I was a policeman?’

William the Conqueror

By the time Edward came to the throne in 1043, the Church was reasonably stable and quite prosperous. Unfortunately he had little admiration for the people whom he ruled and began to fill the highest offices of the Church with placemen from abroad, to the bitter resentment of English earls, who themselves sought to place their own supporters into the Church’s hierarchy, with mixed results.

Of these the best was Wulfstan who became Bishop of Worcester and was later to be the only English prelate to win the confidence of William the Conqueror. The worst was Stigand, an unattractive character who usurped Robert to become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052, while continuing to hold the see of Winchester. He was deposed in 1070 at William’s instigation, while other bishops likely to be troublesome lost their sees.

It was thus that the State, in the person of the Conqueror, saved the Church from itself. King Edwards policy of filling the bench of bishops with Norman favourites divided the Church, just as did the disastrous cronyism of the 1980s. With a lack of real leadership, the latter years of the eleventh century, like those of the twentieth, had meant that deterioration and decay had set in and changes needed to be made.

But on one issue William was unmove-able, making it clear that he regarded himself as head of the Church in England. He refused to allow any papal interference, and when Pope Gregory VII threatened dire consequences if he did not submit, he issued decrees declaring that no excommunication of barons could take place without his consent; that bishops could not travel abroad without his permission; and that no one could receive a letter from the Pope unless he, the king, had read it first.

Lanfranc’s reforms

William sought to produce a better Church, nominating bishops and abbots, presiding over Church Councils, and requiring churchmen as well as laymen to pay respect to his wishes. His appointment of Lanfranc to Canterbury was a stroke of genius and the new archbishop quickly began to prepare for reforms in the Church through a series of Councils.

As a result, archdeacons were appointed, simony was forbidden, and vagrant monks and nuns were rounded up. But Lanfranc was a cautious reformer. The papacy would have wished for clerical celibacy, but for the moment it was only canons of cathedrals and collegiate churches who were required to put away their wives. In future no married man might be ordained, but parish clergy who were already married could keep their wives.

King and archbishop made changes in the administration of the law, with ecclesiastical laws in future to be the responsibility of church courts under the bishop or archdeacon – a source of trouble in years hence. Together, William and Lanfranc produced a Church in England that was much stronger than it had been for many years.

But it was a relationship built on sand. When both died in 1087 and 1089 -William Rufus succeeded to the throne. For him the Church was a source of wealth, and when a see was vacant he appropriated to himself the income of that bishopric. It was expedient to see to it that vacancies lasted as long as possible. In the same way, when an abbot died, the king confiscated the entire income of the house.

Appointment ofAnselm

When Lanfranc died, William Rufus left the see vacant for four years, only making an appointment when he fell ill and feared eternal punishment for his actions against the Church. Eventually he nominated Anselm, the Abbot of Bee, who was extremely reluctant to accept, not least because he was aware that he and the king could never work in harmony.

In particular, he knew the attempt to curtail the power of the king against the Church and increase the influence of the Pope. It was a long battle, not least in winning the bishops and abbots to his side, who, as always, had an eye on the main chance and were careful to be sure which would be the winning side.

Nevertheless, by his death in 1109, Anselm had broken the old independence of the kings of England. The Church had experienced both the best and worst and when the State had gone too far in exercising inappropriate power over the Church, it had been defeated. At least for the moment.

Anselm was one of many in the Church involved in the struggle over the matter of investitures. At the heart of the problem was the fact that the bishops were not only spiritual leaders but also feudal tenants-in-chief with considerable temporal powers and the wealth that went with them.

It has its echo in the present day, as we shall see in the next article – an echo that must raise doubts about the propriety of the present Church/State relationship.