Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Crusading Duke

by Carol McGrath

'Almost every man in William's army appeared to be a priest, all their faces including both lips clean shaven...The king smiled at the folly of his informants, adding with a merry laugh that they were not priests, but knights as valiant in battle as they were invincible in spirit.'

So writes William of Malamsbury in the twelfth century about the information given to King Harold concerning the enemy on the evening before the Battle of Hastings.

Ready to Fight (reenactors at Hastings)

William of Malmsbury equated the winning side with priests, the idea here being that the clergy set the standards in terms of behaviour and spirit which provided the best model of manliness. His words reflect how eleventh century reformers viewed Christian society and the significance of Church reform in the outcome of the Battle of Hastings. He shows how the Norman side gave the impression that they were fighting for righteousness, the knights warring for the salvation of their fellow Christians.

Pope Gregory VII

When The Battle of Hastings took place, the Church in Europe was reforming. This movement became known as the Gregorian Reform. It aimed to denounce heresy that would surface during periods when instability would bring about a reaffirmation of old beliefs.

The reform movement also addressed issues such as simony--the buying and selling of Church office, clerical marriage, concubinage, and consanguinity--forbidding marriage between individuals with common ancestors within four generations.

Reform aimed at the elevation of priestly morals and the separation of the clergy from the visible pollutants of blood, money and weapons--interesting as clergy fought at The Battle of Hastings. For example, Bishop Odo appears on the Bayeux Tapestry wielding a club rather than a sword. There were militant priests on both sides.

Reform was concerned with religious ideals and setting boundaries and the attempt to construct a new social order. If these new ideals were not accepted then laymen of every rank were regarded as dangerous anomalies who contravened a desirable social order.

Bishop Odo with his club
The Battle of Hastings was part of a wider historical change that marks out the eleventh century, and it occurred in the middle part of a sweeping European Church reform which began earlier and continued into the following century.

The battle was poised between two periods of reform. Pope Leo IX (1049-54) was a moderate who wanted to improve religious life in cooperation with royal powers. Radical reformers were associated with Gregory VII who had a vision of an elected clergy uncontaminated by contact with lay society.

Significantly for Harold of England, one of the central arguments circled around 'what sort of man ought to exercise authority and the nature of power.' William of Normandy was considered such a man by reformers.

When Harold accepted the throne of England, William took it as a personal insult as well as a political challenge. There was Harold's oath of vassalage taken on holy relics although whatever that oath really was, William claimed the original bequest made by Edward to him of the English crown. When Harold was elected king, his protest to the English court was ignored.

During the critical months between Harold's coronation and The Battle of Hastings, not only did William secure the support of his vassals but he successfully appealed to the public opinion of Europe, and he obtained the support of the Pope for his venture. Charters survive testifying that William and his followers settled relations with Norman religious houses before their departure.

Appointments were made such as Lanfranc to St. Stephens in Caen. Lanfranc was a keen reformer. Church grants were made extensively and William appealed to the Papacy with arguments focused on Harold's oath and its violation. Of course, the Papacy sought advantage in the Normanization of England. The Duke appeared to support ecclesiastical reform which Rome desired in England. It would establish tighter control from Rome over monasteries and the rebellious practices of priests.

William the Conqueror ( Falaise)

William would be the armed agent of reform. The English Church was wealthy, and some of this wealth could be redirected if William's venture was successful. Moreover, William's policy was attuned to Papal policy in that he could see that solid advantages could be obtained in Italy. The Normans already had expanded into Southern Italy and Sicily.

The Pope's approval gave William the excuse to appeal for volunteers outside his Duchy, and this gave him control over ports in Western France where he could build ships and make ready to attack England. William fought under a Papal banner at Hastings and with consecrated relics around his neck. His venture was promoted like a crusade.

Romanesque Architecture ( Rouen)

There was a transformation of the landscape after the Norman Conquest which included a more stringent definition of marriage and an extension of the degrees of consanguinity, an extension of monasteries and the building of great Romanesque Cathedrals.

Harold Godwinson was caught in a period of change in hierarchy and social control that conspired to his disadvantage, and he was not in a position to adapt as adroitly as continental rulers could to the changing demands of Church Reform.

His disadvantage was William's advantage.  It was a weakness that allowed Duke William to gain help for his invasion of England through his support from the Pope. As a consequence of the rallying cry to arms, he was able to control ports to his advantage and raise a fleet. The role the Church played in William's success cannot be underestimated.

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife - Edith Swan-Neck and the noble women of Hastings published by Accent Press (available from Amazon as paperback and e book). The sequel, The Swan-Daughter is expected soon.


  1. Yes, the Normans recognised that an alliance with the church was a powerful tool, whether by design or fate it certainly aided their cause. This aspect of Norman behaviour is colourfully covered in my book, Robert-The Wayward Prince, in which the shenanigans of the three brothers, Robert, William, and Henry suddenly become concentrated on the task of getting Robert away on the first crusade, you may make your own mind up as to what motives to ascribe to each of these characters as Robert gallops off to fame and eternal salvation.

  2. That sounds interesting too. I shall look for it. The Swan-Daughter brings in the conflict between Robert and his father a bit. I did read a lot on the Gregorian Reform for The Handfasted Wife.

    1. A fantastic post Carol, thank you for posting this interesting article. William was one very lucky man!

  3. I've always queried whether the Pope did actually give William his blessing before the event of Hastings - or whether he sat on the fence until after the outcome (with dates conveniently altered as propaganda after William won) I can;t see the Pope openly going against England - but that is only my personal feeling. You make a few very good points Carol. One thing that does bug me is this myth that the normans 'civilised' England by bringing their wonderful technology and ability to built abbeys/cathedrals and castles to the poor backward English. England didn't have stone castles because we didn't need them prior to 1066 for defence - we did have a few castles along the Welsh border (Ok timber built, but not very different to the early Norman motte & bailey buildings) as for the cathedrals and abbeys... Harold founded and built Waltham Abbey, Edward built Westminster abbey - I firmly believe that had Harold won England would have built just as many holy buildings as did the Normans!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.