Where history happened: Norman churches

Historian and broadcaster Marc Morris looks at the influence of the Normans on the English church, and discusses eight related places...

This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

(Getty)
In 1069 William the Conqueror celebrated Christmas in York, ceremoniously wearing his crown to mark the third anniversary of his coronation. But for the people of York, and probably the Conqueror himself, this was probably the least merry Christmas of their lives. In recent months the city had been visited by repeated waves of violence and devastated by fire. The cathedral church of York Minster, the likeliest location for the crown-wearing ceremony, stood ruined and roofless – “completely laid waste and burnt down”, according to the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
 
Three years on from 1066, the Norman Conquest was not going according to plan. After his invasion William had hoped to govern a united realm, with English and Norman subjects living peacefully side-by-side. But these years had, instead, been ones of almost constant English rebellion and Norman repression, a cycle of violence that had peaked in Yorkshire that winter with the Conqueror’s decision to lay waste the entire region, rendering it incapable of supporting any form of life – his infamous ‘Harrying of the North’.
 
When the Conqueror returned south at the start of 1070, it quickly became clear that the earlier policy of accommodating Englishmen was over. Lay lords who had stood against the new regime had been dispossessed from the first, but now it was the turn of the church.
 
That spring, in the course of two church councils attended by cardinals sent from Rome especially for the purpose, four of England’s 15 bishops were deprived of office, including the elderly archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand, who was later imprisoned. A similar number of abbots also lost their positions and, in some cases, their liberty. In previous years William had been happy to appoint Englishmen to high positions in the church; after the purge of 1070 such positions went only to continental newcomers. By the time of the king’s death in 1087, only one English bishop – the wily and tenacious Wulfstan of Worcester – remained.
 
The almost total replacement of its top brass within a few years of 1066 had a major impact on the English church, for the newcomers had quite different ideas about the way the church should be governed. In the half century or so before the Norman Conquest, the church in Normandy had been reformed. Zealous monks from elsewhere in France, drafted in by earlier Norman dukes, had infused the duchy with a new spiritual rigour. New attitudes were adopted: it was no longer acceptable for churchmen to buy their way into office, or to keep wives and concubines. And new churches were built: laymen founded new monasteries, or refounded old ones, while bishops replaced their ancient cathedrals.
 
This transformation is almost as apparent today as it was back then, for the new buildings that arose were constructed in a wholly novel style – one we refer to as ‘Romanesque’. The contrast with what had gone before was striking, akin to a switch from 2D to 3D. Whereas the walls of earlier churches had been flat expanses, Romanesque churches were built with shafts, arches, niches and galleries – the kind of orderly, sophisticated and monumental architecture not seen in western Europe since the days of Rome (hence ‘Romanesque’).
 
In England before 1066 there had been no such revolution. Only one church had been built in the new Romanesque style, namely Westminster Abbey, refounded by Edward the Confessor, who had spent the whole of his adult life living in Norman exile.
 
But after 1066, and especially after the purge of 1070, the architectural floodgates burst open. The deposed English archbishop, Stigand, was replaced by William’s spiritual mentor, Lanfranc of Bec, who immediately began to rebuild Canterbury, modelling the new cathedral on his Norman abbey of Saint Etienne. Other senior churchmen swiftly followed suit. During the 1070s alone new cathedrals were begun at Lincoln, Rochester, Chichester, Salisbury and Winchester, and new abbeys at Canterbury and St Albans.
 
In some cases, the Normans seized the opportunity to move their cathedrals. The thinking after the Conquest was that bishops should reside in cities, so as to be close to their flocks (and, no doubt, close to the security of a new Norman castle). So the bishop of Dorchester became the bishop of Lincoln and the bishop of Sherborne became the bishop of Salisbury. Selsey moved to Chichester, Lichfield to Chester and Elmham (eventually) to Norwich. Here was a change of unprecedented magnitude.
 
It was not a change necessarily welcomed by the natives. The architectural results may now seem impressive, but for contemporary Englishmen it meant the destruction of their ancient places of worship, some of which had stood since the days of the saints who had founded them. Stories abound of insensitive Norman abbots scorning the reputations of their English predecessors, removing their shrines and (in one notorious case) testing the sanctity of their remains with an ordeal of fire.
 
“We wretches are destroying the work of the saints, thinking in our insolent pride that we are improving them.” So, according to his biographer, wept Wulfstan of Worcester as the roof was ripped from his old cathedral in 1084.
 
The Norman rebuilding of England’s major churches was astonishingly swift. By the time of William the Conqueror’s death in 1087, nine of the country’s 15 cathedrals had been torn down, their new Romanesque replacements either under way or already finished. By the time of the death of William’s son, Henry I, in 1135, the remaining six had been similarly replaced, along with every major abbey church. 
 
It was a revolution without parallel in the history of English ecclesiastical architecture: visit any of these churches today and you will not find a single piece of standing Anglo-Saxon masonry. The next new cathedral to be entirely rebuilt after 1066 was not until the early 13th century when the city of Salisbury was relocated. The next one after that was in the 17th century, when Wren rebuilt St Paul’s.
 
1) Jumièges Abbey, Jumièges, Normandy
 
Where the model for the Romanesque church in England can be seen
 
Thanks to the Danish conquest of 1016 that gave us King Cnut, the future King Edward the Confessor spent his formative years in exile in Normandy. One of his closest companions during this time was a clerk called Robert Champart, who in 1037 became abbot of Jumièges, a monastery nestled in a loop of the river Seine to the west of Rouen. In 1040 Robert began to rebuild his abbey church in the latest Romanesque style, and the spectacular results can still be appreciated today, albeit in a ruined state. 
 
Important in its own right as one of the finest examples of early Norman architecture, Jumièges is also central to the story of Romanesque designs in England, since it provided the model for the new church built by Edward the Confessor after his unexpected return to England in 1041: Westminster Abbey. The only major church not rebuilt in the wake of the Norman Conquest, Westminster was eventually replaced in the 13th century, but we can tell from excavation that the original building was closely related to Jumièges.
 
The Confessor’s church was all but complete by the time of his death in January 1066, and had been hurriedly dedicated just a few days earlier. Jumièges was also finished by this date, but its dedication was delayed by Norman preparations for invasion. It was eventually consecrated on 1 July 1067, as part of William the Conqueror's victory celebrations.
 

The design of Edward the Confessor’s Westminster Abbey was heavily influenced by Jumièges Abbey, shown here. (Getty)
 
2) The abbey of Saint-Etienne, Caen, Normandy
 
Where William the Conqueror built an abbey to atone for his sins
 
At some point in the late 1040s, William the Conqueror decided to get married to Matilda, daughter of the Count of Flanders. During the planning stage, the marriage was banned by the pope – officially because William and Matilda were too closely related – but papal opposition was soon overcome, on condition that the bride and groom each found a new monastery by way of atonement. 
 
Matilda established the nunnery of La Trinité in Caen. William’s new church, the abbey of Saint-Etienne, was also in Caen, but it was far more cutting-edge, borrowing the best elements from earlier Romanesque buildings like Jumièges. Its first abbot was Lanfranc of Bec, William’s spiritual advisor. Lanfranc became archbishop of Canterbury after the Conquest, which meant that Saint Etienne became the model for much that followed in England.
 
The Conqueror was buried at Saint-Etienne in 1087 in a ceremony short on dignity. His bloated corpse burst when the monks tried to cram it into its stone sarcophagus, and the resultant stench caused the congregation to rush home. 
 
3) Battle Abbey, Battle, near Hastings
 
Where William built a monastery to commemorate his famous victory over Harold Godwineson’s English army 
 
On 14 October 1066 an English army led by the recently crowned Harold Godwineson engaged the Norman invasion force led by William the Conqueror, and the outcome is well known. The two sides met at a place seven miles north-west of Hastings, which at the time had no very obvious name. Today it is known as Battle.
 
Before the fighting began, William had sworn that, if God granted him victory, he would repay the debt by founding a monastery. Such at least is the story told by the chronicler at Battle Abbey, the church that the Conqueror went on to build in order to commemorate his triumph and atone for the bloodshed. Founding a church in such circumstances was not unusual: Cnut had done the same after his decisive victory at Assandun in 1016, and it was recommended in a list of penances, drawn up by the bishops of Normandy, for those who had fought at Hastings, probably in 1067 and certainly by 1070. The church that William commissioned was destroyed during the Reformation, but excavation shows that it was a modest building with a nave measuring 120 feet.
 
Despite attempts to discredit it, the abbey’s claim to have been built on the site of the battle is a good one. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written before 1100 by an Englishman who had lived at William’s court, the Conqueror established his abbey “on the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England”.
 

The remains of the monks’ dormitory at Battle Abbey, which has a good claim to having been built on the site of the battle of Hastings. (Alamy)
 
4) Canterbury Cathedral
 
Where an Anglo-Saxon cathedral became a Norman masterpiece
 
The first major church to be razed and replaced after the Norman Conquest was also the most important: Canterbury Cathedral, then as now England’s principal metropolitan seat. The old Anglo-Saxon cathedral had been one of the largest and most impressive in Europe, its history stretching back to the time of St Augustine. But in 1067 it was damaged by fire, and when Lanfranc arrived to take up his post as archbishop three years later he showed no interest in restoring it. The ancient fabric was swept away and a new Norman building rose in its place, so swiftly that it was ready for dedication in 1077. “You do not know which to admire more,” wrote William of Malmesbury half a century later, “the beauty or the speed”.
 
Lanfranc was similarly insensitive to English tradition when it came to Canterbury’s shrines and relics, removing them as a prelude to construction, but placing them in an inaccessible upstairs room, where they seem to have remained for the rest of his time in office.
 
Extensive rebuilding in later centuries means that next to nothing remains today of Lanfranc’s cathedral, parts of which were already being replaced during the time of his successor, Anselm. The columns of the crypt, their capitals richly carved with animals, date from this period.
 
5) St Paul’s Monastery, Jarrow
 
Where an important northern monastery was refounded
 
Anyone who thinks the sweeping social change that occurred after 1066 would have happened without the Norman Conquest would do well to consider the fate of the church in the north of England. Once it had been a region full of monasteries – witness the Venerable Bede and the Lindisfarne Gospels – but these had been wiped out in the ninth and 10th centuries by the arrival of the Vikings. 
 
By the late 10th century the Vikings themselves were gone, and the north was notionally ruled by the kings of a newly united England. A revival of northern monasticism, however, had to wait for the coming of the Normans. Soon after the Conquest, a Norman knight named Reinfrid saw the ancient ruined abbey at Whitby and decided to become a monk at Evesham. A short time later, in 1073, he set out with two like-minded English monks on a mission to refound the northern monasteries described by Bede. They began at Jarrow (where a stretch of wall survives from one of the monastic ranges), but other houses were soon revived at Selby, Whitby, Durham and York. There is no better example of how conquerors and religious reformers marched in step.
 
6) St Albans Abbey, St Albans 
 
Where the Normans created one of England’s grandest abbeys 
 
The abbey at St Albans was one of the most prestigious in Anglo-Saxon England, for St Albans himself had the honour of being the first British martyr. Plans had been afoot to rebuild its church in the late 10th century, but although much building material was collected, no actual construction had taken place. Again, all this changed with the coming of the Normans: in 1077 Lanfranc’s nephew, Paul, was installed as the new abbot of St Albans, and work on a new church began immediately. Paul seems to have shared his uncle’s disdain for local tradition, reportedly referring to his sainted English predecessors as “uncouth illiterates” and removing their tombs. The grandeur of the church he created can still be appreciated today, for large parts of its original fabric survive. Strikingly, the masons decided to use bricks from the ruins of the nearby Roman town of Verulamium – possibly the material collected but not used a hundred years earlier.
 

St Albans Abbey, with the Norman tower in the background. The Normans began rebuilding the Anglo-Saxon abbey in 1077, using bricks from the nearby ruins of the Roman town of Verulamium. (Alamy)
 
7) Winchester Cathedral
 
Where William built on a scale unrivalled in northern Europe
 
Each new abbey and cathedral that was begun in England after the Norman Conquest was larger than the last. Looking at nave lengths, for instance, we see a steady progression during the 1070s: Canterbury measures 185 feet, Lincoln 188 and St Albans 210. One can well imagine their respective abbots and bishops deliberately trying to surpass each other.
 
Even seen against this trend, however, the new cathedral begun at Winchester in 1079 stands out as exceptional. Its nave, which stretched to an astonishing 266 feet, was not only the longest in England by a very considerable margin; it was the longest in northern Europe, beating even the cathedral raised earlier in the 11th century by the Holy Roman Emperor at Speyer. Only St Peter’s in Rome, built by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD, relegates Winchester into second place.
 
Winchester was, of course, the ancient capital of Wessex, a city that in the 11th century stood second only to London in terms of importance. As such we can easily believe that the desire to build on such a gargantuan scale originated with William the Conqueror himself, and suggests an ambition to be regarded in the same light as emperors past and present. As at St Albans, despite later rebuilding, much of the original Norman fabric at Winchester survives.
 

Winchester’s north transept, which is almost unchanged from the original building constructed in the 11th century. (Alamy)
 
8) Durham Cathedral 
 
Where Norman ecclesiastical architecture reached its zenith
 
Big they may have been, but the new Norman churches built immediately after 1066 were not necessarily of the highest quality. During the 12th century, several major examples (most notably Winchester) suffered collapsed towers, which contemporaries attributed to high winds and earthquakes, but which probably had more to do with jerry-building, as the first generation of Norman patrons raced to make their mark.
 
In the second generation, however, we see the quality of craftsmanship improve, and nowhere more so than at Durham, begun in 1093 and generally regarded as the epitome of Norman ecclesiastical architecture. Its great glory is its rib-vaulted roof, the earliest of its kind outside of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. 
 
Durham also differs from earlier Norman churches in being highly decorated, its columns carved with spirals, zigzags and lozenges, its doors surrounded by chevrons. Decoration had been commonplace on Anglo-Saxon churches before 1066, so its appearance at Durham can be seen as early evidence that the two cultures, conquering and conquered, were beginning to fuse.
 
Marc Morris is the author of The Norman Conquest, published by Windmill.
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