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

When completed in the early 12th century, Durham Cathedral was "absolutely up-to-the-minute in its design and near-perfect in its execution," says Marc Morris. (Jim Gibson via Getty Images)

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

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.

8 places linked to Norman Churches


Jumièges Abbey, Jumièges, Normandy

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