William Conquered England and Its Church

William Conquered England and Its Church

When William the Conqueror landed in England on this day, September 28, 1066, his invasion had the approval of Pope Alexander II who gave him a banner to crusade under. Its repercussions on the church in England were enormous, going far beyond the stone architecture of the great Norman cathedrals that we still admire.

William claimed authority over the church in the entire region that he ruled. He ousted almost all of the English-born bishops and abbots, replacing them with Normans. He installed tough-minded Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury; and Lanfranc's rules became the law of the English church.

William worked closely with Lanfranc, who organized the church and, using English precedents (some of them forged), brought the Archbishop of York under the authority of Canterbury. William preferred to deal with one church hierarchy, not two.

Bishops became part of the feudal military structure. Each one was required to send a certain number of knights to William's armies. The justice dispensed by many small church courts was shifted to a few bishops and administered by archdeacons that the bishops had to appoint. The conquering king retained the right to overrule the decisions of church courts and to hear all cases in which a layman was in conflict with the church.

William personally attended the local church councils which now became more frequent. He acted as master of all they did.

Under the Norman reforms, bishops' seats were moved to cities. For example, Dorchester was moved to Lincoln. Priests were required to be celibate. Until then, their marriage had been tolerated. Now marriage was "grand-fathered" out, with parish priests allowed to keep their wives, but not the higher clergy; and no new priest could be ordained without swearing to be celibate. William laid down three rules: no pope would be recognized in his kingdom and no letter from a pope received unless first approved by him. No church council might enact a ruling without his sanction, and the church better not reprimand any of his noblemen without his consent.

Late in William's reign, Pope Gregory VII demanded that William swear fealty to him (that is, accept the pope as his feudal lord). Apparently Gregory believed that since William had sought a pope's permission to invade England, he owed his kingdom to the pope. William indignantly rejected the idea. The pope and the king also clashed because the king appointed bishops whom he expected to be loyal to him, whereas the pope considered that bishops owed their first loyalty to Rome.

These differences never came to a head and William was always a strong supporter of the church in his dominions. His policy fought pluralism (churchmen holding more than one position) and simony (buying church positions). Whether he did more harm than good to the church in England is debated to this day. But no one doubts that he drastically changed it.


  1. Douglas, David C. William the Conqueror; the Norman impact upon England. Berkeley: University of California, 1964.
  2. Thurston, Herbert. "William the Conqueror." The Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
  3. "William the Conqueror." The Dictionary of National Biography, founded in 1882 by George Smith; edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  4. Various internet articles.

Last updated July, 2007

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