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Holy Sovereignty:  How the English Church Resisted a Norman Takeover

Holy Sovereignty: How the English Church Resisted a Norman Takeover


The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 brought enormous social and political upheaval to English society. Structures and institutions that had been in place for centuries were replaced by Norman ones, or erased entirely.

Ecclesiastical institutions were not exempt from this turmoil. As the Normans took control and the balance of power began to shift, the English Church sought to assert its claim to independence and self-governance - its “holy sovereignty”. 

The cults of English saints would prove vital to these efforts to re-establish sovereignty over both the lands owned by the Church, and perhaps more importantly the people within their local communities. Not only did these saints offer unity, identity, and divine leadership at a time of constant uncertainty, but they also bolstered the legitimacy of whichever religious institution claimed them as their patron saint.

Because, as the leaders of the English Church knew, the only way to resist the sovereignty of an earthly ruler is to invoke the sovereignty of a higher power. But how successful were their attempts at resistance? Was the English Church outplayed at its own game?

The Conquest and the Aftermath

Before Edward the Confessor’s death in 1066, he named William, the bastard son of the Duke of Normandy, as heir to the throne of England. This claim was disputed by Harold Godwinson, one of the most powerful Earls in England at the time. Harold also claimed to have been chosen as heir, had himself crowned King of England following Edward’s death.

Harold had sworn fealty to William in 1064 (Archivist / Adobe Stock)

Harold had sworn fealty to William in 1064 (Archivist / Adobe Stock)

It is impossible to say, from the evidence we have available to us, what Edward’s true wishes were and who his “true” heir was. But nonetheless it was William who invaded southern England, defeated Harold, and earned himself the titles of “William I of England” and “William the Conqueror.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Conquest, William set about confirming the lands and titles of his nobles, redistributing them in some cases. Given his claim that he was Edward the Confessor’s true heir, William was bound by convention and obliged to respect the pronouncements of previous English kings – except Harold, of course.

The English Church

This redivision and redistribution of lands made the English Church nervous – disputes were arising left and right between various claimants and nobody’s land rights were completely secure. This threat to their property was worsened by the threat posed by new Norman powers within the English church.

When Archbishop Stigand was deposed in 1070, the Norman abbot of St Stephen’s in Normandy, Lanfranc, was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury. The new Archbishop immediately set about replacing Englishmen with Normans in positions of power within the church.

Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral (Giogo / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, Canterbury Cathedral (Giogo / CC BY-SA 4.0)

While Lanfranc was also obliged to respect the pronouncements of his predecessors to some extent, he was nevertheless committed on reform. In this he also had the power of the Papacy backing him – Pope Alexander II played an important role in endorsing and legitimizing the Norman Conquest of England.

"Holy Sovereignty”

Asserting their rights and legitimacy became a primary concern for many English institutions. The best manner in which they could do this was through the production of literature. This documentation would not only affirm the rights granted to them by terrestrial authorities, but also establish the institution’s right to existence and independence, given by divine providence.

This concept of “holy sovereignty” is based on the universal assumption inherent in medieval European societies: that the authority of God as the “one true king” superseded that of any earthly sovereign. The idea of divine providence was important to the Normans – William’s own biographer Orderic Vitalis said he had taken the English crown “by divine grace, not hereditary right.”

So by establishing this holy sovereignty the English Church sought to remove itself from the control of earthly authorities who would seek to undermine it.

Is The Pen Mightier Than The Sword?

Accordingly, the decades immediately after the Norman Conquest saw an explosion in hagiographical writing. Between 1066 and 1140 over 60 texts were produced, most of which were written by or for English institutions of monks and nuns and addressed to “hostile” Norman prelates.

These writings also carried the underlying message of the righteousness of these communities in the sight of God. This was signified by their history and the continuing prosperity of their saint’s cult, and the hagiographical genre was a particularly effective vehicle for communicating both these ideas.

The Liber Eliensis (Jchancerel / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Liber Eliensis (Jchancerel / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hagiographies have long been seen as a type of biographical writing, but in fact they are much more than that. A hagiography is an important record of local history – it tells the story of the relationship between a saint, their community, and God, almost always centered around a singular place or locality.

Many hagiographies incorporate pieces of local folklore and legend into their narratives, as well as actual copies of legal documents such as charters pertinent to that particular community or region. These could be real documents or forgeries. After the Norman Conquest it became common practice to include such documents in hagiographies, or to make special mention of decrees made by terrestrial authorities such as bishops or kings, with regards to the rights or properties of the institution.

Rewriting History?

Post-Conquest hagiographers showed new concern with demonstrating how God’s representatives on Earth had assented to the inception of the institution and the role they played in its creation. They asserted the validity of their cult and themselves as its guardians by creating authority-laden narratives that confirmed their rights.

Aethelthryth, sanctified as St Etheldreda, in Ely Cathedral (Francis Helminski / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Aethelthryth, sanctified as St Etheldreda, in Ely Cathedral (Francis Helminski / CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Liber Eliensis, for example, which doubles as both a history of the Ely Abbey and a hagiography of its patron saint Aethelthryth, makes a clear statement of the institution’s legal and divine right to possess the lands upon which it stands:

“[Aethelthryth] arrived at Ely, and her own estate, which she had received from Tondberht, her first husband, predestined for her, and to be held by her in perpetuity, by virtue of the legal settlement on her of a marriage-gift – no, rather, by divine agency…It was decreed, therefore, in the proper manner, by all the people who were the lay and ecclesiastical leaders of England…the liberty of the place should not be diminished or destroyed in future by either king or bishop.”

Conventions also arose within the genre that were aimed at creating a sense of antiquity for both the saint’s cult and the institution at which it was based. For example it would be claimed that a hagiography was written using Old English source materials to prove its continued existence over centuries. The author of the Miracles of St Edmund, Hermann the Archdeacon, participates in this tradition, keenly interested in expressing the authenticity and immutability of his source material:

“For some particulars I am indebted to the confiding testimony of living persons; others I have found written in a difficult and, so to speak, an adamantine hand by some unknown writer.”

Protected by God

Some hagiographers, including the two already mentioned here, took their narratives a step further. Not only did they declare their right to holy sovereignty, they also demonstrated how those who sought to violate that sovereignty would be divinely punished.

The Abbey at Bury St. Edmunds, now a ruin, was home to a large Christian community (Jim Linwood from London / CC BY 2.0)

The Abbey at Bury St. Edmunds, now a ruin, was home to a large Christian community (Jim Linwood from London / CC BY 2.0)

Hermann tells the story in his Miracles of how a Norman bishop named Herfast was punished by St Edmund for harrying the community at Bury-St-Edmunds. The saint “avenged his flock” by blinding the bishop with a branch to his eye, “plunging the man into paroxysms of unexpected agony as both eyes are changed into a well of spurting blood”.

The Liber Eliensis tells a similar story of how Aethelthryth protected her community from invasion in the 1070s. The invaders built a causeway to cross the marshes surrounding the Isle of Ely and then “passed over that causeway at high speed, thrusting for the gold which they falsely believed to have been hidden on the Isle.”

However the invaders were quickly drowned when the causeway collapsed into the swamp, which the hagiographer claims was a “beneficent act” of the “blessed women” who protect and defend their isle. Stories such as these created a sense of the inviolability of these institutions’ independence, weaponizing the saints and recruiting them into the English resistance against the Normans.

A Non-Hostile Takeover

What these English religious houses could not have foreseen was that the war of words they were preparing for never materialized, and their resistance was met with very little open opposition. New Norman appointees within the English church made no serious effort to suppress the veneration of English saints or to change practices of worship such as feast calendars and church dedications. Nor were there widespread attempts to replace English saints with those from the Norman homeland.

That is not to say the Normans did not recognize the threat to their authority represented by the English saints. Rather, their response was inhibited by the recognition that there was peril in questioning the validity of a cult that had been well established in the hearts and minds of their subject population.

Other Norman displays of power, such as the castles they built in this period, were less subtle (Juha Agren / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Other Norman displays of power, such as the castles they built in this period, were less subtle (Juha Agren / CC BY-SA 4.0)

There was the real potential for harm to befall the houses newly under Norman control if they undermined the cult of a local patron saint. Any subsequent misfortune might be seen as divine retribution and cast doubt over the authority of the interloper.

To cement the victory of the Norman Conquest, it was important to the Normans that they appear to be divinely endorsed. Just as the English had recognized the power of hagiography in affirming divine provenance, so did the new Norman prelates. Increasingly from the 1090s the Normans adopted English cults into symbols of their own legitimacy. By connecting themselves to the well-established cults of English saints through hagiography, Norman appointees could both strengthen their claim to authority and secure the loyalty of their communities.

Written Into The Landscape

We can see how effectively the Normans executed their insidious takeover of the English saint’s cults by looking at the provenance of the two hagiographies mentioned before, Hermann’s Miracles of St Edmund and the Liber Eliensis.

Hermann wrote his Miracles between approximately 1070-1090, when the abbey at Bury-St-Edmunds was under the control of a Norman abbot, Baldwin, but when its population was still English. The Liber Eliensis  was written between 1109-1133 at a time when Ely and its abbey were firmly under Norman control. And yet it aligns itself with English royal saints, Aethelthryth and her sisters, Wihtburh, Seaxburh and Eormenhild.

Ely Cathedral (Verbcatcher / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ely Cathedral (Verbcatcher / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Reiterating the continued protection these saints provide for their community implies that the Normans’ presence there is divinely sanctioned. It also insinuates the new Norman overlords into local tradition and creates continuity. The identity generated for the community at Ely is neither distinctly English or Norman but something entirely unique, in which the Normans have a part to play.

English attempts to assert the “holy sovereignty” of their religious houses were both simultaneously a wild success and a dismal failure. The Normans were forced to recognize the power held by these English saint’s cults, that had existed well before William the Conqueror ever set foot on the shore at Hastings.

Instead of replacing English saints with their own, the Normans simply adopted them and continued to promote their veneration. However, while the saints themselves survived unscathed, the English churchmen were not so lucky. Those who sought to consolidate their own power through affirming the divine rights of the saints found themselves summarily defeated, unseated and replaced by the Normans, as they took over the English church.

Top image: The Saxons feared the Norman conquerors would take over their church. Source: Polonio Video / Adobe Stock.

By Meagan Dickerson


Blanton, Virginia. 2007. Signs of Devotion: The Cult of St. Aethelthryth in Medieval England, 695-1615. The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Garnett, George. 1986. “Coronation and Propaganda: Some Implications of the Norman Claim to the Throne of England in 1066: The Alexander Prize Essay.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 36.

Hayward, Paul Antony. 1999. “Translation Narratives in Post-Conquest Hagiography and English Resistance to the Norman Conquest.” In Anglo-Norman Studies XXI: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 1998, ed. Christopher Harper-Bill. Boydell Press.

Ridyard, Susan J. 1988. The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A study of West Saxon and East Anglian cults. Cambridge University Press.

Meagan Dickerson's picture


Meagan is a postgraduate history student, having completed her undergraduate degree in her home country of Australia, majoring in Modern History and Literature, during the course of which she won several awards including the Australian Federation of Graduate Women NSW... Read More

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