The Church in Norman England

Interior of Durham Cathedral. Architectural style of the Church in Norman England

The Church in Norman England was hugely significant. Religion played a pivotal part in everyday life for all walks of life. The organisation, structure and administration of the Church influenced society on many levels. The Normans made changes to the Church. The Saxon bishops were replaced. Ecclesiastical law was changed. It’s role within society altered. The relationship of the Church to the Monarchy and Papacy altered. 

Interior of Durham Cathedral. Architectural style of the Church in Norman England

When William of Normandy decided to invade England, he sought the blessing of the Pope. With Papal blessing his position as challenger, then king, was justified. The Society and Church that the Normans inherited was well organised. It was also a very important mechanism for the new Norman lords to implement their rule.

Structure of the Church

At the time of the invasion of England the church in England was dominated by the bishoprics (sees) of Canterbury and York. These oversaw a further 14 diocese which in turn ran numerous parishes. Most English churches had adapted to the Roman tradition of church services. There were some that continued to use Celtic traditions, mainly in areas bordering Scotland and Wales. William did not want two equal bishoprics, it was easier for him to work with one as the dominant force. He moved to make Canterbury the leading see. This led to the Canterbury-York dispute running for some time.

Church in daily life

The church itself saw minor and major orders of people working within it. Minor orders are those roles that were carried out by ordinary lay people on a day by day basis. These roles haven’t changed much. They include things such as being on the door, cleaning the church etc. Major orders are the roles that people were trained for. These are deacons, priests and bishops. Within parishes it was these people who offered comfort, advice and oversaw the giving of the sacraments. They led the celebration of feast days. They were central to the local society.

Monasteries had also developed in Saxon England. These played a role in both society and the economy of their localities. They could be large landowners, with lay persons renting land from them. This made them important to the state.

Politics and the Church

The Normans made use of the church system. As the conquest of the country was completed the changes that William made to laws would be most easily spread through both the landowners and the church. The church had a stable structure that had not immediately changed following the invasion. Men such as Archbishop Stigand could be used to negotiate with Saxon lords. They could be used to minimise revolts. This was the case in the early years of William’s reign.

Once the crown was secure, the Church was altered. Lanfranc’s appointment to the see of Canterbury marked the beginning of large changes in the Church in England. These were designed to align the structure with that in Normandy and also to reform the church as was being requested by successive Popes of the era. Such a structure would enable William, then future Norman monarchs, to exert a great deal of authority via the church.

Lanfranc and changes to the English Church

The process was quite quick. Following the failed rebellion of 1070, the bishops of England were almost entirely foreigners. In the period to 1140 only one English born bishop was appointed. Lanfranc instigated a series of reforms. Many of these were part of the Gregorian reform movement. Priests were to be unmarried and celibate, ecclesiastical issues were to be settled in church courts. These led to a quick Normanisation of the church at the upper levels which could then feed into practices within dioceses and parishes.

One of the Gregorian demands was for Archbishops to swear loyalty to the Pope over their King. On this issue the Norman Archbishops had varying views. Lanfranc, for example, never did so. Anselm however quarrelled regularly with William Rufus over the King’s interference in church matters. The Investiture Crisis was solved in 1107 with a compromise agreement made that retained the rights of both the King and the importance of the papacy.


Monasteries expanded rapidly in Norman England. By 1135 it is estimated that the number of monks had quadrupled to roughly 5000. New types of monastic orders entered England. The 1070’s saw Cluniac monasteries built; an expansion in the number of Augustine Monasteries and in the early 12th century Cistercian Monasteries were built. At the start of Stephen’s reign there were some 250 monastic buildings in England, up from 60 at the invasion.

Church Architecture

The most visible change to the Church was, and remains, the architectural changes. The Normans redeveloped some Cathedrals, such as Durham, and built many others. Churches and Monasteries were also built in large numbers in this period. The Norman style of building was markedly different to the Saxon style. These new church buildings, constructed by forced saxon labourers on the whole, were both grand statements to god and to the Saxon population.


The Normans

BBC History Extra

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