God and the Normans
David Crouch reconsiders William I and his sons as men of genuine piety – as well as soldiers.
Whenever the knights of the Duke of Normandy cantered across the battlefields of Europe and the Near East, they advertised their presence and their nationality by shouting ‘Dex aie!’ (God our help!). Alone among the French, the Normans claimed by their war cry a special relationship with God in war. Their presumption may have had a lot to do with their rulers’ idea of God’s special relationship with them in peace too. The Norman dynasty is famous for its martial accomplishment, its aggression and, of course, its conquests. Yet, caught up in banners and battlements, it is easy to miss the spiritual and moral foundations on which their great achievements rested. But evidence for them is there and has yet to receive much exploration by historians, a fact which in turn raises some questions about the nature of the modern historical profession.
We must begin with William the Conqueror (r.1066-87), although he was a member of the fifth generation of his dynasty. There is an abundance of modern biographies of this great monarch, as is only right and proper. But not one of the dozen or so works dedicated to him gives more than a bare nod to the nature of the religious beliefs of the man beneath the crown. It is not that the material is not there. In the 1070s William de Poitiers, archdeacon of Lisieux, wrote an elaborate and informative study of his life and works. William was in a very good position to know the state of the Conqueror’s religious observance, for he had been one of his court chaplains for several years before the Hastings expedition. William de Poitiers was a deferential and circumspect inhabitant of the Norman court, determined to portray his master in the best possible light. It is for that reason that he brings to the fore his master’s exemplary conduct before God. He introduces the Conqueror as an ideal Christian prince and layman: protector of the weak and poor and upholder of the law; a man who lived up to his coronation promises. But William is not just being conventionally flattering of his patron, for he goes further. The King, he says, followed the Latin readings of the services he attended; he often joined in the daily office of the clergy and monks of the churches near where he was staying. He strongly held and defended an orthodox doctrine of the significance of the eucharist, and attended mass daily if he could. He eagerly sought the company of clerks and monks of good reputation, and not least the learned Lanfranc, Abbot of Caen (c.1010-89), whom he later made Archbishop of Canterbury. The King’s piety, says William de Poitiers, went back to his early years as boy-duke of Normandy.
It is tempting to put down to exaggeration William de Poitiers’ picture of a king interested and involved in the daily office and lectionary of the Church, and a devout and daily witness of the mass. But there is good evidence that he was simply reporting what he had witnessed in the Conqueror’s household. We may be surprised at a king and warrior able to follow Latin liturgy, but medieval people were good at multiple languages: nobody told them how difficult it was to learn them. Although he could not read, the King – as much as any choir monk – could learn the psalter by heart. We know from other sources that the Conqueror had a deep appreciation of the mass. He shared the belief of the time that frequent attendance was healthful to the soul in life, and that the mass said for an individual soul removed a weight of sin from it in life and after death. His foundation of the abbey of St Stephen at Caen c. 1059 was a long-term project with just that idea in mind. The abbey was to be a power-house of prayer for William in life, and a daily intercessor for his soul after death. He had already planned to be laid to rest there, rather than with his ancestors at Rouen or Fécamp. Just to make sure things were organised properly, his friend and spiritual counsellor, Lanfranc (c.1010-89), was put in charge at Caen in 1063.
The Domesday survey of 1085 reveals that William had been at work on the mathematics of salvation. At some time during his reign the Conqueror organised the priests of the district of Archenfield in Herefordshire so that a daily mass was being said for him at one of their churches. Similarly, when he consented to the building of a church on royal land in the suburbs of Norwich, it was in return for its priest offering a daily mass for his soul.
Pondering on the weight of sin with which his soul was burdened indicates a degree of moral introspection. The Conqueror clearly knew that some of his deeds of violence carried uncomfortably long-term consequences. On his deathbed, his confessors had no trouble getting him to pay handsome damages to the church of Nôtre Dame at Mantes, which he had burned down with its town just before he was seized with his final illness. His foundation of the abbey of St Martin at Battle in the 1070s was both a thanks – offering for victory and also a penance: ‘paying back for the blood shed there by an unending chain of good works’, as the Battle Chronicle says. No one doubts that the Conqueror could be remorseless: not least in his wasting of parts of Yorkshire and the north-west in the desperate campaigning of 1069-70. Yet his natural disposition was towards mercy. When he ousted from power his uncles, Archbishop Mauger and Count William of Arques, in 1053-54, they were granted handsome incomes to support a comfortable exile in the style befitting the sons of a duke. Political opponents like Guy of Burgundy, Earl Roger of Hereford, Edgar Atheling, Earl Morcar, Bishop Odo of Bayeux and Earl Ralph of East Anglia were exiled or kept under house arrest. The execution of Earl Waltheof in 1076 was an exceptional act in William’s long career. He conducted himself to his enemies like a man who was aware that one day there would be a reckoning: his conscience was never unburdened of his part in Waltheof’s fate, by all accounts.
William’s family and household is further evidence of the piety of his court. His wife Matilda of Flanders (c.1032-83), whom he married in c.1050, shared his devotion and they planned for her resting-place a twin abbey at Caen. The serene and apparently untroubled marriage of the royal pair is remarkable. The Conqueror was the first head of his family in six generations who was strictly monogamous. He had no illegitimate children. Maybe this was because he felt no emotional needs that were not satisfied by his wife, or maybe it was because he was attentive to the growing claims of the Church over the policing of the marriage bed. The piety of the royal couple had an effect – positive or negative – on the inhabitants of their court. In the early 1070s it was home to Simon, son of Count Ralph of Amiens. Simon was deeply marked by what he encountered in the Norman court, so different from his violent father’s household. He adopted with fervour the saying of the daily office and the observance of mass, and eventually, when the pressures and compromises of power became too much for him, he joined a monastery. Count Simon’s actions testify to the way sensitive and intelligent medieval princes understood the moral gulf between the practice of power and the principles of their faith. Simon did not go into an abbey to hide from the world, however. He began a new career as a roving papal ambassador for peace, a career that in the end brought him to the threshold of sanctity.
The strength, and possibly the stifling nature, of the Conqueror’s piety had its negative side. To know this we only need to look at his male children. The eldest, Robert (c.1052-1134), whom his father nicknamed ‘Curthose’ or ‘Gambarons’ (Stubby legs), turned out as feckless an international playboy as might have been feared. He enthusiastically embraced the hedonistic culture of the knights of his day. He roamed north-west Europe for long periods with an expensive retinue, travelling, fighting, feasting and leaving behind him several illegitimate children. Robert was not by any means a bad man – he was generous in his treatment of his children and friends – but he never settled down to anything. It was this fecklessness that brought himself and his austere father to blows in 1077, and led to their separation after the death of Queen Matilda in 1083. The salvation of Robert Curthose’s medieval reputation was his decision to join his Flemish cousins on the expedition to the east in 1095, to help save the Byzantine emperor from the Turks. His military expertise and amiability helped to keep the crusading army together. Robert returned to Europe as one of the heroes of Christendom, and although his political career was as disastrous thereafter as it had been before he left, his deeds in the Holy Land promoted his reputation into legend. His exploits featured in stained-glass windows and his tomb at Gloucester abbey became one of the monastery’s principal claims to fame. In religious matters Robert was not his father’s son, yet circumstances somehow conspired to disguise this.
The Conqueror’s second son, William Rufus (c.1056-1100) – crowned William II in 1087 – earned his father’s approval by his steady military loyalty throughout the 1080s. But his relationship with religion was even less easy than his brother’s. An intelligent, cruel and cynical man, as worldly in his interests as his father was pious, he preferred to ignore the demands of faith. That is not to say that he by any means resembled a modern secular man. When at Gloucester in March 1093, he thought he was dying, he trembled and submitted wholeheartedly to the deathbed regime of confession, penance, restitution and absolution. He was so convinced that he must make restitution that in his sick chamber he appointed the eminent scholar and abbot Anselm of Bec (1033-1109) to Canterbury, urging his court bishops to force the pastoral staff into Anselm’s clenched and resisting hands. Rufus’s known personal distaste for Anselm is evidence of how seriously the King viewed the demands of faith at that point. Anselm’s warning that Rufus had better review his decision on his recovery shows how well he knew the King’s mind and how temporary he sensed was Rufus’s sincerity. Their subsequent relationship was destructive, and Anselm eventually left England for exile in Lyons. Rufus remained very much the worldly knight; a man of the hall, not of the chapel. It was amusing to him to shock clerical sensitivities by openly mocking religious truths. He expressed contempt for God as a result of God’s treatment of him in 1093. He said he had no intention of carrying out his promises made when ill to a God who could put him through such discomfort. He liked annoying his bishops by pretending to listen seriously to Jewish scholars who appeared at his court. Both he and his brother, Robert, represent a generation in rebellion against their father’s example. Writers had no doubt that when Rufus was struck down by a crossbow bolt in 1100, dying with no more than a grunt of surprise and without benefit of the last sacraments, the King received the reward of his impiety. This eventual fate was so shocking that Rufus’s admirers had to convince themselves that in the end he had agreed to the truths of which his father was such a notable defender. Thus, in 1139, writing up the King’s final moments, Geoffrey Gaimar chose to imagine the dying king having sufficient grace and time to make a barely coherent confession to a huntsman and – in his delirium – described him accepting three blades of grass as substitute communion.
The behaviour of the Conqueror’s third surviving son, Henry (1068-1135), looks at first sight to be yet another example of rebellion against his father’s example. Henry was a serial adulterer; he too had a difficult relationship with Anselm; and he too was a devotee of knightly culture and worldly luxury. Like Rufus, he was not averse to exploiting his control over church appointments for his own profit. Yet like his sister Adela (c.1062-1137), who became Countess of Blois in France, Henry was in fact more of his father’s child than appears at first sight. Henry and Adela were more receptive than their siblings to the religious culture of their day, and indeed were responsive to the changes in it after their father’s death. Unlike Robert and Rufus, Henry was willing to expend money in much the same way as his father had. In the early 1120s, following the deaths of his wife and son, he raised an expensive Cluniac abbey at Reading which he intended to be his burial church. He was clearly impressed by the liturgical excellence of the monks of Cluny and the pomp of their funeral and obituary masses. To rest in the choir of such an abbey, as he eventually did, was his ultimate ambition. But in the foundation charter of Reading abbey in 1125 the King made provisions his father had not made at Caen. The abbey was not to waste the King’s resources on the abbot’s relations, but, he stipulated, was to spend it on the needy poor, pilgrims and guests. Its rents should not pay for knights to ride in its abbot’s service, but should be devoted to the support of poor crusaders or deserving clerks. Henry I was clearly not as impressed by Benedictine abbots and their temporal grandeur as his father had been. He had seen the abuses current in his time, and intended his own abbey to be different. He sought a purer spirituality.
Henry’s court was extremely open to new monastic movements. The new Augustinian, Savignac and Cistercian orders, and particularly the Knights Templar, all found support there. The source of Henry’s concern for the poor and deserving is at least known. It had been inspired by his wife Matilda II (c.1080-1118), whom he had married in 1100, the daughter of the sainted Queen Margaret of Scotland. Queen Matilda would have been very much approved of by her father-in-law, the Conqueror, had they ever met. She had been a child in his reign, taking refuge with her aunt, Christina, at the Hampshire nunnery of Romsey, north of Southampton. Her convent upbringing had some impact on her, though she strenuously denied the later allegations of her husband’s enemies that she had taken vows as a nun. Her devotional life as queen was regarded as exceptional in her own day. In taking up residence in chambers within the precinct of a monastery, she set the fashion for the English queens of the next generation, her daughter Matilda (c.1102-67), and Stephen’s queen Matilda of Boulogne (c.1103-52). Matilda II resided for long periods in Westminster, the Benedictine foundation of her great-uncle, Edward the Confessor. Her daughter was in due course to reside at Wilton abbey in Wiltshire, and the palace priory of Notre-Dame du Pré, near Rouen. Stephen’s queen, Matilda III, lived for many years in St Augustine’s abbey at Canterbury, although she preferred to listen to mass said by monk-priests of the cathedral, who would chat to her, whereas the Augustinian monks kept rigid silence in her presence.
Henry’s queen, Matilda II, lived in great state. He was a generous man and her marriage settlement left her with an enormous income. Part of the money was spent on recruiting a chapel choir of noted ability, and on the employment of numerous clerks to provide the full daily choir offices. She attended the canonical hours and joined in the psalmody. Her principal ecclesiastical project was the foundation around 1107 of an austere Augustinian house within the walls of London at Aldgate. The first prior of the house was an eccentric scholar called Norman, formerly a canon of Colchester and before that a student and master at the famous cathedral school of Laon in France. Norman was hard on his monks and himself, and was particularly dedicated to the promotion of the discipline of confession among lay people. The Queen had him licensed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as her father confessor. He is the first known – and was possibly the first ever – English royal confessor. He was eventually joined by another Augustinian, an Englishman called Aethelwulf, who was appointed by Henry I as his own confessor at some time before 1122. Regular confession was an indication of advanced spirituality in the first years of the twelfth century, so much so that when the historian, Wace of Bayeux, writing around 1160, wanted to illustrate the exceptional piety of the young Richard I of Normandy (d.996), he did it by portraying him as attending daily prayer, the morning mass and making confession. Lay confession was not indeed unknown in the previous century, and it is quite likely that Queen Matilda learned the discipline from her mother, Margaret of Scotland. Nonetheless it was Henry and Matilda who first institutionalised it within the royal household, and they may have impressed the future Louis VI of France, who had come to visit their court in England in 1101 and stayed there for some months. In due course he too can be found employing an Augustinian father confessor.
Queen Matilda’s other religious project was the building of a great hospital for the poor at Holborn. It is said of her that here she visited the poor and tended lepers. Her actions suggest that she was preparing her response to the questions she knew Christ would pose to her on the day of judgement: where had she been when he was naked and sick? She could at least answer that she had been there. This, and her Lenten austerities, was behaviour that would have been taken as evidence of sanctity in her mother’s generation. Yet Matilda II, despite her devotion and the influence she had over the English royal court, was never seen as a candidate for sanctity. She was always too much the alert and practical politician, quite at home at the exchequer bench where she retained her own clients. With Matilda and Henry we see, for the first time in English court life, that exalted, stylish – and indeed expensive – medieval court devotion of theological conversation, chapels royal, composers, musicians and sumptuous charity. Queen Matilda was the first of the intelligent, political and pious Catholic queens and princesses to grace the medieval court of England; a prototype of Eleanor of Provence (c.1223-91), of Margaret Beaufort (1443-1509) and Mary Tudor (1516-58). Within eight days of Matilda’s death on May 1st, 1118, tens of thousands of masses were said for her soul in the churches of London, and the staggering total of 67,820 poor were fed in her name, according to a contemporary chronicle; the King, then on campaign in Normandy, willingly authorised the huge expense involved. Similar outpourings were to be made on his own death.
The apex of Norman royal devotion was reached with the man reckoned to be its last representative, Stephen of Blois (c.1096-1154), called by several later commentators ‘the most pious king of England’. His mother Adela of Blois (c.1062-1137), the daughter of the Conqueror, was a princess as devoted and theologically instructed as her sister-in-law, Matilda II. Stephen, brought up under her powerful influence, naturally followed the pattern laid down by his predecessors: he made his confession to an Augustinian of Aldgate priory; supported a whole range of monastic orders; built a Cluniac abbey in Kent in which to be commemorated and buried; and attended mass regularly. Like his crusading father, Stephen felt the persistent pull of the Holy Land, and in his period of imprisonment in 1141, it was apparently suggested that he should solve the problem of his dethronement by undertaking to go to Jerusalem with his queen and live out the rest of his days in the Holy City. Although he did not in the end go to Palestine, Stephen was a prominent benefactor of the order of Knights Templar. His elder brother, Count Theobald of Blois and Champagne, was regarded as almost a saint. Like Mathilda II of England, Theobald honoured the poor and sick as if they were Christ. He built them hospitals, made a point of pausing to chat to lepers he met, and carried shoes around in his baggage to give to beggars he met. His care for the poor and sick may have brought him to a premature end in 1152, when he was carried off by one of the infectious diseases which spread through famine-hit France and England in that year.
As the psychologist and philosopher William James demonstrated a century ago, spiritual experience is a constant and universal feature of human life. It is difficult to analyse and impossible to predict and quantify, but very real when it does surface. Medieval lay people have not left us much evidence of the way they experienced their spirituality and lived their faith. We learn of it mainly through the expectations and observations of the medieval cleric, who was a witness with his own agenda: the promotion of orthodoxy and obedience and the defence of the interests of the Church. At least the high profile of medieval royalty gives us some opportunity to consider the spiritual temper of the times, with the additional benefit that royal piety was emulated by those at court and their dependants. But we can only go so far. We will never know, for example, what the crime was that King Stephen confessed to the prophet and holy man Wulfric of Haselbury in 1142. All we know is that he submitted to having his face spat on and slapped as penance. This, at least, tells us that the man’s inner life was tormented, and that he had a deep need to bring his conscience back into balance with God. To know that is to know something significant, and raises broader questions: if the twelfth-century nobleman had a troublesome moral and social conscience, where then did the idea of ‘chivalry’ come from, the priest or the knight himself?
It is, perhaps, asking a lot of twenty-first-century historians of the Middle Ages to bring spirituality to the fore in their treatment of the people they study. Here, as elsewhere, the historian’s own experience can prove compromising. For example, those few today who take down the books of George Gordon Coulton (1858-1947) will know all too well how his eccentric anti-papism distorted his treatment of the Middle Ages. He would not meet the medieval sources on their own terms but, like Mark Twain in his Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1889), wanted to take medieval faith – which he characterised as Roman Catholic – as the antithesis of all that was progressive and hopeful in humanity. But half a century later there are different external influences on the historian. Not least is the secularity of the present world. Historians have, for instance, strung together anticlerical and worldly sentiments which sprang from the lips of eleventh- and twelfth-century warriors like William Rufus or William of Aquitaine and imagined that these men shared their secularity, and had seen through the superstition of their contemporary faith. Irony calls to irony across the centuries and seems to see recognition of itself in medieval eyes. But William Rufus’s irony was not what it seemed; the likelihood is that it was an oppressive father’s religiosity that he was scoffing at and not his own age. He too shouted ‘Dex aie’ when he rode against the enemy, and knew what it was that he was saying.
David Crouch is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Hull.
- All the Norman kings of England now have modern biographies to their name, notably D.R. Bates, William the Conqueror (London, 1989)
- F. Barlow,William Rufus (London, 1983)
- C. Warren Hollister, Henry I (London, 2001)
- D. Crouch, The Reign of King Stephen, 1135-54 (London, 2000)
- For the perspective of queenship, M. Chibnall, The Empress Matilda (Oxford, 1991).
- For a dynastic study see now, D. Crouch, The Normans: the History of a Dynasty (London, 2002).
- For striking insights into the religious world at the time, A. Murray, Reason and Society in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1978)
- R.W. Southern, Medieval Humanism (Oxford, 1970); idem, Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, 1990).
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