King vs Pope

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Why the Pope Supported William's Invasion of England

When Harold broke his oath to support Duke William's claim to the English throne, it fell on two members of the church to find a solution from which the Church would most benefit. Prior Lanfranc of the Abbey of Bec, a trusted servant to Duke William, who was entrusted to go yet again to Rome to gain papal support for William. While in Rome, Archdeacon Hildebrand, the political power behind the papal throne, had his own plans far beyond assisting the Norman Duke.

It is probable that these two formidable ecclesiastical politicians had met on Lanfranc's earlier mission to Rome to obtain papal sanction and blessing on the marriage of Duke William and Matilda. This mission was successful and we can assume that two such similar clergymen established a strong and useful partnership.

Archdeacon Hildebrand's plan was to establish a temporal power base throughout Italy and beyond, by using those newly seized lands established by Norman mercenaries, such as Robert Guiscard Conqueror of Naples. Some of these new nobles had sworn themselves as fiefs to Holy Mother Church, thus these 'Priest-Knights' obtained political recognition through the Church. By increasing the number of devoted Normans willing to conquer new lands for the church and establish new fiefs, Rome could obtain a massive power base not only in Italy but over the alps and indeed wherever such fiefs could be founded. The Archdeacons only problem was the lack of Normans capable of seizing such lands. It would further these plans greatly if the Duke of Normandy and perhaps the future King of England would give his support if not his available nobles. There also arose the question that if Duke William was willing to submit to the authority of Rome on a temporal matter, namely the question of the succession, would William be willing to submit England as a fief to Rome!

It was with these prizes in mind that Archdeacon Hildebrand used his considerable power within the Assembly of Cardinals to promote and support the claims of William Duke of Normandy. Prior Lanfranc presented the arguments in support of William, while Hildebrand brought about the decision. For not only was Harold of England on trail as an oath breaker and a violator of sacred relics but also the Church and State of England was brought under question. The King of England had not sent the levy to Rome known as Peter's Pence, the Church in England had allowed the act of simony to spread within its body and it was argued that the state of England had descended into a near barbarous condition and that only by the appointment of a of King who was a God fearing dutiful son to the Holy Father would England be restored into the brotherhood of the Christian World.

It was clear that some of these charges were unreasonable. The fact that England had a most devout ecclesiastical body with a church that owned nearly 20% of the landed wealth and that simony and the withholding of Peter's Pence was common among many Christian lands could not be presented at the trial. Harold failed to send a clerical spokesman, due to the fact that Harold's supporter Archbishop Stigand would not be recognised by the Papacy.

With such evidence and interests, the excommunication of Harold was foregone. Papal support in the form of the Papal Banner, a Relic and a Papal Blessing were issued. While copies of the Papal Blessing were made and sent from the Abbey of Bec to all those heads of state who may wish to join William in his crusade, clearly indicating the position of the Church. After the conquest there followed a Papal decree which set the penance for having killed in a 'public war', a war that was sanctioned under the terms of the Truce of God.

It was after King William's coronation that problems arose from promises the Pope claimed William had made and that King William denied. The disputes were on the amount of Peter's Pence owed to Rome, the right of Rome to call upon Norman Bishops to attend Rome with a full complement of milites. In fact Bishop Odo was arrested for attempting to obey such a summons when accompanied by his knights. While the question as to if William promised to make England a Papal fief continued to be denied throughout William's life.

Is it coincidence that Archdeacon Hildebrand's plans never succeeded, as William's possible support through Norman adventurers failed to appear?

It may be that the only long term benefit to the Church was the precedent of having direct influence upon the running of a secular power. For if the Church is to be approached as an independent judge in a secular matter, then those secular powers must be in effect submitting part of their power and independence to the Church. Yet the Church within England gained an additional 5% of land by 1086AD. When the Church then held 25% of the landed wealth, the King held 20% directly and the Barons a further 25%. The Papacy may not have gained directly but the Church as a whole certainly did.

Perhaps it is not only with the Devil you need to use a long spoon to sup with!

Original article by Steve Hurley 1993