The Church, as personified in Domesday by the archbishops, bishops and abbots, held over one quarter of the land in England. As well as the great bishoprics, such as Canterbury and Worcester, there were more than 60 major religious houses for men and women, which were richly endowed. Some preceded the Conquest, for example at Wilton, Wiltshire, the royal seat of the kingdom of Wessex. The aristocratic nunnery of Wilton, founded in the ninth century, would continue to have links with the monarchy after the Conquest. Other religious houses were of more recent foundation such as Battle Abbey, constructed on the site of the Battle of Hastings on the instructions of King William in 1067.

Edward the Confessor’s body being carried to Westminster Abbey as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry.  By special permission of the City of Bayeux.  Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, 11th century
Edward the Confessor’s body is carried to Westminster Abbey. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century; by special permission of the City of Bayeux.

On Christmas Day 1066 William was crowned in Westminster Abbey. The ceremony took place next to the tomb of Edward the Confessor. He had been buried there the previous year. Edward had been responsible for the construction of the new church at Westminster Abbey, replacing the existing Anglo-Saxon building. This first example of Norman Romanesque church architecture in England had been consecrated in 1065.

Land was given to the Church in perpetuity and until the Reformation could not be sold. The bishops and abbots owed their ultimate spiritual allegiance to the Pope in Rome, but William insisted that they paid homage to him and rendered military service. He relied on churchmen to act as his administrators. Unlike many barons, churchmen were literate and highly educated.

The King controlled elections to the bishoprics and abbeys. After the Conquest he began to replace English bishops with Normans. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had been an ally of King Harold and his family before the Conquest. But he had a reputation for corruption and his claim on the archbishopric had not been recognised by the Pope. Pluralism was widespread and after he became Archbishop of Cantebury Stigand had continued to hold Winchester as well as positions in a number of abbeys. In 1070 William I collaborated with the papal legates to depose Stigand. He was replaced by Lanfranc, who had previously been abbot of the Norman abbey of Bec. William and Lanfranc, with the backing of the Pope, set about reforming the English Church, which in the eyes of Rome had become slack in its discipline.

Domesday entry for Broadwater, Hertfordshire.  Catalogue reference: E 31/2/1 f.133.  Digital Images and Translation reproduced by kind permission of Editions Alecto Limited
Domesday entry for Broadwater (link to transcript). Catalogue reference: E 31/2/1 f.133. By kind permission of Editions Alecto Limited

In this entry for Broadwater in Hertfordshire land that was valued at 60s in the time of King Edward was worth 30s in 1086. Across the county Lanfranc held less land as Archbishop of Canterbury than Stigand had done. Stigand had held 28 hides of land, valued at more than £60 a year, in 1066. In 1086 Lanfranc held land five and a half feet in width, valued at £7 2s 15d. Some of this land may have belonged to Stigand personally as after 1066 it passed into the hands of lay tenants-in-chief.

One of the few English figures to survive the changes was Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester. Wulfstan was respected for his preaching, pastoral work and generosity to the poor, as well as his administrative capacity. However, the reforming zeal of Lanfranc, Wulfstan and others made little impact on the lives of the priests, most of whom it seems were married. Priests ministering in parish churches serving the manors and boroughs of England were supported by the tithes (a tax of one tenth of earnings) paid by their congregations. Over 2000 churches are mentioned in Domesday Book. These were a mixture of minster churches, which were staffed by communities of priests and served large parishes, and smaller manorial churches, often served by a single priest. Other evidence, including the buildings themselves, show that there were in face far more churches that are recorded in Domesday.

Although monasticism, particularly the Benedictine order, was already established in England, the years following the Conquest witnessed a revival in this side of religious life. For more than a century after 1066 representatives of different monastic orders came to England in large numbers. The Cistercian order had a great deal of influence, spreading widely across England and Wales. The Cistercians often drew on local people to work the land needed to establish new abbeys. In this way they opened up the Church to people usually excluded from religious life.

Castle Arcre Priory, Norfolk © English Heritage Photographic Library
Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk. © English Heritage Photographic Library

Among the other new orders to arrive in England were representatives of the Cluniac order. William de Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, and one of William's leading tenants-in-chief, founded the first Cluniac priory in Lewes in 1077. However the order did not generate a lasting impact. The Warenne family founded this priory at Castle Acre in Norfolk in the late 11th century. The pointed arches of some of the windows are early examples of Gothic church architecture in England.

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