The Rise of the Normans

The Rise of the Normans

Four months later, the new Pope made a hardly less momentous decision: he entered into alliance at Melfi with the Normans of South Italy, the same nation whom the last Orthodox Pope, Leo IX, had died fighting, and whom he had cursed on his deathbed. The alliance was momentous because up to this moment the Popes had always turned for protection to the Roman Christian Emperor, whether of East Rome or of the “Holy Roman Empire” of the West. Indeed, the Pope had insisted on crowning the “Holy Roman Emperor” precisely because he was the papacy`s official guardian. For it was unheard of that the Church of Rome should recognize as her official guardian any other power than the Roman Emperor, from whom, according to the forged `Donation of Constantine`, she had herself received her quasi-imperial ignity and power. But just as, in the middle of the eighth century, the Papacy had rejected the Byzantines in favour of the Franks, so now – after cutting the last remaining links with Byzantium by “anathematising” the Orthodox Church – it rejected the Germans in favour of the Normans, a recently formed nation of Viking origin but French speech and culture. (They had sworn allegiance to the French king who gave them what would be known as Normandy which was at the estuary of the River Sienne and so they would protect Paris from other Northmen, they later rescinded this, but this did not stop Robert son of the Duke William of Normandy fighting against his own father for the King of France their liege lord and would become the Duke of Normandy on the death of his father).

Now the Normans had recently seized a large swathe of land belonging to the Lombards and Byzatines in Southern Italy. The pope legitimized this robbery in exchange for the Norman leaders Richard of Capua and Robert Guiscard becoming his feudal vassals and swearing to support the Papacy. In addition, Robert Guiscard specifically promised: “If you or your successors die before me, I will help to enforce the dominant wishes of the Cardinals and of the Roman clergy and laity in order that a pope maybe chosen and established to the honour of St. Peter.” (59)


Guiscard was as good as his word. “Every stage in the Norman progress,” writes Professor Douglas, “entailed from the first a practical extension of papal power in the countries which were subjected to the Normans.” (60) “Thus after 1059 the Norman conquests were made progressively to subserve the restoration of the Latin rite and the extension of papal jurisdiction in southern Italy” (61) – at the expense both of the Byzantines and of the German Emperor, Henry IV, who was at that time still a child and therefore unable to react to the assault on his position.


Even before this, the Papacy had begun to forge close bonds with the Normans in their homeland in Northern France, whence the papal assault on that other fortress of old-style Orthodox Autocracy, England, would soon be launched. Thus in 1055, the year after Duke William of Normandy seized effective control of his duchy by defeating a coalition led by his lord, King Henry I of France, the old-fashioned (that is, Orthodox) Archbishop Mauger was deposed to make way for the more forward-looking Maurilius. He introduced “a new and extraneous element” (62) – that is, an element more in keeping with the ideals of the heretical, “reformed papacy” – into the Norman Church. Then, in 1059, papal sanction for the marriage between Duke William and Matilda of Flanders, which had been withheld by Leo IX, was finally obtained, opening the way for full co-operation between the Normans and the Pope. Finally, William supported the candidacy of Alexander II to the throne as against that of Honorius II, who was supported by the German Empress Agnes. (63) The Pope now owed a debt of gratitude to the Normans which they soon to call in…


By the 1060s, then, there were only two powers in the West that stood in the way of the complete triumph of the crude, militaristic ethos of feudalism: the Orthodox autocracies of England and Germany. By the end of the century both powers had been brought low – England by military conquest and its transformation into a single feudal fief at the hands of the Normans, and Germany by cunning dialectic and the fear of excommunication by the Pope.




The weakness of the English consisted in the fact that in their whole history there was not a single instance of struggle with Rome over doctrinal (as opposed to canonical or administrative) matters, nor any appeal by the English Church to the Eastern Churches against the Pope; so that there were no clear indications as to how a struggle between the King and Pope, or the local Church and the Pope, would end…


However, from the late tenth century, instances of tension between England and Rome become more common. Thus St. Dunstan refused to sanction an uncanonical marriage which the Pope approved of, saying: “I am not to be moved, even by the threat of death, from the authority of my Lord.” (64) Again, in 991, at a Council in Rheims attended by English as well as French bishops, Arnulph, bishop of Orleans, said that if Pope John XV had no love and was puffed up with knowledge, he was the Antichrist. (65) And in the early eleventh century Archbishop Wulfstan of York (+1023) openly warned the Pope against the sin of simony; while King Canute obtained from him a promise not to exact money from the English archbishops for the `pallium`. (66)


But these were minor challenges compared with the one that now faced the English. For now, if they were to preserve their spiritual and national identity, they would have to break, finally and decisively, with the place and the institution to which they had been so devoted – Rome and the Roman papacy…




The holy King Edward was born near the beginning of the eleventh century. His father was the English King Ethelred, and his mother – the Norman princess Emma. When Queen Emma was pregnant with him, “all of the men of the country,” as his earliest, anonymous biographer records, “took an oath that if a man child should come forth as the fruit of her labours, they would await in him their lord and king, who would rule over the whole race of the English.” (67)


In spite of this promise, Edward`s claim to the throne was laid aside in favour of those of Ethelred`s six sons by an earlier marriage – in particular, Edmund Ironside, who became king in 1051 and was killed in the same year, and the Danish King Canute`s sons by Elgiva of Northampton (Harold I) and Queen Emma (Hardacanute). It must therefore seemed a great miracle to his contemporaries that Edward should finally, when already in middle age have succeeded to the throne of his father`s, reigning in peace for another twenty-four years. it must have seemed, moreover, that God was taking pity on His people again after the heavy chastisement of the Danish yoke (1016-1042); for, as the anonymous biographer writes, “just a as father, after chastising his children, is at peace with them again, shows himself a soothing comforter, so God`s loving kindness, sparing the English after the heavy weight of his rebuke, showed them a flower preserved from the root of their ancient kings, and gave them the strength and fired their minds to seek this flower for the kingdom as well as for their salvation.” (68)


When Edward was still in his cradle, he was brought to the monastery of Ely by his parents, according to the monastery`s chronicler, “above the holy altar… Moreover, as the elders of the church who were present and saw it used to tell, he was brought up there in the monastery with the boys for a long time, learning the psalms and hymns of the Lord with them.” (69)


Some have doubted whether an English king could have been dedicated his son to a life of monastic chastity in this way. But he was not regarded as the immediate heir: in the charters of the latter period of Ethelred`s reign, his name is added at the bottom of the list of princes. (70) Moreover, so close were the links between the English royal family and the monasteries that both Kings Edgar and Edward the Martyr were brought up by monks, while the daughter of Kings Alfred the Great and Edward the Elder, and the sister of Edward the Martyr, were dedicated nuns. It is therefore not impossible that the future King Edward was brought up by monks, at least until the royal family was forced to flee to Normandy in 1013. And his later virginal life, even in marriage, is certainly not inconsistent with a vow made by his parents when he was only a child.


The fruits of the boy`s pious upbringing were soon evident. On 2nd February, 1014, King Swein of Denmark was miraculously killed by St. Edmund while he was ravaging East Anglia. (71) This event was made known by revelation to Prince Edward, although he was only a boy of twelve at the time. (72)


But when Edward had this revelation, his father King Ethelred and the whole royal family were in exile in Normandy, expelled by their subjects, who had been exasperated by his failed policies against the Danes, and especially by the fruitless payment of ever larger amounts of tax, the Danegold. Archbishop Wulfstan of York saw in this and other betrayals the root cause of the people`s failure to repel the pagan Danes: “For there are here in the land great disloyalties towards God and towards the state, and there are also many here in the country who are betrayers of their lords in various ways. And the greatest betrayal in the world of one`s lord is that a man betray his lord`s soul; and it is also a great betrayal of one`s lord in the world, that a man should plot against his lord`s life or, living, drive him from the land; and both have happened in this country. They plotted against Edward [the Martyr] and then killed him… Many are forsworn and greatly perjured, and pledges broken over and again; and it is evident in this nation that the wrath of God violently oppresses us…” (73)


The English repented and recalled their king from exile. However, on 23rd April, 1016, he died “after a life of much hardship and many difficulties. Then, after his death, all the councillors of England chose Edmund [Ironside, his eldest son by his first wife] as king, and he defended his kingdom valiantly during his lifetime.” (74)


The seven short months of Edmund`s reign are among the most dramatic in English history, matching only by the nine months of Harold Godwinson`s in 1066. The pattern of events, moreover, was very similar to that later drama: great extremes of heroism and treachery, culminating in the crucifixion of a conquered country. Thus immediately after the Witan proclaimed Edmund king in London, the bishops and chief men of Wessex assembled and unanimously elected Canute, the son of King Swein, as king. Meeting him at Southampton, writes Florence of Worcester, “they repudiated and renounced in his presence all the race of Ethelred, and concluded peace with him, swearing loyalty to him, and he also swore to them that he would be a loyal lord to them in affairs of Church and state.” (75)


Undeterred by this treachery to the ancient royal dynasty that had served England so well, king Edmund raised no less then five armies against the Danes, and was finally killed, on 30th November,(not by a Dane, but by the ubiquitous traitor of his father`s reign, Earl Eadric Streona who on telling Canute was immediately dispatched! by him). He was buried beside his grandfather, King Edgar the Peaceable, at Glastonbury. And so the whole of England passed into the hands of Canute the Dane…


The young Prince Edward, lover of monasticism though he was, had shown great valour as a warrior in this period. Thus we read in a Scandinavian source that, during the battle for London between the English and the Danes, “Thorkel the tall had taken the one part of the town; many of his host had fallen there. Then Earl Thorkel the Tall went to King Canute to win the other part of the town, and as luck would  have it, just saved his life, for Edward, King Ethelred`s son, struck at that time a blow which men have held in memory in after days. Thorkel thrust Canute off his horse, but Edward smote asunder the saddle and the horse`s back. After that, however, the brothers had to take flight, and Canute exulted in his victory, and thanked King Olaf for his help.” (76)


Canute was to become an exemplary defended of the Church; (77) but at the beginning of his reign he acted like the inveterate pagan that he still was, inflicting the last and largest ever Danegold tax on the nation, while disposing of all his possible political opponents. Thus Prince Edwy, St. Edward`s half-brother, was killed, while his brothers Edward and Edmund were sent (to the king of the Swedes to be killed.” (78) The Swedish king, however, was a Christian, baptised by the English missionary bishop of St. Sigfrid. (79) So he would not acquiesce in Canute`s demand, in spite of the treaty he had with him. Instead, “he sent them to the king of the Hungarians, Solomon by name, to be preserved and brought up there…” (80)




To avoid the same fate, St. Edward and his brother Alfred were forced to return to Normandy… Soon the princes had another shock. In July, 1017 King Canute married Emma, King Ethelred`s widow. To her sons in exile in Normandy it must have come as a shock that their mother should marry the conqueror of their country and the murderer of their brothers, while letting them languish alone in exile. This may explain, at least in part, the difficult relations King Edward had with his mother at the beginning of his reign.


Now on the death of King Canute, the throne of England passed t to his son by Elgiva of Northampton, Harold, while Denmark was ruled by his son of Queen Emma, Hardacanute, initially, Emma hoped that her son Hardacanute would become king; and supported by the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex, she even struck coins in currency north of the Thames bore Harold`s name. However, when it became clear that he was not going to come to England from Denmark, she turned to her sons in Normandy. She wrote to them to leave Normandy and join her at Winchester. (81)


Then came his brother Alfred. The murder of Prince Alfred – probably by Emma`s former ally Earl Godwin at King Harold`s instigation – was, as we have seen, one of the excuses William of Normandy used for the invasion of 1066. The Abingdon manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (c. 1050) records: “Godwin prevented him [Alfred], and placed him in captivity, dispersing his followers besides, killing some in various ways. Some were sold for money, some cruelly murdered, some put in chains, some blinded, some mutilated and some scalped. No more horrible deed was done in this land after the Danes came and made peace with us.” (83) And in another chronicle we read that in 1060 Godwin admitted to the murder, but swore to King Hardacanute and all the chief men of the land “that it was not by his council or his will that his brother was blinded, but that his lord King Harold had ordered him to do what he did.” (84)


Prince Alfred actually died from his wounds in the monastery of Ely, that great fortress of Anglo-Saxon Orthodoxy. The  body was buried with great honour in the southern porch of the west end of the church, where “wonderously beautiful visions of lights often occur”, wrote the monastery chronicle. And there were “many miracles…, as people report who even declare most repeatedly that they have seen them.” (85)


The years which followed Prince Alfred`s murder, until his brother Edward ascended the throne, were among the most wretched in English Orthodox history. The Danish rule, which had been tolerable under Canute, now became an oppressive yoke. In 1038 Archibishop Athelnoth “the Good” died followed, seven days later, by Bishop Athelric of Selsey: “for he had besought God that he should not live long in this world after the death of his most beloved father, Athelnoth.” (86) In the next two years these losses were compounded by the deaths of Bishops Alfric of Elmham, Beorhtheah of Worcester, Beortmaer of Lichfield and Edmund of Durham, who were succeeded by men of much lower spiritual stature. Thus to York came Alfric Puttoc, or the Hawk, who was angry when, in 1038, the vacant see of Worcester was not also given to him, as it had been, by an exceptional measure, to two of his predecessors. Instead the king gave it to a favourite of Godwin`s, Lifting of Crediton, who now held three sees simultaneously. Nor was this the only case of sees held in plurality or through simony. Elmham was given to a king`s chaplain, Stigand (later archbishop of Canterbury). “But he was afterwards ejected, and Grimcetel was elected for gold, and held then two dioceses.” (87)


However, as the spiritual atmosphere darkened, a revelation was given to one of the last of the holy bishops – Brihtwald of Ramsey. He was once weeping over the plight of the people, “and asked,” records King Edward`s anonymous biographer, “that God`s mercy should look favourably upon them. At that time he passed the watches of his weeping in the monastery of Glastonbury, and weary after so many tears the man of God fell asleep. When lo! In the Holy of Holies he saw the blessed Peter, the first of the Apostles, consecrate the image of a seemly man as king, mark out for him a life of chastity, and set the years of his reign by a fixed reckoning of his life. And when the king even at this juncture asked him of the generations to come who would reign in the kingdom, Peter answered, `The kingdom of the English is of God; and after you he has already provided a king according to His will,`” (88)


The “seemly man” marked out for a life of chastity was King Edward. And the prophecy began to be fulfilled when King Harold`s successor Hardacanute died suddenly while drinking at a marriage feast in 1042. Supported by the most powerful man in the realm, Earl Godwin, Prince Edward was recalled from exile.