Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Book Preview: Church Controversies under the Normans and Angevins

Grace and peace to you all, friends. For awhile I have been working on the manuscript of a book that will be on the subject of sacral kingship in the Middle Ages—the idea that the king, by virtue of his coronation, has a kind of sacred or theocratic authority, held directly from God, which enables him to exercise a trusteeship over the Church within his realm. I am super close to finishing the text and am quite excited with how it's turning out. 

I wanted to preview a section of one of the chapters here that I am very happy with. This chapter is on the ideology of the Investiture Controversy, but this sub-section deals with the theocratic pretensions of the Norman and Angevin kings specifically and their attempts to consolidate their power through turning the Church into an apparatus of the state. 

Also, I do have the text thoroughly footnoted in the manuscript, but the formatting did not transfer well into blogger so I omitted them here. But you'll have to take my word on it that I did my research : )

The Normans & Angevins

The Investiture Controversy was not limited to Germany and Italy. Ideals of sacral kingship were particularly strong amongst the Norman lords, who worked tirelessly to centralize Church and State under their command within their realms. While constraints of space do not permit an entire chapter devoted to the lords of Normandy, we will touch on some of the more important episodes of the 11th and 12th centuries germane to our discussion.

Consider the case of Roger of Sicily. Roger and his brother had conquered Sicily from the Muslims in a long war of attrition throughout between 1063 and 1091. In 1071 he was created Duke of Sicily, effectively creating his own insular kingdom on the island. Duke Roger’s power was absolute in matters of religion and politics. He personally established multiple dioceses and selected their bishops personally. He presided in liturgical matters, imposing the Latin rite in areas traditionally given over to the Greeks. Since the Normans of Italy were a counterweight to the Germans, the papacy tolerated Roger’s theocracy to keep him as an ally against Emperor Henry IV. Pope Urban II even made him Apostolic Legate in Sicily.

Roger’s son, Roger II was the first King of Sicily (1130-1154) and created the south Italian domain known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies that would endure until the 19th century. Imitating Charlemagne, he was crowned on Christmas Day, 1130, in the Cathedral of Palermo. History does not record who performed the royal coronation, but a mosaic in Palermo’s St. Nicol√≤ dei Greci alla Martorana reveals how Roger wanted the event to be perceived. The famous coronation mosaic of the Martorana depicts King Roger in the garb of a Byzantine monarch. Bowing his head, his arms opened in the priestly orans posture, Roger receives his crown not from any bishop but from Jesus Christ Himself. Christ, hovering off the ground to highlight His divinity, gazes at Roger, while above the king’s head and paralleling the nimbus of Christ are the words Rogerius Rex in Greek letters. The particular bishop who crowned him is irrelevant; the royal authority comes from Jesus Chris, whose hand in the mosaic is still resting upon the crown. The royal crown forms a direct link from the person of Roger to the person of Christ, the royal office being that which invests Roger with the divine auctoritas of Christ. Such were the pretensions of the lords of Normandy.

By the time of Roger, England, too, had been overrun by the Normans. The first generation of Norman lords under King William the Conqueror (1066-1087) systematically replaced England’s Anglo-Saxon episcopacy with one from Norman stock in perhaps the biggest single exercise of lay investiture in the history of Christendom. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century many English bishops had begun adopting the tenets of the Gregorian reform, bringing them into conflict with the centralizing tendencies of the Norman kings. England had its own controversy over investiture from 1102 to 1107 and centered on the opposition of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, to the policies of King William II Rufus (r. 1087-1100) and Henry I (r. 1100-1135). Both kings categorically refused to accept the principles laid out in Dictatus Papae. The former was guilty of pilfering Church properties while the latter insisted on Anselm receiving investiture at his hands. Anselm refused to be invested by a lay person, to the fury of King William Rufus. In the end, Rufus had Anselm dragged to his beside and forcibly shoved the episcopal crozier into his hand—and apt symbol of the Norman ideal!

There were other issues at stake as well, relating to William Rufus’ refusal to allow the Church to enforce certain precepts of canon law within his realm—most notably, Rufus refused to allow the English bishops to meet in independent council, asserting that issuing summons to gather in synod was prerogative of the crown. Anselm endured several exiles and journeyed to Rome in hopes of finding a compromise. A settlement was reached in 1107 in which the king gave up investiture, though the bishops were still permitted to do homage for their temporal possessions. This formula would be influential in shaping the Concordat of Worms fifteen years later.

The English Angevin dynasty (1154-1216) continued to assert the king’s supremacy over matters of the Church as a matter of divine right. The famous conflict between Archbishop Thomas √† Becket and King Henry II had begun over King Henry’s claims to have juridical authority over clergy in criminal cases. The resistance of Becket led Henry to push for a general affirmation of the traditional royal prerogatives of the king over the Church in a document known as the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164). The Constitutions were a sweeping assertion of royal dominance. They maintained the king’s sole right to fill episcopal vacancies, denied the sole jurisdiction of the Church over clergy accused of crimes, forbid clergy from leaving the kingdom without royal permission, forbid the Church from inflicting canonical punishments unilaterally on any of the king’s vassals, forbid appeals to the pope without the king’s permission, transferred the standing of all disputes between laymen and clerks to the royal courts, required all bishops holding benefices from the king to attend on him in court, assigned all ecclesiastical revenues from a vacant bishopric or abbacy to the king during the time of its vacancy, mandated oaths of fealty to the king before a bishop-elect could enter into his office, and forbid the ordaining of commoners without the permission of their lord.

Becket alone refused to sign the Constitutions and went into exile. From exile in France, he proposed use of excommunication and interdict against Henry, but Pope Alexander III preferred a more diplomatic approach. The papacy negotiated a settlement with Henry to allow Becket to return in 1170, but Becket was soon at odds with King Henry again over the coronation of Henry’s son without him, a breach of Canterbury’s traditional privilege of coronation. Another round of excommunications followed, which in turn led Henry to mutter his famous words while he celebrated Christmas in the presence of his knights: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Becket was subsequently assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th, 1170 by four of Henry’s knights. Henry would do penance for the killing at Becket’s tomb, and the Church received a martyr in its struggle for liberty from lay interference.

By the reigns of Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) and John (1199-1216), the medieval papacy was reaching the apex of its power, leaving sacral monarchy in retreat everywhere. Nevertheless, both Richard and John continued to assert the traditional rights of kings, by the power of God, to control the Church in their realms. Richard’s clerks adopted the phrase plenitudo potestatis (“fullness of power”) in describing the power within his realms, and this in direct imitation of the canonist popes of the 12th century who used the same phrase to denote the authority of the pope within the Church. Richard’s justices also declared in 1194 that the excommunication of a prominent royal servant was contra regale dignitatem et excellenciam, that is, against the dignity and eminence of the crown, and Richard complained that the excommunication was issued “to the prejudice of our dignity and to the liberty of our kingdom.” The Lionheart viewed the Church’s unilateral exercise of canonical penalties as a direct affront to the dignity of the royal power.

In fact, almost all conflicts with clerics during the Angevin period make reference to royal dignitas. The late 12th and early 13th centuries saw the ascendancy of systematized canon law—a movement which threatened to replace the king as the governor of ecclesiastical affairs. The Angevins consistently pushed back against the encroachment of canon law, arguing that canonical infringements on royal prerogatives were contra dignitatem nostrum (“against our dignity”). King John’s barons argued that the pope’s attempt to settle the disputed Canterbury election of 1209 would fail to respect his dignity; similarly, John’s letters to clerics complain of “any diminution of the right and dignity which our ancestors had”; or they defend royal interference in the Church “according to right and our dignity and old and approved custom” or “our dignities which our predecessors had.”

These references to “old and approved custom” or “dignities which our predecessors had” often contained appeals to old theocratic concepts from the Anglo-Saxon era. For example, in the disputed Canterbury election of 1205, John tried to force his candidate, John de Gray, against the consent of both the cathedral chapter and Pope Innocent III. The contest dragged out for years, during which John complained about the diminution of his prerogatives. He argued that “all my predecessors conferred archbishoprics, bishoprics, and abbeys in their chamber”, citing Edward the Confessor’s appointment of St. Wulfstan—who had recently been canonized—as bishop of Worcester. This very St. Wulfstan was the subject of a colorful legend, also alluded to by King John: William the Conqueror tried to remove Wulfstan from his bishopric. Wulfstan responded by thrusting his crozier immovably into the stone over the tomb of Edward the Confessor, where it remained miraculously fixed, and saying he would only surrender it to the king who had appointed him. This tale, according to John, affirmed the right of the king to appoint bishops and ratified this authority by divine intervention.

In 1212 John drafted a letter again protesting the Church’s attempts to rob him of his right to appoint bishops, again appealing to Anglo-Saxon tradition:

[I]t is notorious that in ancient times before the coming of the Normans, the kings of England, even those now canonized, granted cathedral churches to archbishops and bishops entirely at their pleasure. Since the conquest, elections have been subject to the king’s assent and hitherto have been carried out strictly in this form.

Though the Angevins drew appealed to older theocratic models to justify their attempts to hold onto royal control over the Church, King John was unable to prevail in his dispute with Innocent III. Stephen Langton was eventually installed as Archbishop of Canterbury over John’s protests (1207). John refused to accept Langton, and his obstinacy earned him an excommunication in 1209. John feigned indifference, until war with France seemed to be looming and he needed the pope’s support. Innocent III agreed to lift the excommunication in exchange for John offering England as a fief to the pope. John did homage to Innocent III in 1213, handing over England as a papal fief. Two years later he was humiliated before his nobles at Runnymede, who forced him to sign the Magna Carta. A year after he was dead, and with him died theocratic kingship in England—at least for a few centuries.


If you think you might like this book and would be interested in purchasing a copy, please email me at uscatholicam@gmail.com and I will make a note of it and email you when it is complete. I am anticipating the book to be ready for sale by April. Probably going to be close to 200 pages, hardcover. Pax.


1 comment:

Mr. Baxter said...

If they truly believed in the divine right of kings maybe they shouldn't have done so much conquering... (Yes, I know what it really means.)

I think it absolutely fascinating when, in history, you find their references to their own "ancient history", as with John's reference to the time "before the coming of the Normans", or St. Wulfric and the... thrusting of the crook (heh). I think I remember a similar reference by the pope of the first crusade, speaking of "the deeds of our ancestors" (Charles Martel). I'm almost sad that this appeal to wonderful legends and darkling memories -- dusty tomes in monasteries on rainy cliffs by the sea, and tales sung by warm hearths through long winter evenings -- has been replaced by history as a hard science. Their minds must have constantly skirmished on the borderland of fantasy and reality. Then again one of them is the Harrying of the North and the starving cracking skulls open to eat the brains of the dead. Not quite the Lord of the Rings!

I can see why you're pleased with this chapter, Boniface. It's very dense yet flows nicely. Good ending, too.