The fall of Orthodox England – The Ecclesiastical Roots of the Norman Conquest, 1043-1087 (Part 4)

by Vladimir Moss

The English Monarchy

“In the intricate web of vassalage,” writes J.M. Roberts, “a king might have less control over his own vassals than they over theirs. The great lord, whether lay magnate or local bishop, must always have loomed larger and more important in the life of the ordinary man than the remote and probably never-seen king or prince. In the tenth and eleventh centuries there are everywhere examples of kings obviously under great pressure from great men. The country where this seemed to present least trouble was Anglo-Saxon England…”[20]


England before the Viking invasions, which began in 793, was divided into seven independent kingdoms. Each had its own bishops, but all, from the time of St. Theodore the Greek, archbishop of Canterbury (+691), recognised the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury. In 786, however, Prince Egfrith of the kingdom of Wessex was anointed even before he had ascended the throne of his father, and from the time of this, the first royal anointing in Anglo-Saxon history, the Wessex dynasty gradually came to dominate political life in England. In the late ninth century, under Alfred the Great, it led the recovery against the Viking invaders, and Alfred’s successors succeeded in uniting most of Britain in a single Orthodox kingdom until the Norman-papist invasion of 1066-70. In a real sense, therefore, the anointing of Egfrith may be said to have been the critical event that led to the creation of one nation and one State.

King Alfred came to the throne of Wessex when English civilisation was in the process of being wiped out by the pagan Danes. Almost single-handedly, he defeated the Danes and laid the foundations for their conversion and integration into his All-English kingdom. But not content with that, he undertook the organisation and education of the badly shattered Church, beginning by sending all his bishops a copy of his own translation of the Pastoral Care by Pope Gregory the Great – the Roman connection again! Indeed, re-establishing links with both Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church was a priority with Alfred. He corresponded with the Patriarch of Jerusalem and sent alms to the monks of India.

The stability of Alfred’s dynasty and kingdom by comparison with the sub-Carolingian kingdoms on the continent was partly owing to the fact that, like the Roman missionaries in the early seventh century, this Romanising monarch found a tabula rasa and was able to rebuild on relatively uncluttered, but firm foundations. In particular, the tensions between the monarchy and the local aristocracies which so weakened the West Frankish kingdom, hardly existed in England after 878 and surfaced again in a serious way only in 1052. There are several indications that the English kingdom modelled itself on Byzantium. Thus King Athelstan gave himself the Byzantine titles basileus and curagulus.[21] Again, in 955, King Edred called himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons and Emperor of the whole of Britain”. And a little later King Edgar is also called basileus et imperator.

In the tenth century, England reached the peak of her glory as an Orthodox kingdom, based on a monastic revival supported by a powerful king, Edgar, and a holy archbishop, Dunstan, working in close harmony. Ryan Lavelle writes: “A document from around 973, the Regularis Concordia,… was intended as a rulebook and liturgical guide for English monks and nuns, but it was also a bold statement of the relationship between God, the king and a Christian people. The king and queen were seen as protectors of monks and nuns in the temporal world, while, in return, the souls of the West Saxon royal family were protected with prayers by the same monks and nuns. The positions of the king and queen were therefore inextricably linked with the survival of Christianity in the kingdom. This was part of a process of legitimising royal power to an extent that was hitherto unparalleled in Anglo-Saxon England. The king had become part of the ecclesiastical order in a coronation ceremony that made him God’s representative on earth. The original meaning of Christ’s name, Christus meant ‘the anointed [king]’, and the inauguration of Edgar used an ordo (an order of service) that put Edgar on a similar level – directly anointed by God. The monastic reform movement gave this a new impetus, to such an extent that King Edgar could go through such a royal inauguration for a second time.”[22]

Edgar’s first anointing had taken place in 960 or 961, when he became King of England. For many years he was not allowed to wear his crown in penance for a sin he had committed. But in 973, the penance came to an end, and at the age of thirty (perhaps significantly, the canonical age for episcopal ordination in the West) he was anointed again, this time as “Emperor of Britain” in the ancient Roman city of Bath (again significantly, for Edgar was emphasising the imperial, Roman theme). In the same year, again emphasising the imperial theme, he was rowed on the River Dee by six or eight sub-kings, include five Welsh and Scottish rulers and one ruler of the Western Isles.[23] “This was a move,” writes Lavelle, “that recalled the actions of his great-uncle Athelstan, the successful ruler of Britain, but it was also an English parallel to the tenth-century coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto of Germany, in which the stem-dukes had undertaken the task of feeding the emperor.”[24]

Edgar’s ascription to himself of the trappings of Romanitas was not without some foundation. The economy was strong, the tax and legal systems were sophisticated, the coinage was secure (with an impressive system of monetary renewal whereby all coins issued from the royal mints had to be returned and reissued every five years). England was now a firmly Orthodox, multi-national state composed of three Christian peoples, Anglo-Saxons, Celts and Danes[25], living in mutual amity. She was at peace at home and respected abroad, spreading her influence in a beneficial way outwards through missions to the Norwegians and Swedes.[26]

Edgar married twice, the first marriage producing a son, Edward, and the second another son, Ethelred. When he died in 975 (his relics were discovered to be incorrupt in 1052), Ethelred’s partisans, especially his mother, argued that Ethelred should be made king in preference to his elder half-brother Edward, on the grounds that Edgar had not been anointed when he begat Edward in 959 or 960, and that his first wife, Edward’s mother, had never been anointed, so that the throne should pass to the younger son, Ethelred, who had been born “in the purple” when both his parents were anointed sovereigns. The conflict was settled when the archbishop of Canterbury, St. Dunstan, seized the initiative and anointed St. Edward. In this way, through her stewardship of the sacrament of royal anointing, the Church came to play the decisive role in deciding the question of succession.[27]

The religious nature of Anglo-Saxon kingship is seen in the fact that the king was seen as the “warden of the holy temple”.[28] Crimes against the Church or her servants were seen as crimes against the king, and were duly punished by him. It was seen as his duty to look after the Church and enforce her laws with secular penalties. “For a Christian king is Christ’s deputy among Christian people”, as King Ethelred’s laws put it. Both he and the archbishop were “the Lord’s Anointed” – the archbishop so that he might minister the sacraments of salvation, and the king so that, as Bede wrote in his commentary on Acts, “he might by conquering all our enemies bring us to the immortal Kingdom”.

The king was sometimes compared to God the Father and the bishop – to Christ (the bishop is often called “Christ” in Anglo-Saxon legislation).[29] He was the shepherd and father of his people and would have to answer for their well-being at the Last Judgement. Regicide and usurpation were the greatest of crimes; for, as Abbot Aelfric wrote in a Palm Sunday sermon, “no man may make himself a king, for the people have the option to choose him for king who is agreeable to them; but after that he has been hallowed as king, he has power over the people, and they may not shake his yoke from their necks.” And so, as Archbishop Wulfstan of York wrote in his Institutes of Christian Polity, “through what shall peace and support come to God’s servants and to God’s poor, save through Christ, and through a Christian king.”[30]

Nor was the king’s authority confined to the purely secular sphere. Thus “in England,” writes Barlow, “just as the king referred to his earls and thegns, so he addressed his archbishops, bishops and abbots. The prelates were his men, his servants; their churches and estates were in his gift and under his protection and control. He could even grant the rank of bishops without the office or benefice. It was he who decided under what rule his monasteries should live, what saints should be recognized, what festivals observed.”[31]

And yet the relationship between Church and State in England was one of “symphony” in the Byzantine sense, not of caesaropapism; for the kings, as well as being in general exceptionally pious, did nothing without consulting their bishops and other members of the witan or assembly – who were not afraid to disagree with the king, or remind him of his obligations.[32]

Thus, continues Barlow, “a true theocratic government was created, yet one, despite the common charge of confusion [between spiritual and political functions] against the Anglo-Saxon Church, remarkably free of confusion in theory. The duality of the two spheres was emphatically proclaimed. There were God’s rights and the king’s rights, Christ’s laws and the laws of the world. There was an independent ecclesiastical jurisdiction under the control of the bishop, but there was also the helping hand of the secular power which the church had invoked and which it could use at its discretion.”[33]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: