What King William of the Normans did next

So – William had won; he was now King of England and changes would follow.

The establishing of Benedictine monasticism as an agency of reform and a vehicle of ducal authority had been occurring in western Normandy at exactly the same time as in the north of England. Both areas had previously been immune to the ‘modern’ trends in religion, and to centralised secular control. Each was ‘their own master’. Now they felt the impact of a reform movement which was inspired by the papacy but directed by the monarchy – William I here in England.

All over England, particularly in outlying and border areas, the Normans used the church as an agent of colonisation. By the end of the Conqueror’s reign in 1087 the rule of Bishops – the episcopate – had been almost totally ‘Normanised’. Most of the wealthy churches throughout the island had passed into the hands of influential clerics from north-western France, and the greater abbeys were ruled by members of the conquering race. The religious houses of the duchy received their share of the spoils by the grant of English estates. One such gift was land in the then parish of Streatham. That was given to Bec Abbey in Normandy after the Conquest. We know the place now as Tooting Bec!

A new style of Romanesque architecture for ecclesiastical buildings began to appear on a scale never before seen in England and was, in itself, a visual symbol of a new lordship. Historians often concentrate on the great masterpieces at Durham, Winchester and St Albans. However, it should be remembered that the new dispensation was marked by the rebuilding of almost every parish and monastic church in England. William wanted to work with the conquered English if possible – it would make for an easy life while he continued to sort things out at home. However, certain parts of the conquered kingdom were not happy to do this. The north suffered brutally for their resistance – but over all many English abbots stayed in post for a number of years after the Conquest.

So how did this impact on the Fenland monasteries?

Abbot Leofric had become abbot at Peterborough in 1052 and had accompanied Harold to Hastings. Following the battle he was taken ill, returned home and died on the eve of All-Saints [31st October] 1066. Leofric had been the abbot responsible for raising the monastery of Burgh to the status of Guildenburg – the Golden City.  His place was taken by Abbot Brand and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle concisely sums up a rather bad start to his reign: –

Then ‘Golden Borough became Wretched Borough’. The monks chose Brand the Provost as Abbot, because he was a very good and wise man: they sent him to Prince Edgar because the people of that district thought he ought to be king, and the Prince gladly consented to Brand’s election. When King William heard of it, he was very angry, and said that the Abbot had slighted him. By the intervention of good men, they were reconciled, because the abbot was a virtuous man. He gave at the King 40 marks of gold in reconciliation and lived for but a short time thereafter, only three years.[late November 1069] Thereafter all manner of calamities and evils befell the monastery. God have mercy upon it.’
William decided to replace Brand with Turold as abbot – ‘a very ferocious man’ says the Anglo Saxon Chronicle!

Crowland had been destroyed by the Danes in 870 but had recovered so that, just prior to the arrival of the Normans, it was again in a stable state. Whether this has any foundation in fact is diffi­cult to decide but it is not improbable that Ethelbald should have founded a monastery at Crowland, but at that time monastic life in England had greatly degenerated. It is also not impossible that Crowland was re- founded at the same time as Ely, Peterborough, and Thorney, but the silence of writers of the tenth century does not help clarify the story. What does seem to be a safe fact is that, around 1044, the small monastic community of Peakirk was united with Crowland, and the two were ruled by Abbot Wulgeat. In 1051 the monastery at Crowland seems to have been subject to the abbot of Peterborough in that, in that year, at the will of Abbot Leofric, Edward the Confessor appointed Ulfcytel, a monk of Peterborough, abbot of Crowland.

The hermitage at Thorney had been destroyed by the Viking raiders in the late 9th century. A Benedictine monastery was re-founded in 972 by Aethelwald, Bishop of Winchester but little more is known of that. It is known that a significant rebuilding programme was initiated following the Conquest of 1066.

Ely was re-founded in 970, under a Benedictine rule: the church building being somewhere close to the site of the nave of the present building. Over the course of the next hundred years it became one of England’s most successful Benedictine abbeys, with lands exceeded only by Glastonbury, a famous saint, treasures, library and book production of the highest order. Norman rule proved to be problematic, though, with Normans taking possession of abbey lands and interference by the Bishop of Lincoln was undermining its status. This was made worse still when Ely became a focus of English resistance through the likes of Hereward – something we’ll look at next time.

Unlike the other communities we are following, Ramsey had no known pre-Viking existence. The first religious settlement being founded on an island in the marshes in 969AD – a stone church, cruciform in plan, with a great tower at the crossing and a smaller tower at the west end. It was dedicated to St. Mary, St. Benedict and All Virgins by St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, and St. Oswald, Archbishop of York, on 8 November 974. Some ten years later, owing to faulty work both in the foundations and masonry, a crack appeared in the central tower which spread from the summit downwards. After long consultation the tower was taken down and rebuilt, the work being chiefly done by the young monks. Earl Ailwin, the founder, presented the new church with organs and a ‘tabula’ set with sheets of silver plates and gems, to be placed before the high altar. In 991 the church was again dedicated by Archbishop Oswald in the presence of a great concourse of people. Cnut proposed to found a monastery for nuns adjoining Ramsey Abbey and went so far as to begin a church which was to be dedicated to the Holy Trinity. Providentially, as the Ramsey chronicler wrote, the idea was abandoned. The crypt below the high altar of Cnut’s church was completed and remained for centuries in the cemetery of the monks.

The scene is now set for the Normans take over the Fenlands – or is it?  The story of ‘Conflict, Building & Re-building’ over the next 120 years we’ll tell next time.


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