Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Lanfranc - A very unhappy archbishop of Canterbury!

I came across a 1070 letter of Lanfranc of Pavia (prior of Bec, next abbot of Caen, then archbishop of Canterbury from 1070) to Pope Alexander II, and had no sooner started reading it than I was hooting with laughter.  It's a pure joy to read, despite it expressing the unhappiness of poor Lanfranc at finding himself beset among the brutish, pagan and near-pagan English against his will. 

Here it is, from Lanfranci Opera, J.A. Giles (1844):

To Pope Alexander, the chief shepherd of holy Church, Lanfranc, an unworthy prelate, canonical obedience.  I know no one, holy father, to whom I can with greater propriety unfold my troubles than to you, who are the cause of these calamities.  For when William, duke of Normandy, drew me forth from the monastery of Le Bec where I had assumed the religious habit, and appointed me to preside over that of Caen, I found myself unequal to the task of governing a few monks.  Therefore I cannot comprehend by what dispensastion of the Almighty I have been promoted at your behest to undertake the supervision of an innumberable mulititude.  The aforesaid prince, after he had become king of England, tried every means to bring this about, but laboured in vain until your legates, Ermenfrid, bishop of Sitten, and Hubert, cardinal of the holy Roman Church, came to Normandy, caused the bishops, abbots and magnates of that land to be assembled, and in their presence and by virtue of the authority of the apostolic see commanded me to undertake the government of the church of Canterbury.  Against this I pleaded in vain my incapacity and unworthiness, my ignorance of the language and of the barbarous people.  My plea did not avail.  What need of further words!  I gave my consent, I came, I took the burden upon me, and such are the cares and troubles, the discomfort of mind I daily endure, so great are the annoyance, the suffering, the losses caused me by different persons pulling me in opposite directions, the harshness, avarice and baseness that I see around me; so dire is the peril to which in my view holy Church is exposed, that I grow weary of my life, and lament that it has been prolonged to witness such times.  But bad as is the present state of things when I look around me, I feel the future will be still worse.  That I may not detain your highness, whose time must be fully occupied with other weighty matters, longer than is necessary - since it was beyond dispute by your authority that I became charged with these duties - I entreat you in God's name and for the sake of your own soul, by the same authority to release me from them and grant me leave to return once more to the monastic life I love above all other.  Do not, I pray, spurn this my petition, for I only ask what is right and necessary to my well-being.  You should remember, and indeed never forget, how ready I have always been to entertain in my monastery your kinsfolk and others who came bearing letters of introduction from Rome.  I instructed them in both sacred and secular learning as well as I was able to teach or they to learn; and many other things I might mention in which I have been of service to you or your predecessors when time or circumstances allowed.  My conscience bears witness that I do not say this boastfully or by way of reproach, or to obtain favours from you beyond what is due to my obedience.  My sole object in writing this letter is to put forward a just and valid reason why for Christ's sake I should obtain the favour I am seeking at your hands.  If, however, you should be guided by the interests of others and decide to refuse my request, it is greatly to be feared you may run the risk - which  God forbid - of committing a sin by the very act you consider well-pleasing to God.  For I have met with no spiritual success in these parts either directly or indirectly, or, if any, it is so slight that it cannot possibly be weighed against my misfortunes.  But enough of this for the present.  When I was at Rome and by God's grace had the pleasure of seeing you and conversing with you, you invited me to visit you again the following year at Christmas and to spend three or four months in your palace as your guest.  But God is my witness, and the angels, that I could not do so without great personal inconvenience and to the detriment of my affairs.  For this there are many different reasons, too long to be related in a short letter; but, should the heavenly powers preserve my life circumstances permit, I long to visit you and the shrine of the holy apostles and the holy Roman Church.  To this end I entreat you to pray the divine mercy that long life may be granted to my lord the king of England and peace from all his enemies.  May his heart ever be moved by love for God and holy Church with all devotion of spirit.  For while he lives we enjoy peace of a kind, but after his death we may scarcely hope to experience either peace or any manner of good.
I can't help wondering if Pope Alexander II had the same reaction I did when he read this, and envision him rolling about on crimson cushions laughing at the trials of the ever-insolent and insubordinate Lanfranc.

Whatever his misgivings about his qualifications or temperment, Lanfranc proved an efficient and conscientious administrator.  He rebuilt Canterbury Cathedral, which burnt down on his arrival in England.  He placed one of his proteges in St Albans where the grand St Albans Cathedral soon grew as a centre for learning.  Both were erected by the same architect and craftsmen, using Caen stone imported from Normandy.  Lanfranc oversaw the reformation of the English church to bring it in line with Rome's orthodoxy, placing Norman prelates in charge of bishoprics and abbeys throughout England.

Despite his cares of office, Lanfranc would outlive his former student.  Alexander II died in 1073.  Lanfranc would remain archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 1089.  His death removed the last constraint on the ill-natured William Rufus, King William II, who then fell out with the Church and brought chaos on the realm as the wily Lanfranc had much earlier predicted.


  1. Superb...!!! Thank you so much (Karen Schousboe/

  2. Cheers, Karen. You're my first comment on this blog, which is encouraging as I intended it as a discussion forum on 1066 and all that.

  3. Fabulous. I too found it hilarious.