Lanfranc of Bec and the Common Law: Part II (Keeping it Together)

New York, NY – August 5, 2015

My last post introduced you to Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury during William the Conqueror’s 11th-Century reign in England. As Archbishop of Canterbury and self-styled “Primate of England,” Lanfranc was the Pope’s representative in England. In the Middle Ages, Britain was far removed from the papacy and, seemingly, from papal influence, being on the outskirts of the known Western world at that time. Indeed, the sea acted as a natural barrier and much of England at that time was considered wild and, as Lanfranc indicated, “barbaric.” Lanfranc had an interesting role both as the Pope’s representative of the Church, but also as one of William the Conqueror’s most trusted political advisers.

As Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc asserted his ecclesiastical control over England by arguing that the Archbishopric of York was, in terms of church government, under the jurisdiction of Canterbury. In this manner, Lanfranc titled himself the Primate of England. This argument was designed to maintain dominion over church matters, which, as we shall see, included the application of the law.

There is a great Memorandum on the Primacy of Canterbury in existence (1073-1075) that documents this jurisdictional controversy, which authors Helen Clover and Margaret Gibson have translated in their book Letters of Lanfranc. All references here are to the Letters.

When Lanfranc consecrated Thomas as Archbishop of York, he asked Thomas for a “written profession of obedience, fortified by an oath of loyalty” (Memorandum, Letter 3). Thomas refused to do so until he “could read evidence of the claim and could see witnesses testifying to its antiquity” (Memorandum). Apparently, Thomas was not a dummy. As a result, Thomas was not consecrated at that time.

King William was apparently not amused by this episode; his “anger” is noted (Memorandum). But Lanfranc explained to him that the profession of obedience that he sought, and the submission of York to Canterbury’s jurisdiction, was based on English (as opposed to Norman) law and custom. In this, Lanfranc was brilliant. King William was Norman (and French-speaking), you will remember, and part of the difficulty of unifying his kingdom was in marrying English law and custom with the Norman culture (although, it must be said, that there had already been Normans at the English court prior to William’s arrival). This is not the only time that Lanfranc takes this into account.

The English at William’s Court backed Lanfranc’s argument, and Lanfranc was thus able to persuade William. The result was that Thomas wrote the profession and read it to Lanfranc. In it, Thomas promised to “obey Lanfranc’s instructions absolutely and unconditionally in all matters relating to the practice of the Christian religion” (Memorandum). However, in making the profession, Thomas only agreed to obey Lanfranc personally, not his successors, and indicated that he would not do so “until satisfactory evidence was given him, either in the king’s court or in an episcopal council, which would show beyond any doubt that his predecessors had made, and ought to have made, this profession to the primates of the church of Canterbury” (Memorandum).

One year later, in 1071, Lanfranc and Thomas went to Rome and argued before the Pope, Thomas arguing that while he had professed obedience to Lanfranc personally, York was not subject to the jurisdiction of Canterbury as a matter of canon law. Thomas based this argument on the Gregorian Constitution, which, he argued, held that both archbishoprics were of equal stature. Lanfranc (I can imagine him scoffing here, stating “you obviously don’t know the law!”) responded that the Gregorian Constitution addressed the archbishoprics of York and London, not York and Canterbury. Lanfranc’s subsequent letter to the Pope details the legal precedent he used to make the primacy argument (Letter 4).

The Pope punted, stating that the case should be heard and decided in England (how lawyerly of him). Lanfranc and Thomas returned to England. Although Thomas had made the profession to Lanfranc personally, Lanfranc, like a good lawyer, “was still ready to exert himself on behalf of his successors rather than leave such a serious claim undiscussed for them to have to treat later on” (Memorandum).

In the end, Lanfranc got what he wanted, and Thomas made the profession to him and his successors, professing that York was under the jurisdiction of Canterbury.

Shrewdly, Lanfranc requested that this profession be confirmed by the Pope (Letter 4). However, the Pope never confirmed Lanfranc’s primacy. Lanfranc had done all he could on that issue. Now, with that settled, he got down to business.

In addition to acting as the ecclesiastical primate of England, Lanfranc was a trusted “advisor in the background” (p. 5), and his letters reflect that he provided counsel to William, and acted on William’s behalf, on a variety of matters. Clover and Gibson refer to Lanfranc’s loyalty to William as “unquestionable” (p. 5) Indeed, Lanfranc was ready to “commend such loyalty to wavering magnates” (p.5).

William also trusted Lanfranc to negotiate on his behalf in his absence. In this manner, Lanfranc acted as the “guardian of England” (p. 6). When Earl Roger of Hereford led a revolt in 1075, it was Lanfranc who tried to reason with him. In Lanfranc’s first letter to Roger, he implores him to remain loyal to William, and asks to meet him to discuss matters in person (Letter 31). In the next letter, Lanfranc’s tone is much more urgent and he again asks to speak with Roger (Letter 32). In the third letter, Lanfranc states that Roger is excommunicated. In lawyerly fashion, Lanfranc states the ipso facto basis for excommunication, i.e. Roger’s failing to meet with Lanfranc (Letter 33, see especially FN 2). Subsequently, Lanfranc’s letters reveal that he was commandeering soldiers and negotiating terms of surrender (Letters 34 and 35).

Lanfranc was, therefore, the head of the Church in England, as well as head negotiator for William in his absence. Further, he was also the highest appellate “court” in England: “Lanfranc was the final court of legal appeal and the source of new law” (p. 7). (*my footnote: Gibson and Clover note that Lanfranc’s time occurred prior to the use of theDecretum. The Decretum was a compilation of canon law, written and assembled in the 12th Century as a legal textbook by Gratian, a canon lawyer from Italy. Since the Decretum wasn’t around in Lanfranc’s time, there was very little in the way of legal precedent or guidance. What we are seeing here are the very beginnings of the common law).

Lanfranc’s multiple roles are reflected in his letters. His letters strongly suggest that he increasingly saw himself as removed from church matters and wrapped up in the secular government (p. 10). For example, he noted that he was preoccupied with “so many of this world’s great affairs” (Letter 46). In a letter responding to a request from the Abbot of Caen as to whom should replace a church prior, Lanfranc referred to himself as ‘a sinful man who has no understanding of God’s counsel” (Letter 61).

My personal opinion is that Lanfranc truly felt that he had no choice but to continue to serve as not only the head of the English Church, but as William’s right-hand advisor. Whether he truly felt that it was his calling or whether he did it out of loyalty to William, I am not sure. Lanfranc was deeply pious. I mean, he wrote a treatise on the sacrament of holy communion. But he also ended up being a shrewd negotiator and a consummate rational actor, traits that are highly valued in the legal profession.

I also don’t think that you have to be a “religious” person, or a practicing Catholic or Christian, to have an appreciation of history, including canon history. These historical and legal developments had a direct impact on the formation of our government and legal structure today.

NEXT UP: Clerical celibacy, medieval lawsuits, and the beginnings of the common law.


2 thoughts on “Lanfranc of Bec and the Common Law: Part II (Keeping it Together)

  1. spmcbride1201

    Rereading this, it’s interesting to note that the centralization of the English Bishops under Canterbury and the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as a right-hand advisor of the kind seems to presage the creation of Canterbury as an anti-Rome and the Monarch as an anti-pope. I’m curious why the pope would allow one bishop to claim authority over another. This seems quite similar to the Bishop of Constantinople claiming the title of Ecumenical Patriarch and authority over Greek Orthodox bishops. Maybe Rome wanted to be a bit more flexible with the application of papal authority on the fringes of Christendom?


    1. Maria Riegger Post author

      You make great points. Lanfranc had a good relationship with the Pope; the English Church being on the fringes of Christendom, as you say, was indeed more difficult to control; and Lanfranc provided a great deal of precedent to back up his claim for Canterbury.



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