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 Issues | Christians in England | Foreign Rule

Christians in England - Foreign Rule

In AD1017 most of England became a province of the Danish empire of King Canute.

Danish rule continued until AD1042 when the English monarchy was restored but it proved weak.

The crown passed to Norman hands in the form of William the Conqueror after the famous Battle of Hastings in AD1066. Unlike previous conquests the vast majority of the people were neither destroyed nor displaced.

The Normans abolished slavery but introduced the feudal system of lords, vassals and fiefs (the latter referring to land). Thus a strict hierarchy was established from King down to peasant. Soon most of the high ranking positions, including Bishoprics, were occupied by Normans.

Through this period of turmoil monasticism continued to flourish and then decline as initial zeal was followed by prosperity and greed. The mid 10th century saw a Benedictine revival which was a lay order with many new monasteries built. Alongside this there was a growth of superstition, fascination with relics and deception. In the early 12th century it was the Cistertians with their rejection of luxury and pomp in favour of poverty and frugality who flourished for a while.

Far away in the east the military expansion of Islam had brought suffering and destruction on many Christian communities and in particular the loss of Jerusalem. The Crusades from AD1095 to AD1291 were called by the papacy in order to bring relief to suffering Christians and to re-conquer lost cities. Many English nobles and peasants were recruited to this cause.

Within this strict hierarchy of the feudal system the clergy were an anomaly and the issues surrounding the authority of the King and of the Pope would rumble on from the time of the Norman conquest for nearly five hundred years.

At the time of Henry I (AD1068-1135) there were disputes over whether foreign Bishops should swear loyalty to the Crown of England. Though a compromise was reached it required that every English Bishop accept the Pope as overlord, thus the English Church was made fully subject to Rome.

In the mid 12th century the dispute over authority materialised in the issue of whether clergy should be subject to civil law or not. The backlash against King Henry II following the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett (AD1170) led to the Church gaining the upper hand.

The early years of the 13th century saw the dispute escalate with the refusal of King John to allow the papally appointed Archbishop of Canterbury into England. In response in AD1208 the Pope put England under interdict so that no church services were held and people were buried in unconsecrated ground without a service. This lasted until 1212 when the Pope declared Philip of France to be King of England and in response King John effectively surrendered his crown to the Pope and ruled as a vassal of the See of Rome and a large tribute was to be paid every year.

By the mid 13th century around one third of England was owned by monasteries, many livings were held by absentee foreign clergy and vast sums of money were therefore leaving the country in the form of tithes.

The corruption of the monasteries and the Church led to another reformist order of monks, the Greyfriars, better known from their founder as the Franciscians. They too flourished for a while but with popularity came problems and eventually decline. Other reformist movements also arose but were usually quickly suppressed.

In the latter years of the 13th Century the growth of Parliament saw a number of laws passed to limit the power of the Church and the subjection to the papacy.

  • 1279 - monasteries were forbidden to acquire new land (Mortmain Act).
  • 1285 - church courts were limited to spiritual matters (Circumspecte Agatis).
  • 1301 - Pope told “It is our unanimous resolve that our Lord and King shall not submit in any matter to your judgement” (resolution of Lincoln Parliament).
  • 1307 - money could not be sent overseas (Statute of Carlisle).
  • 1351 - no-one could accept a benefice from the Pope (Statute of Provisors).
  • 1353 - no-one could appeal to Rome on non-spiritual matters (Statute of Praemunire).
  • 1366 - the tribute paid to Rome since the time of King John was stopped.

The Black Death reached England by mid-1348 and probably killed more than half the population over the next few years. Not only did this bring terrible destruction in Europe but major social upheaval and a loss of influence of the Church.

The great reformist movement of the 14th century was the Poor Preachers. Whilst they were very similar to the earlier monastic reformers embracing poverty and decrying the power and wealth of the Church they also called for the destruction of the monasteries. They placed the authority of the Bible above that of the Church and described transubstantiation as absurd. Their founder was John Wyclif, of Oxford.

John Ball appears to have been a Poor Preacher who became involved in the Peasants Revolt of AD1381 and is sometimes called the first Christian Socialist.

The 15th century saw the end of the Hundred Years’ War with France (AD1453) and the Wars of the Roses (AD1455-85) after which there followed a period of relative peace and prosperity.

One of the great achievements of Wyclif and his friends had been the translation of the Bible into English (though King Alfred and early Anglo-Saxons had freely translated it in their day). The later followers of Wyclif came to be known as the Lollards and they were soon oppressed by the Church as a danger. An act of AD1401 permitted their execution and John Badby was the first English layman to be executed for heresy. Despite this opposition it appears that Lollardy continued, often in quite considerable numbers, up until the time of the Reformation.

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