Orthodox America

  England on the Eve of the Conquest

A chapter from The True Church of England: The Orthodox Church in England from the Council of Chelsea to the Death of William the Conqueror, 787-1087, by Vladimir Moss 

Opinions have differed radically on the siginificance of the Norman Conquest. Antonia Gransden, in her review of the theories of historians, past and present, has divided them into two main groups, the "cataclysmic" theories and the "continuity" theories. "Cataclysmic" historians stress the enormous and catastrophic changes introduced into English life by the Normans; whereas "continuity" historians stress the continuity before and after the Conquest.

      Whatever the continuity or lack of it in English secular life and institutions, from a purely ecclesiastical point of view the Conquest must be considered to have introduced a change of religion. This was the change from the Orthodox Christianity of the preceding thousand years to the Roman Catholicism that succeeded it until the Protestant Reformation. Certainly, the major ecclesiastical historians of the first half century or so after the Conquest, Willigm of Malmesbury and Edmer of Canterbury, stressed its cataclysmic effect on the Church, and explained it as God's punishment of the English people for their sins.

      Thus the contact between what the English were on the eve of the Conquest and what they had been in previous centuries was described by William Malmesbury as follows:

      "This [the day of the Battle of Hastings] was a fatal day for England, a melancholy havoc of our dear country brought about by its passing under the domination of new lords. For England had long ago adopted the manners of the 'Angles' which had been very various at different times. In the first years after their arrival they were barbarians in their look and manners, warlike in their usages, heathens in their rites; but after embracing the faith of Christ, in process of time and by degrees, owing to the peace which they enjoyed, they came to regard arms as only of secondary importance, and gave their whole attention to religion. I say nothing of the poor, whom meanness of fortune often restrains from overstepping the bounds of justice; I omit men of ecclesiastical rank whom respect for their sacred profession, or fear of shame, sometimes restrains from straying from the true path; I speak of princes who from the greatness of their power might have full liberty to indulge in pleasure Some of these in their own country, and some at Rome, changing their habit, obtained a heavenly kingdom i and a saintly communion; and many during their whole lives, to outward seeming so managed their worldly affairs that they might disperse their treasures on the poor, or divide them among monasteries. What shall I say of the multitude of bishops, hermits and abbots? Does not the whole island blaze with so many relics that you can scarcely pass a village of any consequence without hearing the name of some new saint? And of how many have all records perished?

      "Nevertheless, with the lapse of time the love of learning and of religion decayed, and some years before the coming of the Normans it had declined. The clergy, content with a very slight measure of learning, could scarcely stammer out the words of the sacraments, and a person who understood gram mar was an object of wonder and astonishment. The monks mocked the rule of their order with fine vestments and with the use of every kind of good. The nobility, given up to luxury and wantonness, did not go to church in the early morning after the manner of Christians, but merely in a casual manner heard Matins and the Divine Liturgy from a hurrying priest in their chambers amidst the blandishments of their wives. The common people, left unprotected, became a prey to the more powerful who amassed riches either by seizing the property of the poor or by selling themselves to foreigners. Nevertheless, it is the manner of this people to be more inclined to dissipation than to the accumulation of wealth. There was one custom repugnant to nature which they adopted: namely, to sell their female servants after they had satisfied their lust with them and made them pregnant, to foreign slavery. Drinking in parties was a universal custom, in which occupation they passed entire days and nights....They were accustomed to eat until they were full and to drink until they were sick. These latter qualities they imparted to their conquerors; as to the rest, they adopted their manners.

      "I would not, however, have these bad propensities ascribed to the English universally. I know that many of the clergy at that time trod the path of sanctity, and I know that many of the laity of all ranks and conditions were well-pleasing to God. Far be it from me to be unjust: my accusation is not indiscriminate. But as in peace the mercy of God cherishes both the bad and the good together, so also does his severity sometimes include them both in tribulation."

      In support of William's view, Edmer writes of the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury, that they lived "in all the glory of the world, with gold and silver and various elegant clothes, and beds with precious hangings. They had all sorts of musical instruments, which they liked playing, and horses, dogs and hawks, with which they were wont to talk. They lived, indeed, more like earls than monks."

      But they were not all unworthy; and in describing the terrifying spectacle of God's judgment on the English, let us also note those for whom this judgment served as the occasion of a crown--the crown of martyrdom for Christ... 

      'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of goodwill'; because a grain of wheat, falling into the earth, has died, that it might not reign in heaven alone; even He by Whose death we live, by Whose weakness we are made strong, by Whose suffering we are rescued from suffering, through Whose love we seek in Britain for brethren whom we know not, by Whose gift we find those whom without knowing we sought but who can describe what great joy sprung up here in the hearts of the faithful, for that the nation of the Angles through the cooperation of the grace of Almighty God and the labor of thy Fraternity has cast away the darkness of error, and been suffused with the light of the holy Faith; that with most sound mind it now tramples on the idols, which it formerly crouched before in insane fear; that it falls down with pure heart before Almighty God; that it is re strained by the rules of holy preaching from the lapses of wrong doing; that it bows down in heart to Divine precepts, that in understanding it may be exalted that it humbles itself even to the earth in prayer, lest in mind and soul it should lie upon the earth   St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome, to St. Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury (597), Epistle XXVIII 

            The pride of the Pope is the reason why the Greeks are divided from the so called faithful..It is we westerners, too fanatical by far, who have been divided from the faithful Greeks and the Faith of the Lord Jesus Christ. John Wycliff, On Christ and His Adversary, 8 (1383) 

      When the Church in the British Isles begins to venerate her own Saints then the Church will grow.. St. Arsenios of Paros (+1877)