William's dealings with the Church of England were no less important than his dealings with social organization. In the earlier years of his reign he set himself to get rid of the whole of the upper hierarchy, in order to replace them by Normans. In 1070 Archbishop Stigand was deposed as having been uncanonically chosen, and six or seven other bishops after him. All the vacancies, as well as those which kept occurring during the next few years, were immediately filled up with foreigners. By the time that William had been ten years on the throne there were only three English bishops left. At his death there was only one, the saintly Wulfstan of Worcester. The same process was carried out with regard to abbacies, and indeed with all important places of ecclesiastical preferment. By 1080 the English Church was officered entirely by aliens.
Just as with the lay landholders, the change of personnel made a vast difference, not so much in the legal position of the new-corners as in the way in which they regarded their office. The outlook of a Norman bishop was as unlike that of his English predecessor as that of a Norman baron. The English Church had got out of touch with the ideals and the spiritual movements of the other Western churches. In especial the great monastic revival which had started from the abbey of Cluny and spread all over France, Italy and Germany had hardly touched this island. The continental churchmen of the 11th century were brimming over with ascetic zeal and militant energy, while the majority of the English hierarchy were slack and easy-going. The typical faults of the dark ages, pluralism, simony, lax observation of the clerical rules, contented ignorance, worldliness in every aspect, were all too prevalent in England. There can be no doubt that the greater part of William's nominees were better men than those who preceded them; his great archbishop, Lanfranc, though a busy statesman, was also an energetic reformer and a man of holy life. Osmund, Remigius and others of the first post-Conquest bishops have left a good name behind them. The condition of the church alike in the matter of spiritual zeal, of hard work and of learning was much improved.
But there was a danger behind this revival; for the reformers of the 11th century, in their zeal for establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, were not content with raising the moral and intellectual standards prevailing in Christendom, but sought to bring the whole scheme of life under the church, by asserting the absolute supremacy of the spiritual over the temporal power, wherever the two came in contact or overlapped. The result, since the feudal and ecclesiastical systems had become closely interwoven, aiid the frontier between the religious and secular spheres must ever be vague and undefined, was the conflict between the spiritual and temporal powers which, for two centuries to come, was to tear Europe into warring factions (see the articles Church History; Papacy; Investiture).
The Norman Conquest of England was contemporaneous with the supreme influence of the greatest exponent of the theory of ecclesiastical supremacy, the archdeacon Hildebrand, who in 1073 mounted the papal throne as Gregory VII. William, despite all his personal faults, was a sincerely pious man, but it could not be expected that he would acquiesce in these new developments of the religious reformation which he had done his best to forward. Hence we find a divided purpose in the policy which he pursued with regard to church affairs. He endeavoured to keep on the best terms with the papacy: he welcomed legates and frequently consulted the pope on purely spiritual matters. He even took the hazardous step of separating ecclesiastical courts and lay courts, giving the church leave to establish separate tribunals of her own, a right which she had never possessed in Saxon England. The spiritual jurisdiction of the bishop had hitherto been exercised in the ordinary national courts, with lay assessors frequently taking part in the proceedings, and mixing their dooms with the clergy's canonical decisions. William in 1076 granted the church a completely independent set of courts, a step which his successors were to regret for many a generation.
At the same time, however, he was not blind to the possibilities of papal interference in domestic matters, and of the danger of conflict between the crown and the recently-strengthened clerical order. To guard against them he laid down three general rules: (1) that no one should be recognized as pope in England till he had himself taken cognizance of the papal election, and that no papal letters should be brought into the realm without his leave; (2) that no decisions of the English ecclesiastical synods should be held valid till he had examined and sanctioned them; (3) that none of his barons or ministers should be excommunicated unless he approved of such punishment being inflicted on them. These rules seem to argue a deeply rooted distrust of the possible encroachments of the papacy on the power of the state. The question of ecclesiastic patronage, which was tobe thesource of the first great quarrel between the crown and the church in the next generation, is not touched upon. William retained in his own hands the choice of bishops and abbots, and Alexander II and Gregory VII seem to have made no objection to his doing so, in spite of the claim that free election was the only canonical way of filling vacancies. The Conqueror was allowed for his lifetime to do as he pleased, since be was recognized as a true friend of the church. But the question was only deferred and not settled.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.