The rise of Wessex to power seems to have been aided by a good understanding between Ecgbert and the church, and his successors employed bishops as their ministers. Aethelred, who was specially under ecclesiastical influence, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and before his departure made large grants for pious uses. His donation, though not the origin of tithes in England, illustrates the idea of the sacredness of the tenth of income on which laws enforcing the payment of tithes were later founded. His pilgrimage was probably undertaken in the hope of averting the attacks of the pagan Danes. Their invasions fell heavily on the church; priests were slaughtered and churches sacked and burnt. Learning disappeared in Northumbria, and things were little better in the south. Bishops fought and fell, in battle, the clergy lived as laymen, the monasteries were held by married canons, heathen superstitions and immorality prevailed among the laity.
Besides bringing the Danish settlers in East Anglia to profess Christianity in 878, Alfred set himself to improve the religious and intellectual condition of his own people. The gradual reconquest of middle and northern England by his successors was accompanied by the conversion of the Danish population. A revival of religion was effected by churchmen inspired by the reformed monasticism of France and Flanders, by Odo, archbishop of Canterbury, Oswald, archbishop of York, and Dunstan, who introduced from abroad the strict life of the new Benedictinism. King Edgar promoted the monastic reform, and by his authority Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester turned canons out of the monasteries and put monks in their place. Dunstan sought to reform the church by ecclesiastical and secular legislation, forbidding immorality among laymen, insisting on the duties of the clergy, and compelling the payment of tithes and other church dues. After Edgar's death an anti-monastic movement, chiefly in Mercia, nearly ended in civil war. In this strife, which was connected with politics, the victory on the whole lay with the monk's party, and in many cathedral churches the chapters remained monastic.
The renewed energy of the church was manifested by councils, canonical legislation and books of sermons. In the homilies of Abbot Aelfric, written for Archbishop Sigeric, stress is laid on the purely spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but his words do not indicate, as some have believed, that the English Church was not in accord with Rome.
The ecclesiastical revival was short-lived. Renewed Danish invasions, in the course of which Archbishop Alphege was martyred in 1012, and a decline in national character, injuriously affected the church and, though in the reign of Canute it was outwardly prosperous, spirituality and learning decreased. Bishoprics and abbacies were rewards of service to the king, the bishops were worldly-minded, plurality was frequent, and simony not unknown. Edward the Confessor promoted foreign ecclesiastics; the connexion with Rome was strengthened, and in 1062 the first legates since the days of Offa were sent to England by Alexander II. A political conflict led to the banishment of Robert, the Norman archbishop of Canterbury. An Englishman Stigand received his see, but was excommunicated at Rome, and was regarded even in England as schismatical. When William of Normandy planned his invasion of England, Alexander II, by the advice of Hildebrand, afterwards Gregory VII, moved doubtless by this schism and by the desire to bring the English Church under the influence of the Cluniac revival and into closer relation with Rome, gave the duke a consecrated banner, and the Norman invasion had something of the character of a holy war.
This text forms part of the History of the Church of England originally part of the entry ENGLAND, CHURCH OF from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the content of which lies within the public domain.