Guest Post: Bishops, Banners and Bastards by Robert Bayliss

“…the gift of a banner as a pledge of the support of St. Peter whereby he might the more confidently and safely attack his enemy.”
The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English. – William of Poiters
“The Pope weighed the arguments on both sides, and then sent a banner to William as an earnest of his kingdom.”
Gesta Regum – William of Malmesbury


Duke William raises his helmet to rally his troops. Beside him, Eustace of Bologne carries the Papal banner  *Source Bayeux tapestry

When Duke William landed at Pevensey in September 1066 on his campaign to dethrone Harold and conquer England, he unfurled his banners which included the Gonfalon, the battle standard of the Pope. Usually these were only issued on campaigns against non-Christian states or those who rebelled against papal authority. Yet here was a Christian Duke launching, what in effect was, a crusade against another Christian state; a Christian state that had been subject to the papacy for a century and a half. The subjugation of a well-established Christian nation could now be undertaken and those who indulged in the excesses of war would be absolved of their sins. And excesses there would be, such as the pillaging around Pevensey to draw Harold to battle and later the near genocidal Harrying of the North in the winter of 1069-70. The gift of the Gonfalon meant that other Christian kings would risk excommunication if they came to Harold’s aid or took advantage of William’s absence from his own lands. How could such a thing come to pass?

The Normans were descended from land hungry Northmen, who under their war chief Rollo, settled in north west France in an area that would bear their name – Normandy. Rollo himself had earned a reputation as a viking raiding Ireland and Scotland. He appears not to have raided England to any great extent, which isn’t surprising as Alfred the Great had recently forced Guthrum to sue for peace and was overseeing an Anglo-Saxon revival of fortunes. Heading south, Rollo’s longships raided deep into Frankia navigating along the river Seine. In 876 Rollo captured Rouen and nine years later besieged Paris itself. It was clear that Rollo and his men meant to stay and in 911 a formal treaty, with Rollo pledging fealty to Charles III of France, created the Duchy of Normandy.


Rollo of Normandy – Falaise town square. * Source Wikipedia

The Normans adopted the language of the Carolingian Franks and they converted to Christianity. If anyone expected their new found faith to curb their warlike tendencies they would be disappointed, especially as they readily took to the Carolingian concept of heavy cavalry and made it their own. However, being subjects of the French king meant Norman expansion in France could only go so far and only the eldest son inherited lands and titles. Perhaps a second son could find a position in the church but where was the glory for a people who had won their lands by the sword? These were a people whose society was founded on martial prowess, but perhaps an outlet could be found to marry this with their newfound piety?

From 999 AD a steady stream of Normans found their way to southern Italy. Southern Italy had been settled by the Lombards, a Germanic people in the C8th – C9th. They found themselves sandwiched as a buffer state between the Carolingian Empire to the north and the Byzantine Empire to the south in Apulia – the heel – and Calabria – the toe of Italy. The Lombards had briefly had a unified Duchy but this had disintegrated into smaller duchies and principalities. As the Byzantine Empire waned the Saracens had entered the fray and carved out an Emirate in Sicily.

Legend has it that a group of Norman knights returning from pilgrimage to the Holy Land assisted the Lombards of Salerno in repulsing Saracen raiders. Not one to miss an opportunity more Normans arrived to find employment as mercenaries, especially when the Lombards, encouraged by the Pope, revolted against their Byzantine overlords. However the Normans were wily and could fight for both sides, all the time their numbers swelled and Norman held fiefdoms were carved from the chaos.

*Source – Wikipedia

What originally was a Lombard revolt increasingly became Norman and more towns fell to them. They were not averse to campaigning as their Viking forebears had – raiding, burning farms and villages, starving towns of supplies to encourage their surrender. Their power and influence grew steadily as they crept from the toe and up the boot of Italy.

To the Lombards the Normans had changed from servants to oppressors and further revolts broke out, this time against Norman rule. The Lombards beseeched aid from the Papacy, who looked on in alarm at the turn of events. So it was that in 1053 Pope Leo IX, a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany led a combined Papal and Imperial force to nip Norman expansion in the bud. The campaign was an utter failure and Leo was soundly defeated and captured at Civitae. Pope Leo was treated well but was reduced to passive resistance only, any hope that the Holy Roman Empire would send further aid to his cause slowly dissipated. This situation continued with two further popes who were antagonistic to the Norman presence; however political reality took hold with the ascension of the reformist Pope Nicholas II. The Papacy sought independence from the Holy Roman Empire for the appointment of the pontiff (this would now be the decision of Cardinals) and also the tardiness in coming to the aid of the Pope had shown the Empire as an unreliable ally. The Normans were nearby, had assisted in the expulsion of the Byzantines and crucially had shown themselves as a strong regional power; despite their feudal form of government and their multiple fiefdoms, they quickly united when threatened. Nicholas II wished to expel the Saracens in Sicily and bring the island back into Christendom; the land hungry Normans were an obvious choice for such a task. The Treaty of Melfi in 1059 cemented the position of the Normans in Southern Italy. They had become the Pope’s sword arm.

*Norman mercenaries in Muslim Scicily – by Angus McBride 

Nicholas II passed in 1061 and Alexander II, a student of the celebrated Lanfranc of Bec, was elected pope according to the reforms introduced by his predecessor. In opposition the Emperor in Germany chose Honorius II who with Lombard troops defeated the forces of Alexander. An armed standoff ensued between the Pope and the Antipope which only ceased in 1064 when Honorius II withdrew from Rome, although he never renounced his claim to St. Peter’s throne.

Back in Normandy, who should be Duke William’s trusted advisor but Abbot Lanfranc of St. Etienne in Caen; the same Lanfranc who had schooled the young Alexander at Bec.

Captain Lanfranc – *Source Oxford Bodleian Library

Initially the relationship between both men had been fraught. William’s marriage to Matilda of Flanders in 1053 was deemed non-Canonical; it is unclear why, perhaps due to issues of consanguinity or even affinity. William’s uncle, Duke Richard III, had been married to Adela of France, Matilda’s mother. The marriage had been brief as Richard died the same year and they had no issue, Adela married Baldwin V of Flanders the next year. Whatever the reason, Lanfranc refused to support the marriage and the relationship between William and Lanfranc grew so dire that the Abbot was on the point of being exiled from Normandy. The two men reached a rapprochement at the eleventh hour and Lanfranc successfully gained Papal approval for the marriage in 1059. Lanfranc had William’s gratitude and the Abbot’s influence grew politically as well as in the spiritually.

Upon hearing the news of the crowning of Harold II on the death of Edward the Confessor in early 1066, William wasted no time. Whether Edward had promised him the English crown or Harold had sworn to uphold his claim we won’t discuss here. While embassies were sought with powers around the North Sea to isolate England, Lanfranc and William drew up a legal case for invasion to present to Alexander II.

It was argued that Harold was an usurper, however William’s claim could be described as somewhat shaky being as it was merely built upon a promise and an oath. There had never been papal involvement in the English succession previously, as this was down to the Witan, besides English law did not look favourably upon a bastard’s claim to the crown.

William and Lanfranc’s envoy to the pope argued that the English church was in a poor state and badly in need of reform. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury had been excommunicated for his pluralism in holding the bishoprics of Winchester and Canterbury. However England was renowned for possessing a devout ecclesiastical body that held around 20% of landed wealth. Indeed a papal legate in 1062 found no problems with the church and even Stigand had not been challenged; indeed he held the archbishopric until 1070 when he was finally arrested and unseated in favour of Lanfranc (who else?!), to die two years later in captivity.

Archbishop Stigand – *Source The Bayeux Tapestry

None of this seems to warrant the issuing of a Gonfalon against a nation which had long recognised the spiritual authority of the Papacy. Unfortunately for Harold events long ago and far away, beyond his influence, conspired against him. The Pope, an ex-student of William’s chief advisor, was threatened by the Holy Roman Empire and their attempts to depose him in favour of their candidate, while the local Italian populaces were in a near state of permanent rebellion, resentful of the growing Norman presence in southern Italy. Pope Alexander II was both dependent on, and a hostage to, Norman power. Any symbol of approval granted to Normans in their homeland would be looked upon favourably by Normans in the Pope’s backyard.


The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English. – William of Poiters

Gesta Regum – William of Malmesbury

The Godwins – Frank Barlow 2002

The Normans in the South – John Julius Norwich 1967