The sign of things to come…
It may seem strange, but churchmen born in what is now Italy have been regents of England on at least two occasions that I know of. The first was Lanfranc of Pavia. The second was Guala Bicchieri, during the time of King John and the boyhood of King Henry III. In this post I’ve chosen to tell the story (in brief) of Lanfranc, a native of my adopted town, Pavia. However, the story of Guala Bicchieri is just as important to the history of England. Born in Vercelli, where Manuele Fieschi (author of the Fieschi Letter) later became bishop, Guala Bicchierei became an important figure in English diplomacy and was instrumental in the circumstances leading to the Magna Carta. Indeed, copies of this great document signed in the time of Henry III bear Guala Bicchieri’s seal – as co-regent for the boy-king.
What is the point of this post? To reinforce what I have already said about medieval Europe as an international place, and to challenge an old mindset that sees English history only in relation to France in the south, and Scotland in the north. You never hear a cardinal with an Italian accent in Robin Hood movies, where it seems only the English and the French exist. But we must realize that the church was an intrinsic presence in medieval power-play, and people born in what is now Italy were such an important part of the church that they literally pop up everywhere in medieval history, acting decisively at the very highest levels, and influencing the course of history in many different countries. This is a fundamental realization if we are to truly understand the story of King Edward II and the Fieschi Letter. So now let’s take a step backward in time to the Norman Conquest.
William the Conqueror and Lanfranc of Pavia
Poor William must have had conflicting feelings about the institution of marriage. Before becoming William the Conqueror, King of England, he was Duke of Normandy and his nickname was William the Bastard – not because of his personality. His father never married his mother, and this certainly made life difficult for him when he inherited the duchy of Normandy in 1035 as a very young man. Later, his own marriage proved to be a source of trouble. He was betrothed to Matilda of Flanders, which was a very advantageous match at the time, due to the royal connections of her family. However, for some reason that historians cannot quite distinguish from contemporary documents, the Pope of the time opposed the match. And this is where Lanfranc of Pavia steps into the story.
Lanfranc was a brilliant young clergyman, born in the early years of the 11th century in Pavia. We know that he was highly educated, and may have studied at the prestigious Studium of Pavia. This famous school of theology and law had existed since at least AD 825, when its status was confirmed by Lothair, the grandson of Charlemagne, and in 1361 was to be expanded into the University of Pavia we know today. There is by no means any documentary evidence that Lanfranc studied there, but since he was born in a city with an important centre of learning, it seems natural to assume that he received at least some of his education there.
Lanfranc went on to become Prior of Bec, in Normandy. At that time, Priors could be very powerful men indeed. Lanfranc was well known for his orthodox stance on theological matters, which he had argued to great success at the great Council of Vercelli in 1050. As Prior of Bec, in the Duchy of Normandy, Lanfranc was in a position to either help or hinder the young Duke William in his bid to marry his chosen bride, Matilda. According to tradition (and the later relationship between the two men seems to uphold this), it was Lanfranc who interceded with the Pope on William and Matilda’s behalf, and succeeded in having their marriage celebrated, probably in 1059. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship…
A few years later the Pope of the time, Alexander II (from Milan), gave Duke William his official blessing to invade England. I do not know whether or not Lanfranc was involved in persuading him to do so, but it is not unreasonable to think he was. After all, Alexander II was said to be a former pupil of his, and was certainly a personal friend. And indeed, Lanfranc was among the people who profited the most from the invasion, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, and establishing the primacy of his see over that of York. William, now king and conqueror, not duke and bastard, continued to benefit from Lanfranc’s friendship. The archbishop from Pavia acted as co-regent of the kingdom in William’s absence in 1074, and helped thwart a plot against William the following year. He contributed to William’s program of subjugation of the English by consistently preferring Norman clergymen to English clergymen when there were important church posts in the offing. When William the Conqueror died, it was Lanfranc who secured the succession of his third son, William Rufus.
Lastly, the heritage of England was to benefit from Lanfranc due to his building enterprise. The Norman cathedral of Canterbury was begun, and largely completed, during his reign as Archbishop, after a fire destroyed the Anglo-saxon cathedral in 1067.