Kyly Walker completed a MA (Research) at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Monash University in 2018, investigating how bishops asserted their authority during the reign of King Stephen of England. She is active on Twitter (@kyly_walker), especially during conferences, and enjoys baking when she gets the time! Kyly has recently written the article “Westminster Abbey, King Stephen, and the Failure to Canonize King Edward in 1139,” which you can read in the Royal Studies Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2018).
Westminster Abbey. Photo by Kristen Geaman
RSJ Blog: Thanks for talking with us, Kyly! Many of us associate Westminster Abbey so closely with Edward the Confessor that it can be surprising to learn the house was not founded by him. Can you give us a little more information on the abbey’s early history?
Kyly: Thanks so much for having me! Well, when it comes to Westminster Abbey’s history, there’s the legend and then there are the facts. According to Sulcard, who wrote a history of Westminster in the eleventh century, a church was founded on the Abbey site by an unknown rich man—Osbert of Clare said it was King Sæberht of Essex—and his wife during the reign of King Æthelberht of Kent (reigned 589–616). Sulcard tells a fantastic tale of how St Peter came down from heaven and consecrated the church in the middle of the night, usurping the Bishop of London, with only a fisherman as witness. This episode was probably invented to assert that Westminster was exempt from the bishop’s authority.
There’s actually little evidence of Westminster in the historical record before the tenth century. King Offa of Essex allegedly restored the church in the early eighth century and King Offa of Mercia—of Offa’s Dyke fame—possibly granted some land. The monastery was founded in the 960s–70s, during the time of King Edgar (reigned 959–75) and St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury. Edgar sold the land to Dunstan, who founded a monastery on the site. Edgar and Æthelred Unræd—better known as Ethelred the Unready—granted and confirmed various lands to the new monastery. It looks like the Abbey became quite successful in the early eleventh century and King Harold Harefoot (reigned 1035–40) was buried there, showing that it had become important and was connected to royalty. But Harold’s corpse was later dug up, beheaded, and thrown into a fen near the Thames on the orders of his half-brother and successor Harthacnut. So, although Westminster promoted itself as an ancient house, the Abbey would have been less than 200 years old during Stephen’s reign.
RSJ Blog: Your article mentions that some of Osbert’s devotions were very Anglo-Saxon. What were some other notable differences between Anglo-Saxon and Norman religious practices at this time?
Kyly: Wow, that’s a big question! Well, William the Conqueror justified his invasion of England—at least partially—because the English Church was degenerate. What the exact problem was isn’t certain, but it probably had a lot to do with the recent renewal that the Norman Church had undergone. The Normans had abandoned some practices that the English had not. For example, pluralism—the practice of overseeing more than one diocese or monastery—was very common in England. Stigand, the archbishop of Canterbury, was also bishop of Winchester, and Abbot Leofric of Peterborough ruled four other monasteries. Stigand kept his post for a few years, but his position was precarious, and he was deposed in 1070. Leofric died soon after the Battle of Hastings, which probably prevented him suffering a similar fate.
Until recent years, one of the major differences was seen to be attitudes towards sanctity. For a long time, it was assumed that the Normans were very skeptical about the holiness of many English saints and rejected several cults. As Susan Ridyard has shown, this was far from true, and English saints’ cults were adapted to suit a monastery’s particular situation. Nationality wasn’t an issue: the new religious hierarchy would use any tool at their disposal—including an Anglo-Saxon saint’s cult—to protect and improve their church. Some churchmen were initially cautious about certain saints venerated in their churches, the most famous being Lanfranc, archbishop of Canterbury. There is a story in Eadmer’s Life of St Anselm that Lanfranc doubted that one of his predecessors, St Alphege, was a saint, and had to be convinced by another future archbishop, St Anselm, that Alphege was indeed a saint, as he’d been martyred by the Danes. Lanfranc accepted Anselm’s arguments and supported and promoted the cult of Alphege and other Anglo-Saxon saints from then on.
Other differences were organizational. Under the Normans, several sees moved from rural areas to towns. The canons who served the cathedrals were organized into formal chapters and were given particular roles to perform within the chapters, such as treasurer. Small parish churches were also established at the expense of larger churches, called minsters, which had controlled larger areas (this had already begun before 1066, but the process accelerated after the Norman Conquest).
RSJ Blog: Can you tell us a little more about the forgeries that were created to help Westminster Abbey enhance its status in the early 1100s? How many were there? How similar were Westminster’s actions to that of other medieval abbeys?
Kyly: The exact number of forgeries is difficult to pin down, as scholars disagree over whether some are genuine or not, and others appear to be based on genuine documents that have been altered at a later date. There is evidence that around 40 pre-Conquest charters—mostly in Edward’s name—were either forged or tampered with. There are definitely forgeries in the names of Kings Edgar (at least one), Edward the Confessor (at least three), William I (up to ten), Henry I (around four), and even Stephen (six). Most date to the twelfth century, but a few were forged in the 1200s. Other charters were allegedly issued by Archbishop Dunstan and Pope Paschal II, and possibly by Pope Innocent II as well. Westminster’s forgers fabricated charters for other monasteries too, such as Ramsey and Coventry Abbey, so it seems their skills were well-known in monastic circles, and it was not an unusual practice. Several monasteries, with longer histories than Westminster, also created impressive portfolios of forged documents. These included Worcester Cathedral Priory, St Augustine’s Abbey at Canterbury, and Gloucester Abbey. They all faced the same problem: many of their lands and rights had been granted in the distant past, and documents confirming the monasteries’ possession of them had either never existed or had been destroyed by the passage of time. The monasteries therefore remedied this lack through forgery. Ideas about forgery were very different in the twelfth century, and the monks didn’t see their activities as wrong. They believed they were creating documents that had or should have existed. As I mention in my article, the monks were dealing with the change from “oral to written testimony,” and they did it the only way they could, by re-creating documents.
RSJ Blog: Westminster Abbey very much wanted to be seen as the premier royal site in England at this time. Were there other avenues Osbert and the monks could have pursued to accomplish this or was getting Edward the Confessor canonized the only viable option?
Kyly: Well, to gain the position it wanted as the royal site in England, Westminster needed to obtain the undivided attention of the monarchy. The Abbey was certainly understood to be the place for royal coronations, and some other occasions. Coronations were rather infrequent though and the location of Christmas events etc. was not fixed. So, it was difficult for the Abbey to develop firm ties to the king.
Establishing the Abbey as a royal dynastic mausoleum was a path that Westminster tried to follow. The monks went to a lot of effort in 1118 to have Henry I’s first wife, Matilda of Scotland, buried at Westminster Abbey. There was a family connection, as she was Edward the Confessor’s great-great niece, and at the time her son was the heir to the throne. Linking the dynasty to Edward and Westminster probably seemed like a good idea. But according to the Augustinian Priory of Holy Trinity Aldgate in London, Westminster’s monks bribed King Henry—who was out of the country—to ensure that Matilda was buried at the Abbey, which was quite possibly against her wishes. Matilda had founded Holy Trinity and so she may have wanted to be interred there; according to the Priory’s account, her body had been moved there before Westminster took possession of it. It was quite common for royal persons to be buried in the church of monasteries they had founded: William the Conqueror was interred at his foundation of St Stephen’s Abbey at Caen in Normandy and similarly Henry I was buried at Reading Abbey. Unfortunately for Westminster, Holy Trinity told the king about what the monks had done, and he wasn’t particularly happy about it. Additionally, Matilda and Henry’s son died tragically two years later, throwing the succession into question. Any plans Westminster Abbey had had to link their fortunes to Henry’s dynasty thus came to naught, and the monks’ next plan to raise the Abbey’s status was Edward’s attempted canonization.
RSJ Blog: Your article mentions that the cardinals were divided, with some supporting Matilda and some Stephen. Why did some of the cardinals support Matilda? Was it connected to her time as Empress?
Kyly: Yes, the support Matilda received from some cardinals is at least partially linked to her time as Empress in Germany. The persuasive abilities of her envoys probably had something to do with it too. Matilda’s first husband, Emperor Henry V, was involved in a huge dispute with the papacy over who had the right to appoint bishops during the 1110s–20s. The resolution of this quarrel would have involved a lot of diplomatic to-ing and fro-ing, and Matilda probably met several papal representatives at this time, whom she may have later lobbied for support against Stephen. At least two future popes—Honorius II and Innocent II—spent time in Germany as papal representatives trying to resolve the dispute. John of Salisbury’s comment that Pope Celestine II was elected with her favor suggests that Matilda kept in close contact with the papal court, to keep her hopes of ruling England alive.
RSJ Blog: Despite the failure of Edward’s canonization in 1139, did Osbert manage to increase Westminster Abbey’ status anyway?
Kyly: Yes, I think he did, but not to the extent that he planned. By linking Westminster, Edward, and the idea of a royal church, Osbert put an idea in peoples’ minds about the Abbey’s importance in London and the kingdom. Although Osbert’s actions didn’t lead to an immediate increase in the Abbey’s fortunes, they created a catalyst that later generations could capitalize on when circumstances were better.
RSJ Blog: What are you working on now?
Kyly: At the moment I’m employed outside of academia, which leaves very little time for scholarly pursuits! I’m adapting part of my MA thesis for this year’s International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. All going well, I’ll be starting a PhD at the University of Leeds in October, working with Professor Julia Barrow. My project looks at written expressions of authority in twelfth century bishops’ charters. I’m interested in discovering what influenced the development of this language and how it evolved throughout the century.
RSJ Blog: Thank you for talking with us!