Dunstan of Canterbury,
In 747 the English bishops held a synod at the instance of Pope Zacharias and a second synod held forty years later was presided over by two papal legates. That same year Pope Adrian elevated the See of Lichfield to Archiepiscopal status at the request of King Offa of Mercia. This was a mistake however and Leo III, in 803, reduced Lichfield to the status of an ordinary diocese, leaving Canterbury and York as the only metropolitan sees. We can see from this information that the English Church was not independent from Rome but neither should we attribute governing power over the English Church to Rome and the Papacy. The Ecclesia Anglicana was in the Roman Patriarchiate and acknowledged the leadership of the Western Patriarch, but remained self-governing in internal affairs as did the other Churches of Western Europe.
Alfred the Great, the King who drove out the Danish invaders and united the diverse Saxon kingdoms at the end of the ninth century had a strong devotion to the Church in his realm and supported the distribution of the Regula Pastoralis of Pope Saint Gregory the Great to his bishops for the formation of their clergy. Alfred also restored the payment of the Peter’s Pence which had fallen into disuse during the instability of the Viking invasions. Nevertheless, I think it is important to distinguish between the King’s support of the Church and his support of the papacy itself. Alfred’s prime interest was in the reform of the Church in his kingdom, most notably in the restoration of the monasteries after the Danish invasion and in improving the education and morals of the clergy which he saw as vital to the educational and cultural improvements of his kingdom. This was not a period in which the Roman See was able to offer reform to its own Church, much less to a Church at the far end of the then known world.
Despite the corruption of the papacy at this time several Archbishops of Canterbury, most notably Wulfhelm, Aelfsige, and St.Dunstan made the journey to Rome to receive their pallia personally. The other Archbishops did not make the journey but had the pallium sent to them. An interesting case right at the most intense period of the decay of Roman morals was that of Archbishop Plegmund (archbishop 890-923). Pope Formosus had sent the pallium to Archbishop Plegmund And when Sergius III, for political reasons, annulled the ordinations and appointments of Formosus, Plegmund had to make the journey to Rome to beg its new grant. Sergius III was the pope whose mistress was Marozia during the so called pornocracy and Sergius was the father of John XI by Marozia. Plegmund was not the only Archbishop of Cantrbury to be exposed to the moral sludge of the papal court. Saint Dunstan journeyed to Rome in 960 and received the pallium from John XII—perhaps the most immoral man to have ever sat in the Chair of Peter. John XII was the grandson of the aforementioned Marozia by her first husband, Alberic of Spoleto. Luitprand of Cremona, the historian, alleges that John had turned the papal palace “into a whorehouse.” John was to meet his end at the hands of a jealous husband—one of scores whom he had cuckolded. In addition to his sexual proclivities, John was given to hunting, gambling, and drinking bouts while at the same time ignoring his sacred duties as Pope. One can only wonder what men like Dunstan thought when they came to the papal court though it does permit us to see that the English were able to have a deep and lasting devotion to Saint Peter while distinguishing the Prince of the Apostles from his unholy successors.
In 1015 the Danish Prince Canute invaded England and held the crown from 1016 until his death in 1035. In 1018 he succeeded to the throne of Denmark and 1028 took the crown of Norway thus building for himself quite an empire. He was a most fervent convert to Christianity and advanced the cause of the Church in all his realms. In 1026 he made a pilgrimage to the Rome of John XIX. He was crowned there as King of the English, Danes, Norwegians and “some of the Swedes.” The purpose of his trip, other than to receive the papal blessing on his empire, was to negotiate with the Emperor about safe passage for English pilgrims going to Rome and to negotiate with the Pope about lowering the fees for which the English Archbishops had to pay to receive the pallium. By the third decade of the eleventh century there was reform in the air in Rome—the Emperors Otto were doing their best to clean up the cesspool of the Roman pornacracy, but the Pope at the time of Canute’s visit was not a reform Pope but a member of that notorious family of the Counts of Tusculum. John does not seem to have led a particularly scandalous life though he was far from pious but Canute would not have been one to scruple at the sexual idiosyncrasies of his peers, however, as he himself lived in open concubinage with several women while married to Emma of Normandy.
I mentioned that during the notorious papacies of the tenth century, three English Archbishops actually travelled to Rome to receive their pallia from the Pope. The pallium is a band of wool adorned with five crosses that an Archbishop wears over his Mass vestments to show that he is in communion with the Holy See. I can’t help but wonder what these archbishops thought when they got to Rome and saw the state of the Church there? I think particularly of Saint Dunstan who was a great reformer of the English Church and yet visited the court of John XII, one of the most depraved men to sit on the throne of Saint Peter. Dunstan spent much of his time as first an abbot and the successively as Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and then Archbishop of Canterbury reforming the morals of the clergy and here he meets a pope who was a notorious adulterer and gambler, given to drinking bouts and hunting, not merely sloppy in his sacred duties but who openly mocked the sacred rites. Dunstan looked to the popes as the successor Peter and the center of the Church’s unity but he did not take his cue as bishop from their leadership. Under Dunstan the English Church was one of the brighter spots in the Christian west.
The devotion of Dunstan and of the English in general was not to the person of the Pope as it has become in later history, but to Saint Peter himself. It was Peter’s relics, not the popes, that brought King Ine to Rome, that drew so many of the English to Rome in theAnglo-Saxon period and that evoked the annual tribute of the Peter’s Pence. Perhaps one final aspect to look at in this devotion to the prince of the Apostles is the foundation of Westminster Abbey.
The Abbey of Saint Peter at Westminster seems to date back to the early decades of the seventh century. The Abbey supposedly was dedicated to Saint Peter because of a vision of the fisherman saint to a local fisherman, Aldrich, at the time when Saint Mellitus was Bishop of London. At that time the City of London was somewhat downstream from the fledgling abbey which was out in the upriver fields and meadows. Whatever the historicity of the vision, the story testifies to the devotion in which Saint Peter was held in Anglo-Saxon England and the mystique the Prince of the Apostles held over the English Church. Saint Dunstan reformed the Abbey in the third quarter of the tenth century. Saint Edward the Confessor, the last of the Anglo Saxon Kings (discounting Harold who was unable to maintain his throne to which he had a somewhat shaky claim in any event) began rebuilding the Abbey in 1042 as a site for his eventual burial. The new church was consecrated on December 28th 1065 and King Saint Edward died eight days later on January 5, 1066. The struggle for the crown of the childless King led to the invasion of William the Conqueror who was crowned king in the abbey church on Christmas day, 1066. The reign of William and the ascendancy of the Normans (and consequent eclipse of the Anglo-Saxons) would change the relationship between the Church of England and the Holy See.