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Archbishop of Canterbury, b. at Pavia c. 1005; d. at Canterbury, 24 May, 1089. Some say his father was of senatorial rank, others accord him a somewhat humbler station. He received a liberal education according to the standard of the age, notwithstanding the death of his parents during his tender years. On reaching manhood he applied himself to the study and practice of the law with marked success, but left Pavia for the purpose of devoting himself to the pursuit of learning. He made his way to France, and attached himself to a school at Avranches, in Normandy, where he became noted as a teacher. At a later period, a vocation to the religious life developing itself in him, he quitted Avranches secretly, only taking with him one Paul, a relative. His biographer tells us he was robbed on the road, but eventually made his way to Bec, where Abbot Herluin was then engaged in building a monastery which he had recently founded. He was received into the ranks of the little poverty stricken community after the customary period of probation, and applied himself to Biblical studies. In time, he was appointed prior of the monastery by Herluin, and was then enabled to open a school there, which rapidly became famous, and attracted scholars from many parts of Europe, several of whom rose to high rank in after years, especially the future pope, Alexander II, and Anselm, who succeeded Lanfranc both as prior of Bec and as Archbishop of Canterbury.

In May, 1050, being in Rome on business, he attended the council there and opposed the heresies that had of late years been broached by Berengarius on the subject of the Sacrament of the Altar, denying the mode of the Real Presence. Through the contents of a certain letter, Lanfranc came to be suspected of sharing Berengarius's erroneous views, but he so ably explained his own opinions that he has stood forth ever since as the principal exponent of the doctrine which has from that date been labeled with the name of Transubstantiation. Needless to say, that doctrine did not take its rise then, or through Lanfranc but his masterly exposition of the Faith (always held by the Church implicitly, and merely enucleated by him) was given with a clearness and precision of definition such as has been handed down through succeeding ages to ourselves. During the same year, at the Council of Vercelli, he once more upheld the orthodox belief against Berengarius, and again at Tours, in 1055, and finally secured the triumph of truth over error, of authoritative teaching over private interpretation, in the definition of the Lateran Council, held under Nicholas II in 1059. At a later date, probably about 1080, he wrote "De Corpore et Sanguine Domini" against the errors which Berengarius had continued to disseminate, notwithstanding various retractations and submissions.

All these activities made Lanfranc a man of such note that William, Duke of Normandy, employed him as one of his counsellors. He, however, forfeited the ducal favor about 1052-53, on account of opposing William's union with Matilda of Flanders, on the ground of their relationship within the prohibited degrees of kindred, and was, in consequence, ordered to leave the duke's dominions. On his journey to the frontier he happened to meet Duke William, who roughly asked him why his orders were not being obeyed. Lanfranc jestingly replied that he was obeying them as fast as a lame horse would allow him to do so. William appears to have been mollified by the answer, a reconciliation followed, and it would seem that Lanfranc undertook to forward negotiations for securing the needful dispensation from the pope. This he finally obtained in 1059, as well as the removal of the interdict which had been laid upon Normandy. In 1066 he was appointed to the Abbacy of St. Stephen's at Caen, one of the two abbeys lately founded by Duke William and his wife Matilda as one of the conditions of the papal dispensation from matrimonial impediments, and the ratification of their previously uncanonical union. This year is further remarkable as chronicling the defeat of Harold, King of the English, at Hastings, and the consequent conquest of England by Duke William. It is generally supposed that Lanfranc had much to do with shaping the duke's policy of invasion, obtaining the pope's sanction of the expedition by a papal Bull and the gift of a blessed banner, thereby conferring on the undertaking the appearance of being a holy war against a usurper and a violator of his oath, to some extent, also, identifying It with the cause of ecclesiastical reform, which was well advanced in Normandy, but still very backward in England. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury at that period, was in very bad odour with all parties; and in 1070, at a great council at Winchester, he was deprived of his office on charges of simony and uncanonical election.

Lanfranc had been elected to the Archbishopric of Rouen in 1067, but had declined it; now, however, the Conqueror fixed on Lanfranc as his choice of a successor to Stigand, and Lanfranc was at last prevailed upon, unwillingly enough, to yield his consent at the solicitations of his friends, headed by his former superior, Herluin. After receiving the temporalities of the see from William, he was consecrated at Canterbury on 29 August, by the Bishop of London. He entered on the duties of his high station with advantages of name and learning and experience of the world such as few men have ever brought to a similar office. The king's ecclesiastical policy, which he now, as chief counsellor, largely moulded, was without doubt beneficial to the kingdom; for the civil and ecclesiastical courts were separated, and regular synods were held, wherein regulations tending to better discipline were enacted and enforced. The Normanizing of the Church further tended to bring the native ecclesiastics into closer touch with the learning and practice of the Continent; and this was effected by replacing nearly all the Saxon bishops and abbots with Normans, on pretexts grave or slight. Whilst the insularity of the native clergy was thus beneficially broken down, much on the other hand of local practice, laudable in itself, was swept away. Much might well have been retained, but could not stand against the prepossessions of the dominant party, and the effect generally was the destruction of local customs. In particular, the liturgy lost much of its distinctiveness. Hitherto the Saxon Church had kept in close touch with Rome. The old Itala version of the Psalms, for instance—that which is used to this day in the choir of St. Peter's at Rome — was everywhere employed in England; but the Norman superiors supplanted that ancient version by the Gallicana, to which they were accustomed. Proof of this may be seen to this day in corrected codices, such as, for instance, British Museum Additional manuscript 37517 (the Bosworth Psalter), which possibly may have undergone revision at the hands of Lanfranc himself.

Once, however, that Lanfranc was identified with the English Church, he espoused its cause warmly, upholding the dignity and primacy of his own see, by refusing to consecrate Thomas of Bayeux to the archiepiscopal See of York till he admitted his dependence on that of Canterbury. This dispute was carried to Rome, but was thence referred for settlement back to England, where the case was finally decided in favor of Canterbury at a national council held at Winchester, at Easter, 1072. Thomas made his submission to Lanfranc in a council held at Windsor at Pentecost of the same year. In connection with this incident a grave charge has of recent years been brought against Archbishop Lanfranc by H. Böhmer (in "Die Fälschungen Erzbischof Lanfranks"), who accuses him of having falsified and forged documents in order to secure the primary of the See of Canterbury over that of York. M. Saltet (in "Revue des Sciences Ecclésiastiques", 1907), and others, have dealt with the question, exonerating Lanfranc from any personal complicity in these forgeries, if such they were.

Meanwhile Lanfranc had been to Rome in 1071 to receive the pallium from Alexander II, his former pupil at Bec. As Archbishop of Canterbury his influence was so great that he was from time to time consulted by bishops not belonging to his own province or obedience, and he helped in the work of reforming the Church in Scotland. He enforced the observance of celibacy among the clergy in accordance with the decrees renewed in 1076 at a synod held at Winchester; no canons were to be permitted to marry, nor could married men be ordained to the diaconate or the priesthood. But it is clear that at the time a state of degeneracy existed, and that too drastic measures all at once had to be avoided, since clergy already married were allowed to retain their wives. He resisted an attempt to oust the monks at Canterbury and Winchester in favor of secular canons, and secured papal confirmation of the existing practice which had come down from the days of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Many episcopal sees were at this period transferred from obscure villages to rising towns, as Sherborne to Salisbury, Dorchester (Oxon.) to Lincoln, Thetford to Norwich, and Selsey to Chichester. In 1076 he again visited Rome, and, on the return journey, made a tour of Normandy, during the course of which he had the satisfaction of consecrating the church of his old monastic home at Bec.

The king's attitude towards the Court of Rome more than once placed Lanfranc in a situation of extreme delicacy. William refused to allow the bishops of England to leave the kingdom for the purpose of visiting the pope without his consent. For this Lanfranc appears to have incurred the blame and was reproved, being, moreover, summoned to Rome, in 1082 under pain of suspension. He did not go, but it was the infirmities of old age, not contumacy, which prevented him from undertaking the long and arduous journey. It is well, also, to remember that a purely political reason for the king's refusal may be assigned, and Lanfranc probably shrank from precipitating a rupture between the pope and the king upon a question of constitutional law.

William introduced the system of feudal tenure for Church lands, which he was enabled to do when bestowing them upon Norman ecclesiastics, and required homage for them. But only in time did feudal homage and ecclesiastical investiture come to be confounded. It may be safely said that William never dreamt of encroaching upon ecclesiastical privilege, nor of questioning the spiritual supremacy of the Holy See, even when refusing to comply with the request of Gregory VII that he should do homage for his kingdom, and liquidate certain arrears of Peter's pence. The explanation of the pope's attitude and demand would seem to be that the tribute had come to be looked upon as a token of vassalage, whereas, in its origin, it was unmistakably a free gift. William, while refusing to render homage, promised that the arrears of Peter's-pence should be forthcoming. Capital is sometimes made, too, of the fact that William and Lanfranc adopted a hesitating attitude in the case of the antipope Guibert, or Clement III, in 1084. All that can be justly inferred is that they maintained strict neutrality until such time as the merits of the candidates could be adjudged by proper authority. As that authority was not theirs, neither William nor Lanfranc assumed the prerogative of settling the dispute one way or another. (See Liebermann in "Engl. Hist. Rev.", April, 1901, p. 328.) In fact, no act of theirs can be instanced as showing anything but the most complete and filial submission to the Holy See. (See Martin Rule in "Dublin Rev.", 3rd series, vol. VI, 1881, pp. 406 sqq.)

Lanfranc strenuously upheld the rights of his Church of Canterbury, when necessary, by legal action, even against the Conqueror's half-brother Odo of Bayeux. He also showed himself a munificent benefactor to the see, rebuilding the cathedral after its destruction by fire in 1067, improving the archiepiscopal estates by his good management, founding hospitals for the sick and indigent of both sexes, and giving liberally to widows and to the poor. His munificence was not confined, however, to his own see; he contributed largely, for example, to St. Albans, whose abbot, his relative Paul, had initiated there a vast scheme of rebuilding. His lifelong love of learning prompted him to foster studies; and even when immersed in the multitudinous and anxious affairs attached to his office and to his secular position as chief counsellor to the king, his pen was not idle, as the list of his works, which (considering the calls on his time) is a long one, testifies. His writings were published collectively by d'Achery in 1648; they may also be consulted in Migne, P.L., CL, and in Dr. Giles's edition of his works, published in 1844. Other treatises, now lost, have been attributed to him, amongst which are some that should rightly be ascribed to others.

When William had to leave England to attend to the affairs of his continental dominions, Lanfranc acted as his vicegerent, or regent, in England, and displayed not only activity and sagacity as a temporal ruler, but military qualities of no mean order as well in the repression of a rising against the Conqueror in 1074. It was probably by his advice, too, that, notwithstanding the violence of that young prince's character, William the Conqueror left England to his second son William Rufus, as by right of conquest, Normandy to his eldest son Robert, by right of inheritance, and only a large sum of money to his son Henry. The choice of Rufus was, doubtless, because, as having been Lanfranc's pupil, and as having received his knighthood from him, the archbishop's influence over him might be presumed to be of some weight. Lanfranc crowned him at Westminster less than three weeks after the Conqueror's death.

Lanfranc's name is, with that of his successor, St. Anselm, inseparably coupled with the thorny question of investitures, for the differences between king and primate, which came to a head under St. Anselm, showed their beginnings under Lanfranc. Here it is enough to say that his influence over a great ruler, such as the Conqueror was, prevented any but worthy appointments in the Church. But the root of the future evil lay in regarding sees merely as portions of the temporal fiefs attached to them, instead of keeping their spiritual character wholly separate from their temporal adjuncts. So long as a ruler—such as the Conqueror—was right-minded, no great harm was to be feared, but when a godless savage like William Rufus saw fit to intrude unworthy men into sees, or kept sees vacant in order to enjoy their revenues, then great evils arose, and such men were likely to assume—as Rufus did—that spiritual power and jurisdiction was derived from them by means of investiture with staff and ring, as well as tenure of the temporalities whose outward symbols were at that time, unfortunately, the same instruments. Lanfranc saw clearly the distinction between the civil and ecclesiastical capacities in which the same man might be regarded and might act, and it is related of him that in 1082 he encouraged the Conqueror to arrest his brother, Bishop Odo. The king scrupled to imprison a clerk, but Lanfranc grimly pointed out that he would not be arresting the Bishop of Bayeux (as it was not for an ecclesiastical offence), but the Earl of Kent—a title he held. Again, in 1088, when William de S. Carilef, Bishop of Durham, was being tried for his share in the rebellion of Odo and the Norman lords, that prelate endeavored to shield himself under his episcopal character. Lanfranc reminded him, first, that he was not at the bar as a bishop, but as a tenant-in-chief of the king; secondly, that the bishops judging him were acting in a like temporal capacity. Had that distinction been recognized and borne in mind by William Rufus, the troubles of his reign about investitures need never have arisen.

Lanfranc endeavored to check the extravagances of the Red King, who, however, proved deaf to his entreaties and remonstrances. Nevertheless, it is certain that, as long as Lanfranc lived, his influence, slight as it might be, caused Rufus to put some sort of restraint upon his evil nature. His faithlessness to his engagements and promises, however, was a source of bitter sorrow to the aged archbishop, and doubtless hastened his death. It had been his accustomed prayer that he might die of some malady which would not affect his reason or his speech, and his petition was granted. An attack of fever in May, 1089, in a few days brought him to the grave. On 24 May, the last day of his life, his physicians having ordered him a certain draught, he asked to defer it until he had confessed and received the Holy Viaticum. When this was done, he took the cup of medicine in his hand, but instead of swallowing it, calmly breathed his last. He was buried in his own cathedral. In the "Nova Legenda" Lanfranc has the title of Saint, and elsewhere he is called Blessed; but it does not appear that the public honors of sanctity were accorded to him.

His character may here fitly be summed up in words written in the "North American Review" (XCII, 257): "An Italian by birth, trained to new thoughts by long residence in France, he brought the subtile mind of his birth-land, refined by the use of French policy, to his new home, and into contact with the clear, hard sense of the English; and ruled in that realm with more than the skill of a native. . . . he was called on . . . so to frame and regulate the institutions of the Church, that they might conform to and sustain the altered constitutions of the State. . . . vigour of intellect and energy of purpose were . . . . demanded in one who must displace an old hierarchy, long and deeply established in the affection of the people, and mainly form anew the entire internal economy of their religious sentiments and worship." In every capacity, as scholar, as author, as politician, and as divine, Lanfranc exhibited the sound sense, rare tact, and singular ability that marked the great man amongst his fellows, and that gained for him a memory enduring through eight centuries even to our own day.


HUNT in Dict. Nat. Biog., s.v.; FREEMAN, Norman Conquest (Oxford, 1887); STUBBS, Constitutional History (Oxford, 1875-78); GILES, Lanfranci Opera (London, 1844); Vita Lanfrancii in MIGNE, P.L., CL (Paris, 1854); WILLIAM OF MALMESBURY, Gesta Regum and Gesta Pontificum in Rolls Series; W. AND M. WILKS, The Three Archbishops (London 1858); STANTON, Menology of England and Wales (London, 1887); RULE, Abp. Lanfranc and his Modern Critics in Dublin Rev. (1881), 3rd series, VI, 406 (a very valuable article, as it explodes modern misunderstanding of the ancient chroniclers' statements); Works of Abp. Lanfranc in North Am. Rev. (1861), XCII, 256; CHARMA, Lanfranc, Notice biographique (Paris, 1850); CROZALS, Lanfranc, sa vie, son enseignement, sa politique (Paris, 1877); LONGUEMARE, Lanfranc, Conseiller politique de Guillaume le Conquerant (Caen, 1902); BOHMER, Die Falschungen Erzbischof Lanfranks (Leipzig, 1902); IDEM., Kirche und Staat in England (Leipzig, 1899).

About this page

APA citation. Birt, H. (1910). Lanfranc. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Birt, Henry. "Lanfranc." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph E. O'Connor.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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