Thursday, 8 August 2013

Canterbury - York Controversy

The church in England was not a single united province under one archbishop, but was divided into two rival archbishoprics or ecclesiastical provinces, York and Canterbury, who contended for nearly a century whether Canterbury had supremacy or primacy over York, or whether they were equal, and independent from one another.

York claimed the following right

There was an ancient [undocumented/unwritten] custom [understanding] between the two metropolitans of England, that upon the death [or vacancy] of one the surviving other should exercise all the archiepiscopal jurisdiction within the province of the other, namely to consecrate bishops, to crown the king, to sing high mass before the king at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost and so forth.

The Beginnings of the Controversy

St. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 595 to Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons. In 597, the same year he landed in Kent, he was consecrated as the first Archbishop of Canterbury. In 601 he received the pallium from Pope Gregory, conferring and confirming his post as archbishop and metropolitan. Together with the pallium there was a letter from Gregory directing that Augustine should ordain 12 suffragan bishops and to send another bishop to York. It was the pope's intention that there should be two metropolitans (archbishops) in Britain, one based at York and the other in London, with each to have 12 suffragan bishops. London, was not part of the lands of the kingdom of Kent, and the archepiscopacy never really got established there, remaining and becoming firmly established at Canterbury instead.

Around 625 Paulinus, one of the members of St. Augustine's original mission, was sent to the Kingdom of Northumbria, formerly the kingdom of Deira and Bernicia [which was quite separate from the kingdom of Kent]. Pope Gregory's plan had been that York should become England's second metropolitan see; whether independent from Canterbury that was not clear. Paulinus set about trying to establish his church there, but had to flee. It was not until 735 that York was formally raised by the pope to being an archepiscopacy. Thereafter there followed many Anglo-Saxon archbishops of York.

Lanfranc and Thomas of Bayeaux

Not long after the Conquest,  in May 1070, as part of his programme to Normanize the English church, king William I replaced the last Anglo-Saxon archbishop of York, Ealdred, with Thomas, a canon from Bayeaux in Normandy. William appointed Thomas on the understanding that he should subsequently have his consecration conferred upon him by Lanfranc, his newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc received his own consecration on 29th August 1070, but when Thomas came down south for the ceremony Lanfranc refused to perform the consecration unless he was first given a written profession of obedience on oath by Thomas. Lanfranc claimed that Canterbury was the primary metropolitan see in England, and its holder was consequently primate of the whole of the  English Church. Thomas, however, pleaded the independence and privilege of his own ecclesiastical province, and refused to give in to this. He maintained that  no archbishop of York had ever before submitted to the archbishop of Canterbury.  And according to some accounts, Thomas also appealed to the king, who after some hesitation gave his support to Lanfranc. Eventually Thomas gave way, and with some reservations was duly consecrated. This, however, was not to be the end of the matter.

In the autumn of 1071 both archbishops travelled to Rome to receive their pallia from the then pope Alexander II. Whilst they were at the papal curia Thomas not only reopened the question of the autonomy of his province, but also claimed that the Sees of Worcester, Dorchester and Lichfield all belonged to the northern English ecclesiastical province, his. Lanfranc obtained an order from the pope that the dispute between him and York should be decided by a council of the English church, to which the pope would also send a legate as his personal representative. 

The synod or council met at Winchester at Easter 1072, with the king presiding: the matter was debated in full. Ultimately the council decided in favour of Lanfranc, and Canterbury on all essential points of the case. The disputed bishoprics were all to be assigned to the province of Canterbury; the right of the archbishop of Canterbury to a profession of obedience from the metropolitan of York was held to be established and Lanfranc was to be recognised as the primate of England. This outcome is known as the Accord of Winchester. Lanfranc had made good all his aims, only formal confirmation from the pope of the Accord was necessary to make his victory complete.

But the dispute between Thomas and Lanfranc continued for a long time afterwards. The question how York's obedience to Canterbury should be made manifest was never settled. Lanfranc was never able to gain formal confirmation from the pope, perhaps because pope Alexander II had died in the meantime and pope Gregory VII who succeeded him had completely different aims. Gregory VII was a reforming pope with new kind of papal policy, a pope with a zeal to cleanse the church, and bring it more under his control. Despite the fact that Lanfranc generally supported Gregory's programme, Gregory never did ratify the Winchester Accord.  It is suggested that Lanfranc was expected to go to Rome in person in order to obtain this, which he didn't. And thus the Canterbury-York controversy over the primacy continued on for many, many years after this.


Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury continued the struggle for the primacy of his see over that of York. He succeeded in persuading pope Paschal II to forward the pallium for the new archbishop-elect of York (Thomas II) to himself, in the attempt to force the latter to have to confirm his obedience to Canterbury before he could receive it. Even when on his deathbed Anselm excommunicated all who failed to acknowledge and recognise Canterbury's primacy over that of York. This anathema forced king Henry I to order the new archbishop-elect of York, Thomas II, to submit to Canterbury.


Under Henry I, around the year 1114, Ralph d'Escures refused to consecrate Thurstan the recently elected archbishop of York unless he was willing to profess his obedience to Canterbury. Thurstan refused to do this asking king Henry I for permission to go to Rome to consult with pope Paschal II on the matter. But Henry refused to let him go: but even without the direct appeal from Thurstan, Paschal formally decided against Canterbury. And the dispute went on for a further five years.

At the Council of Salisbury in 1116, Henry ordered Thurstan to submit to Canterbury, instead of doing this Thurstan resigned the archepiscopacy. On his way to the Council he had received confirmation from Paschal II supporting his cause with a command that he should be consecrated without further ado. A similar communication had been sent by the pope to archbishop Ralph d'Escures ordering him as archbishop of Canterbury, to consecrate Thurstan. After the contents of these letters had been made public, Thurstan's resignation was ignored, and he continued to be considered as the archbishop-elect of York. For the next three years, the new popes, Gelasius II followed by Calixtus II, championed his cause, and eventually in 1119 he received his consecration directly from the hands of pope Calixtus at Rheims.

But Calixtus had promised Henry I before this that he would not consecrate Thurstan without the king's permission, which had still not been granted. Thoroughly infuriated Henry refused to allow the newly consecrated archbishop Thurstan to re-enter England, and he therefore remained with the pope in France. During this time he paid a visit to Adela of Blois, sister of the king, who acted as intermediary between him and the king

At about the same time, Calixtus issued two bulls: one releasing York from Canterbury's supremacy forever, and the other demanding that the king allow Thurstan to return to York. If Henry refused to comply with these the pope threatened to pass an interdict on England as a punishment. In time with the intercession of friends and Adela he became reconciled with Henry, and Thurstan was able to return to England in 1121.

Nonetheless the dispute between the Sees of Canterbury and York continued unabated.  In 1125 pope Honorius advised Thurstan that he was going to send a papal legate, Cardinal John of Crema, to try to settle the issue. The clergy in England were told to treat the papal legate as if he were pope Honorius himself. Among other councils John convened the Synod of Westminster in September 1125, at which were both the archbishops of Canterbury and York, together with twenty bishops and forty abbots. Among other issues and rulings forbidding simony and bishops holding of multiple sees, the issue of primacy between Canterbury and York was not discussed. Instead, John told the two archbishops to come with him to Rome to discuss the matter in person before the pope. They arrived in Rome early 1126, where Honorius compromised on the problem by declaring that Thurstan was subject to William de Corbeil, but not in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury, but because he was papal legate for England and Scotland. In order to stress this, Honorius ordered the archbishop of Canterbury not to demand any oath of obedience from the archbishop of York, but it was clear that because the archbishop of Canterbury was papal legate in England, and consequently  he was the most important churchman in the kingdom.

Becket and Roger of Pont l'Evêque

Roger of Pont l'Evêque, archbishop of York, was appointed by the pope as papal legate to England in February 1164, just after the Magnum Consilium at Clarendon, the topic of this blog, but without being given any authority over the person of archbishop Thomas Becket and the city of Canterbury.

Roger crowned Henry II's son Henry at Westminster in June 1170 against the orders of Thomas, and for this was excommunicated by Thomas. Coronations in England had hitherto been reserved to the Archbishops of Canterbury, but Henry II had obtained permission from the pope to have the archbishop of York perform this ceremony. Later he was suspended by the pope for possibly being implicated in Becket's murder. He was absolved of this in Dec 1171. Roger of Pont l'Evêque was very defintitely of the king's party during Becket's dispute with Henry.


The Decrees of Agatho and the Gregorian Plan for York

Marion Gibbs

Speculum Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1973), pp. 213-246

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Mary Stroll (2004). Chapter IV England and The German Alliance - Calixtus the Second, 1119-1124. BRILL. pp. 77–. ISBN 90-04-13987-7.

Mary Stroll (2004). "Chapter Five: York Versus Canterbury". Calixtus the Second, 1119-1124. BRILL. pp. 93–114. ISBN 978-90-04-13987-9

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Mary Stroll (2004). "Chapter Seven: The Victory of Calixtus and Thurstan"Calixtus the Second, 1119-1124. BRILL. pp. 127–45. ISBN 978-90-04-13987-9

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The Anglo-Papal Bargain of 1125: The Legatine Mission of John of Crema

Sandy Burton Hicks

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Published by: The North American Conference on British Studies

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William of Corbeil and the Canterbury York Dispute
Denis Bethell
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The confirmation of Becket's primacy: In apostolice sedis, Lateran, 8 April 1166
by Anne J. Duggan
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Volume 9, Issue 4, 1988, pages 197-209

MTB 169
Pope Alexander to Roger archbishop of York and all English bishops
Pope Alexander III withdraws his permission to Roger to crown kings of England, on the ground that he had learnt that that privilege belonged to Canterbury


In apostolice sedis

MTB 170 [CTB 70]
Lateran 8th April 1166
Papal Bull to Becket confirming rights of Archbishop of Canterbury
David Wilkins (1737). Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, . sumptibus R. Gosling. pp. 446–.


From Alexander bishop, the servant of servants of God, to our venerable brother Thomas, archbishop of Canterbury. greetings and apostolic blessing.

Appointed by God to administer the apostolic see, though unworthy of the same, it is seemly that we should advise our brother bishops both far and near to safeguard the rights of the Churches in which they serve God. It is just and reasonable that in the same way as we are called "father" in name so should we show that we are "father" by our acts..

Therefore, out of charity to our most beloved brother in Christ, Archbishop Thomas, in counsel with our brothers, we thought it right to accede to your just petitions. With due respect to our predecessors of happy memory, [Popes] Paschal and Eugene, Roman pontiffs, following in their footsteps, we hereby grant the primacy of the Church of Canterbury to thee and to thy lawful successors, 
 the same that was fully enjoyed by Lanfranc, Anselm, and, and others that which is known to have been acquired from their predecessors; so the dignity or power, whatever is known to have belonged to the same holy archbishop of the church of Canterbury is, by the present rescript, strengthened, as is evident from the times of the authority of the Apostolic See, to have had Fues predecessors of blessed Augustine: without prejudice to the authority of the apostolic see of the same. 

Therefore in the future, if any ecclesiastic or lay person  should attempt rashly to oppose this in the knowledge this document our confirmation, let him warned for a second or third time, if he has not made fitting amends, let him incur the wrath of Almighty God, and of His blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and let vengeance be wreaked upon him at the Last Judgement.

Amen, Amen.

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