Gregory the Great as ‘Apostle of the English’ in Post-Conquest Canterbury

Gregory the Great as ‘Apostle of the English’ in Post-Conquest Canterbury

By Paul Antony Hayward

Journal of Ecclesiatical History, Vol.55:1 (2004)

Abstract:  This article re-examines the history of a saint’s cult that has been taken as a crucial test case in discussions of Norman attitudes towards Anglo-Saxon culture. The first study to offer a systematic survey of the liturgical, diplomatic and hagiographical evidence, it shows that the promotion of Gregory the Great as ‘Apostle of the English’ was not – as argued by the late Richard Southern – a concession to native ethnic sensibilities on the part of the Archbishop Anselm (1093-1109), but a contribution to the exemption dispute between the archbishopric of Canterbury and St Augustine’s Abbey. In so doing, the article draws attention to the ways in which ethnic rhetoric was constructed and manipulated to support claims to status and power in the context of medieval colonialism. A secondary theme is the intersections between local conflicts between churches over status and privilege, and the (inter)national issues of Church-State relations in the Middle Ages – especially the English version of the Investiture Contest.

Introduction: For anyone familiar with the once traditional characterisation of Archbishop Lanfranc (1070–89) as the arch-critic of English saints’ cults, one of the most intriguing features of his monastic statutes is the role played by the natal feast of St Gregory the Great – the anniversary of his death and rebirth in heaven on 12 March 604.

Lanfranc singles out for special treatment thirty-five feasts of the temporal and sanctoral cycles and divides them into three ranks: five, including Easter and Christmas, to be celebrated with the utmost grandeur, fifteen to be kept with almost as much magnificence and another fifteen to be observed with somewhat less splendour. Gregory’s natal feast is placed in the second group, together with that of Augustine, here designated the ‘archbishop of the English’.

Thus far the treatment given to Gregory’s cult is in keeping with that of Lanfranc’s Cluniac models, but the text then goes on to state that Gregory’s feast is to be accorded this distinguished rank because he is ‘our – that is, the English people’s – apostle’. With these words this authoritarian and sometimes oppressive Norman prelate would appear to have embraced a saint’s cult that was dear to his English subjects.

There is the possibility, of course, that they were interpolated into the text soon after the archbishop’s death, for all of the surviving manuscripts were produced after his pontificate. But even if we allow for this relatively unlikely scenario, this gloss will still have originated at Christ Church and has still to be seen as a reflection of the archbishopric’s intentions that demands explanation.

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