Medieval Part I: Religion

William the Conqueror imposed a total reorganisation of the English Church. He had secured the Pope’s blessing for his invasion by promising to reform the ‘irregularities’ of the Anglo-Saxon Church, which had developed its own distinctive customs. Throughout the medieval period the Church was a pervasive force in people’s lives. 

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, which was refounded soon after the Norman Conquest

Whitby Abbey, North Yorkshire, which was refounded soon after the Norman Conquest


William I’s reforms of the church were almost as much of an instrument of conquest as his knights and castles.

Within a decade nearly all Anglo-Saxon bishops and abbots had lost their positions to Normans. Even native saints came under attack, as some churches were rededicated to Norman favourites (although certain saints, such as Cuthbert, Swithun and Etheldreda, were to some extent adopted by the invading force).

The century and a half after the Conquest also saw a campaign of church, cathedral and monastery building on a scale never before seen in England.

The two church towers at Reculver

The towers of Reculver church in Kent, known locally as the ‘two sisters’, were added in the 12th century to a much earlier Anglo-Saxon church, built in 669. The church was demolished in 1809, leaving the towers as a landmark for passing ships.


Existing English monasteries, such as Muchelney Abbey, Somerset, were reformed on Norman lines, and many new monasteries were established. In the north, Lindisfarne Priory, Tynemouth Priory and Whitby Abbey were refounded on monastic sites abandoned during 9th-century Viking raids. These monasteries belonged, like prestigious Battle Abbey in the south, to Benedictine monks, initially the only religious order in England.

The monastic life appealed to a wide range of people. Those who embraced it included aristocrats and knights, a retired ‘pirate’ (St Godric of Finchale Priory, who kept adders as pets), and the illiterate peasants permitted to join the Cistercian order as ‘lay brothers’.

As enthusiasm spread, so from the late 11th century did the Cistercians and other new religious orders, which often set out to reform the practices of their predecessors. Each offered its own version of communal living.

Reconstruction drawing of the cloister at Lanercost Priory

Reconstruction drawing showing the cloister of Lanercost Priory, Cumbria. An enclosed space attached to the priory church, the cloister was a central part of monastic life where monks could also read and meditate.
© English Heritage (drawing by Liam Wales)


Cistercian ‘white monks’ (named after the colour of their habits) established, as their rule demanded, monasteries ‘far from the haunts of men’. These included Rievaulx Abbey, North Yorkshire, which by the 1160s housed 650 monks. The plainness of early Cistercian architecture reflected the austerity of their lives. But other monastic orders allowed more elaborate decoration, as at Cluniac Castle Acre Priory, Norfolk, and Wenlock Priory, Shropshire.

‘Canons regular’ were communities of priests who often ministered as vicars of parish churches. The early 12th century saw a huge surge in the popularity of communities of Augustinian ‘black canons’, such as Kirkham Priory, North Yorkshire, and Lanercost Priory, Cumbria.

Little Mattersey Priory in Nottinghamshire is one of the few surviving relics of the only exclusively English order, the Gilbertines. Some of their other foundations were ‘double monasteries’, housing both men and women.

Quite distinct from monks because they worked ‘in the world’ (rather than abbeys and priories) were the four orders of friars: the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinians. They were inspired by the teachings of St Francis of Assisi to commit to a life of evangelical poverty, living among the poor.


Different again were the military orders, the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller, whose English properties essentially financed their activities in the Holy Land.

Both were born out of the Crusades, which began in 1095 and in which many Englishmen took part. Though ultimately unsuccessful in their stated goal of wresting Jerusalem from its Islamic rulers, the Crusades had a profound impact on many aspects of life and thought in western Europe. Returning crusaders brought back from their travels new ideas about architecture, health and science.

13th-century floor tile from Cleeve Abbey church, with an illustration of Saladin on horseback

Tile from Cleeve Abbey church, Somerset, depicting Saladin, first Sultan of Egypt and Syria (r.1174–93). Although a fearsome warrior, who recaptured Jerusalem in 1187, Saladin was regarded by many in England as the embodiment of the chivalric ideal.


Church rituals marked life events from cradle to grave, and the local parish church dominated the spiritual – and indeed physical – landscape for the vast majority of ordinary people.

Those who disputed the Church’s teaching were seen as heretics, while other faiths were barely tolerated. During anti-Semitic riots in 1190, the Jews of York took refuge in the royal castle where Clifford's Tower now stands. Many took their own lives instead of risking them with the mob outside, and then set fire to the castle; the few who survived were murdered by the rioters. A century later Edward I expelled all Jews from England.

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