Lanfranc was trained in the legal studies for which northern Italy was then becoming famous, and acquired such proficiency that tradition links him with Irnerius of Bologna as a pioneer in the renaissance of Roman law. Though designed for a public career Lanfranc had the tastes of a student. After his father's death he crossed the Alps to found a school in France; but in a short while he decided that Normandy would afford him a better field. About 1039 he became the master of the cathedral school at Avranches, where he taught for three years with conspicuous success. But in 1042 he embraced the monastic profession in the newly founded house of Bec. Until 1045 he lived at Bec in absolute seclusion.
He was then persuaded by Abbot Herluin to open a school in the monastery. From the first he was celebrated (totius Latinitatis magister). His pupils were drawn not only from France and Normandy, but also from Gascony, Flanders, Germany and Italy. Many of them afterwards attained high positions in the Church; one, Anselm of Badagio, became pope under the title of Alexander II. In this way Lanfranc set the seal of intellectual activity on the reform movement of which Bec was the centre. The favourite subjects of his lectures were logic and dogmatic theology. He was therefore invited to defend the doctrine of transubstantiation against the attacks of Berengar of Tours. He took up the task with the greatest zeal, although Berengar had been his personal friend; he was the protagonist of orthodoxy at the councils of Vercelli (1050), Tours (1054) and Rome (1059).
To his influence we may attribute the desertion of Berengar's cause by Hildebrand and the more broad-minded of the cardinals. Our knowledge of Lanfranc's polemics is chiefly derived from the tract De corpore et sanguine Domini which he wrote many years later (after 1079) when Berengar had been finally condemned. Though betraying no signs of metaphysical ability, his work was regarded as conclusive and became a text-book in the schools. It is the most important of the works attributed to Lanfranc; which, considering his reputation, are slight and disappointing.
In the midst of his scholastic and controversial activities Lanfranc became a political force. While merely a prior of Bec he led the opposition to the uncanonical marriage of Duke William with Matilda of Flanders (1053) and carried matters so far that he incurred a sentence of exile. But the quarrel was settled when he was on the point of departure, and he undertook the difficult task of obtaining the pope’s approval of the marriage. In this he was successful at the same council which witnessed his third victory over Berengar (1059), and he thus acquired a lasting claim on William's gratitude. In 1066 he became the first abbot of St Stephen's at Caen, a house which the duke had been enjoined to found as a penance for his disobedience to the Holy See.
Henceforward Lanfranc exercised a perceptible influence on his master's policy. William adopted the Cluniac programme of ecclesiastical reform, and obtained the support of Rome for his English expedition by assuming the attitude of a crusader against schism and corruption. It was Alexander II, the former pupil of Lanfranc, who gave the Norman Conquest the papal benediction--a notable advantage to William at the moment, but subsequently the cause of serious embarrassments.
When the see of Rouen next fell vacant (1067), the thoughts of the electors turned to Lanfranc. But he declined the honour, and he was nominated to the English primacy as soon as Stigand had been canonically deposed (1070). The new archbishop at once began a policy of reorganization and reform. His first difficulties were with Thomas of Bayeux, archbishop elect of York, who asserted that his see was independent of Canterbury and claimed jurisdiction over the greater part of midland England.
Lanfranc, during a visit which he paid the pope for the purpose of receiving his pallium, obtained an order from Alexander that the disputed points should be settled by a council of the English Church. This was held at Winchester in 1072. Thanks to a skilful use of forged documents, the primate carried the countil's verdict upon every point. Even if he were not the author of the forgeries he can scarcely have been the dupe of his own partisans. But the political dangers to be apprehended from the disruption of the English Church were sufficiently serious to palliate the fraud. This was not the only occasion on which Lanfranc allowed his judgment to be warped by considerations of expediency.
Although the school of Bec was firmly attached to the doctrine of papal sovereignty, he still assisted William in maintaining the independence of the English Church; and appears at one time to have favoured the idea of maintaining a neutral attitude on the subject of the quarrels between papacy and empire. In the domestic affairs of England the archbishop showed more spiritual zeal. His grand aim was to extricate the Church from the fetters of the state and of secular interests. He was a generous patron of monasticism. He endeavoured to enforce celibacy upon the secular clergy.
He obtained the king's permission to deal with the affairs of the Church in synods which met apart from the Great Council, and were exclusively composed of ecclesiastics. Nor can we doubt that it was his influence which shaped the famous ordinance separating the ecclesiastical from the secular courts (c. 1076). But even in such questions he allowed some weight to political considerations and the wishes of his sovereign. He acknowledged the royal right to veto the legislation of national synods. In the cases of Odo of Bayeux (1082) and of William of St Calais, bishop of Durham (1088), he used his legal ingenuity to justify the trial of bishops before a lay tribunal.
He accelerated the process of substituting Normans for Englishmen in all preferments of importance; and although his nominees were usually respectable, it cannot be said that all of them were better than the men whom they superseded. For this admixture of secular with spiritual aims there was considerable excuse. By long tradition the primate was entitled to a leading position in the king’s councils; and the interests of the Church demanded that Lanfranc should use his power in a manner not displeasing to the king. On several occasions when William I was absent from England Lanfranc acted as his vicegerent; he then had opportunities of realizing the close connexion between religious and secular affairs.
Lanfranc's greatest political service to the Conqueror was rendered in 1075, when he detected and foiled the conspiracy which had been formed by the earls of Norfolk and Hereford. But this was not the only occasion on which he turned to good account his influence with the native English. Although he regarded them as an inferior race he was just and honourable towards their leaders. He interceded for Waltheof’s life and to the last spoke of the earl as an innocent sufferer for the crimes of others; he lived on terms of friendship with Bishop Wulfstan.
On the death of the Conqueror (1087) he secured the succession for William Rufus, in spite of the discontent of the Anglo-Norman baronage; and in 1088 his exhortations induced the English militia to fight on the side of the new sovereign against Odo of Bayeux and the other partisans of Duke Robert. He exacted promises of just government from Rufus, and was not afraid to remonstrate when the promises were disregarded. So long as he lived he was a check upon the worst propensities of the king’s administration. But his restraining hand was too soon removed. In 1089 he was stricken with fever and he died on May 24 amidst universal lamentations. Notwithstanding some obvious moral and intellectual defects, he was the most eminent and the most disinterested of those who had co-operated with William I in riveting Norman rule upon the English Church and people. As a statesman he did something to uphold the traditional ideal of his office; as a primate he elevated the standards of clerical discipline and education. Conceived in the Hildebrandine spirit, his reforms led by a natural sequence to strained relations between Church and State; the equilibrium which he established was unstable, and depended too much upon his personal influence with the Conqueror. But of all the Flildebrandine statesmen who applied their teacher's ideas within the sphere of a particular national church he was the most successful.
The chief authority is the Vita Lanfranci by Milo, Crispin, who was precentor at Bec and died in 1149. Milo drew largely upon the Vita Herluini, composed by Gilbert Crispin, abbot of Westminster. The Chronicon Beccensis abbatiae, a 14th century compilation, should also be consulted. The first edition of these two sources, and of Lanfranc's writings, is that of L d'Achery, Beati Lanfranci opera omnia (Paris, 1648). Another edition, slightly enlarged, is that of JA Giles, Lanfranci opera (2 vols., Oxford, 1844). The correspondence between Lanfranc and Gregory VII is given in the Monumenta Gregoriana (ed. P. Jaffi, Berlin, 1865).
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.