William the Conqueror got more than he bargained for in 1066.

The plan: sail to England, defeat English King Harold, launch a charm offensive, have a Coronation at Westminster Abbey and win over the Saxon earls. Normans and Saxons live in two-part harmony. Job done.

The reality: sail to England, defeat English King Harold, launch a charm offensive, have a Coronation at Westminster Abbey, receive much opposition from stubborn, cranky, utterly annoying Saxon earls (particularly those in the north). Patience snaps; charm over. Lay waste to anything and anyone who stands in the way of the new vision. Begin again. From scratch.

Bayeux Tapestry, Battle of Hastings

And so it came to pass. From 1070 onwards, William was no longer fooling around. No more Mr Nice Guy.

Cardinals from Rome came to help reorganize the church at the Pope’s behest. Four of England’s 15 bishops were moved along, including the elderly archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand (later imprisoned), replaced by LeFranc, loyal to William. The abbots didn’t escape unscathed, either. 

The almost total replacement of its top brass within a few years significantly impacted the English Catholic church; the newcomers had very different ideas about church governance—ixnay on buying your way into office and keeping wives or mistresses—thumbs up on devout and celibate. 

William’s policy was to build and build big. Between 1066 and 1076, rebuilding had begun at Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds, Lincoln, Old Sarum (later Salisbury), Rochester and St Albans.

By 1129, all fifteen Saxon cathedrals had been demolished, and rebuilding had begun in a very different style, with massive pillars and round arches crusted with zig-zag patterns—a sophisticated style of architecture which hadn’t been seen since the Romans packed up and left in 410.

When William the Conqueror died in 1087, nine of the country’s fifteen cathedrals had been rebuilt or moved; a nearby Norman castle now protected most.

  • Lincoln moved from Dorchester-on-Thames to the town of Lincoln
  • Elmham in Norfolk moved to Norwich
  • Selsey went to Chichester

By 1135, when William’s son, Henry I, died, the remaining six had been similarly replaced, along with every major abbey church.

A phalanx of Norman ambitious bishops was unleashed: Regimius of Lincoln, Gundulf of Rochester, Wakelin of Winchester and Losinga of Norwich. The only Saxon bishops to maintain their positions were Leofric of Exeter and Wulfstan of Worcester. 

The Saxon saints also got a thorough going-over. Only those judged worthy of reverence were retained, including Alban, Ethelred and Cuthbert.

New monasteries sprang to new life. From 50 Saxon houses in 1066, 700 were in place in the next hundred years; 1,000 monks and nuns became 13,000.

William’s secular supporters were equally rewarded: within twenty years, 95% of Saxon England was in Norman hands, with a quarter of it going to the church. 

It was a revolution without parallel in the history of English ecclesiastical architecture; visit any of these churches today, and you will not find a single piece of standing Anglo-Saxon masonry. England moved to the forefront of European architecture. What the new cathedrals lacked in height, they more than made up for in length: Winchester, St Albans and Norwich seemed to compete with Canterbury. Durham’s nave sported a new buttressed stone vault of immense size.

The pace of building began to moderate after 1135 with the dust-up between Stephen and Matilda, followed by the contretemps between Henry II and Thomas à Becket over ecclesiastical appointments (the same dispute that later scuppered Mary Tudor). The canonization of Becket spawned a rash of candidates for sainthood (frequently recently-deceased bishops of the diocese). Shrines attracted pilgrims, whose donations swelled the coffers of the Cathedrals, whose growing prosperity afforded the next phase of cathedral architecture, early Gothic.