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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Herbert de Losinga

Herbert de Losinga

Thirty years after the Conquest, the nascent impression that the Normans had made on the English landscape was acquiring permanence in stone. In Norwich, their timber motte and bailey castle had been dismantled and was being replaced by a formidable stone edifice, which was to crown the huge earthworks beneath. Castles were instruments of war; their presence became a symbol of the dominance of a new aristocracy, and the subjugation of conquered people.

In 1096, work began on another no less eloquent, or emphatic, expression of Norman supremacy in the city - a cathedral. In the decades since the Conquest, the English church had been purged and repopulated by men loyal to King William. It had also grown. Ever prodigious builders, religious houses quickly sprung up across the country, as if to add a spiritual base to the new regime's lay authority. In 1096, Herbert de Losinga, a bishop from the Conqueror's native duchy, laid the foundation stone in Norwich with a stone from Normandy. When it was completed, Normandy stone towered over the city just as Norman men towered over England.

The Rise of Herbert de Losinga, and the Long Road to Norwich

In 1087, the man who towered above all else in the Anglo-Norman Kingdom died. His third son William Rufus inherited England, his eldest, Robert Curthose, was left with Normandy. The Conqueror's decision to split his kingdom left his achievements at the mercy of a sibling rivalry that within a year had given way to out and out war. Out of the maelstrom, Rufus ultimately emerged victorious. Lacking the guile, intelligence, and vigour of his father, in a kingdom beset by acrimony the Norman project stalled under his helm.

For some however, there were still opportunities to plot the course of those who had followed in the Conqueror's wake. This was particularly true in the clergy. The church had been transformed by William I. By the year of his death, just one of the twelve bishoprics in England at the time of the conquest was in the hands of an English bishop. The rest had been made vacant, and filled, by Normans. Monastic houses were similarly treated, and it was this convention that brought Herbert de Losinga to England. Soon after Rufus' accession, the prior of Fécamp, Normandy, was summoned to the position of abbot of Ramsey, Cambridgeshire.

Temptation however, lay elsewhere. For an ambitious clergyman, there were few greater prizes on the table than a bishopric. The Conqueror's reform of the church had redefined and enhanced the position, and when the see of Thetford became available in 1090, de Losinga made his interest known. It would be obtained at a price.

Unlike his father, William II had little interest in the church, but had found that he could exploit vacancies high up in its hierarchy by treating them along feudal lines. Rufus was acutely aware of the potential income, the Domesday Survey had recorded that church lands accounted for twenty-six percent of Norman England, and the king wanted his share of the wealth. The bishop-elect therefore was expected to pay a sum for his new see, much in the same way as a lay heir paid money to the crown when he came into his inheritance. The price for de Losinga was a thousand marks. He had the resources, but it put him on a collision course with his faith.

For the church, relief in exchange for a bishopric was indistinguishable from simony, the sin of paying a price for spiritual office. The portents were there for all to see at de Losinga's consecration in 1091. The ceremony included a prognostication, whereby a page of the gospels was opened at random and it was believed that whatever phrase came to the eye, would foretell the bishop's future character. For the new incumbent of the see of Thetford, it was Matthew 26:50: "Friend, wherefore art though come", Christ's words to Judas. Devastated and stricken with guilt, Herbert de Losinga fled to Rome to repent.

The heirs of St Peter in Rome had, like the Conqueror of England, been occupied by efforts to reform their church. Indeed, a convergence between their respective agendas on this point produced something of a marriage of convenience in the run up to 1066, as William received Pope Alexander II's backing for his invasion of England in return for his pledge to transform its ecclesiastic affairs. The overarching ambition of the medieval papacy was the establishment of strict hierarchy in the church, with all lines leading to the pontiff as the supreme head of Latin Christendom. The advantages for William were more tangible and he used them to full effect. Having suppressed all lay opposition in England, the Conqueror exploited his papal legates to depose the native bishops, and then set about cutting his ties with Rome. William I was not the only sovereign intransigent towards pope's designs. In 1075, the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, was excommunicated by Alexander's successor, Gregory VII, for meddling in church affairs. Far from repentant, Henry occupied Rome and had his own man, Clement III, declared pope.

Under Gregory, England's relationship with the papacy deteriorated further. After his death, in ignominious exile, neither the Conqueror nor his son Rufus recognised his designated successor, Urban II. Papal legates were refused permission to cross the channel, their letters were censored, and no Norman bishop was allowed to visit the pope without the king's consent. Short of this crucial authorisation for his quest, Herbert de Losinga arrived in Rome.

The Lateran Palace was still occupied by the German anti-Pope Clement III, but it was to his rival that the beleaguered bishop headed. Urban II had been brought to Rome from France by Gregory, and, after the brief reign of Victor III, had risen above the malaise left by his former mentor to be named pontiff in 1087. A committed reformer, Urban's more circumspect approach had found more allies than previous efforts to transform the church. There were however, more facets to the movement than papal supremacy, and in the Bishop of Thetford, the pope found a willing ally. De Losinga is known to have contributed a tract on clerical marriage which was one of the cornerstones of reform, which had already been abolished in England after the conquest. Another issue behind the reform movement nevertheless was simony, and it was for that sin that de Losinga sought absolution. What Urban asked of the bishop is lost in the sands of time but the vim and vigour with which he pursued his later projects certainly lend themselves to the notions of penance and divine inspiration with which he left Rome. De Losinga resigned his bishopric and received it back from the pope's hands; he was now free to attend to his spiritual affairs back in Norfolk. Or so he thought.

Norwich and Beyond

On his return to England de Losinga faced the full brunt of the folly of his flight. Recognising Urban's authority ran contrary to the king's edict, and Rufus seized Thetford in retribution. De Losinga was in due course reinstated but alas, like his meeting with Urban, there are no written records of the reconciliation. The speed with which bishop redeemed himself with both masters is certainly notable, for the pope some form of pledge to further the interests of the church would seem an obvious gambit, his relations with the king however, appear more complex. Some contemporary sources paint de Losinga as a creature of the king's court. His initial appointment to Ramsay put him in Orderic Vitalis' inventory of those in whom Rufus looked "less for piety" than for "obsequiousness and willing service in secular affairs". He featured similarly in William of Malmesbury's list of those in the church with "a lust for gold" and "venal ambition", but neither writer excludes the possibility of redemption for later achievement and modern historians tend to argue the bishop was no sycophant. De Losinga's escapade in Rome could have cost him dearly; whatever happened for him to regain the king's favour was Norwich's gain.

Among de Losinga's first acts as bishop was to align his diocese with the streamlining and improvement in church administration since the conquest, which had gradually seen cathedrals re-sited in more populous centres. In 1070 Norfolk, Bishop Herfast had transferred the seat of his Norfolk see from Elmham to Thetford; now in 1094 de Losinga brought it to Norwich. A site was selected for a new cathedral to be built by the river, provided by a transportation network for the stone arriving from Caen via Yarmouth. The preference for Normandy stone was based upon the logistical realities of building in eleventh century Norwich, necessitated by the lack of local freestone and inaccessibility of other quarries, but the bedding of Norman rock into English soil further symbolised the submission of the conquered people. The tension between the church and the city that culminated in the paroxysms of violence of the thirteenth century had its roots in de Losinga's planning. Two churches and a sizeable Saxon settlement were razed to clear space for the cathedral, and the monastery the new bishop founded to serve it.

The Norman Conquest was an apocalyptic event for those who resided in Norwich in 1066, but by the time Herbert de Losinga laid the foundation stone of his new church thirty years later the city had emerged thirty percent larger with a booming economy to support its ambitious bishop's designs. The bishop's vision was gargantuan, on the scale of the great Episcopal cities of Europe. One of the twelve largest churches of the period, in dimensions it stood in comparison to Old St Peter's in Rome and was equal in architectural magnificence. There are no explicit references to architecture in de Losinga's surviving writings, but there is little doubt that his involvement was direct. His efforts to cajole his workers seemingly knew no bounds:

"I love you and am striving to deliver you, slow and indolent as you are, out of the hands of the divine severity. Often have I stirred you up in apply yourselves fervently and diligently to the work of your church, and to show carefulness in that work, as done under the inspection of God's own eyes".

Under the bishop's assured if overbearing direction, progress was made rapidly; within five years, with the eastern chapels, presbytery, transepts and choir all completed, he consecrated Norwich Cathedral. Building work slowed as de Losinga advanced in years and it was more than a quarter of a century after his death that the construction work was finally finished in 1145.

In the cathedral precinct de Losinga established an Episcopal Grammar School. Scholarly and well read, this lasting impact on education in the city is indicative of a learned man. In later life there are records of him vociferously urging an abbot named Richard of Ely to send him the works of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus: "Send me Josephus. You have often made the excuse the book is fallen to bits, but now that it has been rebound no pretext is left to you". De Losinga is also known to have read Josephus' near-contemporary Ovid, pagan classical literature at odds with his own faith. He raised this contradiction in a letter in which he described a dream where he was questioned whether Christ should be preached and Ovid recited by the same mouth. This capacity for personal introspection did not however extend to engaging in the theological debates of the day or searching for new answers. De Losinga found solace in the requisite texts and was unflinching in his faith, in his words: "We seek a rational explanation, but the highest reason is to trust God's will and word".

He did not however shirk from politics. In August 1100, William Rufus was fatally shot through the lung by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest. With his elder brother Robert on Crusade in the Holy Land, the king's younger sibling Henry seized the throne. This reopened the fractious debate between the papacy and the crown. Adhering to reforms of Pope Gregory that had alienated and infuriated the Holy Roman Emperor quarter of a century before, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm, refused to receive the customary investiture from the monarch, or pay homage. De Losinga was one of three bishops sent to Rome to represent the royal cause. The expedition was a shambles from start to finish, personally and collectively. The Norwich bishop was captured on route to the Eternal City and held to ransom. He obtained his release but finally reaching Rome the Pope was predictably unsympathetic to their cause. And still, on their return home, the bishops contrived to confuse the message. Ultimately a second embassy had to be dispatched for clarification.

De Losinga also took a diplomatic role in the perennial dispute in the English church between the respective rights of the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Here he sided with Anselm. Whilst somewhat anomalous to his representations for the king in Rome, it seems clear that through his contribution of a polemic on clerical marriage, his flight to Urban as opposed to Clement, and his later attendance at three church councils passing reforming decrees, on which side of the fence he stood. In any case his attempts at mediating between Canterbury and York were unsuccessful, with the latter refusing to give any ground. Towards the end of his life he undertook a second attempt, but illness ultimately prevented him taking the case to pope for arbitration. 

The tension between the archbishoprics mirrored a conflict de Losinga inherited between his own diocese and the affluent monastery at Bury St Edmunds. The riches of Bury had long been eyed jealously by the East Anglian bishops, who sought to bring the see under their jurisdiction. One of de Losinga's predecessors, Herfast, incurred the wrath of Canterbury for his predatory designs: "were you to devote less time gambling to games of chance to reed the bible for a change and to learn some canon law, you would cease to argue with your mother church". This question mark of devotion could not be levelled at Herbert de Losinga, but the bishop nevertheless harboured ambitions of his own. It is suggested by the chronicler Eadmer that the ransom the bishop was forced to pay when he was captured on his way to Rome had in fact been intended to sway the Popes favour to his cause. Whilst it is possible that this is a slight on the de Losinga's character, Eadmer was a close associate of Anselm, it is likely he would have met him, and with little political capital to gain from such allegations, their veracity cannot be discounted. In his own diocese, de Losinga attempted to exercise power verging on megalomania. In 1107 Roger Bigod founded another religious house on his doorstep but out of his jurisdiction. Thetford Priory was Cluniac and thereby subject to only the abbot of Cluny in France, and the Pope. De Losinga made his antipathy known in refusing to consecrate the churchyard until Episcopal dues were restored to him. The unseemly dispute continued when Bigod died and the Thetford monks were compelled to allow his body to lain to rest in Norwich Cathedral, instead of at his own priory.


William the Conqueror initiated a far-reaching programme of reform in the English church that successfully usurped the native clergy and achieved autonomy from Rome, but what it spawned was about more than Norman hegemony. It gave rise to unholy politics in which Herbert de Losinga undoubtedly indulged, but the extent to which this despoils his legacy is still open to question. The thirty years after the Conquest were ruthless times as the country was transformed, and a new aristocracy manoeuvred for position. De Losinga was caught in the tumult and this at times appeared to impair his judgement. Nevertheless the impression he made on the county of Norfolk is largely positive. A dynamic man, his vision and energy is embodied by the grandeur of his great Cathedral in Norwich which stands as his defining legacy. It is equally important that his contribution to the history of the upcoming ports of Lynn and Yarmouth should not be overlooked. Lynn fell fully under the bishop's somewhat overbearing control, but this in no way hindered its development. A collection of small settlements when building work commenced on St Margaret's Church and Priory he founded in 1101, until his death de Losinga oversaw the gradual expansion and making of the modern town. Yarmouth was less rigidly controlled but in establishing St Nicholas' Church and Priory he established a firm base and like Lynn the town benefited from the Bishop's acumen. In the case of Norwich, where he imported his ecclesiastical practices and imbued the project with his continental vision, and at Lynn and Yarmouth where he employed expertise attained from his home port of Fécamp, the Norman practices brought by the bishop changed Norfolk forever.

Further Reading

  • Ian Atherton, Norwich Cathedral: Church, City and Diocese, 1096-1996, Hambledon Press, 1996
  • Frank Barlow, The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216, Longman, 1988
  • Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225, Oxford University Press, 2000
  • David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: The Penguin History of Britain 1066-1284, Penguin, 2004
  • David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror, Yale University Press, 1999
  • C Warren Hollister, Henry I, Yale University Press, 2003
  • Susanna Wade Martins, A History of Norfolk, Phillimore & Co., 1984
  • Carol Rawcliffe and Richard Wilson eds., Medieval Norwich, Hambledon Press, 2004
  • Norwich Cathedral Website:


Robert Smith

December 2010