Did William the Conqueror have the backing of the Papacy as he legitimately claimed?, when he made his play for the Crown of England in 1066? Even that can be questioned. Many claim that Pope Alexander II would not have sanctioned the invasion of a country that not only upheld Christianity but had been one of the Papacy’s more fervent supporters.
In order to obtain the Papal Banner:
It is most likely that William did have papal sanction for his invasion of England. William was an astute politician - in order to protect his borders from the French during his absence, papal support would have been necessary in a time when religion was an important part of social life.
The position of Pope Alexander II (r.1061 - 1073) in Rome was precarious - he was threatened on many political fronts: by the Emperor Henry IV, by an anti-Pope Honorious II, and by the Lombards and the Greeks on mainland Italy. Alexander was supported by his advisor and heir-apparent, Chancellor Hildebrand. However, Norman support was crucial for his own political and personal survival on the Italian mainland. By giving a Papal “blessing” and thus a papal banner to Roger de Hauteville for his conquest of Sicily, Alexander was securing future support for his own cause. However, in this instance, the papal banner was granted to Roger to aid his removal not of another Christian power but of non-Christians - that is: Muslims.
It was purely a matter of politics not religion that prompted William to seek and Alexander to give the papal banner (1063-1065). Harold, unfortunately, did not send anyone to represent his cause to the Pope - it could be argued that (1) he felt his own position secure, having been duly elected by the Witan; or (2) that he had no idea that William was sending ambassadors to Rome on his behalf.
There are two arguments that could be made:
(1) that William was appealing to the Papacy on a matter of inheritance, involving the question of “laesio fidei”. Now, the Papacy was within it rights to adjudge matters of inheritance - however, whilst not in a position to dispose of the English Crown, the Curia could be asked to consider the respective titles or claims of the disputants.
(2) that William promised Alexander that he would “clean up” the corruption within the English Church - which was the removal of Archbishop Stigand from Canterbury, whose election was considered irregular Robert of Jumiéges had been elected (1050) however, when Edward the Confessor removed all Normans from power (c.1052), Robert fled back to Normandy and Stigand was eventually elected). However, with the advantage of hindsight, Stigand was not removed until four years after the Conquest (1070).
It was following the deposition of Stigand as Archbishop, that the Papal Legate, Ermenfrid Bishop of Sion, was said to have submitted all who participated in the Conquest to a penance -the Penitential Ordinance of Bishop Ermenfrid of Sion.
“This is the institution of penance according to the decrees of the bishops of the Normans, confirmed by the authority of the supreme pontiff by his legate Ermenfrid bishop of Sion, to be imposed upon those whom William duke of the Normans commanded and who before this decree were his men and owed him military service as their duty. Whoever knows that he has killed in the great battle is to do one year's penance for each man slain. Whoever struck another but does not know if that man was thereby slain, is to do 40 days penance for each case, if he can remember the number, either continuously or at intervals. Whoever does not know the number of those he struck or killed shall, at the discretion of his bishop, do penance for one day a week for the rest of his life, or, if he is able, make amends either by building a church or by giving perpetual alms to one." (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913)
I believe that a “penance” was imposed upon all who participated in the conquest as a means to expiate their sins - if papal blessing was obtained there would be no need for a papal penance.
References to Evidence of an Actual Banner:
".......and Pope Alexander sent a banner to the Duke as a symbol of St Peter's judgement" . (Source: "The Oxford English History, Vol 2." by Sir Frank Stenton)
"the gift of a banner as a pledge of the support of St. Peter whereby he might the more confidently and safely attack his enemy." (Source: "The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans and King of the English" by William of Poiters).
"That no rashness might stain his righteous cause he sent to the Pope, formerly Anselm, bishop of Lucca, asserting the justice of the war he had undertaken with all the eloquence at his command. Harold neglected to do this; either because he was too proud by nature, or because he mistrusted his own cause, or because he feared that his messengers would be hindered by William and his associates, who were watching all the ports. The Pope weighed the arguments on both sides, and then sent a banner to William as an earnest of his kingdom." (Source: “Gesta Regum” by William of Malmesbury)
"In the spring of 1066 Duke William of Normandy sent Gilbert, Archdeacon of Lisieux, to Rome as his messenger to enlist the support of Pope Alexander II 1061-73 for his plans to dispute King Harold's succession to the English throne by force of arms. The Duke's adviser, Abbot Lanfranc of Saint-Etienne at Caen, had drawn up the Norman case, of which the main argument was that Harold had committed perjury and that therefore the Duke was justified in using violence against him. The Pope, a friend of Lanfranc from their schooldays in northern Italy, happily gave his blessing to William's enterprise, and according to the Norman sources he sent a papal banner as sign of his approval."(Source: "The Norman Conquest through European Eyes" by Elisabeth van Houts)
"William realised that he would have to turn this trip into a crusade. To do this he would need the blessing of the Pope. He managed this by persuading the Pope of Harold's promise and treachery. At first the Pope refused on political grounds because of the implications to the Church. Pope Alexander II was a pupil of Lanfranc who was now a trusted adviser to William. It was this fact that his blessing was eventually given. William now had the papal banner on his side. This made it much easier to rally his men to arms." (Source: not listed)
"1063 - Pope Alexander II (1061-73) sent the papal banner to Normans fighting Saracens in Spain and Sicily. The banner was a sign of papal approval and blessing. Harold had refused to carry out the papal decision that the incumbent archbishop of Canturbery, whom he felt had not be canonically elected, should be deposed. The pope sent William the banner of St. Peter."(Source: not listed)
"At the urging of Cardinal Hildebrand, the pontiff sent a banner of Saint Peter, and according to Wace, a tooth of the apostle's, which the duke carried with him into England. The papal support of William was not due to largely secular concerns of hereditary claims or the fundamental Anglo-Saxon considerations of throne-worthiness: "such traditional reasons were only peripheral papal consideration,"
Rather, it was Harold’s refusal to remove Archbishop Stigand from his position that formed the basis of the Pope’s decision to grant a papal banner to William: "Hildebrand's reformers expected that a Norman conquest would bring England more securely within the Roman orbit...." (Source: "The Civilization of the Middle Ages" by Norman Cantor)
"It is unlikely that Alexander II and his chief advisor Hildebrand could have refused William even if his case had not been so strong, after all they owed so much to the Normans. And thus the Pope sent to William his recognition of William as the rightful King of England and his blessing for his enterprise in the form of a consecrated banned and a holy relic - one of St Peters hairs." (Source: "History of the Normans 820 - 1215AD" From: "Conquest - Anglo-Norman Society")
"The Normans repelled the Mohammedan aggression and won Southern Italy and Sicily for the Church of Rome. This good service had some weight on the determination of Hildebrand to support the claim of William of Normandy to the crown of England, which was a master-stroke of his policy; for it brought that island into closer contact with Rome, and strengthened the papal pretension to dispose of temporal thrones. William fought under a banner blessed by the pope, and founded the Norman dynasty in England, 1066. The conquest was concluded at Winchester by a solemn coronation through three papal delegates, Easter, 1070." (Source: "History of the Christian Church - Chapter One" from "The Hildebrandian Popes. A.D. 1049–1073")
The Norman Papacy:
I think it was more the influence of Hildebrand (later Gregory VII) than the Pope not having a choice. I think William made a few “promises” of his own in order to get what he wanted - ie: papal blessing. I think that the papacy was under the impression that if William was willing to submit to the “temporal” authority of Rome with regards to the question of succession, then there was the possibility of placing suzerainty of his new “conquest” (ie: England) under the papacy. But in supporting the Normans (wherever they might be) the Papacy was hoping to extend its influence by claiming England as a papal fief. In fact, prior to the “conquest”, the Church held only 20% of lands - whilst after, they gained a mere 5% more.
The Norman Popes:
Nicholas II 1058 - 1061: made great concessions to the Normans - he invested Robert Guiscard with Apulia and Calabria at Melfi (1059) "in return for oaths of fealty and the promise of assistance in guarding the rights of the Church." I believe that William may have “hinted” or even “promised” to Pope Nicholas II that should his conquest of England receive sanction from the papacy, then he, William, would hold England as a fief of the papacy. This was, to all intents and purposes, exactly what others were doing elsewhere to gain “recognition” for their “conquests”. This was something William was to deny even up till his death in 1087. (Refer below to the letter from William to Pope Gregory VII).
Alexander II 1061 - 1073: was a cohort of Hildebrand (aka: Gregory VII), and he was a former pupil of Lanfranc of Bec, and supported his enthronement at Canterbury. The question of Peter’s Pence was still a thorn in the side of the papacy “after” William’s coronation - so this argument of unpaid Peter’s Pence was rather hypocritical of William. Apparently the withholding of Peter’s Pence was common in many Christian nations, so this was hardly a point William could successfully argue was solely the “fault” of England, which needed to be resolved.
Gregory VII 1073 - 1085 (aka: Hildebrand): the papacy was powerless to halt the advancing Normans in Italy nor was it powerful enough to demand their military support. In fact, the Normans under Guiscard failed to come to his aid when Henry Iv threatened him - it was only when they themselves were likely to come under a direct German attack did they go to the aid of the papacy. As a result, he was forced to flee Rome and go into exile (1084) at Monte Cassino. Apparently William "showed little anxiety when the pope lectured him on the different principles which he had as to the relationship of spiritual and temporal powers, or when he prohibited him from commerce or commanded him to acknowledge himself a vassal of the apostolic chair. Gregory had no power to compel the English king to an alteration in his ecclesiastical policy, so he chose to ignore what he could not approve, and even considered it advisable to assure him of his particular affection."
It would seem that after his election as Pope, Hildebrand informed William that "his actions had been goverened by his knowledge of the latter’s character, and by the hope that when raised to a higher dignity he would continue to show himself a dutiful subject of the church." (Source: “Monumenta Gregoriana”). Further, Hildebrand exerted his influence upon the Curia to get the result he wanted, full in the knowledge that if prosecuted, William’s actions would inevitably lead to bloodshed. Afterall, reform was "worth the suppression of a few scruples" .
"He perceived King William I as being practically a model of the good Christian ruler, so much so that he could overlook the occasional failure of William to comply with papal wishes." (Source: Chapter 6 - "Gregory and the Periphery of Latin Europe" in "Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085" by H. E. J. Cowdrey)
William's Letter to Gregory:
The following is the letter sent by William the Conqueror to the Pope regarding the issue of England becoming a fief of the Papacy. There was no initial letter from the Pope regarding this, nor was there any follow-up letter. Only William’s letter exists which mentions this matter.
King William I to Pope Gregory VII summer 1080:To Gregory, the most exalted pastor of holy Church, William by the grace of God king of the English and duke of the Normans, sends greetings and the assurance of friendship.Your legate Hubert, who came to me, holy father, has on your behalf directed me to do fealty to you and your successors and to reconsider the money payment which my predecessors used to send to the Roman Church. The one proposition I have accepted; the other I have not. I have never desired to do fealty, nor do I desire it now; for I neither promised on my own behalf nor can I discover that my predecessors ever performed it to yours. As to the money, for almost three years it has been collected without due care, while I was engaged in France. But now that by God's mercy I have returned to my kingdom, the sum already collected is being sent to you by the above-named legate and the balance will be conveyed, when the opportunity arises, by the legates of our faithful servant archbishop Lanfranc.Pray for us and for the welfare of our kingdom, for we held your predecessors in great regard and it is our desire to show to you above all men unfeigned respect and obedient attention. (Source: "The Age of Gregory VII, 1073-85 - Letters of Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury" ed & trans. H Clover and M. Gibson (Oxford Medieval Texts 1979))
And lastly, let us not forget Lanfranc who was employed by William, Duke of Normandy, as one of his counsellors. Initially Lanfranc incurred the disfavour of William for opposing his marriage to Matilda of Flanders (c.1052). And yet he is back in favour, obtaining papal dispensation for the ducal marriage to take place (c.1059), and the removal of the Interdict placed upon Normandy. It was suggested that Lanfranc had a major role in the direction of Duke William’s invasion plans. He obtained the papal sanction for the expedition with the gift of a “blessed banner” and a Papal Bull. With these two items, the Norman Conquest takes on the form of a Crusade against a usurper and oath violator (Harold). In addition, the Conquest also aligned itself with the ideals of ecclesiastical reform, which was well advanced in Normandy, but still very backward in England (from the Norman point of view).
Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time of the Norman Conquest, was out of favour with the Normans having replaced Robert of Jumieges (c.1052). As such, at the Council of Winchester (1070) he was deprived of his office on charges that his election was uncanonical and he was guilty of simony. (Source: Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913)
Finally .... The question still remains: wasWilliam given an actual papal banner by Alexander II (Stenton) as a symbol of his support, or did William have a banner blessed by Alexander II, which he then carried before him in battle (Chibnall).
"Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis" ed. M. M. Chibnall (Oxford, 1969)
"Debate on the Norman Conquest" by Marjorie Chibnall (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999)
"William the Conqueror: The Norman impact upon England" by David Douglas (University of California Press, 1964)
"The Fall of Saxon England" by Richard Humble (Barnes & Noble, 1992)
"1066 The Year of the Conquest" by David Howarth (Viking Penguin, 1981)
"The English Resistance: The Underground War Against the Normans" by Peter Rex (Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2004)
"The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles" ed: Anne Savage (CLB, 1997)
"The Norman Conquest" by D. J. A. Matthew (1966)
"The Norman Achievement, 1050–1100" by D. C. Douglas (1969)
"The First Century of English Feudalism, 1066–1166" (2d ed. 1961) and "Anglo-Saxon England" (3d ed. 1971) by F. M. Stenton
"Feudal Empires: Norman and Plantagenet" by J. LePatourel (1984)