Sample from Booklet 6

What did the Church reformers of the 11th century want to achieve?

The 11th century was a period of reform and change in the Christian Church, starting of course with the East-West Schism of 1054, which divided the Church into two separate branches. But that was not the end of the story. Subsequent popes were keen to reform the Church in several ways. The issues that most concerned them were:

  • simony
  • pluralism
  • clerical celibacy
  • independence of the Church.


As the Church had become a rich landowner, the high positions within it, such as that of an abbot or a bishop, came with immense power and wealth. In the 9th and 10th centuries, it had become a common practice for rich families to buy these Church positions for their sons. This meant that many abbots and bishops got their job, not on merit, but through the payment of money or the giving of favours. This practice of buying and selling Church positions was called simony and the Church reformers of the 11th century were determined to stamp it out in order to maintain the spiritual integrity of the Church.


Pluralism was also a major problem for the Church. This was when a person held more than one Church position at the same time. A good example of pluralism can be found in the career of Stigand, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury on the eve of the Norman Conquest. Before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury, Stigand had been Bishop of Winchester. However, he did not give up his position as Bishop of Winchester when he was promoted to being Archbishop of Canterbury, but held both positions at the same time. This angered the Pope, and was an important reason behind his support of Duke William of Normandy’s invasion of England in 1066. The Pope even sent William a papal banner to rally his soldiers in battle. In return, Duke William promised to help get rid of these corrupting practices in the English Church.

Clerical celibacy

There was a widespread belief in the 11th century Catholic Church that priests should be celibate. This means they were not supposed to get married or have sexual relationships of any kind. However, many churchmen in Europe were not following the rule of celibacy. For example, in Anglo-Saxon England, minsters (a large type of church) were frequently run as family businesses. The priests in charge of the minsters were often married (or had a mistress) and would pass on their positions to their sons.

A few years after the Norman Conquest, King William was able to appoint his good friend Lanfranc as Archbishop of Canterbury. Lanfranc had been a Benedictine monk in the abbey at Caen in Normandy, and was very concerned with reforming the Church in England. In particular, he was determined to stop the practice of simony and to enforce clerical celibacy.

Independence of the Church

It was common practice for kings to appoint senior churchmen to their offices. Under the feudal system, the churchmen would also do homage to the king for their Church lands. As major landholders, the senior clergy were important members of the government. Kings relied on bishops for advice and would often delegate important government work to them. In an age where very few people were literate, it was the scholarly monks, abbots and bishops who were able to oversee the administration of government, such as the writing of law codes and official letters.

Since kings relied on them, it was important for them to be able to appoint men they trusted to high Church positions. However, this was a problem for the reforming popes of the 11th century. They felt their efforts to tackle simony, pluralism and clerical celibacy were being hampered by their inability to appoint the right men to the senior jobs in the Church. Things came to a head under Pope Gregory VII, the most famous of the reforming popes, in a series of events that have come to be called the Investiture Controversy.

Integrity: honesty, high moral standards.
Homage: a feudal ceremony in which a man declares himself the vassal of a lord.
Clergy: another word for churchmen.
Literate: able to read and write.

Copy out and complete:

In your book, copy out and complete the table below, summarising the main issues that concerned the Church reformers of the 11th century.