Rochester Cathedral

DSC_0466.jpgIts that time of year again when my mind turns to teaching.  This term I’m back with Henry VIII and his wives and mistresses; the Norman Conquest and the English Reformation so that should keep me out of mischief for a while, though thankfully Henry’s love life is rather closely bound to the progress of the English Reformation.  Today though I’m sticking with cathedrals: Rochester Cathedral to be specific – it has links with all the courses I have just mentioned one way or another.

In the aftermath of the conquest Rochester found itself in the hands of Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother. Once Lanfranc of Bec was created Archbishop of Canterbury the territory around Rochester was wrested from Odo’s control and given to the newly appointed Bishop of Rochester, who at this stage we could think of as a kind of deputy to the Archbishop of Canterbury, not that the influence or power lasted very long.

Both the cathedral with its Benedictine abbey and the early castle at Rochester, an important crossing point for the Medway,  were the work of this bishop.  Bishop Gundulf was a Norman appointment well known to Archbishop Lanfranc.  Like Lanfranc, Gundulf was a monk at Bec before being summoned across the Channel to help reform the English Church along Norman lines.  Gundulf turned out to have been a bit of a builder having a hand in the building of the Tower of London as well as the castle and cathedral at Rochester. He began work on Rochester Cathedral in 1080 using imported stone from the quarries at Caen. By 1083 his workmen had started on the nave which still stands despite a fire in 1138 which saw the monks made homeless for a time. The crypt is also a good example of the Romanesque or Norman style of architecture.

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The problem for later Bishops was that the cathedral’s powerful neighbour in Canterbury owned more of the land around Rochester than Rochester did.   Not only was Rochester a cathedral being the seat of the bishop it was also an abbey.  Inevitably with the passage of time there were ructions between the needs of the more worldly bishops and the more inward looking monks and their prior especially when the bishop was not selected from one of their number.

The first instance of this occurred in 1124 when the monks, fearful of their position, did a spot of creative thinking and miraculously discovered some long lost saintly relics and Bishop Gundulf who was by then a saint was remembered in a new book, the contents of which did’t bother unduly with the actual facts. Whilst they were at it, the monks set about creating a dossier of charters and rights that resulted in the monks and the bishops barely being on speaking terms. Nor did it go down well in Canterbury.  Words like forgery were bandied around.

However, the death of Thomas Becket improved the relationship between the monks and the bishops of both Rochester and Canterbury primarily because the monks now discovered that they were on a booming pilgrim route – think of Rochester Abbey as offering a medieval ‘good night guarantee’.

Just when things couldn’t have been more eye-brow raising a pilgrim who’d managed to get all the way to Jerusalem and back without mishap was murdered in Rochester.  William of Perth arrived in 1201, got himself murdered by his servant and then performed a miracle by curing a woman who touched the body.  She was mad before but apparently became completely sane afterwards. William of Perth, a baker by trade, became an overnight success and a saint. The money that accrued from pilgrims flocking to William’s shrine paid for a new gothic east end to the cathedral.

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We’ll move on from King John who looted the cathedral in 1215.  Things went from bad to worse. In 1264 the cathedral and abbey fell victim to England’s civil war with soldiers stabling their horses in the cathedral.

The later monks didn’t seem to have the same inventive spirit of the earlier ones and by the end beginning of the thirteenth century the abbey was very badly in debt.  Fortunately Prior Hamo came along and gave the monks and the cathedral a badly needed injection of energy.  He launched a new period of building work in 1320.

There remains one more Bishop of Rochester who is impossible to ignore.  He was executed on Tower Hill in June 1535 for failing to accept the supremacy or the fact of his monarch’s new marriage.  His name was John Fisher. The monks at Rochester had all taken the oath of supremacy in 1534.

The following year Dr Layton arrived to visit the abbey as part of Thomas Cromwell’s Visitation of the Monasteries.  In 1539 the monks of Rochester Abbey were shown the door and then allowed to return as the dean and chapter of six canons of one of Henry VIII’s new cathedrals.

 

Cannon, Jon. (2007) Cathedral: The Greatest English Cathedrals. London: Constable

‘Houses of Benedictine monks: The cathedral priory of St Andrew, Rochester’, in A History of the County of Kent: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1926), pp. 121-126. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/kent/vol2/pp121-126 [accessed 17 August 2016].

Edward Hasted, ‘The city and liberty of Rochester: The priory and cathedral church’, in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 4(Canterbury, 1798), pp. 86-110. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-kent/vol4/pp86-110 [accessed 16 August 2016].

Odo, Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent

B_T_, 55, Bishop Odo in battle_jpgOdo may have been made a bishop at the age of twenty but it have very little to do with a spiritual vocation.  Not only did William the Conqueror’s half-brother play an active military role but he was also notorious for his womanising and greed.

William, Odo and Robert of Motain shared a mother – Herleva, the tanner’s daughter.  William’s father, Duke Robert of Normandy, married Herleva off to Herluin de Conteville. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts Odo as playing a leading role in the planning and execution of the invasion of England in 1066.  Of course, given that he probably commissioned the embroidery it would relay that particular message.  He certainly supplied one hundred ships for the expedition and is depicted virtually sharing a seat with William at the feast before the battle.  He is shown on numerous occasions with his club or mace in hand during the battle.  As a cleric he was not supposed to spill blood – so bashing in his enemies skulls was an effective alternative.

In the aftermath of the battle Odo was given control of Dover where he managed to make himself unpopular by using the guildhall as his own place of residence and allowing a mill to be built at the mouth of the harbour.

In the spring of 1067 Odo took on the role of William’s deputy in England when William returned to Normandy.  So he played an active role crushing English revolts in East Anglia and in the north of the country.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that he became, according to the Domesday Book, one of the wealthiest landholders in the country.  He held; 184 lordships, manors in twelve other counties besides Kent and had an income somewhere in the region of £3,000 a year.  In fact, the Domesday Book shows him to be the richest tenant-in-chief in the kingdom by far.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle and the Orderic Vitalis make clear that his spiritual capital was rather less significant describing the bishop as ‘destitute of virtue,’  ‘a ravening wolf,’  ‘ambitious,’ ‘rapacious,’ ‘greedy,’ ‘ruthless,’ ‘arrogant’ and ‘tyrannical’ – in short a real charmer.

 

Unfortunately for Odo, his ambition matched that of his half brother and it was discovered that the Bishop of Bayeux was plotting to become pope.  William locked his brother up and he was only released upon William’s death.  By way of gratitude Odo led a rebellion in 1088 against William Rufus in favour of Robert Curthose, William’s elder brother who was Duke of Normandy at that time.

Odo never returned to Britain, something for which the people of Kent were probably deeply grateful.  He died and was buried in Palermo, Sicily on his way to the First Crusade.

To find out more about the chronology of the period click on the picture to open the page relating to the eleventh century in my ‘timeline of history’ or use the tabs at the top of the blog.