Orderic Vitalis

The Venerable Bede – whose work Orderic copied.

Orderic was born in 1075 in Atcham, Shropshire. His father came to England during the Conquest with Roger of Montgomery, the first Earl of Shrewsbury. As a reward Odelerius was given a church – remember there were different degrees of holy orders. Odelerius appears to have been a clerk in holy orders – part of the secular clergy before becoming a priest and then a monk. But in any event he had a family as well as being a priest. Priestly marriages were banned in 1123 by the First Lateran Council- so Orderic was born at a time when there was greater flexibility in the arrangement but wrote at a time when such liaisons were prohibited. Orderic’s mother appears to have been English.

At the age of ten he became an oblate at Saint-Evroul. He tells his readers this in his writings – so not only does he provide us with history but we also have a biography.

As an oblate Orderic was not a professed monk but his life was dedicated to God at this point and his parents paid for the privilege. Not only that but they had given the Church their most precious treasure. (Van Hout suggests that Orderic’s mother may have died soon after the birth of her third child which would explain why Orderic was sent to be educated with monks at the age of five.) It should also be remembered that the Earl of Shrewsbury was the patron of Orderic’s father and at this point he was seeking the favour of Saint-Evroul with many gifts. Orderic did not speak French when his father handed him over to a monk named Reginald. Orderic writes his his father weeping as he delivered him to Reginald and Orderic himself also crying. Odelerius never saw his son again.

In part Odelerius gave his sons to the Church as a penance. He had come to regard himself as deeply sinful. He gave money for the building of St Peter’s Abbey around the church that the Earl of Shrewsbury had given him. He became a monk and his sons Orderic and Benedict were given to the Church only his youngest son remained to the wider world. Van Houts (Rozier: p24) suggests two possible reasons for giving two sons to the Church: i) penance for being a married priest and therefore living in sin (and Orderic’s writing reflects the shame of being the son of such a union.) ii) penance for his part in the Norman Conquest.

By 1107 Orderic was an ordained priest and had been given the name Vitalis by the Benedictine monks who struggled with the Anglo-Saxon name Orderic. Orderic knew the scriptorium well and seems to have been an excellent copyist as more than twenty works have been assigned to his hand including Bede’s.

Orderic’s  career as a chronicler began with a copy of the Gesta Normannorum ducum by Guillaume de Jumièges which he extended.

Orderic travelled but returned to his monastery which was thriving. It was also increasingly wealthy. Not only were men like the Earl of Shrewsbury giving it gifts but men who had spent their lives at war were returning to Normandy to find sanctuary in monastic houses in their later years. No doubt they shared stories as well as paying their way. The house was also a hub for the monastic houses that were being set up in England.

The abbot of Saint Evroul wanted a history of the abbey and so Orderic began to write – what turned out to be a general history. The Historia Ecclesiastica grew out of the information that Orderic heard and unlike other chroniclers of the period Orderic allows the voices of the contributors to be heard – and not always sorted into the right order. William wrote about the Norman Conquest and William the Conqueror as his history progressed from the creation of the world into what were then current affairs. This period is covered in books three to five of his history. Not only does he write about the Norman Conquest of England but the foundation of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. He wasn’t shy about criticising everybody – the Normand for being over greedy and the English for being below par when it came to resisting the Normans.

Orderic finished this history which ran to thirteen books because he said that he was getting old – book six covered the abbey which was the original purpose of his writing. He probably died in 1142 having written a chronicle that covered political history, descriptions of people, customs, traditions and fashion as well as his own story amongst other things.

https://archive.org/details/ecclesiasticalhi03orde/page/n8

(eds) Charles C. Rozier, Daniel Roach, Giles Edward Murray Gasper, Elizabeth van Hout (2016) Orderic Vitalis: Life, Works and Interpretations. Martlesham : The Boydell Press

Christmas crowning

imagesThere are twelve days until Christmas so I thought I’d turn my attention to a few festive posts and where better to start that with William, Duke of Normandy.

The Orderic Vitalis recounts events. Given that the dates for the Orderic are 1075-1142 the chronicler could hardly be accused of penning his words from the front line but it’s the best historians have to go on and it is a reliable source.

 

So at last on Christmas Day… the English assembled at London for the king’s coronation, and a strong guard of Normen men-at-arms and knights was posted round the minster to prevent any treachery or disorder. And, in the presence of the bishops, abbots, and nobles of the whole realm of Albion, Archbishop Ealdred consecrated William duke of Normandy as king of the English and placed the royal crown on his head. This was done in the abbey church of St Peter the chief of the apostles, called Westminster , where the body of King Edward lies honourably buried.

 

But at the prompting of the devil, who hates everything good, a sudden disaster and portent of future catastrophes occurred. For when Archbishop Ealdred asked the English, and Geoffrey Bishop of Coutances asked the Normans, if they would accept William as their king, all of them gladly shouted out with once voice if not in one language that they would. The armed guard outside, hearing the tumult of the joyful crowd in the church and the harsh accents of a foreign tongue, imagined that some treachery was afoot, and rashly set fire to some of the buildings. The fire spread rapidly from house to house; the crowd who had been rejoicing in the church took fright and throngs of men and women of every rank and condition rushed out of the church in frantic haste. Only the bishops and a few clergy and monks remained, terrified, in the sanctuary, and with difficulty completed the consecration of the king who was trembling from head to foot. Almost all the rest made for the scene of conflagration, some to fight the flames and many others hoping to find loot for themselves in the general confusion. The English, after hearing of the perpetration of such misdeeds, never again trusted the Normans who seemed to have betrayed them, but nursed their anger and bided their time to take revenge.

 

Source: The Ecclesiastic History of Orderic Vitalis, translated by Marjorie Chibnill (Oxford University Press, 1978)

 

Now I ask you – you’re a man at arms; your man Bill is getting crowned, you hear a loud noise inside the abbey where the coronation is going down. You panic because of the loud noises. Fair enough, you’re probably aware that you’ve not won friends and influenced people during the last three months but then- and this is the bit I struggle with- instead of checking that Bill isn’t being brutally murdered by some very cross Saxons you set fire to random buildings…why exactly would you do that? It’s not really a terribly logical thing to do – but then I’m not a Norman.  There again, perhaps if you set fire to the buildings on either side of the narrow streets it would prevent anyone else getting to the abbey?

Every monarch since William the Conqueror has been crowned in Westminster Abbey apart from Edward V and Edward VIII who weren’t crowned at all- the first because he disappeared whilst in the Tower and the second because he became sidetracked by a divorced American.  Other monarchs had themselves crowned elsewhere to be certain of the job but had themselves re-crowned at Westminster in due course.  Henry I on spotting that brother William Rufus had expired due to a nasty arrow related injury in the New Forest on 2nd August 1100 took himself off to Winchester, secured the treasury and  had himself crowned there the next day.  The procedure was repeated in Westminster on the 6th.  It was normal for medieval kings to hold more than one coronation – it helped remind people who was in charge.

 

Anyway, that’s the first of my festive posts – William the Conqueror being crowned on Christmas Day 1066 followed, not with the first edition of the King’s speech,  by a good old-fashioned medieval riot.