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Episcopal Reluctance: Lanfranc's Resignation Reconsidered*


On 29 August 1070, the Norman monk, Lanfranc, was consecrated archbishop of Canterbury despite having recoiled at the prospect when informed of his appointment earlier that year. His alleged reluctance to undertake the business of the English Church is well known and accepted by Anglo-Norman historians. And the account that his compliance was forced only through the united persuasion of the king, the queen, his former abbot, Herluin of Bee, and the papal legate, Erminfrid of Sion, adds an element of unparalleled sincerity to his resolve. More than two years after his consecration, Lanfranc wrote a letter to Pope Alexander II reasserting his initial aversion to taking office: the foreign tongue and barbarous English inhabitants presented a greater challenge than he, personally unworthy and waning in vigor, wished to endure. Lanfranc then asked the pope to relieve him of his burdensome episcopal duties so he might return to the monastic life.

Modern historians have equated this petition with his initial unwillingness to take office and have tacitly appended it to those humble actions usually associated with a monk bishop. Frank Barlow writes that Lanfranc had “suffered bitterly when he first went to England.” He infers from the resignation letter that all of the archbishop's passions “were diverted into conventional monastic virtues.” And Margaret Gibson advises that “No assessment of Lanfranc … can or should stray far from Lanfranc the monk.” Lanfranc had hesitated and been reluctant to accept Canterbury; therefore, the implication is that in 1072 he humbly wished to shed the office he had been compelled to enter.

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A shortened version of this paper was delivered at the Fifth Annual Conference of the Charles Homer Haskins Society, Houston, Texas, November 1986. I acknowledge gratefully the criticism and suggestions I received from Professor C. Warren Hollister and members of his seminar concerning my research; and I appreciate the opportunities I had to discuss this paper with Dr. Robin Fleming, Dr. Katharin Mack, Cassandra Potts, Michael Burger and Lauren Helm Jared.

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Sally N. Vaughn , “Lanfranc at Bec: A Reinterpretation,” Albion 17 (1985): 139–43

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  • ISSN: 0095-1390
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