History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

State of Religion in Great Britain and Ireland


It cannot be denied that in Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, a great decline of religion and discipline might be noticed during the tenth and eleventh centuries; nor are the causes which conspired to bring about this result in the Irish church difficult to discover. The inroads of the Danish and Norse invaders which began towards the end of the eighth century helped to prepare the way in some measure for the downfall. They came at first, these hardy warriors of the north, merely as pirate plunderers, and swooping down on the monasteries which studded the islands and the sea-coast they burned or destroyed what they could not carry away with them. Emboldened by their first successes they made their way up the rivers and lakes into the very heart of the country, carrying destruction wherever they went. Attracted by the fertility of the island, so rich in comparison with their own barren shores, they determined to effect a permanent settlement, and for a time, it seemed as if under Turgesius their design was likely to succeed, but the victory of Malachi I., and the death of their leader (845) put an end to these hopes. They settled in the maritime cities, especially in Dublin, Waterford and Limerick, and by allying themselves with some of the native princes, they were able to exercise a great influence in the country, so that it was only after the defeat inflicted on them by Brian Boru at Clontarf (1014) that their power was really broken.

During the course of these invasions the once famous monastic schools were plundered and burned—some of them more than once—and the monks and scholars killed or scattered. In later times, after the storm had passed, many of these institutions were rebuilt, but the glory of Armagh, Bangor, Clonmacnois, Clonfert and Clonard was gone, possibly for ever. When the invaders were induced to accept Christianity, owing to their hatred of the Irish and their racial connection with the Normans of England, they sent their bishops to Canterbury for consecration. It is not true to say that the archbishops of Canterbury had any authority over the Irish church. They did, indeed, for the reasons mentioned, claim jurisdiction over Waterford, Dublin and Limerick, but even in these cities their claim was contested, notably by Celsus, Archbishop of Armagh, and was rejected finally by the Pope who sent over his legate to confer the pallium on the Irish archbishops.

The second cause of the decline was the want of a strong central authority at the time, either in Church or State, in Ireland. At best the overlordship of the Ardri was seldom more than nominal. For a time it looked as if under Brian Born Ireland was to become a united kingdom, but his successful usurpation, by destroying the old law of succession, and his subsequent death at the battle of Clontarf before he had time to consolidate his power, only made matters worse, and opened the way to a ceaseless round of warfare for the title and dignity of Ardri. This want of unity prevented the establishment of a strong centre of ecclesiastical government. The archbishops of Armagh did, indeed, claim to be primates of the Irish church, but for political causes their authority was questioned in many parts of Ireland, and on this account, even had there been capable bishops in Armagh, it would have been impossible for them to exercise any effectual control.

But, unfortunately, as a matter of fact, the archbishops of Armagh were not likely to be the men to undertake a reform. Owing to the close union between the Church and the tribes, and to the fact that the civil authorities practically held in their own hands the ecclesiastical endowments, the very same results were produced in Ireland as were produced elsewhere by the working of the feudal system. Men were appointed bishops merely because they belonged to the reigning family, and in some cases laymen, as actually happened in Armagh, were appointed to the sees with the title of archbishop or bishop. These men drew the revenue but never received episcopal consecration, and they had with them a regularly consecrated bishop to perform the duties of their office.

The want of a strong ecclesiastical government tended to disorganisation in every department of religious life. The monasteries, which were once the strongholds of religion and learning, never recovered their former fame after the Danish invasion, and the monks went about without a rule. Every great family and every important monastery wanted a bishop, and in this way the number of bishops was increased without necessity, and the limits of their authority and their dioceses were not defined. In these circumstances it is no wonder that the Irish people were not what they should have been.

The authorities, for the charges levelled against the Irish church are mainly the letters of Lanfranc and of St. Anselm, archbishops of Canterbury, the works of Gillebert, bishop of Limerick, who was appointed papal legate in Ireland in the opening years of the twelfth century, St. Bernard's Life of St. Malachi, and to these might be added the decrees of the Irish synods held in the twelfth century, the testimony of the Irish annals and the Irish code of civil law. The main charges have reference to the sacrament of matrimony and divorce, to the multiplication of bishops without fixed sees and to the question of episcopal consecration by one bishop. Though it can hardly be disputed that there was some foundation for these charges, yet it should be borne in mind that this was an age of general religious decline, that some of these allegations were made by strangers who, not having an intimate acquaintance with the customs of the country, were inclined to mistake questions of ritual for questions of dogma, and that at any rate, the Irish church had still left enough religious vitality to reform itself from within in a space of fifty years.

Celsus, archbishop of Armagh, endeavoured to begin a reform by securing the erection of Cashel as a metropolitan see and by dividing Ireland into dioceses with fixed boundaries. It was St. Malachi, however, his successor, who carried through the work of reform. He was educated at Armagh, by the monk Imar, and after his ordination was employed by Celsus to assist him in the government of his diocese. But Malachi, realising that unless he himself were thoroughly conversant with the discipline of the Church, he could do very little real good, went to Lismore to study under Malchus who had been trained on the Continent. On his return to the north he re-established the monastery of Bangor, which was then in ruins, and a vacancy having occurred in the diocese of Down and Connor he was elected bishop much against his will. Celsus died in 1129, and he wished that Malachi should succeed him, but the reigning family persisted in introducing one of their own members into the see. The papal legate, Gillebert, the bishops and the princes insisted that Malachi should accept the sacred office, and after great difficulties he succeeded in having himself recognised as archbishop of Armagh. Once this work was accomplished he retired to Down. But mindful of his programme of reform, he undertook a journey to Rome to secure the pallium for Armagh as a recognition of its metropolitan dignity. On his way he stayed at the monastery of Clairvaux, and so charmed was he by the daily life of the monks that he wished himself to become a Cistercian. The Pope, however, would not give his consent to such a step, and Malachi was obliged to content himself with leaving some of his monks to be trained in the discipline of Clairvaux. These, together with other monks, came to Ireland and set up the first Cistercian house at Mellifont (1142). The Pope wished that the pallium should not be given except at the request of a national synod, but he appointed Malachi as his legate in Ireland. Accordingly a national synod was convoked at Holmpatrick (1148) to demand the pallium, and Malachi set out once more for Rome. On his way he rested at the monastery of Clairvaux where he took ill and died (2nd Nov. 1148). St. Bernard preached the sermon on the occasion of his funeral, and aided by some of the Irish Cistercian monk he wrote the valuable Life of St. Malachi.

The object of St. Malachy's mission was probably explained to the Pope by St. Bernard, and Cardinal Paparo was sent to Ireland. A national synod was convoked at Kells (1152) at which the Cardinal presided. Ireland was divided into four ecclesiastical provinces to be ruled by Armagh, Dublin, Cashel and Tuam, the occupants of which sees were to be recognised formally as archbishops, the primacy, however, being reserved for Armagh. Owing to the labours of bishops like Celsus, Malachi and Gelasius of Armagh, St. Laurence O'Toole, archbishop of Dublin, Catholicus, archbishop of Tuam, and to the efforts of the papal legates, Gillebert of Limerick, Malachi and Christian of Lismore, as well as by means of the decrees passed at the synods of Rathbreasil and Kells, not to mention many others, the work of reform begun by Gregory VII. was carried to a successful conclusion in the Irish church.

But a new danger soon threatened the Irish church and the Irish nation. From the arrival of the Normans in England they had cast longing looks towards the neighbouring island, where the frequent wars between the native princes seemed to afford a good opening for invasion. It was only during the reign of Henry II. (115489) that a determined effort was made by them to secure a foothold in Ireland. The immediate occasion was the flight of Dermot MacMurrough, king of Leinster, to England to secure the assistance of the king against his own countrymen. Some of the Norman nobles, notably Strongbow, volunteered help. At the head of a body of trained soldiers they landed in Ireland and captured Waterford and Dublin. St. Laurence O'Toole tried to rally the Irish princes to unite and to drive out the invader, but failing in this, he endeavoured to secure for his people in Dublin the best terms possible. Henry having learned of the success of the enterprise, landed himself in Ireland 1171. He made a successful tour of the south and east of Ireland, and was accepted as feudal lord by many of the princes. He assembled a synod of bishops at Cashel "to reform" the Irish church, but the fact that this synod was called upon to legislate merely on trifling matters of discipline affords the best evidence of the success of the labours of St. Malachi, St. Laurence O'Toole and the other great Irish reformers of the twelfth century.

It is sometimes said that Henry II. secured a Bull from his countryman, Pope Adrian IV., empowering him to invade Ireland and to put religion upon a proper basis in the country. Whether this Bull of Adrian IV. is authentic or not, it is well to bear in mind that it had no effect on the conquest of Ireland, as it was only long after the Normans had secured a foothold in Ireland that the slightest reference was made to this supposed papal grant. The conquest of Ireland was neither due to spiritual weapons placed in the hands of the invaders by the Pope, nor to the cowardice of the Irish soldiers. It owed its success to the superior military tactics, training and weapons of the Normans, in a struggle with whom the Irish tribes were as helpless as would be a seventeenth century battleship against a modem dreadnought.

It is true that shortly after his accession Henry II. held a council at Winchester and despatched an embassy, nominally to congratulate Pope Adrian, but in reality to secure permission to conquer Ireland (1155). According to the statement of Matthew of Paris, however, it is evident that the ambassadors returned to announce merely that the Pope was well disposed towards England and towards the king. The embassy sent by Henry certainly failed, but where the embassy failed, John of Salisbury, claims that he succeeded. On this matter two questions are to be carefully distinguished, namely, first, did the Pope make a grant to Henry II. of the feudal lordship of Ireland, and, second, is the Bull, Laudabiliter, which purports to contain that grant, a forgery? That the Bull, Laudabiliter, drawn up as it is in contravention of nearly all the laws of the papal chancellory and especially of the very strict rules laid down for the drafting of feudal grants, can be anything else but a forgery, is difficult to conceive. The earliest authority for it is that most unreliable writer, Gerald Barry, who admits that the authenticity of the confirmatory Bull issued by Alexander III. was questioned by many in his own day. It is possible, however, that though the Bull is a forgery Adrian IV., deceived by the misrepresentations of Henry's agents, might have made the grant recorded by John of Salisbury. But if the character of Adrian IV., his knowledge of the aims and policy of Henry II., his acquaintance with the true state of affairs in the Irish church, and his refusal to make a similar grant to Louis VII. of France, be borne in mind, and if it be remembered also that no use was made of the grant for nearly twenty years after it was supposed to have been given, it is very difficult to believe that Adrian acted as he is represented to have acted by John of Salisbury or by an interpolator of John of Salisbury's works.

St. Laurence O'Toole, archbishop of Dublin, did not long survive the triumph of the foreigner. He was summoned to the third council of Lateran (1179) and was appointed papal legate in Ireland. On his death (1180) Henry determined to secure the appointment of an English ecclesiastic to the See of Dublin, and for centuries this policy was followed, not merely in Dublin, but wherever the English could exercise any influence in the country. When John Comin, the newly appointed archbishop, arrived in Dublin, he held a provincial synod at which Alban, abbot of Baltinglass, denounced in the severest terms the scandalous lives of the Norman clergy who had followed in the wake of the invader. Gerald Barry undertook the work of replying to this address but in the course of his sermon he was forced to admit that, "the clergy of this country are very commendable for religion and among the divers virtues which distinguish them they excel and are pre-eminent in the prerogative of chastity. Likewise they attend regularly and vigilantly to their psalms and hours to reading and prayer; and remaining within the precincts of the churches do not absent themselves from the divine offices to the celebration of which they have been appointed. They also pay great attention to abstinence and sparingness of food, so that the greatest part of them fast almost every day until dusk and until they have completed all the canonical offices."

Most of the great religious orders, notably the Cistercians, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Carmelites, and the Augustinians were introduced into Ireland and did much for the spread of religion, both in Irish and English territories. The old Orders of Irish monks were amalgamated either with the new religious bodies or with the secular clergy, and the Irish church was organized in accordance with the canon law of that day. But the glory of the Irish schools was gone. Instead of Ireland being the teacher of western Europe, as she once had been, Irish scholars were obliged to go abroad for their education. In order to put an end to this sad state of affairs an attempt was made by the Dominicans to found a university in Dublin. Pope Clement V. and John XXII. (1322) approved of the idea of an Irish university, but for many reasons the attempt ended in failure.

During the fourteenth century Ireland was disturbed by contests between the archbishops of Armagh and Dublin regarding the primacy—a discussion which was ended in 1356, when the archbishop of Armagh was recognised as primate of all Ireland and the archbishop of Dublin as primate of Ireland—as well as by dissensions between the Irish and Norman ecclesiastics. These dissensions were carried into religious life. English monasteries refused to receive Irish postulants, and the Irish retaliated by excluding English subjects. Both parties lived side by side, but they had very little in common except the possession of the one faith and the one worship and their common submission to the Holy See.


The conquest of England by the Normans (1066) gave a new impetus to religious life in the country. For one reason or another, but principally on account of the Danish invasion, the Saxon church had fallen from the high position which it held during the seventh and eighth centuries. William the Conqueror and his successors, anxious to introduce reforms, and possibly also to secure their own power, took care to fill the important sees in England by the appointment of Norman ecclesiastics. The men appointed, as for instance, Lanfranc and St. Anselm in Canterbury, were generally worthy of their position, and spared no pains to carry out in England the policy that had been formulated by Gregory VII.

The Norman kings were thoroughly loyal to the Church and to the Pope, but they wanted to keep the control of ecclesiastical affairs to a great extent in their own hands. When Lanfranc died (1089) William II. delayed the appointment of his successor in order that he might have a free hand, and it was only when he took ill and feared that he was dying that he consented to the election of St. Anselm to Canterbury (1093). On his recovery he refused permission to St. Anselm to visit Rome, but in the end he consented, and Anselm went there in order to consult the Pope, principally regarding the attitude he should adopt towards the royal demands. On the accession of Henry I. (1100—35) the oath of homage to be taken by ecclesiastics and investiture, both of which had been condemned, led immediately to a new struggle. Anselm stoutly refused to take the oath of homage or to consecrate bishops who consented to receive investiture. As neither the Pope nor the king would give way Anselm left the kingdom, and returned only when Henry agreed to abandon investiture and to allow free election, provided that the bishops should take the oath of homage for the temporal possessions of their Sees (1106).

When Henry II. (1154—1189) ascended the throne, he resolved to assert the supremacy of the State and to hold the Church in slavery. He was a determined, unscrupulous ruler who might have succeeded in his wishes had not Providence raised up a man like Thomas a Becket to withstand his designs. Thomas A Becket, who was born about 1118, went abroad to study, and on his return, was attached to the service of Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury. Later on he was appointed Lord Chancellor, and was regarded by the king as his ablest and most trustworthy adviser. On the death of Theobald (1161) Henry, wishing to have a free hand in his policy by securing the appointment of one who would not resist him, selected his Chancellor to be archbishop of Canterbury. Much against his will, Thomas accepted this responsible office, and believing that he could not at the same time serve both the Church and Henry, promptly resigned the Lord Chancellorship, a step which cost him the friendship of the king.

Shortly afterwards they quarrelled on the question of whether clergy, accused of certain crimes, should be handed over for trial to the secular tribunals. Henry, fearing defeat on this question, suddenly changed the issue by demanding that the bishops should pledge themselves to accept the "customs" of the realm. After great persuasion Thomas agreed to do this, and then a meeting was convoked at Clarendon to formulate definitely these supposed customs (1164). The principal of these were that no election should be held for vacant benefices without the king's permission, that during the vacancy the revenues of the sees should go to the royal treasury, that no ecclesiastic should leave the kingdom without the king's permission, and that appeals should be sent to the king's court which would decide whether the cases should be tried in England or at Rome. As might be expected, Thomas a Becket promptly refused to accept such customs.

Finding his life in danger the archbishop left England and fled to France. Henry did everything he could id induce him to change his mind, but neither threats nor prayers availed to secure his confirmation of the constitutions. At last in 1170 a reconciliation was effected, when the archbishop returned to Canterbury and treated with severity the prelates who had supported the king. Misinterpreting some remarks made by Henry when the news of the archbishop's action reached him, four of his knights hastened to Canterbury, forced their way into the Cathedral and murdered the archbishop on the steps of the altar. Such a crime roused the indignation of the Catholic world; the Pope excommunicated all who had any part in the murder, and Henry, who expressed great sorrow for what had happened, consented to do public penance, and was absolved in the cathedral of Avranches (1172).

But, notwithstanding this repentance, the views and policy of Henry remained unchanged. During the reign of that worthless monarch, John (1199–1216), the dispute broke out more warmly than before. The king, anxious to have a pliant tool as archbishop of Canterbury, insisted on the election of John de Gray, but the junior monks of Canterbury refused and gave their votes to Reginald, their sub-prior. Both sides appealed to the Pope, who for the sake of peace set aside the two candidates and appointed Stephen Langton, a distinguished English ecclesiastic, who had been chancellor of Paris University and was then a cardinal of the Roman Church. John refused to consent to this election, but notwithstanding his refusal, the Pope proceeded to consecrate the archbishop-elect (1207). As the king would not allow the new archbishop to land in England the Pope laid the country under interdict (1208), excommunicated John (1209), and finally, in 1212 absolved his subjects from their oath of allegiance. The king, fearing the invasion that was threatened by Philip Augustus of France, and knowing that he could not rely upon the English, who were tired of his tyrannical rule, made a most abject submission and handed over his kingdom to the Holy See, receiving it back on condition that he and his successors should pay an annual tribute of Iwo marks to the Pope. Innocent thereupon absolved him from the censures that he had incurred, but hardly was John out of one difficulty than he found himself involved in another. The barons, disgusted with his rule, under which no man's life or property was safe, determined to force the king to grant a constitution. The archbishop of Canterbury strongly supported them in their demand, and they rose in arms and forced the king to sign the Great Charter of English liberty. (1215). John appealed to the Pope, who annulled this grant, not because he was opposed to its contents or that he was an enemy of liberty, but on account of the violent manner in which it was secured, and on account of the fact that the barons before having recourse to violence had not appealed to the Pope, who was feudal lord of England. The death of John and the subsequent confirmation of the charter put an end to the dispute.

During the thirteenth century, though the devotion of England to the Holy See was proved on more than one occasion, yet the attempts of the Popes to insist on the payment of the annual tribute so distasteful to the national pride of the English sovereigns and people, the appointments of foreigners to English benefices and the heavy papal taxes which were levied frequently led to a great deal of friction. In these quarrels much might be said on both sides. On the one hand, the Popes were obliged to employ a large number of officials to assist them in the government of the Church and to provide for their support, while the wars of the crusades involved great expense, and, on the other hand, the English people, not without reason, strongly objected to the frequent taxations and to the appointment of foreigners, who, in some cases, drew the revenues without residing in England. As a result of this friction two statutes were passed, one in 1351 called the Statute of Provisors, rendering invalid all appointments made by the Holy See to English benefices, the other in 1353 known as the Statute of Praemunire, directed against the transference to the Roman Courts of cases that should be tried in England. Both these measures were resented by the English bishops, and their observance was but rarely insisted upon by the Crown.

During the fourteenth century the progress of religion was retarded very much by the rise and spread of the Wycliffite heresy, and by the Black Plague, which ravaged the country in 1349, and during which so many of the priests and monks who stood by the post of duty perished, that several parishes were left without priests and many monasteries left practically tenantless. The wars with France and the unhappy struggle known as the "Wars of the Roses" disturbed the peace of the country and what was much worse, the civil war, by destroying the nobility, served to make the king of England what he had never been before, an absolute ruler. This will serve to explain how it was that the Tudor sovereigns could change so easily the religion of the majority of the English people.

Scotland, too, suffered badly at the hands of the Danish invaders. The great centre of religious life, Iona, was ravaged, and it was with difficulty that the bones of its saintly founder were saved from the hands of the desecrators. Many of the other centres of religion suffered also, and as in Ireland, the want of organisation helped to bring about a very serious decline of religion in Scotland during the ninth and tenth centuries. But, as in Ireland also, the work of reform was begun from within. Queen Margaret, the wife of Malcolm III. (1058–93), helped largely to correct abuses, to strengthen the ecclesiastical organisation and to abolish certain customs which were peculiar to Scotland. The want of a strong centre of Church government afforded the Normans an opportunity of claiming jurisdiction over the country. By an agreement concluded between Lanfranc and the archbishop of York (1072) Scotland was recognised as forming part of the metropolitan province of York. Later on, however, the successor of St. Anselm, in Canterbury, endeavoured to upset this decision by bringing forward the supposed jurisdiction given to St. Augustine over the. British Isles, and claimed to be himself the metropolitan of Scotland. Such a demand considering the estranged relations between England and Scotland would have been fatal to religion.

But, fortunately, it was resisted strongly and on the request of William the Lion, Pope Clement III. declared that the Scottish church was independent of Canterbury and directly subject to the Holy See. Three hundred years after this St. Andrews was erected into an arch-episcopal See (1472), as was also Glasgow twenty years later.

The new religious Orders, notably, the Benedictines, the Cistercians and the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, were introduced into Scotland, and took the places of the old monastic bodies. To provide for the education of the country, three universities, St. Andrews, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, were founded in the fifteenth century. The Church strongly supported the cause of national independence against England, and the relations between the Popes and Scotland were of the closest kind. But the general decline that manifested itself throughout the entire Church and the enormous wealth of the Scotch establishments, led to many abuses, and helped to prepare the way for the Reformation.