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  Ranulf Flambard (c.1060–1128), seal Ranulf Flambard (c.1060–1128), seal
Flambard, Ranulf (c.1060–1128), administrator and bishop of Durham, was of humble birth.

Youth and early career

Orderic Vitalis, who devotes most space to explaining his rise, says that he was of poor and obscure stock, the son of Thurstan, a parish priest from the Bessin, who is known from his obit to have died as a monk of St Augustine's, Canterbury; Ranulf's mother, who was said to be a sorceress, appears to have been alive in 1101, and Ranulf had two brothers, Geoffrey and Fulcher (d. 1102); the latter was also a cleric. Ranulf was educated from boyhood with base parasites among the hangers-on of the ducal court (presumably at Caen), so that he was better instructed in cunning deception and the specious manipulation of words than in the art of letters—all this, no doubt, by reference to Orderic's own serious and blameless early studies. Perhaps it was through Odo, bishop of Bayeux, that Ranulf first came to the notice of the king–duke. By 1085 Ranulf was keeper of the royal seal under William I's new chancellor, Maurice, afterwards bishop of London; in Domesday Book he is sometimes already distinguished by the sobriquet Flambardus (the torch-bearer) given to him—according to Orderic—by Robert, the king's dispenser (possibly an Oxfordshire neighbour of Ranulf), in allusion to Ranulf's activities as the king's advocate in the king's court; if true this was prophetically apt in the light of Ranulf's later conduct. One chronicler, the annalist of Winchester, calls Flambard Passeflabere (more rarely Passeflambere). In Domesday itself he appears under several names—Flanbard, ‘Flamme’, Flamard—and is recorded as holding two churches in Surrey and as possessed of small estates in that and several other counties.

Such oddments (worth in all perhaps £30 annually), and the variety of modes of reference to Flambard, suggest that he was not, by 1086, a well-known or prominent royal servant, and he does not appear as a witness to a single genuine instrument issued by the Conqueror. Orderic's account clearly shows that it was with William II, not the Conqueror, that Flambard's influence became powerful, as a result of his ‘fraudulent suggestions’ (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 4.173). In Rufus's reign Ranulf's rise was rapid: by 1088 he was already the custodian of vacant church lands, in 1089 he was given custody of the lands of Canterbury itself, and by 1097 his position in regard to such lands was notorious. His attestations of royal instruments began in 1091, if not before, and became frequent. In September 1093 he acted as a judge at Bury St Edmunds and Norwich in conjunction with Bishop Walkelin (d. 1098) of Winchester, and appears to have been the head of both the clerical and the lay sides of the royal household; on 25 September he served a writ on Anselm (d. 1109) on the very day of the latter's consecration. In the late 1090s three writs show him as one of the regents of the kingdom during Rufus's absences in Normandy, in 1097–9 with Bishop Walkelin, and in 1099 with Haimo the Steward and Urse d'Abetot; the Winchester annals say briefly that in 1097 the king committed the kingdom to Bishop Walkelin and Ranulf Passeflabere.

The king's chief minister

Whether Flambard held a named office, and if so what, is (as in other cases at this early date) debatable. The sources agree in describing him as the king's exactor and placitator, or chief financial and legal agent; but he was never treasurer, nor was he justiciar, though he was a judge (justitiarius); he was the king's chaplain, so called because of his close acquaintance with the ruler—a story in Gaimar shows how at Brockenhurst when a dispatch arrived with news of the revolt of Le Mans, the king with easy familiarity passed it to the minister to read. In the life of Christina of Markyate he is described as judge of all England and second after the king. Contemporaries paid more attention to Ranulf as exactor than to Ranulf as placitator. Texts of writs from Rufus's reign show Ranulf's role as part of the developing ordinary machinery of justice, a system from the efficacy of which Flambard himself was soon to benefit. Contemporaries had no doubt of his lacerating efficiency as an exactor: Orderic, John of Worcester, Henry of Huntingdon, and William of Malmesbury, with many a literary flight, attacked Flambard for his extortions in vehement general terms, and William asked his readers to believe that when Rufus ordered a particular tax, Flambard would double it; sources representing individual churches (such as the abbey of Bury St Edmunds) wrote at length of the cruel blows that Flambard's exactions had inflicted.

In the second half of the reign Flambard was certainly responsible for two highly ingenious administrative experiments. In 1094 Rufus summoned the old English fyrd—20,000 men in all, according to some sources—to Hastings to join his expedition to Normandy against his brother Robert Curthose. Flambard too went to Hastings, and there took from each Englishman the 10s. that had been given to him by his community for his keep. This famous incident has usually been linked with an item in the description of the Domesday customs of Berkshire, according to which on receipt of a summons to military service every five hides sent up one man who was given 4s. from each hide for his keep and pay. This arrangement would have provided each man with a total of 20s.—apparently 10s. for keep and 10s. for pay. The difficulty with this system was that it did not produce professional troops fit for combat in post-Carolingian western Europe, however well fed and paid they might be—hence Flambard's readiness to appropriate part (apparently half) of the cash to which they were entitled. It was an ingenious attempt by Flambard to raise money for the employment of mercenaries; he sent the money to Rufus in Normandy instead of unskilled men.

Two years later came Flambard's attempt to exact the maximum profit from episcopal and abbatial vacancies. When a lay tenant-in-chief died, the king took from his heir a relief (relevium) as a payment for succession, but the heir could recoup by taking relevia from the vassals of the honour. When a new bishop or abbot entered on an ecclesiastical honour he could take similar payments from his tenants, but for the king to take a payment from a new bishop or abbot on appointment would look like simony, which would thus have been systematized. When Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester died early in 1095 Flambard saw a way of at least depriving the new bishop of a quick and early profit; he was the sole witness of a royal writ notifying the tenants of the vacant see that they were to pay the king a relief to be determined by the king's barons (perhaps those of the exchequer). Urse d'Abetot, sheriff of Worcestershire, a colleague in government of Flambard, and the monk Bernard were to distrain those unwilling to pay. This device was not repeated; but the exploitation of ecclesiastical revenues during episcopal or abbatial vacancies, at which Flambard excelled, remained an important source of royal profit until the fourteenth century.

Orderic credits Flambard with inciting Rufus to revise the survey (descriptio) of all England and to make a new division of land by confiscating from natives and invaders alike whatever was found above a certain quantity. The second of these suggestions was certainly not carried into effect, and would have amounted to a major reapportionment of power; the first must imply a proposal to revise Domesday Book, described in its famous colophon as a descriptio; but no such revision is known to have been made, though Rufus did attempt to increase gelds due from some lands, including fenland abbeys where Flambard was active. Orderic has it that with Rufus's consent Flambard measured all the ploughlands, or hides as he alleges the English called them, with a rope (funiculo).

These various administrative services brought Flambard minor ecclesiastical preferment, among them the deanery of Twinham, Hampshire, and membership of ‘that extraordinary club of ambitious Norman clerics in London’ (Offler, ‘Ranulf Flambard’, 18), the cathedral clergy of St Paul's, and finally propelled him into the ranks of the episcopate. Bishop William of Durham died in early January 1096, and his episcopal estates were for over three years in the royal custody, until in May 1099 Flambard himself was named to the bishopric; for this promotion he is said to have paid the king £1000. However, although he was consecrated on 5 June, the new bishop had to wait some years before he could exploit his new investment.

Ruin and recovery

The sudden death of William II on 2 August 1100 brought six years of vicissitude for his powerful servant; three days later Henry I's coronation charter condemned various practices of his brother and Flambard, though in the text Flambard is not named at all and Rufus not consistently; on 15 August Flambard was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London—the first state prisoner to be housed there, but not for long. Six months later, in February 1101, he escaped. The story, as told by Orderic, has been termed ‘pure Gilbert and Sullivan’ (Offler, ‘Ranulf Flambard’, 15): a rope was smuggled into the prison in a flagon of wine, Flambard made his guards drunk and while they slept let himself down by the rope (attached to the pillar dividing the window) to the friends waiting with horses below, rode to an unknown port, and sailed to Normandy; he took with him his crozier and his mother. William de Mandeville, keeper of the Tower, was fined heavily for his fecklessness—or complicity.

Flambard instigated and accompanied Duke Robert's attempt of 1101 to dethrone his brother by invading England. His success in bribing Henry's seamen enabled Robert to land, but the invasion failed, and for five years Flambard openly maintained relations with both brothers: he resumed contacts with Henry, who set in train a complex series of measures for Flambard's reinstatement in the see of Durham (which the Winchester annalist mistakenly says Flambard surrendered in 1101, whereas Orderic says that Henry deprived him); Flambard then returned to Normandy as, it has been maintained, a secret emissary of King Henry.

Also in 1101, from Robert Curthose, Flambard gained for his brother Fulcher (who was almost illiterate, according to Orderic) the vacant see of Lisieux; when Fulcher died in January 1102 Flambard secured the bishopric for his own son Thomas, a mere boy, on the understanding that if Thomas died his unnamed younger brother should succeed him. Ivo, bishop of Chartres, in reporting these scandalous events to Pope Paschal II in 1105, asserted that both boys were under twelve years old. Flambard ruled the see for three years not as bishop but as guardian, and the Lord's flock was open to the ‘ravages of wolves’ (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 5.323).

Flambard was in England in 1102, 1104, and 1105, and after Henry's victory at Tinchebrai in 1106 returned again to take possession of the see of Durham, but not to assume his former role in central government, for Roger (d. 1139), bishop of Salisbury, himself also once a royal chaplain, was now the king's leading minister. His return enabled Flambard to resume something of a domestic life. In the days of his power, and before he became a bishop, he took as his wife or mistress Ælfgifu (Alveva), sister of his friend the rich Englishman Autti, a townsman of Huntingdon. They had a number of children. Later he gave Alveva in marriage to another citizen of Huntingdon, and always lodged with her and her husband during his journeys from London to Durham and back. It was on one of these journeys (presumably about 1115) that he attempted to seduce his host's niece Christina (later a recluse of Markyate) but was thwarted by her resort to a transparent subterfuge. She persuaded him to allow her to lock the chamber door—with herself on the outside and the lustful bishop within (the story has been doubted, but the details have verisimilitude). Later he forced the girl's parents to marry Christina to a young English nobleman.

While bishop of Durham, Ranulf still kept company with great men (he was with the king in Normandy in 1115, 1116, and 1118–19), and was involved with great matters, such as the dispute between Canterbury and York. He had been present at the exchanges between William I and his two archbishops in the Isle of Wight in 1086; later, as bishop of Durham, he tried in 1109 to bribe Henry I with 1000 marks of silver, together with 100 marks for the queen, ‘if he would consent to justice, and a judgment by canon law for the church of York’ in the latter's dispute with Canterbury; in 1115 he ordained the archbishop-elect of York, Thurstan, with whom Flambard seems to have maintained friendly relations, to the priesthood; next year the church of York called Flambard to its aid in the dispute; in 1119 he went to Pope Calixtus II's council at Rheims with the Normans but in the presence of this high-born pontiff did not dare to sit with his own archbishop.

Bishop of Durham

The limited series of Flambard's acta as bishop does not begin until 1112: seventeen acta (one clearly spurious) survive, and the existence of four others can be deduced. As bishop, Flambard was faced by some standard and some unusual problems. His immediate predecessor, William of St Calais, had left his new cathedral incomplete; Flambard continued the building up to the roof, financing the work from offerings and fees which ought to have gone to the monks. He built the wall that joined the cathedral to the castle, and also built Framwellgate Bridge to the north-west of the cathedral. The revenues of the bishopric were much increased in Flambard's day.

The endowment of the prior and monks of St Cuthbert who formed the chapter of the cathedral was not adequate for their role, despite their possession of the body of the saint; Flambard endowed them with tithes and land in Durham, Yorkshire, and Northumberland, and recruited monks and officials from a source that he usually thought reliable—his own family. One nephew, Ranulf, became the bishop's archdeacon. A charter from the end of the bishop's life shows him attended by members of his family, namely his archdeacon Ranulf and five other nephews (Osbert, another Ranulf, Richard, Robert, and Pain) and also by Richard of Huntingdon, presumably a relative or at least a fellow townsman of the bishop's English partner Alveva.

Flambard's officer who appears most frequently is William the Chamberlain—not surprisingly if the camera was the centre of the bishop's finances as it was of the king's; the most important was probably Pinceon the bishop's steward, who held ten knights' fees from the bishop in Lincolnshire. Between Tees and Tyne Ranulf effected important subinfeudations: one grantee, William fitz Ranulf (apparently a nephew of the bishop), and his descendants became active honorial barons of the bishops, and there was another grant to yet another nephew Richard, son of the bishop's brother Geoffrey.

Bishop Ranulf has no reputation as a builder of parish churches, but he did build and endow the church of St Giles in the city of Durham itself, with the hospital of St Giles appurtenant thereto, the latter refounded c.1180 by Bishop Hugh du Puiset as Kepier Hospital. He had responsibilities north of the Tyne, where the districts of Norhamshire and Islandshire (a narrow crescent of land, bordering the Tweed and the sea, between Wark and Bamburgh) were added to the county of Durham, but remained administratively distinct: the sheriff of Durham was, unsurprisingly, his own nephew Osbert, but after 1121 Ranulf confided the shrievalty of Norhamshire and Islandshire to Papedy, who was not a relative. Beyond Norhamshire lay the kingdom of Scots; in this area, too, Bishop Ranulf left his mark, when in 1121 he began the construction of Norham Castle (overlooking the Tweed), much strengthened by his successors.

In his last two years, as he approached seventy, Flambard began to flag in mind and body. A month before his death he had himself carried into his cathedral and there made a public restitution to his prior and monks of the offerings and fees which he had diverted to the completion of the cathedral. Ranulf Flambard died in Durham on 5 September 1128, aged about sixty-eight, and was buried in the chapter house of Durham. His slab, marked Rannulfus episcopus, was lifted in 1874, to reveal bones that suggested a powerful lower jaw and a prominent occiput (attributes not inconsistent with Orderic's description of him as corpore pulcher, ‘handsome’ (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 4.171); at death he appears to have been ‘a powerful old man’, 5 feet 9 inches in height (Fowler, 387–9). His sons included Thomas, the juvenile bishop of Lisieux, an unnamed son (intended by Flambard as Thomas's successor), Elias, a canon of Lincoln, Ralph the parson of Bishop Middleham, and William who held two knights' fees. Whether Alveva was the mother of all or any of these is not known.

Personality and reputation

Ranulf Flambard was the first cleric of low degree to exercise power from the top of the royal administration, and enjoyed the exercise of power both early and late; he was totally devoid of spirituality and a natural target for reformers' hostility and efforts. He was completely secular, frequently innovative, and altogether ruthless (as his treatment of Christina shows). He never lacked effrontery or, if necessary, courage, whether resisting an assassination attempt, starting a legal process against Anselm, or escaping from the Tower. He incurred the hostility of a vengeful king, an archbishop, a pope, and the leading canonist of the age; but his resourcefulness never failed; yet the image which may persist longest is that of the amorous priest thwarted by a quick-witted teenage girl.

The interpretation of Flambard's role in the reign of William II has changed markedly since the minister was first subjected to serious scrutiny in late Victorian times. According to Stubbs Flambard hardened and sharpened feudalism; but Freeman saw in him the ‘malignant genius’ of ‘the Feudal System’ (Freeman, Norman Conquest, 5.377–81). In 1933 Southern jettisoned this unhelpful vocabulary, set Flambard in a wider framework of medieval government machinery as a whole, and saw him as a man whose ruthlessness and energy brought ‘order and routine into the fragile mechanisms of administration’, as the first ‘outstandingly successful administrator in English history’, a man who made things work (Southern, 188, 205). What is remarkable in Flambard's later career under Henry I is that, having been at the centre of English government, he settled contentedly and competently into the role of a bishop with special problems. Durham writers held Flambard in much esteem as their bishop. From the Touques to the Tweed, during forty years of power Flambard confronted, and usually with success, a variety of complex tasks requiring all his versatility.

J. F. A. Mason


Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist. · Florentii Wigorniensis monachi chronicon ex chronicis, ed. B. Thorpe, 2 vols., EHS, 10 (1848–9) · Symeon of Durham, Opera · William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum / The history of the English kings, ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors, R. M. Thomson, and M. Winterbottom, 2 vols., OMT (1998–9) · Willelmi Malmesbiriensis monachi de gestis pontificum Anglorum libri quinque, ed. N. E. S. A. Hamilton, Rolls Series, 52 (1870) · Ann. mon., vol. 2 · C. H. Talbot, ed. and trans., The life of Christina of Markyate, OMT (1959); repr. (1987) · ‘Epistolae Anselmi’, ed. F. S. Schmitt, S. Anselmi Cantuariensis archiepiscopi opera omnia, 3–5 (1938–61) · ‘Epistolae’, Patrologia Latina, 162 (1854) [letters of Ivo of Chartres] · Reg. RAN, vols. 1–2 · H. S. Offler, ed., Durham episcopal charters, 1071–1152, SurtS, 179 (1968) · E. A. Freeman, The reign of William Rufus, 2 vols. (1882) · F. Barlow, William Rufus (1983) · R. W. Southern, ‘Ranulf Flambard’, Medieval humanism and other studies (1970), 183–205 · H. S. Offler, ‘Ranulf Flambard as bishop of Durham’, Durham University Journal, 64 (1971–2), 14–25 · J. O. Prestwich, ‘The career of Ranulf Flambard’, Anglo-Norman Durham, ed. D. Rollason, M. Harvey, and M. Prestwich (1994), 299–310 · H. H. E. Craster, ‘A contemporary record of the pontificate of Ranulf Flambard’, Archaeologia Aeliana, 4th ser., 7 (1930), 33–56 · J. T. Fowler, ‘An account of the excavations made on the site of the chapter house of Durham Cathedral in 1874’, Archaeologia, 45 (1880), 385–404, esp. 387–9 · W. Stubbs, The constitutional history of England in its origin and development, new edn, 1 (1897) · E. A. Freeman, The history of the Norman conquest of England, 2nd edn, 6 vols. (1870–79)


seal, U. Durham L., Durham Cathedral muniments, 2.1.Pont.9 [see illus.]