The medieval church

RUSHEN ABBEY: The burial place of a number of the Kings of Mann and the Isles. BELOW: Enlargement of the seal of a bishop of the Isle of Man c 1300, unearthed near Kirk Michael in 2012 - the seal inscription translated to 'Let the prayers to God of Germanus and Patricus help us'. Scallops were symbols of pilgrims in the Medieval period.

RUSHEN ABBEY: The burial place of a number of the Kings of Mann and the Isles. BELOW: Enlargement of the seal of a bishop of the Isle of Man c 1300, unearthed near Kirk Michael in 2012 - the seal inscription translated to 'Let the prayers to God of Germanus and Patricus help us'. Scallops were symbols of pilgrims in the Medieval period.

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In our latest feature on ‘The Forgotten Kingdom’, we take a look at the Medieval Church in Man

Medieval kings had to be accepted by the Church if they were to rule legitimately.



From kings to peasants, everyone wanted to be sure of salvation after death and it was only the Church who could guide people on how to save their souls. These factors made the medieval Church extremely influential.

Medieval society lived by hope and fear. People hoped that they could live a life following the teachings of the Church that would lead their soul to Heaven.

They feared that a slip from the path of righteousness would result in their eternal damnation. Together, the monarchy and the Church ruled.

However, tensions sometimes existed and the struggle for political power between royalty and bishops often had unforseen consequences.



During the battle between the brothers Reginald and Olaf II for the kingdom, the Bishop of the Isles disapproved of Olaf II’s marriage to Reginald’s sister-in-law, Lauon. So influential was the Bishop, that Olaf II allowed his marriage to be annulled.

Sometimes though, kings were not loyal to the Church.

A disagreement between Henry II of England and Archbishop Thomas had grown from Thomas’ refusal to agree that members of the clergy accused of secular crimes could be tried by the king’s court.

The Chronicles has a brief account of Henry II and his ‘tyrannical ambitions’ supporting ‘the unlawful Archbishop of York…while the Venerable Thomas Archbishop of Canterbury, was alive and in exile in France’.

In 1170 Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered by supporters of the king. The Chronicles say he was beheaded in his own cathedral for upholding justice.

Despite their sometimes ruthless behaviour on earth, the kings of Man and the Isles were constantly reminded of their duty to God and many of the kings chose to be buried in some of the most holy places, such as Furness Abbey in Cumbria and the island of Iona.

Olaf I even gave some of his land to build an abbey in the Isle of Man. The Chronicles say that at least three kings were buried here, at Rushen Abbey.

Before this period, the Christian religion in the Isle of Man was organised informally, following the early Irish model.

There were no bishops or parishes and no congregational churches, only small chapel sites, or keeills.

Once the Isle of Man became part of the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, religion became more formalised and the orders that were followed came from Rome.

The Isle of Man was part of the archdiocese of Trondheim in Norway and bishops for the Island were appointed by the archbishop of Trondheim.

The diocese that included the Isle of Man was known as Sodorensis.

This came from Sudreys, meaning south isles, which distinguished Man and the Isles from Orkney and Shetland, which were known as the Nordreys, or north isles.

Bishops could be as important as kings. The Chronicles list the bishops and report stories of their piety in amongst the tales of battles for control of the kingdom. The first bishop named is Hrólfr, or Ralph, who the Chronicles say was bishop before the reign of Godred Crovan and who was buried at Maughold.

Bishop Simon is said to have been buried in 1248 in St German’s Church on St Patrick’s Isle ‘which he himself had begun to build’.

The medieval Church was a wealthy organisation, receiving gifts and donations of money and land in return for pastoral care. Some of this land was used to build places of worship and Rushen Abbey, the church at St Michael’s Isle and St Trinian’s in Marown were all built between 1000 and 1300 AD.

The Chronicles reveal that sometimes there were conflicts between the people and their Church.

In around 1274 AD, Bishop Mark was ‘exiled by the Manxmen’. The reason why is not stated, but the result was that the Isle of Man was subject to an interdict. This meant that although still part of the Church, the Manx people were not permitted fully to celebrate important dates such as Christmas and Easter with the ringing of church bells and music.

Bishop Mark returned to the island after three years, and the Chronicles say that ‘to ensure the removal of the said sentence they gave him one penny from every house that had a fire’. A tax worth paying to bring back Christmas.

Although the kings of Man and the Isles were powerful rulers with control over their subjects, the kings themselves had to answer to a higher power – God.

The Chronicles give many instances of how the kings displayed their subordination and obedience to God.

Embarking on long and arduous journeys, or pilgrimages, to holy places demonstrated devotion and the pilgrim could gain forgiveness for their sins.

Filled with regret after blinding his brother, King Lagman went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem ‘marked with the sign of the Lord’s cross’.

King Olaf II, on his release from a Scottish prison in 1214 AD, set out on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain.

The holy destinations would have been packed with pilgrims from all social ranks seeking guidance, healing, forgiveness and enlightenment. Far from being places for quiet spiritual contemplation, these shrines would have been noisy and chaotic.

Some direct effects of holy instructions to the kings of Man and the Isles are described in the Chronicles.

In 1098, Magnus King of Norway decided (against the advice of the bishop) to open the tomb of St Olaf in Trondheim to see if the corpse had decayed. After seeing the intact body, King Magnus felt a ‘great fear’.

The following night, the king dreamt that St Olaf spoke to him, saying ‘Choose...lose your life with your kingdom within thirty days, or...depart from Norway, never to see it again’. King Magnus fled from Norway, travelling down through the Kingdom of Man and the Isles, eventually setting up home in the Isle of Man.

The Chronicles also tell the story of the revenge of St Machutus (St Maughold) for plans to attack Maughold church.

The night before the planned attack, St Maughold appeared in a dream to the ringleader Gilcolm, driving a spear though his heart.

Gilcolm pleaded for help from the priests and clerics at Maughold but they refused, so that his fate would be an example to any others who planned desecration of holy sites.

Gilcolm’s grim end was recorded: ‘So huge was the swarm of large revolting flies that began flying round his face and mouth, that neither he nor those who were beside him were able to drive them away. Thus in great pain and torment he expired.’

Follow our next feature on ‘The Chronicles of the Kings of Man and the Isles’ in next week’s Examiner and visit the ‘Forgotten Kingdom Exhibition at the Manx Museum, sponsored by Lloyds TSB. Open Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm. Admission free.

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