So: a Bishop. Godly chap, dressed in red or purple, head to toe. Usually has a diocese, and a cathedral; not much power outside their church these days. Nice crook, snazzy mitre. Holy bling.
But it has not always been that way.
The Roman Empire was the epitome of fastidious municipal organisation. Even its far reaches were administered and improved, its subjects taxed.
As the empire waned, the church it had begun to foster was growing in power. And the oddest thing happened: the church leaders began to take over the administration of what had been one of the greatest empires the world had ever seen.
Bishops could be very powerful indeed. Bishop-princes, in fact.
But this is nothing new to us. Thomas Becket was Lord Chancellor. We know the old bishops could be bishop-warriors too, like old Henry Le Dispenser, the Bishop of Norwich who led a crusade in the 14th century.
Once upon a time, there was this monk. He lived at Caen, in France, but he must have been good at what he did because when William came over the monk was very quickly at the centre of things.
The monks’s name was Gundulf.
He was brought over from Caen to help William’s new archbishop sort out the English church; he was a bishop by March 1077. And when you look at some of his assignments in those early heady days of Norman custodianship of England, you will see precisely the reason for his lightning-fast advancement; and I am not sure it was because of his godliness, or indeed his holy bling.
Just 12 years after William had arrived, Gundulf was principle overseer on the building of the White Tower of London.
It bears his signature: an uncompromising, seemingly impregnable tall tower with soaring turrets and windows like small dark eyes. Like this:
in 1087, William I died. Down on the River Medway in Kent, William’s half-brother, Odo, was embroiled in a rebellion and subsequently forced by William Rufus to cough up rather a lot of property.
And one of the bits of land which fell from his portfolio was the old derelict St Andrew’s church at Rochester, and all the lands belonging to it.
And then, under William Rufus, Gundulf was gifted the land on the Medway. And he built, and built, and built. His influence can still be seen in Rochester Castle:
But most enigmatic of all is a place I have been saving for you since I saw it on the way back from the pub.
The Swan at West Malling is a charming eatery, but the parking’s a bugger. We parked and ambled back into the village, and on the way what should we spy but the most amazing tower.
It seemed a strange place to find something so grand. So uncompromising. I have been puzzling over it ever since.
Today I learned the reason. There are two possible creators of this tower. One is Odo, who was forced to turn tail and flee back to France after being disgraced. And the other?
Gundulf the Bishop-Engineer.
Gundulf served three kings: William I, William Rufus and Henry I. And these days he is often acknowledged as the first ever King’s Engineer. The Royal Engineers Corps, based at nearby Chatham, are said to trace a line right back to Gundulf and his buildings, a thousand years ago.
Godly chap. Probably dressed in overalls head to toe.
I wonder if he ever found time for Holy Bling.