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The chaplain to William the Conqueror who established the Sarum Rite

Salisbury, where St Osmund was a humble and orthodox bishop

St Osmund (d 1099) was chaplain and then chancellor to William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest. 

If, however, his early career was dedicated principally to secular affairs, there is no question of his devotion to religion in the latter part of his life as Bishop of Salisbury.

A monk at Malmesbury called him “an orthodox bishop, a man of humility, worthy to be honoured and praised for his wisdom and holiness”.

Osmund has been held responsible for the introduction of the Sarum Rite, based on Norman models. With its elaborate attention to ceremony and its particular prayers, this Rite was widely used in southern England, Wales, Scotland and even in parts of Ireland until formally abolished by Elizabeth in 1559. Its influence, however, may still be detected in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Nothing is certainly known of Osmund’s origins and life in Normandy before the Conquest. A 15th-century tradition held that he was William I’s nephew, the son of an otherwise unrecorded sister of the king called Isabella, and her husband Henry, Count of Séez.

As William’s chancellor from 1070 to 1078, Osmund oversaw the adoption of Latin for royal writs. Even after he became Bishop of Salisbury in 1078 he remained involved in royal administration, and appears to have overseen the Domesday enquiry in the south-west of England.

The Diocese of Salisbury had recently been created by amalgamating the sees of Salisbury and Ramsbury. The building of a cathedral was already in progress at Old Sarum. 

Osmund, though, oversaw the main part of the construction. The building was consecrated in 1092, only to be partially destroyed by lightning five days later.

In 1089 Osmund had founded a community of canons, which he generously endowed from episcopal lands. Its constitution became a model for other English cathedrals.

Salisbury was also an important centre for the storage and copying of manuscripts, some scribes being imported from the continent. Osmund himself took part in this work, both transcribing and binding material.

At a time when Anglo-Saxons were being obliterated from influence and power in England, the Bishop of Salisbury forwarded the cult of St Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury in the late seventh century. 

While Osmund exercised rigorous authority and discipline over the priests in his diocese, he was equally hard on himself. Having initially supported the King in the investiture crisis, in 1095 he recognised his error and apologised to Archbishop Anselm for not having offered his support.

After Osmund’s death he was buried at Old Sarum in an elaborate tomb, which in 1226 was translated to the new cathedral in Salisbury.

By that time Osmund was already being called a saint. Nevertheless, it required much lobbying and expenditure by bishops of Salisbury before Pope Callistus III was finally induced to canonise him in 1457.