The success of the History series Vikings has sparked renewed interest in Norse and medieval history, even if the show itself isn't completely historically accurate. Still, many of the show's characters and events have some basis in reality. This is true of the warrior bishops that appear in the Season 4 finale of Vikings, though their real-life counterparts were even more intense than their onscreen portrayals. Balancing their religious beliefs with militaristic duties, these bishops left centuries' worth of blood and bodies on medieval front lines.
Medieval clergies were notorious for involving themselves in the politics of their time, but these warrior bishops took political involvement to a new level. Some commanded vast land forces, while others stood on the front lines themselves. Fortresses were raised in their names, and their impact on the field was apparent for generations. Just as reality is often stranger than fiction, these pious but ruthless warriors were as fascinating as any historical drama.
While many may have expected pacifism from religious officials, even in times of conflict, evidence indicates some bishops placed in high-ranking military positions ordered horrific atrocities against their foes during periods of unrest. This was the case during the crisis of 1075 CE, in which Geoffrey de Montbray, the bishop of Coutances, pursued Earl Ralph's forces to Norwich. Many prisoners caught along the way suffered significant lacerations under Geoffrey's leadership.
This was the second instance of cruelty under Geoffrey, the first occurring in 1071 CE: a castle at Montacute was under siege by Dorset and Somerset forces, but Geoffrey managed to break the blockade and capture a number of prisoners. Accounts detail these prisoners were subject to similarly harsh treatment.
In Vikings's Season 4 finale, a warrior bishop by the name of Heahmund is introduced. While his characterization is anything but historically accurate, he is based on a real historical figure. The real-life Heahmund was the bishop of Sherborne, and records indicate he fought in Wessex against the Franks.
Heahmund was slain at the Battle of Merton in 871 CE. He fought alongside the Saxons and was present on the field where King Aethelred I met his end.
Even the Catholic Church's highest-ranking members often found themselves entangled in conflict. Only decades before the fall of the Roman Empire, the church prevented what could have become an early end for Rome. In 455 CE, Pope Leo I was sent as an official envoy to treat with Attila the Hun.
This was the first instance in Rome's history in which a church official was entrusted to represent Rome in matters of national security; the treaty was a success. Attila the Hun received the pope with open arms, eventually agreeing to halt his offensive strikes and return back to Eastern Europe.
Clergy members were not regular attendants on the front lines until the fourth century, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The militarization of the Catholic Church began with the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. Early Christian teachings preached nonviolence as a core tenet, but this changed when Emperor Constantine began his Christian conversion.
Constantine was the first emperor to fly the Christian cross over Rome's armies and introduce clergymen to the front lines. These clerics had little to do with the actual operations they accompanied; rather, they were a symbolic addition meant to boost soldiers' morale. While dispatched on military campaigns, these clergymen attended to many of the same matters they would during peacetime, such as providing access to religious services.