Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Abbot

Forty-four years had passed away since Herlwin, knight and warrior, exchanged the sword for the chalice, the armour of chivalry for the monastic habit. For some long time he had gradually become accustomed to put much of his ruling power into the hands of Prior Anselm; and now the day drew near when he was to say a last farewell to the abbey he had founded and directed all these years.

He had seen many changes in his own little circle, and from time to time rumours of the world outside the cloister walls must have come to his ears and filled him and his monks with interest and concern.

For one of their number, Lanfranc, the scholar and the friend of the great Duke, before whose very name men trembled, had gone forth from among them to fill a high position, one to which his first appointment as abbot of St Stephen's Abbey at Caen was but a stepping-stone. Four years after the Battle of Senlac, when England lay conquered but unsubdued, Lanfranc had been imperiously summoned to the aid of Duke William of Normandy, henceforth to be better known as the Conqueror of England.

The reorganization of the Church in England was by no means the least of the problems with which the 'stark king' had to deal.

Saxon prelates and Saxon priests had lost by this time all that reputation for learning that it had been Alfred's glory to build up. The Saxon Archbishop Stigand, the adherent of an Anti-Pope in one of the disputes over the question of the papacy, had never been regularly appointed by the Holy See, and was, moreover, a stupid, ignorant man.

In the religious revival, of which we have seen so many traces across the Channel, England had taken no part. Only in the monasteries was the torch of religion kept alight, while the secular clergy drowsed in contented sloth till awakened by the thunderbolt of Senlac field. From that time they could look for but short shrift from the Conqueror. For wherever William was, he must be master, and he had small patience with bishops who were neither loyal to him by instinct nor learned and worthy ecclesiastics.

Within four years Stigand was deposed and Lanfranc set in his place as Archbishop of Canterbury; before long nearly every Saxon bishop had left the realm, and their sees were filled with Norman prelates.

Not that he did this merely to strengthen his own position. The Conqueror had ever 'an eye for a man,' and his choice was dictated by really high motives, as is shown by the comment of a writer of those times: "In choosing abbots and bishops, he considered not so much men's riches or power as their holiness and wisdom. He called together bishops and abbots and other wise counselors in any vacancy, and by their advice inquired very carefully who was the best and wisest man, as well in divine things as in worldly, to rule the Church of God."

That this would tend in time to raise the tone of the clergy and revive the spirit of religion in England is undoubted; but it is equally clear that the appointment of Norman prelates, strangers to the language and customs of the people over whom they had spiritual charge, but in full sympathy with the King's ideals, would make for the increase of the royal supremacy. Not every abbot was possessed of the gentle soul of Anselm, who, on hearing of the appointment of one of his friends to the see of St Albans, wrote a kindly letter pitying him for his sojourn among an uncivilized race whose language was unknown to him, but bidding him remember that he could show forth the teaching of Christ by his life as well as by his words. Some of these abbots and bishops were worldly men enough, who looked upon their Saxon flocks as merely a means of providing revenue for them; and this low ideal of their office was not improved by the knowledge that the King himself, however much he valued holiness of life, yet had a very keen eye to the main chance, and demanded homage and 'feudal dues' from bishop and baron alike.

But the main point of William's Church policy—an important one since later on it affected the career of Anselm so much—was to strengthen the hands of the bishops and clergy by the royal support to such an extent that they could be used, if necessary, against the baronial party. For it was the growing power of the feudal lords that was always menacing the authority of the King; and a long experience of civil war in Normandy between duke and barons had confirmed William in his determination to be master of England, of barons, bishops, and commons alike.

So far indeed was he obsessed with this idea of complete supremacy that the Conqueror would not even give in his personal submission as king to the head of the Church himself. On the demand of Hildebrand he agreed to pay 'Peter's Pence,' the customary yearly tribute, but the oath of 'fealty' he absolutely refused. He would have no interference from without. Says his chronicler: "He would not suffer any authority within his realm to accept the Roman pontiff as apostolic father except at his bidding, or to receive his letters unless they had first been shown to himself."

An imperious summons from Rome to Lanfranc was disobeyed, though probably with great unwillingness, and Hildebrand was wise enough not to press the matter. It was not the time to embroil himself with the 'stark king,' who was so clearly the instigator of the refusal. But when the news of this matter came to the quiet cloisters of Le Bec, one can imagine that Prior Anselm's gentle heart would be much disquieted. It was very well, perhaps, for a time that England should be to a certain extent isolated from the Church of the Continent, while there was still so much 'cleaning up' to be done within her borders, and while the reins of her government, civil and ecclesiastical, were in the hands of a strong king. But that much trouble was being stored up for the future was clear enough both to him and to his former teacher, for we find Lanfranc writing about this time:

"I beseech you to pray God in His mercy that he grant a long life to my master the English King; for while he lives we have peace of some sort, but after his death we cannot hope to have peace or any other good."

During these years of change and development we find a constant stream of communication passing between Le Bec and Canterbury, and this formed almost the only strong remaining tie between the Church in England and that abroad.

It was natural enough that Lanfranc should select some of his old companions and scholars to fill such bishoprics as those of St Albans and Rochester, and the monastery of Christ Church at Canterbury kept up a frequent interchange of monks with Le Bec. Once, indeed, Lanfranc found leisure, in the midst of all his business, to visit his old home, which he had already honoured with grants of money and of fine embroidery for the church.

The meeting between the two old men, Abbot Herlwin, eighty-three years of age, and Archbishop Lanfranc, now nearly eighty, must have been very touching. Each hurried to be the first to fall prostrate in the loving homage, which neither would permit to be paid to himself, and the struggle was only ended when each fell on the other's neck and kissed. Rank and dignity were laid aside as Lanfranc paced the cloister arm in arm with some former friend or pupil, talked to the children, or sat in the refectory side by side with the monks, refusing the seat of honour and eating from the same dish as his former brethren. Even in the church he would not sit in the archbishop's chair, but finding Anselm was absent on business, entered his stall, saying with a smile that be had not resigned his office and was prior still. No wonder that when the moment for his departure came, "they all burst into tears and there was no consoling the little ones; he therefore hurried off as quickly as possible, hoping their sobs might cease at least when lie was well out of sight."

He had said his last farewell to Abbot Herlwin. The following year (1078) that beautiful and simple soul breathed its last, and the old warrior who had for over forty years fought the battle of monastic reform within cloister walls, passed away in the midst of his brethren, under the shadow of the church and monastery he had founded.

And now the question arose as to who should be his successor. A meeting was summoned in the chapter-house, and the brethren gathered in a state of suppressed excitement, tempered indeed with sadness when they saw the chair of Herlwin standing empty at the upper end.

The most collected among them was Prior Anselm, who, in virtue of his position, opened the conference. But before he could say more than a few words, a monk arose and proposed that the prior should be elected abbot.

Now this was exactly what Anselm had determined should not be. His was a character that always shrank from responsibility, that had no love of rule, that was always more ready to obey than to issue orders. Moreover, his intense spirituality and love of communing with God made him averse from all that diverted his attention to activities that were bound to shorten his time for meditation and prayer.

But there was probably another reason for Anselm's prompt and uncompromising opposition. He had what was for that age an exceedingly strong sense of loyalty to the Holy See, and he knew that by his acceptance of this office he would be obliged to come into conflict with a decree lately issued by Hildebrand, now Pope Gregory VII. This was to the effect that no abbot should receive investiture, the formal recognition of his office by the diving of the crosier, from the hands of a layman; and Anselm knew too well the character of William, Duke of Normandy and King of England, to think that it would be possible to evade the reception of it from him.

To such a sensitive soul the struggle between loyalty to his spiritual head and obedience to temporal authority must have been exceeding bitter, and only some such reason can account for the almost exaggerated intensity of his refusal. But the monks listened to his list of objections with what his biographer calls "dogged affection and affectionate doggedness," and refused to accept them.

The conference ended, and another was called for the next day, and again on the day following; still he refused, and with such reiteration that at length the monks grew impatient and declared with some roughness of speech that they were weary of his objections, which they now knew by heart, and were merely waiting for him to yield to their immovable decision.



At that the prior, harassed and worn by mental conflict, wept bitterly, and falling on his face before them entreated them in the name of God's compassion "to take pity on him, and quit him of such a burden." But by this time they too were wrought up and full of emotion. "To his infinite dismay, they all did as he had done—fell prostrate as one man from their benches round about the chapter-house, and so, in that posture of utter abasement, pleaded that it was the abbey that needed pity, they that needed pity; that surely the common good was not nothing to their prior; and that since they were many and he was one, it were ill to sacrifice the many to the one, and save self at the expense of others."

Throughout the conflict there most have echoed in the ears of Anselm the words of the Archbishop of Rouen years ago, bidding him not to refuse to bear the load of higher responsibility should it ever be offered him. He used to say in later days that had it not been for that injunction he would never have given way. One can but wonder whether he had any premonition of the fact that nine years later he would be faced with a decision far more important, involving, curiously enough, a similar difficulty, a difficulty upon which was to turn the great struggle between Church and King.

So Anselm was elected abbot, and news thereof being sent to the great Duke William, forthwith were dispatched three barons from the royal court to hear whether the election had been unanimous. We can imagine the tale these men heard as they paced the cloister; the affectionate outpouring of hearts and lips which told how Anselm had won his way from the position of a foreigner, jealously regarded by the older monks, through the difficulties created by the pranks and rebellions of the lad Osbern, and how for the five years he had held office as prior, he had ruled them with a gentle discipline that yet lacked no hint of firmness, leading rather than driving as a shepherd leads his flock.

So William at once summoned the abbot-elect to Brionne, where he was staying at the time, and there, according to the custom, the Duke handed him a crosier, or pastoral staff, to touch, in token that therewith he was put in possession of all 'temporalities,' that is, the lands and buildings of the abbey over which William held jurisdiction as liege lord.

Some think that this touching of the staff did not involve the 'lay investiture' to which Anselm had resolved not to submit; and that the latter could only have been conferred by handing to him the crosier of Abbot Herlwin, which stood for full jurisdiction, 'temporal' and spiritual. However that may have been, we hear that the new abbot upon his return steadfastly refused to accept the staff of his predecessor; and thus for a time the difficulty was solved, and Anselm was consecrated finally in the spring of the year 1079.

The work of an abbot in those days was by no means confined to his own monastery. He filled the position of judge or chief magistrate over the tenants of the abbey lands, and had to take his place as representative of his religious house in some of the lay courts of justice. Many a weary hour was there wasted in wrangling over trifles and details of procedure, all of which must have been as intensely distasteful to such a man as Anselm as it interested and delighted the crowd of by standers. Even when he sat there as magistrate his biographer tells us: "He, not troubling about that sort of thing, would discourse, to anyone who chose to lend him a hearing, out of the Gospel or some other part of Holy Scripture, or set forth something for the forming of good manners; or, if he had no one to listen to him, sweetly reposing in heart's purity would drop asleep." Then, awaking at the close of the wordy contest, the abbot would astound all present by the clear and pithy way in which he summed up the matter and finally delivered judgment.

The happiest hours passed by Anselm as abbot must have been those spent over the theological treatises written during these years. These cannot here be dwelt upon, but it is interesting to notice how in a time when books of any kind were rare, and those that existed were often copied most inaccurately from the originals, Anselm, dependent upon the loan of such for his references and verifications, writes: "Send me a copy of the Aphorisms. If you are unable to copy it all, copy a part. But above all send it me without errors. I would rather have a part correctly copied than the whole crammed with mistakes."

His own books are philosophical treatises dealing with the great questions of the relation between God and man, which were stirring the minds of intellectual Europe in those days. But no merely intellectual solution would satisfy the writer of those two great works, the Monologium, or Faith Seeking Understanding, and the Proslogium, or sequel to the same. His great aim was to stir the souls of men to realize the existence of God in every part of His creation, and there to worship Him 'in being and in truth.' Probably to most of us, however, unlearned as we are in theological treatises, the letters written during these years are more interesting, as showing the tender, human side of the writer.

Here is an extract from a real 'love-letter,' written to one William, a young knight whose brother had gone out with the First Crusade, and who longed to follow him. But Anselm has found in him the germ of a religious vocation, and would call him to a higher warfare.

So he writes: "To his loved, his loving, and his longed-for William—from brother Anselm, styled Abbot of Le Bec. May he love not the world, nor the things that are in the world, but enjoy the love of God, and give God his love.

"I begin by calling him my loved and my loving one, in reply to the request he makes of my love." A soul dear to my soul has, through a letter fragrant with affection, asked use for a letter of consolation, in token of my love for him. What has greater consolation than affection? How then can I better console you in your love for me than by writing to tell you that my soul's love for you is such that my heart will know no consolation, and my longing for you be all unappeased, unless I have you for my own?

Then later on he writes more strongly. The youth is shilly-shallying; not content to fulfill his vocation and yet unwilling to turn his back upon it.

"Love not the false if you would have the true. Look not back. Leave alone the treasures of Constantinople and of Babylon—they are only meant for blood-stained hands—and set out on a pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem, the vision of peace.

May Almighty God guide all your wishes and all your actions with His counsel, and further them with His help, O friend of mine, dearest to my heart."

He did not write in vain, and William became one of the many sons of Le Bec who were drawn thither by the fatherly affection of Abbot Anselm.

In a stern age, when rough discipline and 'stark' manners were the custom and the rule, his character stands out pre-eminent for its gentleness, its calm disregard of conventional dignity, its understanding sympathy with the faults and follies of the young. Yet as we have seen in the case of his beloved pupil Osbern, Anselm was no weak disciplinarian, no easy slurrer of wrong-doing, though he could, on occasion, plead for a penitent runaway in words of humorous tenderness. He writes to the monks of Canterbury anent one Moses, who has run away from the monastery of Christ Church, taking a servant with him, and a sum of borrowed money, and who, after spending all, has repented and sought refuge at the knees of Abbot Anselm at Le Bec. He has been told that he must return to Canterbury and face the penalty—a severe flogging and no less severe abstinence for many days, and "knowing his fault, he fears for himself the rigour of justice, for, as the apostle says: 'No man ever hated his own flesh.'"

So, after explaining that the penitent youth perceives that for so many and such grave short-comings no prayers of his own either may or ought to suffice, and therefore begs me to intercede for him," Anselm suggests the following plan:

"My beloved, let brother Moses be to you as if clothed from head to foot in the skin of brother Anselm, and let his mouth be mine. If there is any one among you whom I formerly wronged of my own will, let him be the first to punish my skin in him and condemn my mouth to abstinence. But after this fault I most earnestly commend my skin to brother Moses, to be kept as he loves his own: and to you—I do not say to be spared. For if through his fault my skin is hurt or severely punished, I will require it of him, being thankful, however, to whoever spares him.

"About all this he would wish to know your will by letter before he returns to you; not that he refuses to hasten even to torment if you command him, but he desires to return with good hope and joyfully to those for whom he longs. Farewell."