Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The New Archbishop

The early months of 1093 were passing slowly enough for Anselm, longing to be back in his Norman cloister, when in the beginning of the Lent of that year, William Rufus fell dangerously ill within the walls of Gloucester Castle.

Immediately the news went forth and a crowd of bishops, abbots, and tenants-in-chief hastened to his court. In those rough days there was little thought of sparing the sufferer's body at the expense of his soul. The opportunity had come for him to make late reparation for his many acts of oppression, to set free his captives, to deliver his many and woeful debtors, and especially to "free the see of Canterbury from an oppression which had reduced the religion of Christ in England to the level of a deplorable degradation."

For a while the King held out, and Anselm, then staying at Arle, a manor in the parish of Cheltenham and not far from Gloucester, was consulted as to his case. "Let him begin to the Lord with confession," was the abbot's answer, "and when he hath confessed, let him give orders that what you have advised be immediately carried out."

Racked with mortal pains, the King allowed Anselm to be brought to his bedside and obeyed his mandate, promising to open his prison doors, to set his victims free, to give up all unlawful claims to revenue, to stay every summons against his subjects in the courts of law; and as a pledge of good faith he had a charter drawn up and sent his rod of office to be laid upon the altar of the castle chapel. So far, however, no mention had been made of the vacant see; and Anselm, thankful that his task had had such a favorable issue, was departing from the castle when he was suddenly recalled.

Amid the chorus of satisfaction that had risen from the crowd in the antechamber of the sick-room, where the charter had been read to them, had arisen not a few insistent voices.

"Made he no mention of the vacant see? What has been done concerning Canterbury?"

Boldly some of the questioners approached the bedside and began to address the sufferer. Was not this the time to right a great wrong? Would he not perfect his repentance by appointing an archbishop to the see so long empty? The King made a sign of acquiescence, upon which the matter was eagerly pursued. Whom then had he in mind? Pointing to the retreating figure of the abbot, William murmured, "The good man, Anselm; "and immediately the name echoed from mouth to mouth.

Hastily the abbot was recalled, and some at once attempted to conduct him to the bedside of the King. But Anselm, struck with dismay, recalled his scattered senses only to refuse most strenuously the honour thrust upon him.

Anselm and Rufus


Eagerly they urged the need of the country, and the good it would do to religion in England: to which he replied, "I know all that, but I am not the man for such work, being old and weak. I am a monk, moreover, and know naught of worldly business. Seek not to draw me into that which I have never loved and am now wholly unfit for."

A strange scene of violence cut short his entreaties as they laid hands upon him to bring him to the bedside of the King. "Whether they were madmen dragging a sane man, or sane men dragging a madman might well have been doubted," Anselm wrote later to his monks; and to his captors he said indignantly, in words often to be recalled in later days: "What seek ye? You are trying to yoke a young unbroken bull to a weak old sheep. The plough of the Church surely needs a pair better matched than that."

Then the King added his entreaties, begging him consider the state of his soul and do what he could to render his conversion complete. But Anselm still refused. When the bishops knelt to him, he fell on his face before them and entreated that he might be delivered from this position. Finally they lost all patience and determined to make him archbishop by force.

A pastoral staff was hastily brought, and an attempt was made to force it into his closed fist. In vain Anselm protested that this was nothing that they did. Still dragging the struggling priest along by force, they brought him into the neighbouring church (probably the chapel of Gloucester Castle), where they hastily sang a Te Deum over him and held a much abbreviated service of consecration amid the almost frantic appeal of Anselm, oft repeated in warning: "This is naught that ye do! This is naught that ye do!"

As a matter of fact, though he knew it not, the election of Anselm to the primacy seems to have been fully planned and arranged before he was even summoned from Arle to Gloucester Castle, and probably at the very outset of the King's sickness. Things had indeed gone too far, and the magnates of the kingdom were determined that some check should now be put upon William's illegal acts. The most curious part of the story is that they should have thought that a gentle, unassuming, humble old monk would act as an effective curb upon his actions; though in this they certainly showed an unexpected clarity of vision. The 'weak old sheep,' so far from being dragged 'through briars and across the wilderness' by the 'untamed indomitable steer,' as Anselm reiterated, was to withstand his fierce companion to the face and win his way throughout.

"You will gain no profit from this or from me," he had said threateningly to his tormentors as they forced him to the chapel. But if the baffling of a monarch's illegal aims, and the assertion of the freedom from unlawful exactions of an institution, which stood alone in those clays for the principle of religion and morality in this land, meant anything at all, his words were surely unfulfilled.

It was not without a further struggle that Anselm acquiesced in taking responsibility that he feared with all the dread of a naturally self-mistrustful character. Returning to the King's bedside he said plainly to him: "Be it known to you that you are not about to die of this illness, and that all you have done this day is naught and can at any hour be undone."

Yet, though to us in these days the election of Anselm seems oddly irregular, that was really not the point at issue. After all, though the court at Gloucester was hastily convened of bishops and barons, there was no other more legal assembly, or one that more completely represented the voice of the nation. Nor were these the obstacles that Anselm urged, but rather his own unfitness and the impossibility of working with such a king.

Meantime, while his actual consecration was delayed by the necessity of getting the consent of the Duke of Normandy, the Archbishop of Rouen, and the monks of Le Bec, the Red King had recovered from his sickness and was now heartily ashamed of his repentance.

If Anselm had had any doubt as to whether he had overestimated his difficulties, the behaviour of William at this crisis soon set them at rest. All his acts of mercy and pardon were rescinded, those victims already released were again imprisoned, money was ground out of his unhappy subjects in every unjust method that could be conceived. "Such misery arose in the kingdom that all men who remember it say that it was unique in this land."

As is often the case with really noble natures the unhappy turn of affairs appealed to the strongest side of Anselm's character. Once before he had been bidden not to shirk responsibility; and now what nature shrank from, his higher self determined to grasp and act upon to the utmost of his power.

When permission to take up the duties of his new office had been received from Normandy, Anselm sought the King in his castle at Rochester and informed him that he would act as archbishop only upon three conditions. The lands that had belonged to the see of Canterbury in the days of Lanfranc must be restored. The country must, with Anselm himself, acknowledge Urban II to be Pope in place of the Anti-Pope whom William had shown signs of supporting; and the King must respect the counsel of the archbishop.

These proposals Rufus laid gloomily before his own advisers. The last two conditions were lightly glossed over, for the King cared as little for any pope at all as for the counsel of any man. But with regard to Church lands he held a far more direct interest; and though he was obliged by popular opinion to return such as had been held in personal possession by Lanfranc, he held out long enough against the restitution of lands granted by the archbishop to sub-tenants to prove both his own obstinacy and that of Anselm, who steadfastly refused to be consecrated till he gave way.

But the pressure of the opinion of all England was too strong just then for William, who ungraciously enough gave his consent; and Anselm was solemnly enthroned in the September of that year. On that same occasion appeared the corpulent figure of Ranulf Flambard, like a bird of ill omen, in insolent wise demanding opportunity for bringing a suit in the King's name against one of the archbishop's tenants. The cheerful tone of the festivities changed to one of fear and wrath, and deep was the indignation that "a man such as Anselm should not be allowed to pass the first day of his dignity in peace."

Those were the days when men looked for omens and presages in every important undertaking; And on the consecration of the new archbishop, which took place at Canterbury near the end of a singularly wet summer and severely cold autumn, here was not lacking another strange presage of trouble to come.

For when, according to the usual custom, the Book of the Gospels, laid upon the shoulders of the archbishop, was opened at random, the passage that appeared there was as follows: "He bade many and sent his servant at supper-time to say to them that were bidden, 'Come, for all things are now ready.' And they all with one consent began to make excuse."

But if his monks shuddered at the warning, we may be sure that by this time the soul of Archbishop Anselm was as calm and serene as ever it was in the days when he dwelt as a humble monk of Le Bec. He might hate responsibility and the undertaking of new and unpleasant duties; but when once he saw that it was the will of God that he should take his office, he no longer wished to shirk it. Many men under such difficult circumstances would have compromised on practically every point, and thus secured some amount of private peace and public esteem.

But the very simplicity of Anselm's character forbade this. A thing must be either right or wrong; if the former, it must be upheld at any cost; and his clear-sighted vision saw that at this crisis the very existence of the English Church depended upon a vigorous resistance to the unlawful claims of a reckless and despotic king.