Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

A Visit to England

It was but a short time after the consecration of Anselm as abbot of Le Bec that he made his first acquaintance with the country that was to be the scene of his future life-work.

The connection between Le Bec and Canterbury has been already dwelt upon. Not only, however, was there a frequent interchange of monks between the two monasteries, but Le Bec had lately received a grant of English land for its maintenance, and this the new abbot must inspect and appraise. A return visit to Lanfranc was also within the scheme of affairs, and no doubt this would he the opportunity of arranging and settling many minor details in connection with the two monastic estates.

The progress of his journey thither is the more interesting when we remember the difficulties of transit in those days and the horrors with which it was fraught to one who as yet had never crossed the sea.

Guided by one Dom Girard, who seems to have been, for his time, a quite experienced traveler, Anselm passed through Flanders to what is now the inland village of Wissant, for the former harbour between Boulogne and Calais has been choked by sand and left high and dry, four miles from the sea.

The passenger boats of that age were the roughest of rough vessels, but the passage seems to have been a good and short one, though no doubt Anselm was thankful to land at Lympne, now also left stranded some distance from the coast. From there he travelled, probably on horseback, along the Roman road that runs from Lympne to Canterbury.

Just off this road stood the famous convent of Lyminge, founded by St Ethelburga, daughter of Ethelbert, the first Christian king of Kent; and thither had journeyed Archbishop Lanfranc to meet his illustrious visitor and former pupil, and to accompany him on his way to Canterbury.

From Lyminge is dated a letter of Anselm to his monks at Le Bec, almost modern in its tone of reassurance as to his safety.

"Brother Anselm to his dearest brothers in the community of Bec.

"Knowing how truly anxious you are in your love for me to have news of my safety and well-being, I dare not distress you with any delay. On the day that Dom Girard, soon after sunrise, took leave of me on board ship, the Divine protection answered your prayers by landing me in the middle of the afternoon on the shores of England, after a prosperous voyage, in which I suffered none of the inconveniences that affect so many when at sea; and by bringing me in the evening into the society of our lord and father Archbishop Lanfranc, who gave me a hearty welcome to his manor of Lyminge; on the morrow of which events I pen these lines, hoping thus to satisfy your desires."

Next day the two old friends rode together into Canterbury, where Anselm, so long accustomed to the simplicity of Le Bec, must have been astonished at the grandeur of the cathedral church, lately rebuilt by Lanfranc, and at the pomp and splendour of his reception.

Before the gate of the monastery of Christ Church stood its prior, Henry, once of Le Bec, holding a massive book of the Gospels and wearing a cope of rich embroidery. As Anselm stooped to kiss the book, two monks on either side came forward with censer and holy water, and disclosed two long lines formed by the whole community extending to the doors of the cathedral. Through these passed the abbot into the dim nave, where for some time he knelt in silent devotion; then passing through the cloister took his seat in the chapter-house adjoining and prepared to address the eager crowd of monks.

It seems to have been this first discourse, delivered in that beautiful voice and winning manner for which Anselm was now famous, that completely won the heart of a young English monk, Eadmer by name, who became his adoring friend and faithful biographer, and to whom we are indebted for nearly all the details of his life. Other hearts, too, were doubtless won when Anselm, at the conclusion of his sermon, begged from the archbishop the privilege of 'fraternity,' and was at once made a brother, a friend, "and a sharer in life and after death of the prayers and good works of the monks of Christ Church."

Many a consultation between the archbishop and the abbot must have been held during this visit, and many a difficulty discussed. Lanfranc would no doubt explain the methods of reform he had set on foot since his arrival in England, when he found the monks of Christ Church "amusing themselves with falconry and horse-racing; loving the rattle of dice; indulging in drink; wearing fine clothes, disdaining a frugal and quiet life, and having so many people to wait on them that they were more like fine gentlemen than monks." And Anselm's gentle heart would have well approved of the way in which he set about to improve them, for we are told by an early writer that Lanfranc, skilled in the art of arts, the government of souls, and knowing well that habit is second nature, though bent on reforming, did his work with prudence, and plucking up the weeds little by little, sowed good seed in their place."

Now, however, that high ideals had been set before them, and a lofty standard enforced, it became the tendency of Lanfranc's sterner nature to draw the cords too tight, and to lack something of that warm sympathy and breadth of view which was Anselm's great charm. And one opportunity at least was given the latter of tempering the harsh judgment of his friend with a larger spirit of generosity.

A discussion had arisen as to the admission of the name of Archbishop Alphege upon the Church's roll of honour as a canonized saint. Lanfranc had refused to grant it on the score that Alphege had met his end in the days of the Danish invasion, not because of his faith but because he refused to ransom his life with property belonging to the tenants of Church lands. But when the matter was laid before Anselm, he probably divined that some feeling of contempt for a 'barbarous Saxon bishop' lay unworthily beneath the archbishop's conclusion, and declared that one who had died rather than distress his people had done so for 'righteousness,' and that "he who dies for righteousness dies a martyr for Christ."

Such a decision would do much to endear him to the minds of Englishmen, still suffering beneath the contemptuous rule of their Norman conquerors, and Anselm soon became a great favourite wherever he went. In the words of Eadmer: "He showed himself pleasant and cheerful in his wonted manner to all; and the ways of each, as far as he could without sin, he took upon himself . . . So that hearts were in a wonderful manner turned to him and were filled with hungry eagerness to hear him. For he adapted his words to each order of men, so that his hearers declared that nothing could have been said to fall in better with their ways. To monks, to clerks, to laymen, according to each man's purpose, he dispensed his words."

Court as well as monastery was honoured by such a guest. "There was no count in England, or countess, or powerful person, who did not think they had lost merit in the sight of God, if it had not chanced to them at that time to have done some service to Anselm, the abbot of Bec."

As further grants were made of land in England to the abbey of Le Bec, Anselm's visits to this country grew fairly frequent. A daughter house had been established at St Neots in Huntingdonshire; estates were held at what is still known as Tooting Bec and Streatham; and the abbot's presence was frequently necessary, though his heart still lay in the quiet Norman cloister of Le Bec. No doubt this business brought him into occasional contact with the King, now in his latter days grown 'starker' and grimmer than ever. But the strain of real religious feeling that underlay William's harsh exterior responded at once to the spiritual beauty of Anselm's nature, and, as Eadmer tells us: "When he sometimes came to the court of the King about various items of business in connection with the Church or other matters, the King himself, laying aside the fierceness that made him seem cruel and terrible to many, became so kind and affable that in his presence he appeared, to the surprise of many, to become a different man."

No wonder, then, that when William's last hour drew near, it was to Anselm that he turned. Death had indeed been busy in those last decades of the eleventh century among the great ones of the land.

In 1085 Gregory VII, the great Hildebrand, who had roused all Europe by his determination to make the Church of Christendom not only an independent but also a spiritual kingdom on earth, had passed away as a fugitive at Salerno. "I have loved justice and hated iniquity and therefore I die in exile" were, as we saw, the memorable words in which he summed up his gallant failure to accomplish a high ideal; and he never knew that within a few years' time, the smouldering torch that he had tried to light throughout Europe would be once more held aloft by one who was then known only as abbot of Le Bec.

In 1087 William the Conqueror, bruised internally by the plunging of his horse, which had trodden on some hot ashes in the sacked town of Caen, was carried in mortal illness to Rouen; and from thence was brought to St Gervais, the priory that lay on the western outskirts of the city. In his extremity the one man he asked for was Abbot Anselm, who, hastily summoned from Le Bec, lost no time in making his way thither.

It seemed, however, as though the ruler who had lived his life in such stern loneliness, uncheered by child or friend, was to die in like manner as he had lived. His sons cared only to wait to know the distribution of his lands before they hastened off each to annex the portion that he desired; and when the dying King made wistful inquiry after the spiritual comforter he craved for, he was told that Anselm, at the moment he reached the monastery, had been taken very seriously ill and had been removed to a dependency of Le Bec across the river.

Other prelates took his place, but William was to go down to the grave without the consolation of the few he really loved. Lanfranc, his chosen counselor, the man after his own heart, was far away in England; Anselm, whose gentle soul had appealed so strongly to his own stark nature, was himself dangerously ill. As long as he retained consciousness the King insisted on sending half the portions prepared for him of food or wine to his fellow-sufferer, and prepared to face the last night of his life alone. The bishop and abbot who were with him never seem to have realized how near was the end; possibly they slept until roused by the chimes from the cathedral and the faint voice of the dying King.

"What is that sound?" asked William.

"'Tis the bell for Prime at St Mary's, sire," they answered.

"To God's Holy Mother, St Mary, I commend my soul, and may she bring me to the presence of her dear Son Christ," murmured the King; and so, without benefit of sacrament, died.

Then panic seized his companions. It seemed that if they had feared William in his life, they feared him still more in death; and whether in dismay at their own remissness or in superstitious terror of an unhallowed corpse, they fled from the monastery, leaving him half-naked on the floor.

The man who had held evenly the balance of justice was dead, and the hosts of misrule were already knocking at the gates of Normandy. The barons had risen as by a preconcerted signal, and all the land was in uproar.

The hopeless task of ruling Normandy had been bequeathed by William to Robert, the most fantastic and unstable of the Conqueror's sons. To William the Red, his second son, had fallen England, and thither had already hastened that astute person, without waiting to bury his dead father. Wisely enough he made his way direct to Lanfranc, whose support was worth having in the face of a horde of turbulent barons, who had only waited for the Conqueror's death to assert their independence of his iron rule.

But Lanfranc had known Red William too long and too well not to hesitate over his consecration as king. There had been no formal bequest of the kingdom by his father; only the expression of a wish; and Eadmer declares that without the consent of Lanfranc he could never have been crowned.

For nineteen days after William's death the matter hung in the balance; and we may perhaps find in this enforced suspense the germ of the Red King's future hatred for priest and Church.

But Lanfranc had really no other choice. Robert was a capricious weakling who had already involved Normandy in a hopeless mesh of misrule; Henry, by far the ablest of the Conqueror's sons, was a stripling of nineteen, and almost entirely without support in England.

So, staying only to exact an oath that if he were made king, he would "in all things observe justice, equity, and mercy, defend the peace and liberty of the Church, and obey the counsels of the archbishop in all things," Lanfranc proceeded to consecrate William as King of England.

Within two years, the aged archbishop, horror-struck at the profligate wickedness and unscrupulous oppression of the King he had lately crowned, had gone to his well-earned rest. He had loyally supported William against the attempt at invasion by his ancient enemy Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, half-uncle to the King, as also against rebellions in the Welsh borderlands and in the north; but he had lived to realize the hopelessness of expecting just or even reasonable rule from the hands of a man who cared neither for God nor man, a blasphemer of the Church, a selfish sensualist at home, a ruthless tyrant abroad.