Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

Last Days of Anselm

The last days of Anselm were cheered by the knowledge that a real awakening to the need of reform in religion and moral was spreading throughout England. When once King and archbishop were able to act together 'with one mind,' much could be done; and the next two years were full of the fruits of their joint action. One of these reforms throws a lurid light on the miseries of a selfish age, when the strong, unrestrained by any idea of universal brotherhood existed only to plunder the weak.

It was the custom, as we have seen, for the King to move about from place to place, holding his court now at Windsor, now at Gloucester, now at Winchester or London. With him went a large number of courtiers, servants, ecclesiastics, and knights, and whatsoever tract of land they passed through "they spoiled, they wasted, they destroyed. What they found in the houses which they invaded and could not consume, they took to market to sell for themselves, or they burnt it; or if it was drink, after washing their horses' feet with it, they poured it abroad. Their cruelties to the fathers of families, their insults to their wives and daughters, it shames me to remember," says Eadmer, "and so, whenever the King's coming was known beforehand, they fled from their houses, and to save themselves and what was theirs, as far as they could, hid themselves in the woods, or wherever they thought they would be safest."

It was no easy matter to check this long-established state of things, but much was done to relieve the souls of Anselm's flock from so heavy a burden by imposing severe punishment on the offenders.

It was owing to his influence, also, that Henry exercised great care in appointing to vacant benefices men of high spiritual character; and thus, as also by his stern treatment of such clergy as lived only for their own pleasure and ease, the Church in England began to prepare herself for that great outburst of religious zeal that we find later on in the twelfth century.

These strenuous years, spent in reforms of this kind, and in frequent visitations throughout his diocese, told hardly upon the weak frame of the old archbishop. He could no longer ride on horseback, but had to be carried in a litter from place to place. And yet, in spite of frequent sharp attacks of sickness, "so that we scarcely dared promise him life," we find that he still continued to keep his strict rule of work and meditation, and even succeeded, though with obvious difficulty, in completing another learned treatise on theology.

His end may well be told in the words of his faithful friend and secretary, Eadmer:

"In the third year after King Henry had recalled him from his second banishment, every kind of food became loathsome to him. He used to eat, however, putting force on himself, knowing that he could not live without food; and in this way he somehow or another dragged on life through half a year, gradually failing day by day in body, though in vigor of mind he was still the same as he used to be.

"So, being strong in spirit, though very feeble in the flesh, he could not go to his oratory on foot; but from his strong desire to attend the consecration of the Lord's Body, which he venerated with a special feeling of devotion, he caused himself to be carried thither every day in a chair. We, who attended him, tried to prevail on him to desist because it wearied him so much, but we succeeded, and that with difficulty, only four days before he died.

"From that time he took to his bed, and with gasping breath continued to exhort all who had the privilege of drawing near him to live to God, each in his own order.

"Palm Sunday had dawned, and we as usual were sitting round him; one of us said to him:

"'Lord and father, we are given to understand that you are going to leave the world for your Lord's Easter court.'

"He answered: 'If His will be so, I shall gladly obey His will. But if He willed rather that I should yet remain amongst you at least till I have solved a question which I am turning in my mind, about the origin of the soul, I should receive it thankfully, for I know not whether any one will finish it after I am gone. Indeed I hope that if I could take food, I might yet get well. For I feel no pain anywhere; only, from weakness because I cannot take food, I am failing altogether.'

"On the following Tuesday, toward evening, he was no longer able to speak intelligibly. Ralph, Bishop of Rochester, asked him to bestow his absolution and blessing on us who were present and on his other children; and also on the King and Queen, with their children, and the people of the land who had kept themselves under God in his obedience.

"He raised his right hand as though he was suffering nothing and made the sign of the Holy Cross; and then dropped his head and sank down.

"The congregation of the brethren were already chanting Matins in the great church, when one of those who watched about our father took the Book of the Gospels, and read before him the story of the Passion, which was to be read that day in the Mass. But when he came to Our Lord's words, 'Ye are they which have continued with Me in My temptations, and I appoint unto you a kingdom, as By Father hath appointed unto Me, that ye may eat and drink at My table,' he began to draw his breath more slowly.

"We saw that he was just going, so he was removed from his bed and laid upon sackcloth and ashes. And then, the whole family of his spiritual children being collected round him, he gave up his last breath into the hands of his Creator and slept in peace.

"He passed away as morning was breaking, on the Wednesday before the day of Our Lord's Supper, the 21st of April, in the year 1109—the sixteenth of his pontificate and the seventy-sixth of his life."

And so there passed from England a beautiful soul which in its meekness, humility, and gentleness seemed ill-suited to that rough and stubborn age.

Yet in his case, as often before and since, a "weak vessel of this earth" had been used to "confound the strong," and to stand unshaken for a principle which did more than anything else to improve the state of morals, discipline, and civilization in the England of that day.

For let it not be forgotten that in that period, an England cut off from communication with the heart of Christendom through the denial of the papal authority would very shortly have been deprived of all Christian influence, of all literature, of all medical knowledge, of all general education and culture. Even apart from this, the political effects of making the Church in England entirely subservient to the King's will would have been serious enough. We have seen the state of things in the days when Rufus was defying God and man. We have but to glance on a little more than a hundred years later to the days of King John to realize the ruin that would have befallen the land had not the Church, in the person of another archbishop, Stephen Langton, been strong enough to withstand the King to the face and help to bring about the signing of the Englishman's great charter of freedom.

Becket, Langton, William of Wykeham are all of them the spiritual descendants of the saintly monk of Le Bec, and that they succeeded as they did in checking the royal power, when it threatened to become either too absolute or too unreasonable in its demands, is due to the long and wearisome contest fought out between Anselm and our two Norman kings in the last days of the eleventh century.