Anselm - E. M. Wilmot-Buxton

The Vacant See

For nearly four years after the death of Lanfranc, no archbishop filled the see of Canterbury. It was a strange time of terror and violence for England. The lay people had been crushed and cowed by the strong hand of an absolutely ruthless king; and when they looked to their natural protectors, the monks and clergy, for consolation and support, they found them in worse case than themselves.

It must be remembered that the monasteries of that time very largely took the place of the hospitals, workhouses, schools, and libraries of the present day; and that anything that interfered with their efficiency was bound to affect the people at large. The bishops and abbots were, moreover, responsible not only for the monks over whom they held direct rule, but also for the administration of justice to the tenants of the far-spread domain outside the abbey walls. Their loss was the people's loss, their degradation the people's shame.

Now after the death of Lanfranc there came into prominence at the court of the Red King, a certain low-born priest named Ranulf, to which title a scandalized age added that of 'Flambard' or the Firebrand. This man, clever, self-seeking, and utterly without a conscience, set himself to win the heart of William by playing upon the insatiable greed that was always demanding fresh supplies for his gross pleasures and ambitious ends. Placed in the position of Prime Minister, a post held almost invariably in those days by an ecclesiastic, Ranulf hesitated at nothing which should fill the coffers of the King. "With tributes and exactions," says the chronicler, "he not merely shaved, he flayed the English people."

But his hand fell heaviest on the Church to which he had once pledged his loyalty and love.

All that Lanfranc had done to raise the tone of the clergy by forbidding the buying and selling of benefices was destroyed, and no man was admitted to any office in the Church without paying for it. The tenants of Church lands were disgracefully oppressed. Scarcely was Archbishop Lanfranc in his grave before Ranulf was within the gates of Christ Church, demanding a full description of its sources of revenue. And even while the frightened monks were hastening to obey the behest of this king's messenger, he informed them that henceforth a tax must be paid on all food brought into the abbey precincts, as also upon all land belonging thereto; and that henceforth the whole property attached to the see of Canterbury was to form a portion of the royal 'demesne' or estate. The result was just what might have been expected.

When the cloister was invaded by the basest spirits of a licentious court, ordering and threatening the confused and dismayed monks, no rule could be kept. Discipline fled, and quarrelling and discontent took its place. Tithes and other dues belonging to the monks were unpaid, and famine threatened. Some of the monks departed, others lost heart at sight of the miseries which oppressed both themselves and their unhappy tenants, and fell into a state of apathy.

What had happened at Christ Church, Canterbury, happened again and again wherever a bishop's see or an abbot's chair fell vacant in England. Disorder and confusion reigned, and religious life came near to receiving its death-blow.

Where once had been set up the standard of a clear-sighted, scholarly ecclesiastic such as Lanfranc, or of a saintly monk such as Anselm, there now existed only the evil influence of the coarse-minded, cunning plunderer, Ranulf the Firebrand, whom William, more in mockery than in earnest, made Bishop of Durham in later days in reward for his good services.

It is no wonder that after three years of such a rule men began openly to complain, to recall the days of Archbishop Lanfranc, and to mutter darkly that never until the friend and pupil of Lanfranc sat in his seat would there again be hope for England.

If Anselm had any inkling of this, it account for the fact that at this time he steadfastly refused one or two pressing invitations to visit this country; but at length came a summons to which he had never turned a deaf ear.

A dying man who had been a great sinner besought that he would come over and help him to make his peace with God; and such a request would never be ultimately refused by such a one as Anselm, however much he might hesitate at first to venture into the jaws of danger.

It was in 1092, when for three years the archbishopric had lain vacant and at the mercy of Ranulf Flambard and his band of plunderers, that Hugh the Wolf, Earl of Chester, fell very dangerously ill. He had made the acquaintance of Anselm in Normandy before the days of the Conquest, and no doubt had seen him many times since, either in that country or in England. He had, moreover, fallen under the spell of the abbot's gentle humour and quiet strength, as many had done before him, and had made more than one attempt to get him to visit these shores as his guest.

The ostensible reason had been his intention of setting up a Benedictine order of monks at St Wetburgh's at Chester, in place of the house of secular canons that had formerly existed there. Such an intention is interesting as showing that even in the low moral and religious condition of the England of the days of Rufus, there still burned the divine spark, the desire for better things, in the breast of one who, like Hugh the Wolf, had shrunk from no act of cruelty, no deed of wanton wickedness, in his task of keeping in check the wild Welshmen of the borderland.

The picture of the Wolf baron has been painted for us by a writer of the time: "A violent, loose living but generous barbarian, honouring self-control and a religious life in others, though he had little of it himself; living for eating and drinking, for wild and wasteful hunting, by which he damaged his own and his neighbours' lands; for murderous war against the troublesome Welsh; for free indulgence without much reference to right or wrong; very open-handed; so fat that he could hardly stand; very fond of the noise and riotous company of a great following of retainers, old and young, yet keeping about him also a simple-minded religious chaplain, whom he had brought with him from Avranches, and who did his best, undiscouraged, though the odds were much against him, to awaken a sense of right in his wild flock."

Such was the man who besought Anselm to come over and help him found his new community. But the abbot would have none of him. He was now nearly sixty years of age, fragile of appearance, longing more than ever for the calm and quiet of the spiritual contemplation that was to him the highest state of bliss. More and more closely were his heartstrings entwined round the walls and cloisters of Le Bec, and though he still shrank from his duties outside the monastery, he shrank yet more from the very thought of the turmoil and wickedness with which the England of that day was seething.

Then came a different summons. Hugh the Wolf lay on what seemed likely to prove his deathbed, and in his extremity he, like the Conqueror before him, turned for courage and help to leave this world aright to the man who had given up all earthly ambitions in order to do the will of God. And when still Anselm hesitated, well aware as he must have been of the rumor that so persistently linked his name with the vacant archbishopric, Hugh sent a second summons, bidding him pay no heed to what was said, for that there was nothing in it. "Let the holy abbot know that it ill becomes him to be kept back by nothing, when that nothing prevents his helping me in my great and grievous need."

While Anselm, much perturbed, was considering what to do, there came another appeal, unanswerable to such a tender conscience.

"Tell him that, if he comes not now, all the rest of the life eternal shall be spoilt for him by an ever-lasting regret that he once refused to do his duty."

At once Anselm determined to set forth, unwilling, but no longer in doubt. "I will go out to my friend to help him in his need," he told his monks, "for the rest, God himself will arrange my affairs. And may He by His grace keep me free from all hindrance of secular business."

Apparently this was taken by the monks of Le Bec to mean that he intended merely to visit his penitent without attending to the interests of the monastery in England. This was to them a serious omission. The wholesale confiscation and taxation of property that had been granted to the Norman house in this country had resulted more than once in something very like a famine at Le Bec. Here surely was the opportunity of inspecting matters and putting them on a more satisfactory footing before his return.

So to Anselm, who had been delayed by bad weather at Boulogne and had only just landed at Dover, arrived an urgent message from his community, charging him, on his vow of obedience, not to return till he had visited Canterbury and put the affairs of Christ Church in order.

Straightway, but with heavy heart, the abbot took his way to Canterbury, where he hoped to keep an ensuing festival. A crowd of citizens congregated round the gates of Christ Church to witness his arrival; a group of monks awaited him in the gateway. Just as he alighted, a murmur rose and swelled from layman and cleric alike, and to his dismay, Anselm heard himself greeted as the future archbishop.

With eyes downcast and heavy heart he hastened past them into the dim cathedral, where he lay in prayers and tears for a long while upon the tomb of Lanfranc.

Next morning, when the preparation for the feast day was just beginning, Anselm fled from Canterbury, giving no reason to his perturbed hosts save that he must pursue his journey without more ado.

His first day's journey carried him as far as Westminster, where the King held his court; and there he perforce dismounted in order to pay his respects to his sovereign.

His reception was remarkable. From an open blasphemer of the Church such as was William the Red he might have looked for coldness if not for mockery and disdain. But it was quite otherwise. No doubt the viler spirits of the court kept in the background, but meantime the barons in close attendance on the King received the abbot with the utmost deference and respect, and led him at once to the royal hall. Scarcely had he entered when Rufus himself leapt down front the raised platform upon which he was sitting, took him by the hand and giving him a warm embrace led him to the couch from which he had just risen and entered into friendly conversation in the face of his surprised courtiers.

For a while Anselm sustained his part, as courtesy demanded; but he was far too clear-sighted, in spite of, or rather on account of, his simplicity of soul, to be hoodwinked by the King. Too well he knew the reputation of monarch and court; if William were inclined to treat him in friendly wise, here obviously was his opportunity to appeal to heart and conscience and possibly to effect a soul's conversion.

He asked for a private interview; and the onlookers at once withdrew, no doubt whispering with many a nod and wink that the illustrious visitor had taken care to lose no time in order to plead for the payment of his house's revenues in England and possibly for his own advancement to the honour of the archbishop's chair.

But if William also expected this from Anselm, he was much taken aback to be faced with a stern denunciation of his evil life, and a strong appeal to repent his ways while yet there was time.

There is no record of the way in which his rebuke was received by the Red King. Probably he laughed in his face; possibly he feigned a shame that in view of his subsequent actions could scarcely have been real. He certainly seems to have shown no outward anger, and Anselm was left to continue his journey in peace.

So far no mention whatever had been made of either the vacant see or the confiscated revenues so regretted by the monks of Le Bec.

The purpose of William's gracious reception of Abbot Anselm has in it many puzzling elements, but the most satisfactory explanation seems to be this. Oppressor of men and blasphemer of the Church as Rufus undoubtedly was, he was no fool. He knew that in those wild uncertain days, when the land was parceled out among a troop of powerful barons, he had but to go a step too far to find himself an exile from his own land, and his younger brother Henry on the throne. No pang of conscience, no consideration of the saintly character of his visitor, moved him, but only his own safe-guarding. For he was astute enough to know that many of his people were heartily tired of the misrule and license of the court; that the very men who had rejoiced in the blow to religion struck by his appropriation of the revenues of Church lands and by the loss of the just rule of abbots and bishops, were beginning to complain that a great influence for the well-being of the land had been thrown away. So his idea was to dangle the possibility of appointing Anselm as archbishop before their eyes. He would promise nothing, he need not even fulfill their hopes in the future; but there was the man ready to his hand. If they wanted him so much, they would perhaps be willing to pay for him and so compensate the King for those lost revenues. If not, the possibility of his appointment in a very dim future might keep them quiet for the present.

This seems best to account for the strange fact that when Anselm, finding that Hugh the Wolf was fast recovering of his sickness, and that his attempts to recover the lost revenues of Christ Church were proving hopeless, wished to return to Normandy, William refused his permission. Anselm must be detained in the kingdom in order that, if necessity arose, he might be made of use in dealing with a roused and angry people.

The extraordinary cynicism of the King's nature is seen perhaps most plainly in the immediate sequel.

Much against his will Anselm had consented to wait until Christmas; and the barons and clergy rejoiced, hoping to see the appointment made before that date.

Still, however, William showed no sign, though he invited Anselm to the Christmas Court held that year at Gloucester and treated him, as before, with outward respect and deference. Then the barons, bishops, and abbots joined hands in an act which in itself contains no small element of humor. The King was besought by them to allow prayers to be offered up in every church in England for his own conversion and for the appointment of an archbishop to the see of Canterbury.

At this William's face is said to have grown black with wrath, but presently he made answer with a scornful laugh that "The Church might pray as it pleased; he should go on acting as he pleased!"

The strangest feature of the matter is that the drawing up of the prayer was committed to Anselm, and quite probably it was listened to by the Red King during his perfunctory attendance at church during the Christmas festival.

No doubt the abbot himself was by this time somewhat reassured as to his own future position, feeling that he would scarcely have been asked to undertake this task had he been immediately concerned with the primacy. But though he hoped he had been overlooked by nobles and King, such was by no means the case. With the thought of him strongly in their minds the great men of the land persuaded a favourite courtier to press on the cause of Anselm with the King, and among his many merits urged his absolute indifference to all worldly honours. The Red King jeered.

"He cares nothing for the see of Canterbury, I suppose!"

"For that least of all, sire."

But William was incapable of realizing such a nature.

"I know well," he retorted, "that had Anselm the smallest idea that he might win Canterbury thereby, he would rush to my feet, clapping his hands for joy. But by the Holy Face of Lucca I swear that neither he nor anyone else except myself shall be archbishop."

This then was the state of affairs at the beginning of the year 1093.