Feast day: 21 April
Anselm was born in 1033 in Aosta, which is now north-western Italy. His parents were Gundulph and Ermenberga. His mother was the wealthier of the two and was a good manager. She was also very devout. When Anselm was fifteen he wanted to enter a monastery, but since his father refused his consent, the abbot would not admit him. He became ill, possibly as a result of his disappointment; but he recovered, abandoned his studies and for a time lived a fairly carefree life. His mother died and his father gave up his worldly life and became religious, with a severity that Anselm found unbearable. When he entered monastic life, Anselm - who was 23 - left home with a single companion, crossed the Alps and wandered through Burgundy and France for three years. Here he met his fellow countryman Lanfranc, of the abbey of Bec, and consulted with him as to whether he should return to his estates - which he had inherited on the death of his father - and use the income to benefit the poor or become a hermit or a monk. Lanfranc was unwilling to advise him, fearing his own bias, and sent him to the Archbishop of Rouen who convinced him to enter the abbey at the age of twenty seven. In his initial year he probably wrote his first work on philosophy, a treatment of Latin paradoxes, called the Grammarian. Over the next decade the Rule of St Benedict reshaped his thoughts. When Duke William II summoned Lanfranc to serve as abbot of his new abbey of St Stephen at Caen, Anselm was elected prior of Bec, though some demurred because of his youth. After fifteen years he was elected abbot on the death of its founder Herluin.
Anselm made the monastery of Bec a seat of learning, attracting students from France, Italy and elsewhere. During this time he wrote the Monologian and Proslogion. These works were arguments for the existence of God by reason alone, rather than the customary appeal to authorities favoured by earlier medieval thinkers. The Proslogion was originally entitled Fides quaerens intellectum (Faith seeking understanding), and it established the ontological argument for the existence of God. He also began his first draft of De Fide Trinitatis, a defence of Trinitarianism, in response to an appeal from someone on trial for the heresy of Tritheism, which is a belief that the three persons of the Trinity are three separate gods.
Anselm was renowned not only for his intellectual achievements but also for the good example he gave in the monastery and his loving, kindly method of discipline, particularly with the younger monks. He was also keen to protect the abbey against episcopal and lay interference and influence.
William II of Normandy became King William I of England in 1066. Extensive lands had been granted to the abbey in England and Anselm visited the property several times and paid his respects to the king and also to Lanfranc, who was now Archbishop of Canterbury. King William was favourably impressed by Anselm and he was seen as a future successor to Lanfranc. However when William died, the new king, William Rufus, appropriated the revenues and the lands for himself on the death of Lanfranc in 1089 and refused to appoint a successor. It was only when he became seriously ill that he called for Anselm to hear his confession and administer the last rites. In 1093 he nominated Anselm to fill the vacant see at Canterbury; William, however, was very reluctant to return the lands of the see and only agreed to restore them partially. Anselm did homage to William and was enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury on 25 September 1093. During the reign of William Rufus, Anselm struggled to free the church from royal control and to bring about reform, which the king opposed.
Anselm was prevented by William from going to Rome to collect the woollen palium, which it was customary for the archbishop to receive before being consecrated. William eventually had the palium brought to England but Anselm refused to receive it from him. Eventually, after many manoeuvres on William’s part, the palium was left on the altar of Canterbury cathedral where Anselm accepted it.
Anselm was probably a reluctant archbishop. He continued promoting his monastic ideals of good management, proper instruction, prayer and contemplation. He continued to have difficulties with the monarch over the latter’s demands for money; and in 1097 Anselm departed for Rome, in spite of William’s threat to exile him, as William was still impeding church reform. The king seized the revenues of the archbishopric and held them till his death. Anselm asked the Pope to relieve him of his office but the Pope refused and instead commissioned him to prepare a defence of the Western Church’s position on the procession of the Holy Spirit against that of the representatives from the Greek church. Anselm delivered his defence of the Filioque, the doctrine that Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father. He also upheld the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist. He was present in a seat of honour at the Easter Council at St Peter’s in Rome, where Pope Urban renewed the ban on lay investiture, which had been a source of conflict not only in England but in Europe and also forbade clerics doing homage. Anselm then completed his work Cur deus homo which discussed the incarnation and the theory of atonement.
William II was killed while hunting and was succeeded by his brother Henry I. Initially Henry behaved in a conciliatory way, inviting Anselm to return to England and asking for his counsel. However the archbishop refused to do homage to Henry for his estates, although he had done so to William Rufus. He did support the king against his brother Robert who claimed the throne and helped to establish that the king was free to marry Matilda of Scotland, since it was found she had never been a nun, though she had lived in a convent. Anselm also called a general church council in London, which established Gregorian reform within England. There were rulings on moral issues, including the prohibition of marriage and concubinage for those in Holy Orders, and Anselm also obtained a resolution against the British slave trade. The king approved Anselm’s reforms but still was determined to exert authority over him. Anselm again travelled to Rome and was forbidden to return. The Pope threatened to excommunicate any bishops who had accepted investment from Henry and threatened even to excommunicate Henry himself. At this point Henry gave in and agreed to abandon lay investiture if clerics did homage for their lands. It must be understood that at this time prelates were very much like feudal lords. However Anselm refused to return to England and so Henry travelled to Bec and made more concessions. These included returning all churches seized during William’s reign and Anselm’s exile. Eventually he came back to England in 1106 and the concordat of London formalised the agreements between the king and the archbishop. He also established Canterbury’s primacy over the other English sees including York.
Anselm died on the Wednesday of Holy Week, on 21 April 1109. He was buried in Canterbury cathedral near Lanfranc; his remains were removed after the fire of the 1170s and it is unknown to where they were relocated. An altar was built from Aosta marble in 2006 in the cathedral crypt and consecrated in a ceremony which included the Bishop of Aosta and the Abbot of Bec. The exact date of Anselm’s canonization seems to be unclear. St Thomas à Becket asked for his canonization in1163 but there is no record of this. In 1494 the canonization was formalised by Pope Alexander VI.
It would be impossible in a short article to do justice the Anselm’s writings. He has been described as “the most luminous and penetrating intellect between Augustine and Thomas Aquinas” (Vaughan). He is seen as the father of scholasticism, the system of logic, philosophy and theology of medieval schoolmen, based on Aristotelian logic, the writings of the church fathers and the authority of tradition and dogma. Anselm’s works endeavour to render the Christian tenets of faith as a rational system. Some of his writings have been mentioned above. He also wrote about 500 letters.
Two biographies were written by Anselm’s chaplain and secretary Eadmer, who also described the archbishop’s conflict with the English monarchs. John of Salisbury compiled another at the behest of Thomas à Becket and the historians William of Malmesbury, Oderic Vitalis and Matthew Paris all recounted his struggles with the Norman kings. Anselm spent much of his life in disputes between church and state and there would be different opinions on this. His battle with William Rufus was particularly bitter, the latter saying, “I hated him before, I hate him now and I shall hate him still more hereafter. ” However, Anselm does seem to have had a genuine desire for reform and the independence of the English church was important to him. His scholarship earned him the title “doctor of the church,” proclaimed by Pope Clement XI in 1720.
St Anselm of Canterbury, pray for us.