St. Anselm: Slave of Religious Liberty

It was too late.

They found him.

Urgent hands grasped the monk and dragged him through the cold castle halls to the bedside of the king. A flame flickered in the ailing monarch’s watery eye when the monk appeared before him—a gaze that would not be thwarted, strong and savage even in sickness. The king gave a sign. The captive’s fingers were pried apart. The episcopal crozier flashed and was thrust forcibly into his hand. Another sign from the sickbed, and the monk was hauled to the church as Te Deum was sung. Anselm was enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was over, and yet, only begun.

A strange road it was indeed that brought a meek monk to become the adversary of a hawkish king—and a strange grace that brought him the strength to conquer.

Miscreant to Monk

St. Anselm was born in 1033 near Aosta, now in Italy, a Burgundian town in the region of Lombardy. Though he was a pious boy with a love for learning, as a young man Anselm was drawn into the waves of the world. His behavior soon earned the displeasure of his father, and he fled from home. In 1059, he came to Normandy, intrigued by the reports of the Benedictine monastery of Bec whose prior was a fellow Italian by the name of Lanfranc, master of a widely celebrated center of study at Bec.

Anselm sought out the abbey, became a student of Lanfranc, and, after distinguishing himself as a brilliant disciple, he donned the monastic habit. The wondrous piety and wisdom of Brother Anselm caused his rapid rise in authority, succeeding Lanfranc as prior, only three years after taking his vows, upon his superior’s appointment as prior at a monastery in Caen.

Anselm held this post in peace for fifteen years, until the death of Abbot Herluin, the founder and first abbot of Bec. Anselm was unanimously elected to succeed him. Hearing this, Anselm fell on his face before his brethren and wept as he begged them not to lay the burden of abbacy on him.

His brethren, in turn, fell on their faces before Anselm and begged him to accept the office.

A new abbot rose from the floor.

Calm Before Storm

During his years as abbot, Anselm distinguished himself as one of the great scholastics and increased the fame of Bec as an intellectual stronghold. His writings and teachings reflected his motto, “I believe so that I may understand,” articulating brilliant theological and philosophical thought in clear, common language and in a manner of utmost gentility and charity.

But beneath his modest surface, Anselm possessed a flinty strength of will and even a pugnacious spirit—a will and a spirit that would be forced to the fore, to the abbot’s dismay. Anselm’s election engendered an association with England, which led to an antagonistic relation with the King of England. It was in this conflict that Anselm comported himself as a rare hero for the Faith, whose service went far beyond the pen and whose gumption far exceeded the typical temper of the bookish.

Abbot Anselm had cause to travel to England on occasion to manage property the abbey owned there; and, in his first year as abbot, he met with his old teacher, Lanfranc, who had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm’s fame as a wise and wonderful scholar preceded him in England, and he made such a favorable and widespread impression that many great men sought his friendship and counsel, including William the Conqueror, who sent for Anselm to hear his last confession when he lay dying in Rouen in 1087. Two years later, at the death of Lanfranc, Anselm was widely beheld as his obvious successor.

A Terrible Honor

The heir to the crown after William the Conqueror was William the Red—arguably the most unruly man to occupy the throne of England. At the death of Lanfranc, William II was eager to plunder the ecclesiastical revenues of Canterbury and, to this vicious end, kept the see vacant and the English Church in anarchy for four years. In 1093, however, the English bishops proposed the archbishopric to Abbot Anselm, who refused saying that he, as a monk and man of letters, was unfit to deal with kings. All England refused his refusal, hailing him as Archbishop of Canterbury upon his next reluctant arrival on business. Meeting King William, Anselm spoke plainly against the evils that plagued the country before seeing to affairs that occupied him for several months. When it came time for Anselm’s return to Bec, William forbade him.

The people’s universal desire for Anselm’s election filled his ears, and King William issued his permission that prayer might be said for his royal acceptance of Anselm’s appointment to Canterbury. As these prayers were offered in every church, William fell ill and repented his resistance. He summoned Anselm. The bishops forcibly ushered him to the king’s chamber, where the king enacted his decision despite Anselm’s protestations.

Prior to his compulsory enthronement, Anselm issued three conditions to the king: that he return the seized land of the Holy See, that he accept the spiritual authority of the archbishop, and that he acknowledge the papacy of Urban II. William reluctantly accepted; and thus began the violent and strenuous relationship between the monk and the king. Anselm was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury—a man of peace plunging into a storm.

Archbishop in Exile

The central ecclesiastical dispute with William II was his imposition of feudal fealty upon the ministers of the Church as subjects. Maintaining the traditions of William the Conqueror, William the Red demanded that no one in his dominions would acknowledge any pope or prelate unless at his command, or that any ruling from Rome should be enacted without his permission. William the Conqueror had wielded this power with discretion and deference for the Church. William the Red wielded it with cruelty and contempt for the Church.

Anselm staunchly resisted the assertion of earthly sway over the liberty of the Church. Hence, troubles brewed quickly between the two. Within a month of Anselm’s consecration, William’s rapacity returned with his health and he demanded that the lands he relinquished be returned together with funds to support a conflict against his brother, the Duke of Normandy. Anselm dutifully delivered five hundred marks to the king. Upon learning the amount was deemed insufficient and even insubordinate, the archbishop replied no more could be offered since he had already given the rest of his wealth to the poor. King William was enraged. Through these initial frictions, Anselm maintained the integrity and internal authority of the Church in the face of the king’s commands that sought control over both Church and state.

Anselm also rejected the feudal rights claimed by medieval rulers to invest bishops with their insignias. When he asked the king’s permission to travel to Rome to receive the pallium of his office, the symbol of papal ratification, William refused saying that the dispute over the papacy between Pope Urban II and the Antipope Clement III was a matter for him to decide upon first. Anselm boldly insisted upon the legitimacy of Urban and called upon the king to honor the conditions of his acceptance of the archbishopric. William then sent secret envoys to Rome to obtain the pallium and bear it to England. Upon accomplishment of this mission, Anselm refused to accept the vestment from the king’s hand and—spurning the king’s bribes—took it up himself from the altar where it had been laid during a solemn ceremony in Canterbury.

Finally, after an unsuccessful campaign in Wales, King William leveled a prejudiced indictment against Anselm for providing an insufficient company of knights. The archbishop refused to heed the king’s summons to answer the charge in court and asked leave to travel to Rome. The king denied his request, threatening to exile him should he disobey. Rather than submit to the hostile king, Anselm set sail, and was received in honor by Pope Urban II. A letter of remonstrance was sent to King William after Anselm’s case was examined, finding the archbishop guiltless of undue homage to the king due to his manifest devotion to God and His Church.

Libertas Ecclesiae Semper

In 1100, his third year of exile in Lyons, Anselm received word of King William’s suspicious death. He was found killed upon the hunt, an arrow lodged in his lung. His successor, Henry I, bade Anselm return to the See of Canterbury, where the selfsame struggles began again when Henry imposed feudal compliance from the archbishop. Again Anselm refused. Again he was exiled. Again he stood up for the truth that the Church is not subject to any king save the King of kings.

Anselm was a champion who fought and suffered to maintain the distinction between the sovereignty of worldly and otherworldly provinces. In fighting this good fight, Anselm proved a patriot of heaven, dedicated to the holy liberty of Holy Mother Church. Anselm’s were times when bravery was required to be Catholic, and no less can be said of present times. Profound courage is required today to face authentic persecution, especially from the powers of the state. The Catholic refuge is in the power that does not reside in earthly kings, but in the heavenly King and His ministers. Strength, security, and freedom spring from the liberty of the Church, and St. Anselm is the exemplar of such valor—a crusader for religious liberty.

image: Ealdgyth / Wikimedia Commons

Sean Fitzpatrick


Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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  • JMC

    St. Anselm is clearly the saint we Americans need to be invoking in this day of deliberate religious persecution by our government. St. Anselm, pray for us!

  • Brennan

    Why is the utterly uninspiring term “Religious Liberty” being retrojected into St. Anselm’s time? I think it safe to say that the Church in St. Anselm’s time recognized a right, not merely to function in England, but also to censure and even punish kings if they ruled contrary to the teaching of the Church.

    And if a heretical sect were to rise up in the country, the Church at that time certainly would not have recognized a “right” for this sect to operate publicly and spread error all over the nation. Rather the nation and kings were to recognize the Catholic Church as the one true Church and thus all other false religions and heresies would be dealt with as a danger to society. Hence the Catholic Church would enjoy a preeminent status in not only the spiritual realm, but also the political realm where the political and spiritual realms intersected.

  • STF


    You are right in questioning my use of the term “Religious Liberty.” The term obviously bears different connotations today than it did in the middle ages. “Religious Liberty” here refers to the freedom of the Church to operate under its own holy, God-given authority, as opposed to the freedom to practice any religion. However, the Church’s autonomy is essential to the religious freedom Catholics should have to practice and live the Faith. In this sense, “Religious Liberty” is an accurate term.

    The English monarchy of the middle ages was very eager to hedge the Church in and worked hard to strip it of its rights, hence the Gregorian movement of asserting and preserving the liberty of the Church over the power of the state. Anselm adhered to this movement of ecclesiastical reform, and hence is championed as a hero of the liberty of the Church, or as I put it (without meaning to mislead of retroject) as a hero of religious freedom. Though the Church did reserve the right to reprimand kings, this did not necessarily give the Church preeminent status in the political realm. William II was nearly excommunicated but for Anselm’s intercession, and Henry was excommunicated for his resistance to the Church’s rule. Despite such measures, troubles continued to brew and spread in England with regard to the authority of the Catholic Church.

    Thank you for your comment and a Blessed Easter to you.

  • Brennan

    STF, thanks for your reply.

    Of course I have no objection when we are talking about the liberty of the Catholic Church to operate freely in this and every age.

    My objection is merely that in the modern conception of Religious Liberty every sect, whether they be Mormon’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or even Scientology, no matter how false, has a complete and total “right” to spread their errors all throughout society. And naturally I don’t think this is a right St. Anselm, or most Catholic Saints throughout history, would recognize or fight for.

    And unfortunately (at least in my view) this is the concept of Religious Liberty most people recognize even when it is used in regards to past ages when it would not apply.

    God bless.

  • noelfitz

    This is a great article, thanks.

    Like all excellent articles it is challenging and encouraged me to learn
    more about Anselm. Prior to reading it all I knew of Anselm was his “fides quaerens intellectum” idea of faith seeking understanding.

    Perhaps his most important idea was the satisfaction idea of atonement, replacing the ransom theory. Some time ago in our parish we had reflections on atonement and it got very heated as the claim was made that Jesus was not our ‘redeemer’ but the term ‘saviour’ was acceptable. It was pointed out a new idea of atonement is needed.

    Also of interest is the interaction of Church and State, important at
    the present time, due to the scandals of the sexual abuse of children. Should the Church deal with the issue if clergy abuse or should the State?