History

Anselm: a Political Manipulator or a Political Innocent?

Bryony ROSE (2013), Durham University, Bachelor’s Degree in History.

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As Archbishop, Anselm could not wholly separate ecclesiastical and secular affairs. Eadmer reports that ‘Secular business was something he could not patiently abide, and he used every pretext to withdraw himself from it as far as he could.’[1] Yet this acknowledgement does not mean that he did not engage with it and the king when necessary. Hollister goes too far in presenting him as an ecclesiastical statesman, prepared to engage in political compromise from the beginning. To make qualified judgements about Anselm’s behaviour, it is essential to be aware of his life prior to obtaining the archbishopric and his personal beliefs and values. With this knowledge his actions can be assessed and the notion of him as a political manipulator can too be ousted. This essay will separate key concerns Anselm faced and trace his responses throughout, in some cases he stood immovable, whereas, in others one can highlight transition and change in his thought, yet there is no doubt that the principles through which he lived by were ever compromised. On reflection Anselm was neither a true political innocent or political manipulator.

‘Integrated and consistent thought were the hallmarks of Anselm’s working habits’[2] and he had clear and distinct views on obedience, truth, justice and freedom. He had a platonic conception of one truth, God as the source of all truths.[3] He believed that authority rested with God alone and theologically he fully appreciated the distinction between creator and creation and the fundamental limitations of the human mind.[4] Furthermore his interpretations of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ were wholly entrenched in religious belief; ‘freedom of the will’ was the power of making only and always the right choice in accordance with the will of God.[5]

However, despite such clear personal beliefs, strong contradictions arise in interpretations of Anselm. Southern concludes that Anselm was essentially a monastic man with his eyes directed towards God and energies mainly concerned with attracting others to a similar monastic life. There is much truth to this and Eadmer records that Anselm expressed ‘let me…carry out my plan somewhere where I can display my knowledge and be of service to others’[6], articulated in reference to teaching. However, this explanation falls short of communicating his political understanding and will to co-operate with the king thus presenting him too starkly as a political innocent. Vaughn on the other hand, despite many strong similarities between her work and Southerns’, draws several differing conclusions from exactly the same sources. She emphasises his political awareness from the beginning and determines that ‘as Gods steward of the mother church of Britain, he must take effective action in the world of high politics to safeguard Canterbury’s lands, privileges and primatial rights.’[7] The effective political action she speaks of overplays his engagement in politics, thus presenting an unjust image of a political manipulator. Anselm often addressed himself in his letters as ‘despising the temporal for the eternal and striving the eternal in place of the temporal,’[8] and he repeatedly expressed he was ‘void of any ambition for worldly honour.’[9] Anselm never sought to gain a higher office and throughout his tenure as Archbishop he would have preferred to have been relieved of the burden of office than retain it.

Anselm speaks of his appointment in numerous letters ‘Never do I remember having such emotions drawn out of me by any grief before that day on which the heavy burden of the archbishopric of Canterbury was seen to fall upon me’[10] and ‘I protest, that were it not for the will of God, I should that day if offered the choice, have chosen to be thrown upon a blazing pyre and to be burned alive rather than to be raised to the dignity of the archbishopric.’[11] Vaughn argues his words were simply an adherence to the old medieval tradition of humility and reluctance, but this in an inadequate explanation. Anselm expressed a wish to be relieved of office at several points throughout his career. During the first quarrel with Rufus concerning his retention of lands owed to the church, ‘Anselm greatly rejoiced, hoping that by the grace of God this would afford him the opportunity of his being relieved of the burden of any preferment at all.’[12] During his first exile, he had a ‘strong desire to renounce the office of Primate of England.’[13] As late as January 1098 he wrote to Pope Urban and attempted to relieve the archbishopric into his hands; ‘absolve my soul from the chain of such slavery’[14] Therefore one can glean that he had no desire to fulfil a superior role, he only accepted the position because of his uncompromising obedience to God. Hollister proffers that any indication Anselm showed of wanting to leave the archbishopric had an ulterior political motive,[15] this is a misinterpretation of how he truly handled the issues concerning Canterbury’s land, privileges and primacy.

Anselm articulated that ‘I can on no account remain in England, for I neither ought to or can suffer the Primacy of our Church to be destroyed in my lifetime’[16] The ‘primacy of Canterbury was a gift from the past representing an eternal principle of order’[17] and Anselm was immovable on the importance of retaining it. Southern acknowledges that ‘Anselm belonged to the time where traditions of the local community took precedent and carried more weight than the reliance on legal and administrative procedures based on written records.’ Vaughn again presents Anselm as a political manipulator and believes ‘Anselm acted at the most opportune moment… to gain important concessions for Canterbury.’[18] Anselm would have viewed direct political manipulation of this kind as a ‘sin’. Anselm believed firmly that ‘If at my death the Archbishopric which I held is diminished the church will suffer loss through me,’[19] and this he could not allow. Anselm viewed the issue of papal legate as part of defending the rights of Canterbury. Anselm continued to the end to be immovable in his opposition to other papal legates in England, he believed the matter was not open to negotiation or alteration by any authority on earth.[20] In a letter to papal legate Cardinal Bishop Walter, Anselm expressed that ‘the two of us can achieve nothing unless what we decide be raised before the king.’[21] Anselm’s appreciation of the need to involve the king, disregards the notion of him as a political innocent. Anselm understood that he needed to secure the papal legate for future archbishops, ‘I am certain that the archbishopric will be given to no-one after me except in the way I hold it on the day of my death.’[22]

William Rufus presented Anselm with many opportunities to exercise political manipulation but Anselm did not waver. Throughout the controversies, Anselm appealed to the ‘Bishops to be on the side of God and not to defend the rights and usages of a mortal man lower than God.’[23] Considering Anselm’s view of truth this ought not to be interpreted as an act of political manipulation. Furthermore the constitutional law of ‘usus atque Leges’ which Rufus wished to reinforce from his father, Anselm viewed as the arbitrary law of a mortal man, and when confronted with the eternal law of God and his church, he felt himself bound to oppose them.[24] Anselm fully understood the importance of ecclesiastical councils with royal support, yet he was faced with Rufus’ adamant refusal to permit a general church council which was undeniably linked to his systematic policy of leasing and selling churches.[25] Anselm avoided manipulating secular business his way at the council of 1099. The ‘king of England came up for discussion and… a number of evil deeds were proclaimed for all to hear. Anselm meanwhile sitting with bowed head not giving the speaker any encouragement or any sign of approval’[26]

The ongoing investiture dispute in Henry’s reign presents a more complex picture of Anselm because he changed view in the course of the dispute. Anselm was himself technically a product of lay investiture. Southern’s answer suggests that, Anselm had avoided investiture because in his attempts to escape election, he kept his hands clenched so bishops had been obliged to press the Archbishops staff against his half closed hand. Nevertheless Anselm believed that it was the will of God for him to accept the position, as such concerns surrounding lay investiture were irrelevant to him. However, on his return from exile Anselm returned with the voice of the pope speaking against it. Yet Anselm didn’t force Henry despite his weak position to accept the papal decrees of investiture and homage. Southern’s argument is very convincing here, ‘Anselm returned to England not as the advocate of a new political ideal but as a man who was himself under a new obligation of obedience’[27] During his second exile, Hollister argues that Anselm needed lay investiture sorted between pope and king, ‘whether by Paschal exempting Henry from the ban or Henry relinquishing the custom Anselm didn’t care in the least’[28] To suggest Anselm ‘didn’t care’ does not afford him the credit he deserves. Anselm actively sought a peaceful and fruitful relationship with Henry, he wrote to Pope Paschal in 1106, ‘When choosing persons for preferment the king does not follow his own will at all but entrusts himself completely to the advice of religious men.’[29]

‘Anselm’s life and actions from 1093 to 1109 can only be understood as an extension of his life and experience as a monk and contemplative theologian during the previous thirty years.’[30] To label him a political innocent infers a level of ignorance unbefitting of his true appreciation for secular affairs. To label him a political manipulator insults the principles and beliefs which he stood for and can lead too easily to misinterpretations of evidence to support such claims. In short, he wasn’t a ‘political’ anything, ‘he took the cloister to the world, he did not admit the world into the cloister’[31] and he ought to be understood in light of this.

References

Barlow, F., The English Church, 1066-1154 (London, 1979)

Baumer, W., ‘Anselm, Truth and Necessary Being’, Philosophy 37 (1962)

Eadmer, The Life of St Anselm , Archbishop of Canterbury, trans by R.W. Southern (Oxford, 1962)

Eadmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans by G. Bosanquet (London, 1964)

Frohlich, W., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 1 (Kalamazoo, 1990)

Frohlich, W., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 2 (Kalamazoo, 1993)

Frohlich, W., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 3 (Kalamazoo, 1994)

Gasper, G., Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance (Hampshire, 2004)

Hollister, C., ‘St Anselm on Lay Investiture’, Anglo Norman Studies, 10 (1988)

Hollister, C., ‘William II, Henry I and the Anglo-Norman Church: difference in style or change of substance’, Peritia 6-7 (1987-88)

Robinson, I. S., Authority and Resistance in the Investiture Controversy (1978)

Southern, R. W., St Anselm and His Biographer (Cambridge, 1963)

Southern, R. W., ‘Sally Vaughn’s Anselm: an Examination of the Foundations’ Albion, 20 (1988)

Southern, R. W., St Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, 1990)

Vaughn, S. N., ‘Anselm: Saint and Statesman’, Albion, 20 (1985)

Vaughn, S. N., ‘St Anselm: Reluctant Archbishop’ Albion 6 (1974)

[1] Eadmer, The Life of St Anselm , Archbishop of Canterbury, trans by R.W. Southern (Oxford, 1962), p. 80

[2] G. Gasper., Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance (Hampshire, 2004), p.198

[3] W. Baumer., ‘Anselm, Truth and Necessary Being’, Philosophy 37 (1962), p.257

[4] G. Gasper., Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance (Hampshire, 2004), p.107

[5] R. W. Southern., St Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, 1990), p. 277

[6] Eadmer, The Life of St Anselm , Archbishop of Canterbury, trans by R.W. Southern (Oxford, 1962), p. 9

[7] S. N. Vaughn., ‘Anselm: Saint and Statesman’, Albion, 20 (1985), p. 205

[8] W. Frohlich., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 1 (Kalamazoo, 1990), p. 75

[9] Eadmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans by G. Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 29

[10] W. Frohlich., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 2 (Kalamazoo, 1993), p. 7

[11] Eadmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans by G. Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 56

[12] Eadmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans by G. Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 41

[13] Eadmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans by G. Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 106

[14] W. Frohlich., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 2 (Kalamazoo, 1993), p. 148

[15] C. Hollister., ‘St Anselm on Lay Investiture’, Anglo Norman Studies, 10 (1988), p. 147

[16] R. W. Southern., St Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, 1990), p. 343

[17] R. W. Southern., St Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, 1990), p. 331

[18] S. N. Vaughn., ‘St Anselm: Reluctant Archbishop’ Albion 6 (1974), p. 248

[19] I. S. Robinson., Authority and Resistance in the Investiture Controversy (1978), p. 152

[20] R. W. Southern., St Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, 1990), p. 336

[21] W. Frohlich., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 2 (Kalamazoo, 1993), p. 115

[22] W. Frohlich., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 2 (Kalamazoo, 1993), p. 88

[23] Eadmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans by G. Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 86

[24] W. Frohlich., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 1 (Kalamazoo, 1990), p. 11

[25] C. Hollister., ‘William II, Henry I and the Anglo-Norman Church: difference in style or change of substance’, Peritia 6-7 (1987-88), p. 131

[26] Eadmer, Historia Novorum in Anglia, trans by G. Bosanquet (London, 1964), p. 110

[27] R. W. Southern., St Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, 1990), p. 291

[28] C. Hollister., ‘St Anselm on Lay Investiture’, Anglo Norman Studies, 10 (1988), p. 158

[29] W. Frohlich., trans., The Letters of St Anselm of Canterbury, Vol 3 (Kalamazoo, 1994), p. 306

[30] R. W. Southern., ‘Sally Vaughn’s Anselm: an Examination of the Foundations’ Albion, 20 (1988), p. 203

[31] R. W. Southern., St Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape (Cambridge, 1990), p. 228

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