Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Archbishop Who Defied Two Kings: Anselm of Canterbury

By Rosanne E. Lortz

We have all heard the story of Thomas Becket, the archbishop who refused to surrender to the will of King Henry II and ended up lying murdered on the floor of the church at Canterbury. What many people do not know, however, is that Thomas Becket was not the first Archbishop of Canterbury to defy a king in order to protect the power of the Church against the encroachments of the monarchy. He was simply following in the grand tradition of his illustrious predecessor, Anselm of Canterbury.

When William the Conqueror died in 1087, his son William Rufus inherited the throne of England. The office of Archbishop of Canterbury fell vacant. For four years, the king refused to allow the office to be filled, declaring that he would be his own archbishop. The flock of England was thus left with no shepherd to tend her while a wolf wore the crown.

Eventually, King William Rufus was prevailed upon to fill the office in Canterbury. He selected Anselm of Bec for this privilege, an aging abbot famous for his ontological proof of the existence of God. William knew that he had chosen one of the most scholarly men of the age, but he was perhaps unaware that he had also chosen one of the most tenacious.

Anselm was no sooner selected to fill the see of Canterbury than he denied the king’s right to make that selection. William Rufus, so Anselm said, had no right or power to appoint clergy. The dispute over lay investiture that was surfacing in courts and cathedrals all across Europe had come at last to England. This issue would dominate the struggle between Anselm and William Rufus and prove a proper prelude to the clash between Thomas Becket and Henry II.

William Rufus believed that it was his God-given prerogative to fill any vacant church office in his realm. In his mind, bishops, as well as barons, were his vassals. When an eleventh-century bishop received his see, he also received a large portion of English land and thus acquired feudal obligations to the English king. Like William Rufus’s more secular vassals, the bishops owed him fealty and knight service. Therefore, the king wanted to have a say on who his servants would be.

Anselm contended that a bishop, by the very nature of his office, could not be a vassal to the king without compromising his position as vassal to Christ. The material possessions that went along with the office changed nothing. Scripture prescribed that the Church should choose her ministers, and no prescription of William Rufus could annul this mandate from God.

In this stance Anselm was supported by the Church throughout Europe. Twenty-five years earlier, Gregory VII, the Bishop of Rome, had stated the Church’s official position on this issue: “We decree that no one of the clergy shall receive the investiture of a bishopric or abbey or church from the hand of an emperor or king or of any lay person, male or female.” Any clergyman or lay lord who presumed to violate this mandate was subject to excommunication for his presumption.

When soon-to-be-Emperor Henry IV ignored the Church’s decision and appointed a bishop for Milan, Gregory VII censured him for this action. The Emperor responded by declaring Gregory a false pope. With lighter measures having failed, Gregory threatened the German Emperor with excommunication. This was no idle threat. Excommunication could result in a de facto deposition since God-fearing subjects would be reticent to serve an apostate emperor. Henry IV would not be warned. Haughtily, he announced these words to the representative of the Church: “I am to be judged by God alone and am not to be deposed for any crime unless—may it never happen—I should deviate from the faith.” Gregory met scorn with scorn. He excommunicated the Emperor from the pale of the Church and absolved all of his subjects from their allegiance to him.

With his country in revolt, the Emperor was forced to back down and abase himself before the pope. In that famous scene outside the castle of Canossa in northern Italy, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV prostrated himself before Gregory and besought forgiveness for his rash actions. When forgiveness had been received and his country once again set in order, the Emperor showed his gratitude to Gregory by sending an army against Rome. He forcibly removed Gregory his seat in St. Peter’s and installed a new pope. Gregory died a few months later, weary in soul and sad in heart. Thus had the controversy over lay investiture begun in Germany and Italy.

In England, Anselm was more fortunate than Gregory had been. His resistance to William Rufus’s policies led to a voluntary exile, but through it all he managed to keep his position as archbishop and continue his theological writings. He developed a theory of Christ’s substitutionary atonement to be published in the book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man).

When Henry I (the grandfather of Thomas Becket’s Henry) succeeded his brother William Rufus to the throne, he invited Anselm back to England, needing the archbishop’s support against his older brother Robert Curthose. But if Henry I had known what was best for his interests, the invitation would never have been issued. Robert Bartlett writes:
During his exile Anselm absorbed the more radical demands of the reformers, including their objection to the practice of ecclesiastics doing homage to lay people, even kings. Hence it was that when Rufus’s successor, Henry I, invited the archbishop to return to England in 1100, there was, instead of the anticipated settlement and reconciliation, a dispute in which much deeper issues of principle were raised.
Anselm no longer simply objected to the king appointing bishops; he also objected to the king receiving homage from any member of the Church.

After several years of harsh conflict and a second exile for Anselm, a compromise was finally reached. The king was not allowed to choose ecclesiastics or invest them with their spiritual authority. He could, however, receive homage from them for the lands that were attached to their benefice. Neither archbishop nor king was entirely pleased with the arrangement. It was a makeshift settlement that would last only half a century.

Anselm had peace for two years after his settlement with Henry I, tending to his duties as archbishop and continuing the written outpourings of one of the best minds in Europe. He died in 1109, and interestingly enough, it was Archbishop Thomas Becket who, fifty-four years later, requested that Anselm be canonized as a saint. Perhaps he knew how much he owed to the man who had come before him.

Anselm, in many ways, showed just as much courage and stubbornness as Thomas Becket would, defying the sons of William the Conqueror and standing up for the rights of the Church against two kings of England. But because his last breath was not spilled out in blood on the flagstones of Canterbury, his stand is less memorable. History loves a martyr. A seventy-six year old bishop who died in his bed is a little more prosaic.

Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Bartlett, Robert. England under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.


  1. Really interesting post Rosanne- thanks!

  2. Lovely post. What an interesting time. I tweeted.

  3. That was an interesting post, Roseanne. Thank you.


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