Gateway to the Classics: Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages by George Hodges
Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages by  George Hodges



A great fire broke out in the town, as the funeral procession of William the Conqueror entered the gates. Everybody, except the attending clergy, ran to the fire.

When, at last, order was restored, and the service was begun, and the bishop who preached ended his sermon with a prayer for the soul of William, and a hope that if any present had been offended by him they would now forgive him, a man arose and forbade his burial. "The ground on which you stand," he said, "was the place of my father's house, which this man, for whom you make request, took away from my father by violence, and, utterly refusing justice, he, by his strong hand, founded this church. This land, therefore, I claim, and openly demand it back; and in the behalf of God I forbid the body of the spoiler to be covered with sod that is mine, and to be buried in my inheritance." So they stopped the service, examined the claim and found it just, and paid the main his due.

Even then, at the moment of entombment, the body was found to be too big for the coffin, and was burst asunder as they forced it in.

William the Norman, who avenged upon the English their conquest of the Britons, had ruled England as Charlemagne ruled Europe. He had been supreme. Of Church and State alike, he had been the head. At his will, he had made and unmade nobles; and at his will, he had appointed and dismissed bishops. The great pope Hildebrand, who humbled the emperor at Canossa, and who blessed the banner under which William went to the conquest of England, sent a messenger to the conqueror to receive his promise of obedience, and to collect money which was due to the Church in Rome. William confessed that the money had been carelessly collected, and said he would do better. But as to the obedience, he refused to give it. "Fealty," he said, meaning the service due to a superior, "fealty I neither have been willing to do, nor will I do it now, for I never promised it; and I find not that my predecessors did it to yours."

It was a clear statement of one side of that tremendous contention between the Church and the court in which Charlemagne and Hildebrand played their great parts. There was a man, however, at William's dreadful funeral who was to give an equally clear statement of the other side of the contention, asserting, like Hildebrand, the supremacy of the Church. This man was Anselm.

Anselm was a native of Italy. He had wandered up into the north of France, and in a day when most men of an earnest or adventurous spirit were either monks or soldiers, he had become a monk. The monastery of Bec had been to him a place, not only of religion, but of education. The prior, Lanfranc, was the greatest schoolmaster of his time. Anselm was his greatest pupil. In the wholesome quiet of the place, beside the stream which ran through the wild woods, Anselm began to think.

Thinking was at that time a disused art. Of course, there was a plenty of the kind of thought which goes along with the planning of campaigns and with the administration of affairs. No man can rule as Charlemagne and William did without being a master of the art of making decisions. But of the persistent study which pursues truth for the joy of pursuing it, and is intent on discovering the meaning of things, there had been little since Augustine. The main work of scholars, in that difficult time when the old empire was going to pieces and the new empire was being built upon its ruins, was to keep the ancient learning safe. Men were busy copying the classic and Christian books of the old time, and teaching them to a new generation. The new generation, in its turn, having been brought out of ignorance by wise men whose knowledge in those times seemed almost supernatural, had grown up in the habit of intellectual submission. The thing to do was to take what the ancients had said, and accept it respectfully. It was true because they said it.



Anselm was profoundly respectful to the ancients, but his mind was not satisfied. He was not content to believe in God because Augustine had believed, or even because St. Paul and St. John had believed. In the quiet of the peaceful abbey, he set himself to establish the truth of the existence of God on the basis of human reason. He took his arguments from the world outside, and from the world within. In the universal idea of God he found a reason for belief in God. The matter is of importance because it was the beginning of philosophy and science in the new era.

Then William took Lanfranc to be archbishop of Canterbury, and his counselor and right hand in his new domains. Anselm became at first prior, and then abbot of Bec. He was as original in the spirit of his discipline as in the manner of his thought. Almost all of the schools of the time were in the monasteries, and in almost every monastery the boys were taught with the book before them and the birch behind them. They were beaten, as a matter of course. At the universities, when young men came up for the degree of bachelor of arts, they were examined, not only as to the program of their studies, but as to their ability to ply the rod. Nobody was qualified to teach who did not know how to punish. But to an abbot who complained of the dullness of his pupils Anselm replied that they were made dull by the method of their education. "Day and night," said the discouraged abbot, "we do not cease beating them, and they only get worse." "It is a way to turn men into beasts," said Anselm. "It is like taking a tree and tying back all its branches, and then expecting fruit. Be patient, be kind, be sympathetic."

It was remembered how gentle Anselm was; how he ministered to the sick, to whom food from his hand had a better taste; and how once, in England, a hunted hare sought refuge under his house, and he had the hounds held from hurting it.

Suddenly, this gentle scholar was taken away from the quiet of his books into the midst of the fierce contentions of public life. He was made archbishop of Canterbury.

That great place had been vacant for four years. Lanfranc had died. William had died. William Rufus, his successor, had refused to make an appointment. William Rufus had discovered a new way to make money. The Church in England had grown rich. Sometimes out of gratitude for the blessings of God, sometimes out of interest in religion and desire to strengthen the hands of good men, sometimes in the belief that treasure given to the Church on earth would be credited as treasure in heaven, the great bishoprics and the great monasteries had been given splendid gifts of lands and buildings. But the conquests of Charlemagne in Europe and of William in England had established the theory that all the lands and buildings of the country belonged to the sovereign. He had acquired them by driving out their rightful owners, and had given them away as he pleased, and he claimed the right to take them back. When the new possessor misbehaved so that the king was angry, he was put out as suddenly as he had come in. This idea that the country belonged to the king was extended by William Rufus to include the property of the Church. And it occurred to him that when for the moment there was no bishop or no abbot to receive the rents, he was himself the proper person to receive them. This pleasant proposition he applied whenever a rich place fell vacant. For four years, accordingly, he had refused to appoint an archbishop of Canterbury, in order to take for his own uses the income of that see.

But William Rufus fell seriously ill. It looked as if he was at the point to die. And he began to think about his sins. They were many in number, for he had been a cruel king like his father, without his father's virtues. He had done all manner of injustice. His prisons were full of the victims of his personal displeasure. And the stolen archbishopric was still in his possession. Among other preparations for a penitent death, he agreed to give that up. He would appoint an archbishop.

The fame of Anselm was already in England, and he himself was at that moment in the country. It was plain to all good people, and to the king, that he was the man for the place. But Anselm was unwilling, partly from distrust of his own strength, partly from reluctance, to leave his quiet prayers and studies. They forced him to it. They brought him by main strength to the sick room of the king. They took the pastoral staff, the symbol of that investiture against which Hildebrand had contended, and tried to thrust it into his closed hand. There was no escape. Only by his acceptance could the long injustice and subjection of the Church be ended.

Thus he became archbishop. And then the king recovered!

Immediately there arose, between Rufus and Anselm, the inevitable debate of that age, the question of mastery. Shall the Church obey the king? or shall the king obey the Church? It turned upon a curious detail. It was the custom of an archbishop to add to his appointment by the king a confirmation by the Roman pope. For this purpose he must go to Rome and there receive a small stole of white wool, marked with four crosses, called a pallium. But when Anselm was appointed, there were two popes, each claiming to be the true one; and England had not yet officially decided between them. When, therefore, Anselm came to Rufus and asked permission to go to Rome to receive the pope's pallium, Rufus said, "To which pope will you go?" Anselm answered, "To pope Urban." "I have not acknowledged Urban," said the king. "That is my matter. By my customs, by the customs of my father, no man may acknowledge a pope in England without my leave. To challenge my power in this is as much as to deprive me of my crown."

Thus the fight began. It was a clear question of authority. Is the Church independent of the king, or not?

On the side of Anselm was the idea of the Church as the representative of righteousness and law. He felt that to surrender was to expose religion to all the disorder and violence of a rude age, and to invite again such robbery as had already been committed by the king. To his mind, the supremacy of the pope over the affairs of England was like what we mean by the supremacy of the Hague Tribunal. It was an exaltation of justice and security over brute strength.

On the side of Rufus was the idea of the independence of the State. Hard and rough as he was, it was plain to him that the land must have one sovereign. He could not share either his responsibility or his power with any man, however excellent, living in Rome. He could not submit his judgment to any foreign revision. He must be king in his own land.

Anselm was patient and gentle, but very determined. A council debated the matter, but during the excited debates he was often seen resting his head against a pillar placidly asleep, and when he waked he was still of the same mind. The king contrived to get the pallium sent from Rome by Urban, but Anselm would not take it from the king's hands. It was laid on the altar at Westminster, whence Anselm took it himself. But, after all, he insisted on going to Rome, and went. Rufus at once took possession again of the revenues of Canterbury, and the wise pope, while he received Anselm with great honor, declined to involve himself in the dispute. The archbishop retired to a little hill-town in Italy, and, with great joy, resumed the simple life of study and prayer which his great office had interrupted. He wrote a book in which he discussed the problems of theology with even greater boldness and originality than before.

Then the news came one day that William Rufus had been killed with an arrow in the New Forest, and Anselm returned to his duties. He returned to contend with Henry as he had contended with Rufus, to go again with his appeal to Rome and to be met, as before, with much respect and little aid, but eventually to conquer Henry. The archbishop threatened to excommunicate the king, as the pope in Hildebrand's time had excommunicated the emperor, and the king yielded. The times were difficult: Robert was making threats from Normandy; the allegiance of many great nobles was very doubtful; the king did not venture to continue the dispute. He yielded. He agreed to surrender the right of the royal investitures of bishops with the ring and staff. They were no longer "his men," as the phrase ran. They were responsible to their own master, the pope in Rome. The date of this victory of Anselm—1107—is worth remembering. It was the definite beginning of that papal supremacy in England which continued until it was as definitely abolished, in 1534, by Henry VIII.

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