St Anselm
1033 - 21 April 1109

He is most famous for his ontological argument for the existence of God, but was also an important figure in late 11th century politics and held the office of Archbishop of Canterbury for 15 years in the eventful time following the Norman conquest when the Normans were trying to keep hold of the land they had only recently won.

The beginning

He was born in the town of Aosta in the Piedmontese mountains in 1033, son of Gundulf and Ermenberga, a Lombard and a Burgundian. His mother was very religious and instilled the same feeling in Anselm who grew up with a strong sense of mysticism, influenced by the great mountains around his home. In his teens he wanted to become a monk but the Abbot refused as Anselm's father (said to have been a stern authoritarian) disapproved.

By the time he was 23, his mother had died and his relationship with his father had become unbearable so he left home for France, living in Burgundy and Avranches before moving on to the abbey of Bec. Lanfranc was the prior there at the time and they soon became lifelong friends, and he encouraged Anselm to enter the cloister there in 1060. According to contemporary accounts, Anselm was well-liked and respected by his fellow monks for his intelligence, integrity and good nature, making his rise through the ranks of the church close to inevitable.

When Lanfranc was made Abbot of Caen in 1063, Anselm was appointed over the heads of many more senior monks to the position of prior which he then held for 15 years, during which he wrote his most famous works, the Monologion and the Proslogion. He had always preferred a life of quiet contemplation and study, and when Herluin, Abbot of Bec, died in 1078, the monks of the abbey begged Anselm to take up the post while he pleaded with them not to press it upon him. Ultimately, however, he reluctantly agreed and went on to make the abbey an important centre of mediaeval scholarship. After that time his involvement in state affairs only grew: he visited England many times, often going to see the Archbishop of Canterbury (Lanfranc again, moving up in the world). On his first visit there he met a young monk, Eadmer, who would later become his biographer and an important church historian in his own right.

Worldly influence

On Lanfranc’s death in 1089, Anselm was overwhelmingly popular as the choice for Archbishop of Canterbury but the king, William Rufus, wanted the see’s revenues for himself and kept the post vacant until he became seriously ill in 1093. Anselm was deeply unwilling to step into Lanfranc’s shoes anyway, but ultimately the people’s will triumphed and when the sick king was finally persuaded that he had no choice other than to name Anselm Archbishop, Anselm was dragged before him and the staff of office was forced into his closed hand, then he was carried to mass to be consecrated. At this, he could only accept - although on his own terms. One of these was that he had to have the pallium (a mark of the pope's approval), and this caused the first of many clashes with the king, who soon recovered enough to regret giving way and appointing him.

At the time the Antipope Clement III and Pope Urban II were contesting the papacy and William was not ready to declare his support for either until it suited him, so no English embassy was permitted to go to either Pope. But Anselm refused to act as Archbishop without the pallium, so in the end several envoys went back and forth between England and the Vatican, constantly hindered by William Rufus’ uncooperativeness, until Anselm was forced to leave for Rome himself. He seized this chance for a return to the quiet life he preferred, travelling incognito as an ordinary monk with some friends. While in Italy he completed “Cur Deus Homo”, often considered his greatest work, and only just prevented William Rufus from being excommunicated by the religious council in Bari which debated his problems with Anselm. However, while he was still away in France the following spring, he heard that the king had finally died (in mysterious circumstances) and the new king, Henry I, summoned him back to England.

The relationship between church and state was no less turbulent with Henry on the throne, despite Anselm’s best efforts. Henry wanted to marry a saxon princess, Edith, to cement his hold on the country, but she had entered a convent and it was widely thought that this prevented the marriage. However, she had not actually taken vows to become a nun, and Anselm held a council which decreed that she was free to marry and blessed the union himself, allowing Henry to get his way. The relationship between Henry and Anselm seems to have been quite cordial, but personal feelings were of little importance in the constant competition for power between the institutions they represented, something that was particularly the case in one of the most contentious issues of the day – investitures.

The investiture controversy

Since the beginning of the 11th century it had widely been customary for European monarchs to appoint bishops and archbishops themselves, selecting or rejecting candidates at will and investing them with their office in a formal ceremony. This gave the monarch both symbolic and actual power over the church as it meant that the highest churchmen in the land were seen to hold their offices at the king’s pleasure, and at the same time this went some way towards legitimising the control the king often had over church lands and revenues. In a time of growing papal power at the expense of the monarchies, this could not be allowed to continue (quite apart from the theological problem of holy men being granted their authority by laymen and warriors), and both Pope Urban II and his successor, Paschal II, decreed against this practice. However, the kings of England and Germany in particular fiercely resisted giving up any measure of control, so it was inevitable that Henry and Anselm would clash. As soon as Anselm was back in England, Henry wanted him to receive a new investiture from him as the new king, but Anselm refused and would not reconsecrate the other bishops who had already been re-invested by the king. This rebellion quickly spread, with bishops handing back the staff and ring they had accepted from the king and refusing consecration from anyone other than Anselm.

The king held out as long as he could but soon had to ask Anselm to go to the pope, not to plead his case directly as Anselm would not do this, but simply to present the facts as Henry saw them. Needless to say, the pope was unmoved, and responded only by excommunicating Henry’s advisors (though he stopped short of excommunicating Henry himself). However, Anselm now demonstrated an unexpected talent for worldly guile, stopping to visit Henry’s sister, Adela of Blois, on his return from Rome and telling her that he was on his way back to England to excommunicate Henry. She immediately set to work to orchestrate a meeting between Henry and Anselm and a temporary peace was reached between them, though it was not until a council in London in 1107 (two years later) that a compromise was reached on investitures. Here Henry finally abandoned any claim to invest bishops and abbots, but the church allowed them to continue to answer to the king’s authority in temporal matters. Although the king kept much of the power he had had before for all practical purposes, the essential victory was Anselm’s and the church’s, as the church was freed from one of the few claims the monarchy still had on it.

With the worst of the church/state conflicts he would experience behind him, Anselm’s remaining years were comparatively peaceful until his death in 1109.


His ontological argument or proof for God's existence has caused a great deal of perplexed argument ever since he first developed it; one modern critic compared its effect on readers as similar to an audience watching a conjurer pull a rabbit out of a hat - "they cannot explain how the rabbit got there, but they are pretty certain that the conjurer introduced it somehow"*. To condense (and simplify) it greatly, Anselm started from a definition of God as the greatest being that could be imagined, perfect in every way. He went on to say that existence in reality must be greater than existence in the imagination alone, and therefore for God to be the greatest conceivable being he must also exist (see the ontological argument node for much more detail). Theologians and scholars from that day to this have been divided as to whether there is genuine and valid theological truth in it or whether it is simply linguistic trickery.

His work "Cur Deus Homo" was less a philosophical and more a purely theological work on the atonement, and he also wrote meditations on the holy spirit and precursors to much later debates on free will, ultimately being declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Clement XI in 1720.

He was never a political animal by inclination but the combination of his peers’ insistence and his own sense of responsibility ensured that he was at the centre of religious and secular affairs in England and beyond for much of his life, while his writings have remained relevant and much-debated in theological thought throughout the intervening centuries.

He was canonised in 1494.


Anselm’s life:
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia -
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy -

The pallium:
New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia -

The investiture controversy:
The Oxford History of Medieval Europe edited by George Holmes

* From "A Beginner's Guide to Ideas" - William Raeper and Linda Smith - p 33

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