Aosta, the place of Anselm’s birth in 1033, was an ancient Roman city in Burgundy on the border of Lombardy. Anselm’s mother was called Ermenberga, and was in all the good traditions of sainthood a pious woman who left a spiritual mark on Anselm that was to last all of his life. In 1056, after a quarrel with his father, Anselm left home to begin the journey that was to take him to England and Sainthood.
In 1060 Anselm had arrived at Bec in Normandy and had decided to become a Benedictine novice at the most famous of the then-educational institutions of the time. He was never to leave the Rule of St. Benedict and the spirituality which that rule embodied.
By 1078 Anselm had written some of his most important writing, including a range of letters, prayers and meditations, many of them inspired by his teacher Lanfranc, whom he had met at Bec in 1060 when he first entered the Monastery.
All through his monastic life Anselm was at the forefront of change and innovation. In 1092 events were to change the circumstances of his life forever, when on one of his many trips to oversee the lands owned by the Monastery of Bec. Then, the dying King William 11 refused to allow Anselm to leave the country until he agreed to become Archbishop of Canterbury.
It was typical of Anselm that he had to be forced to accept the highest office in the land. His famous saying: “Do you realise what it is you are trying so hard to do? You are trying to harness together under one yoke an untamed bull (the young king) and a feeble old sheep” summed up the turbulent nature of their relationship. In his letters to Bec he writes to them and lets them know that he understands that they might be sad at his departures, as he says he would prefer to “serve and obey as a monk under a superior”. Yet he cannot deny the responsibilities that he had thrust upon him, for as he said: “When I professed myself a monk, I denied myself to myself, so that from then on I would not belong to myself.”
Anselm finally accepted the office of Archbishop and Primate of all Britain on 4 December 1093, an office he was to hold until his death on 21 April 1109. For Anselm, being in charge of his community at Canterbury was joyful, but what was harder was having to defend the rights and privileges that belonged to the Church.
He was to spend many years in exile working his way around friends’ monasteries in Europe until Pope Pascal in 1105 sought to subject King William to a threat of excommunication. This was to be the spark that suggested a turning to God and Anselm and the king made a reconciliation, enabling him to return to England in 1106. He was greeted at Dover with a royal welcome and much rejoicing at Canterbury. In the short time that remained of Anselm’s life he worked closely with the King and saw to it that when he died the Ecclesiastical privileges were restored to the Church in England.