Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm of Canterbury was Archbishop from 1093 to 1114. Like his predecessor, Lanfranc, he was an Italian who had travelled to the Abbey at Bec, Normandy. He was unanimously elected as Abbot of Bec and accepted this position reluctantly. He was also reluctant to take up the position of Archbishop of Canterbury when it was offered to him. Anselm had a turbulent relationship with William Rufus and King Henry I. He strove to ensure the independence of the church and clashed with both monarchs as a result.


Anselm’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was not straight forward. William II did not want Anselm as his Archbishop. Anselm did not want the position, preferring to concentrate his time on study. The appointment took four years and a serious illness on the part of William to be made. Even then, Anselm protested.

William’s reluctance to appoint was due to the wealth that he could acquire from church lands whilst the see was vacant. When Anselm was appointed, his position was that the state should not interfere with church matters. The taking of land by the state and the wealth derived from it was challenged.

Anselm refused to undertake any duties for William Rufus until the matter was resolved. William initially refused to compromise. Anselm was refused passage to Rome. Eventually, William’s illness was such that he promised Anselm that lands would be returned. Anselm was still barred from leaving for Rome, but travelled there anyway. This resulted in him being exiled for the remainder of Rufus’ reign.

In exile Anselm concentrated on theology. He wrote ‘Why Did God Become Man?’ which is regarded as one of the most important pieces of theological thought of the Middle Ages.

William Rufus was killed in an accident in 1100. The new King, Henry I, called for Anselm’s return. The King required bishops as well as barons to swear allegiance to him. Anselm refused. His allegiance was to the church. He also refused to consecrate any bishop who had sworn allegiance to Henry. Once more Anselm went to Rome. Again, he was unable to return to Canterbury. He again spent years in exile and was quite prolific in his theological writing.

The argument with King Henry I came to a conclusion in 1107. Anselm was the victor in the dispute. The Pope threatened to excommunicate the King. This would be politically very damaging for the monarch. The Synod of Westminster in 1107 agreed a compromise between the king and the church. It was much more favourable to Anselm than Henry.

Anselm died in 1109. He was canonised in 1494 and became a Doctor of the church in 1720. Saint Anselm’s feast day is celebrated on 21st April.

Key points:

Fought for the independence of the church

Maintained Lanfranc’s reforms

Wrote a number of significant theological books

Synod of Westminster set down the relationship between the King and the church: later challenged by Henry II when Thomas Becket was Archbishop

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