In Search of Saint Anselm of Canterbury

by Nick Dunne

In Search of Saint Anselm of Canterbury Our parish covers two neighbourhoods, Tooting Bec and Balham, in the London Borough of Wandsworth. In ancient days, the Romans built their stone road - "Stane Street" - to connect London with Chichester. If you follow the High Road from Balham station, pass Tooting Bec and continue along the A24 you'll be marching in their footsteps.

The names "Tooting" and "Balham" derive from Saxon times. "Tooting" probably means "the place where the sons of Totas live". Balham could mean the village (ham) by the hill (baelg). When the Normans invaded and defeated the Saxons in 1066, William the Conqueror seized ownership of these lands and allocated them to one of his biggest supporters, the great Abbey of Bec in Normandy. A small community of perhaps three or four monks were sent from Bec to over-see these new estates. There has been a lot of speculation about where they might have settled. For many years, it was believed that the site was where the Victorian mansion, the Priory, now stands on Bedford Hill, at the edge of Tooting Common. However, local historians now suggest a site off Stane Street, where Fishponds Road runs, as a more likely location. What is certain is that St Leonard's church in Streatham, which is on the site of an earlier, Saxon church, became part of the estate of Bec Abbey, and they maintain a relationship with them to this day.

Anselm became the prior of Bec Abbey in 1063 and was later elected abbot in 1078. Born in 1033 in the Alpine town of Aosta, now in northern Italy, he left his family home at the age of 23. Anselm had been close to his mother but when she died his relationship with his father deteriorated to the extent that he felt he had to leave and seek his future elsewhere. His travels lasted for three years before he arrived at Bec in 1059. The Abbey already had a formidable reputation for scholarship under its great abbot, Lanfranc, and Anselm decided to settle here and take Benedictine vows. Over the next 33 years, Anselm surpassed his mentor to become the most influential theologian of his age. His works, the Monologion and the Proslogion broke new ground in using logic to argue their case for God's existence and nature. Anselm's approach can be summed up in the phrase for which he is best known - "faith seeking understanding."

During this period, Anselm also developed a new approach to prayer and, specifically, private meditation. Until then, meditative prayer had been an almost exclusively monastic exercise. Anselm first sent his prayers to friends as gifts, but they soon became popular with a wider audience. These included monks from Bec who had travelled with Lanfranc to impose the Norman regime on the English, Saxon, church. Anselm succeeded Lanfranc as Bec's abbot in 1078. In this capacity he made four visits to England between 1079 and 1092, no doubt visiting the community in Tooting during this time. This connection influenced those founding our new parish in 1909. Standing at the cross-roads of two ancient roads, our church was standing on ground where Anselm himself had almost certainly walked. On his fourth visit to England, Anselm was summoned to attend King William Rufus who had fallen ill in Gloucester. After hearing Rufus' confession, Anselm was dismayed to be told by the king that he was to take over the vacant archbishopric of Canterbury. Anselm hated politics and administration, and he protested vehemently. Such a move would take him away from his studies, and from his beloved community at Bec. He would not do it! The king ignored his objections and ordered that Anselm's clenched fist should be forced open so that his fingers could be closed around the crozier. So it was that, amidst cries and tears, Anselm became Archbishop of Canterbury on March 6, 1093.

After Lanfranc, Anselm was only the second Norman Archbishop of Canterbury. He had a sensitive task ahead of him. It was less than 30 years since the Conquest, and many of the changes that Lanfranc had brought to the Saxon church were still deeply unpopular. However, Anselm had a gift for making relationships, and he soon impressed many of members of the community. This included a young Saxon monk named Eadmer whose Life of St Anselm is one of the main sources of our knowledge of the man.

During a turbulent 16 years in office, Anselm fought to establish and maintain those areas of jurisdiction he believed belonged to the Church. First William Rufus and then King Henry 1 made powerful claims upon them which led to dangerous conflicts. Anselm, accompanied by Eadmer, endured two periods of exile when they travelled to France and to Rome to seek help from the Pope. These disputes between Church and State continued for many years, most famously between King Henry II and another saint, Thomas Becket who, as a boy, had often travelled along Stane Street from his family home in London to his studies at Merton Priory. Unlike Becket's experience, Anselm's disputes with royalty were resolved peacefully and he was able to return from exile in 1106.

Three years later, on April 21, 1109, Anselm died peacefully in Canterbury. His tomb is remembered in a side chapel of the Cathedral where a small medieval wall painting of St Paul has survived the Reformation's destruction. Whilst scholars continue to study Anselm's work, his life is not as well- known as many more popular saints. When he died, Anselm was not only respected for his intellect, and his courage in standing up for what he believed to be right, but he was also loved by rich and poor, Norman and Saxon for his integrity and his genuineness. These are the qualities that can inspire us and make him a worthy model for our lives today.

Nick Dunne

Further reading:
The Lost Chapel of Tooting Bec by Graham Gower, Local History Publications 2001
Saint Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape by RW Southern, Cambridge University Press 1990
The Life of St Anselm by Eadmer edited by RW Southern, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1962