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Anselm and the Red King

The Red King, William Rufus, responded to a rebellion at Le Mans by flinging himself at the first boat he found and crossing the Channel in a storm. When his followers tried to remonstrate, he contemptuously replied, “Kings never drown". He proceeded to put down the revolt and pillaged Normandy.

This was the man that Anselm faced when, visiting English monasteries connected with the Abbey of Bec in 1093, he was dragged before the Red King. A cross was forced into his hands, and the King announced that Anselm was the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

For those who may wonder what they will achieve in their sixties, I offer Anselm, a Brit by force of circumstances. He had been born in Lombardy sometime around 1033, and as a child had an unforgettable vision “of heaven and the Lord”. When he was a teenager he crossed the Alps to escape his harsh father, and wound up at the Abbey of Bec in Normandy. There he became a philosopher and a contemplative. He studied and wrote. He believed that “after we have become steadfast in our faith we should strive to understand what we believe with our reason” and he created a rational proof of God. Anselm had no interest in holding any position of authority, but when he was forty the monks of Bec elected him Abbot. Quite simply they loved him.

William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, “a sea-wolf” with a gigantic body, a grim face, enormous strength, bravery, furious wrath, and a cool respect for order, strength and learning, had respected Anselm. His son the Red King quickly realized the mistake he had made when he appointed Anselm Archbishop. “He found himself face to face with an opponent whose meek and loving temper rose into firmness and grandeur when it fronted the tyranny of the King” (JR Green, History of the English People). Anselm defended the freedom of the church and resisted the King’s extortions. He was unafraid to die, matter-of-factly observing, "Christ is truth and justice and he who dies for truth and justice dies for Christ”.

Shot by an unknown archer in the New Forest, William Rufus met an unlamented end in 1100, and Anselm and his fellow bishops and the most powerful barons forced Henry I to agree to the Charter of Liberties in exchange for the throne. It was a remarkable agreement for that or any time since it compelled the King to acknowledge he was not above the law. (Think about how many leaders today operate unconstrained by any laws.)

But Anselm was not done. Above all things, he hated slavery, and in Britain men, women and children could still be sold as slaves – “young men and maidens whose beauty and youth might move the pity of the savage, bound together with cords, and brought to market to be sold" (William of Malmesbury).

In 1102 Anselm called a national church council. They met in London in Edward the Confessor’s abbey church. By then, they all understood this gentle, formidable man. They had become his friends. Anselm asked them to condemn slavery as contrary to Christ's teaching, which it was, and they did. They unequivocally ordered, "Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were. . . sold like brute animals."

Slavery in Britain ended that year. Anselm’s feast day is celebrated today.