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Anselm and the veiled woman


A few days ago, I wrote about Anselm’s almost forgotten contribution to the history of freedom. (His whole story can be found here.) I didn’t mention Anselm’s response to a young woman trapped into wearing a veil, but it may be of some interest today.

The story is told by John Richard Green, a 19th century British historian who served ten years as a parish priest in the most impoverished parishes in London. Exhausted and tubercular, Green was forced to retire, and knowing he was in a race against time, began writing his Short History of the English People. The result was “a radical departure from previous histories and an important milestone in the development of social and cultural history” (Oxford DNB).

It’s a fascinating read, and at four volumes, not as short as you might think. To the surprise of Green and his publisher it was a bestseller when it appeared in 1874.The story that Green tells about Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and an Anglo-Saxon princess who refuses to wear the veil is based on the report of Eadmer, a monk who worked for Anselm.

Sometime around 1100 Anselm was called to court to hear the plea of Edith, the daughter of King Malcom III of Scotland and his Anglo-Saxon Queen, Margaret. Edith had been brought up in the convent of Romsey by her aunt Christina who was a nun. She wished to leave the nunnery and marry Henry, but the Church refused to give her freedom, and the Norman barons were opposed to her marriage. They did not want to see the Norman Henry married to an Anglo-Saxon princess.

Anselm was expected to support the position of the Church. He could not be bullied by Henry. He was the only man William the Conqueror had respected. Anselm believed she had taken vows, and should return to the nunnery.

Edith, pale with passion, stood before him, and said she had been veiled since her childhood. Her aunt had forced her with blows to wear the veil. "I wore the veil, trembling as I wore it with indignation and grief. But as soon as I could get out of her sight I used to snatch it from my head, fling it on the ground, and trample it under foot. That was the way, and none other, in which I was veiled" (JR Green, A Short History of the English People, Volume One).

Anselm ordered that Edith be immediately freed of the veil and the convent's bonds. She married Henry, and became known as Good Queen Maud. As Queen she attended meetings of the king's council, often chairing the meetings in Henry's absence. She built bridges and priories and a leper's hospital, was a patron of poets, and in at least one case freed an innocent man who had been wrongly convicted.