Saint Henry was the son of Henry the Wrangler, so-called on account of his quarrelsome disposition. This headstrong noble had aspired to the throne of Germany, on the death of the emperor, Otto II, but being finally convinced of the futility of pressing his claim against the rightful heir, Otto III, abandoned his pretensions, and finally took the oath of allegiance.
Otto had but little desire to begin his reign with a civil war, and, was, in consequence, so grateful to the quarrelsome Henry, for yielding to him, that he rewarded him with the splendid dukedom of Bavaria. Thus Saint Henry became, on the death of his father, Duke of Bavaria.
Otto III died at the early age of twenty-nine. He was called the Wonder, on account of his great learning. Being part Italian, and having a strong predilection for everything pertaining to Italy, he was not very popular with his German subjects, who were really but slightly acquainted with him, as the greater part of his short life had been spent away from his dominions in Germany.
Otto died childless, and, as it had been the custom, since the fourth century, to elect an emperor, when there was no direct heir to the German throne, Henry was chosen to fill the exalted position, in spite of the fact that there were, besides himself, two aspirants to the throne. Hermann of Swabia and Eckhardt of Meissen were both older than the young Duke of Bavaria, and more nearly allied to the imperial house.
It was fortunate indeed for Germany that neither one of these turbulent nobles was elected. Eckhardt, in particular, was a very fiery-tempered and unreasonable man, a fact which he demonstrated clearly in his treatment of Sophia and Adelheid, sisters of Otto III. Upon the death of their brother, these princesses were very active in forwarding the interests of Henry, whom they wished to succeed Otto. This rendered Eckhardt so furious that he forced his way into their dining-apartment, one day, while they were at dinner, and destroyed their meal.
Henry was surnamed der Eromme, or the Pious, and was from his early childhood remarkable for the sanctity of his life. He was kneeling one day, absorbed in prayer, before the Blessed Sacrament, when he saw, in a vision, his patron, Saint Wolfgang, who pointed to the words – After Six. Henry supposed the meaning of this, to be, that after six years he would die, and accordingly began his preparation for death. At the end of the six years, he was elected Emperor of Germany, and assumed his new and unlooked-for dignity with the sole idea of reigning for the greater honor and glory of God, and for the good of his subjects. He was crowned in the year 1002, first at Mayence, and afterwards at Aix-la-Chapelle.
Henry came to the throne in troublous times. The pagan Slavs were despoiling northern Germany and striking terror into the hearts of the people. The newly-elected emperor marched against them with a force so inferior in numbers to the enemy, that it would have been impossible for him to gain the victory by natural means. Almighty God did not desert his faithful servant. Angels were seen guiding the German troops, who won an overwhelming victory over the Slavs. It was not only a temporal victory, but a spiritual one, also, for the Slav leader Mistevoi embraced Christianity and suffered banishment from his country rather than renounce the True Faith.
It was after this war, that Henry gave, as a token of gratitude to the Danes, who had assisted him, permission to found the first independent archbishopric in Denmark – that of Lunden. Up to this time the Catholic Danes had been under the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Hamburg.
After Henry had subdued the Slavs, he found himself forced to defend his kingdom from an invasion of the Poles and Bohemians, whose country adjoined his dominions on the East. During these wars, the castle of Meissen was set on fire. As all the men were fighting, the women bravely battled with the flames, which they finally extinguished by pouring mead upon the fire, after they had exhausted the supply of water. Peace was declared between Germany and Poland in the year 1018.
Since the time of Charlemagne, northern Italy had been under the dominion of the German emperors. The Italians did not take kindly to the idea of being ruled by a foreign emperor, and were constantly trying to achieve their independence. Henry had taken part in a war with the Italians, during the reign of his predecessor, Otto III, and shortly after his own accession to the throne another Italian revolt broke out. Henry marched into Italy, put down the rebellion, and was crowned king at Pavia. He had just arrived in Germany on his return from the Italian campaign, when news of a second revolution in Italy was brought to him.
He set out, at once, with his army for Italy, and again won a victory over the Italian rebels. Henry then proceeded to Home. It was the saint’s custom, whenever he reached a strange city, to spend the first night in prayer before the altar of a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The first night of his arrival in Rome, he was praying in the church of Saint Mary Major, when he saw in a vision Our Lord enter to say Mass. Saint Lawrence assisted as deacon, while numbers of saints filled the church, and angels sang in the choir.
The saintly emperor was received by the pope, with every mark of distinction. The Empress Cunigunda had accompanied her husband to Rome, and shared the honors conferred upon him. The royal couple were crowned by the pontiff, who bestowed upon Henry, the golden ball, as a symbol of the globe over which he was worthy to rule.
In 1021, the good emperor’s assistance was necessary, to subdue the Greeks in southern Italy, who had revolted, aided and abetted by the Italian Duke of Capua. It was observed how miraculously the mere presence of Henry brought victory to the side whose cause he espoused, and the Greeks, fearing to fight longer against an adversary whom God favored so signally, soon surrendered.
After Henry’s victory over the Greeks, and while the army was still in southern Italy, a fearful epidemic broke out, among the troops. Those hardy northern soldiers, unaccustomed to the enervating climate, and the fiery sun of that country of the South, could not resist the ravages of the disease, and numbers perished. Henry returned, with the remnant of the army, which had escaped the plague, to Germany, where fresh troubles awaited him.
Disturbances had arisen in the Netherlands, where a robbery committed upon some merchants by the Frisii, had occasioned a bitter quarrel between Dietrich, Graf of Holland, and Gottfried of Lothringia. The two enemies met, with their forces, at Merwe, where an engagement took place, resulting in the total defeat of Gottfried. By the exercise of tact and patience, Henry finally brought about peace between the belligerents.
Henry’s sister, Gisela, was the wife of the Hungarian king, Stephen, who is a canonized saint of the Church. Hungary owes her conversion to Christianity to the efforts of Stephen and Henry, who spared no pains nor labor to bring the pagan Hungarians to the knowledge of the True Faith.
The career of Henry had hitherto allowed him but little time or opportunity for the gratification of his fondest wish – the aggrandizement of the Church in Germany. After the conclusion of peace in Holland, he began to build churches and monasteries, and to endow bishoprics. He considered that his ancestors had obtained possession, unjustly, of the lands of Bamberg, and he, accordingly, endowed a bishopric, with this property, building upon it a splendid cathedral, where he and his wife, Saint Cunigunda, are interred. On account of his munificence to the Church, Saint Henry is generally represented holding in his hand, a miniature cathedral.
Visitors to the quaint old town of Bamberg may see, in the cathedral founded by Saint Henry, his tomb and that of Saint Cunigunda, with their effigies and scenes from their lives sculptured in limestone. There is a representation of Saint Henry cured by Saint Benedict of an illness, and another of Saint Cunigunda paying the workmen who built the cathedral.
Bamberg has always been a great Catholic city and contains, besides numerous churches, Catholic schools and libraries, a celebrated seminary for the education of young men for the priesthood. The visitor to this ancient city is everywhere reminded of the good saints who were called, so many centuries ago, to their heavenly reward, but whose influence for good still lives. In the center of the Maximilians-Platz, there is a fountain, above which are statues of Saint Henry and Saint Cunigunda. In the library are displayed the prayer-books used by the emperor and empress, and the finely illuminated parchments, donated by Henry to the diocese of Bamberg.
Saint Cunigunda is one of the most illustrious of the women saints of the Church, and led an extremely holy and mortified life. Being accused, unjustly, of a great sin, she boldly offered to prove her innocence by walking over red-hot plow-shares, in the presence of her husband and the court. Almighty God was pleased to testify to her innocence by a miracle, for she stepped bare-foot on to the seething iron as if it had been a velvet carpet, without the slightest hurt or inconvenience, and her calumniators never again dared call into question the sanctity of Cunigunda.
After her husband’s death, the holy empress renounced the world, and took the vows of a Benedictine nun, edifying all her sisters in religion by her humility and obedience to her superiors. She was most industrious, laboring constantly for the poor, or embroidering vestments for the service of the altar. Cunigunda was fond of quoting from the epistle of Saint Paul, “He who will not work, neither let him eat.”
Saint Henry was once seized with a great weariness and disgust for the pomps and vanities of the world. He went to the monastery of Verdun, intending to renounce the world and take the vows of a monk. The abbot pretended to accede to Henry’s request to be admitted to the monastery as a novice, and gave him a lecture on the importance and necessity of obedience in the religious life. Saint Plenry supposed that the abbot intended to try his vocation by giving him some repulsive or difficult task to perform, but imagine bis surprise, when the sermon was concluded in these words; “Now, my son, I command thee to return to thy people, and to fulfil perfectly all the duties of the exalted station in life to which God has called thee. The emperor comes to learn obedience, and he practices this lesson by ruling wisely.”
Henry obediently left the monastery, and taking up the burden of his duties, abandoned all idea of becoming a monk.
In the year 1024, Saint Henry went to pay a visit to his great friend, the pious King Robert of France, who received the distinguished guest with every demonstration of joy. This was the last meeting of the two friends, upon earth, for Henry was taken ill, shortly after his return to Germany, and died, in the twenty-second year of his reign.
Saint Henry was a beautiful example of detachment of heart amid the cares and distractions of the world. His motto was, “Never be overfond of anything, then wilt thou never grieve,” a counsel which he followed all his life. From his early youth, he dedicated himself to the service of God, and, although a monastic state would have been more to his liking than the mode of life he was obliged to follow at court, he readily abandoned his own will, to do the will of God.
His zeal for the spread of the True Faith is evidenced in the conversion of the countries bordering on his dominions. In his own kingdom, where the people were already Catholic, his benignant rule brought a universal increase of piety and fervor.
Saint Henry was canonized during the pontificate of Eugenius III, and his remains rest beside those of his wife in the cathedral of Bamberg, which the saintly pair erected and endowed.
After her husband’s death, Saint Cunigunda conferred upon Conrad, whom Henry had chosen for his successor, the royal insignia. Then repairing to the cathedral, she laid aside her crown and royal robes, to assume the coarse habit of a novice of the Benedictine order. She cast aside her crown and jewels with so much contempt, that the spectators were moved to tears. The pious empress entered the monastery which she had founded at Kaffungen, and edified all her sisters in religion by her strict observance of the rules of the order. Cunigunda passed fifteen years of her life, in the practice of all the virtues of the religious state.
When the saint lay upon her death-bed, her weeping companions began to prepare a rich cloth fringed with gold, with which they intended to cover her body after death. As soon as Cunigunda noticed these preparations, she showed signs of great distress and ordered the cloth removed. She could not rest until a promise had been made that she should be buried in the coarse habit of the Benedictine nun. She was interred beside Saint Henry, and was canonized by Pope Innocent III, in the year 1200.
In the holy lives of Saint Henry and Saint Cunigunda, we learn the effect of good example. Probably neither would have been so great a saint, without the encouragement and assistance of the other in the practice of virtue. In the midst of the pomps and vanities of a royal court, they led lives as mortified as any community of religious in a monastery, and their beautiful and pious characters are an honor to the great country whose history they adorn so well.