Weninger’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Engelbert, Archbishop of Cologne

detail of a reliquary bust of Saint Engelbert of Cologne, Essen Cathedral, date unkown, artist unknown; photographed on 19 October 2008 by Sir Gawain; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

The parents of Saint Engelbert were of high nobility; his father was Count of Bergen, his mother, Countess of Gelders. Both took the utmost care to have their son thoroughly instructed as well in virtue and piety, as in the liberal arts and sciences. Engelbert, however, manifested a great inclination to enjoy life, and a passionate desire for honors and riches. But God guarded him from falling into those vices which are so common to youth. Nature had endowed him with an unusual mind and great talents, which, combined with high rank, procured him, even in youth, several important positions, till, at last, in 1215, he was chosen Archbishop of Cologne. From that moment he became a different man, seeking nothing but to promote the honor of God and the welfare of those under his charge, and to ornament and richly endow churches and convents. The rights and liberties of his Archbishopric he defended most energetically, even against his own friends and relatives. Every one had free admission to him; he listened to all most patiently and endeavored to satisfy them, and furthered their good by all means in his power. No sooner was he aware that any one wished to present a petition, or to speak to him, than he was ready to listen and to grant whatever was not contrary to justice or duty.

One day, while he was sitting in judgment at his palace, a poor widow appeared, who desired a lawyer to represent her concerns. Engelbert said: “Good woman, you know your own wants best. Tell me yourself in what they consist.” Some of the gentlemen present disapproved of this, as it was against the prevailing custom, and wished to appoint a lawyer for her. “The woman,” they said, “will make her statement in too silly a manner.” The Archbishop replied: “We shall understand the plain words of this woman well enough. There is no need of digression or delay.” At another time, he was about to set out on a journey, when a poor man came to complain that a man of power had unjustly deprived him of his possessions. Engelbert listened to him patiently, and although his attendants reminded him that he had to travel a long way, and ought not to delay, as the man could return on another day, the just and conscientious bishop would not begin his journey until he had given the poor man a letter to the rich oppressor, ordering him to restore what he had taken. Of his officers and councillors he most earnestly required justice, and severely punished those who trespassed against the laws. Towards the poor he was extremely merciful and kind, giving them clothing, nourishment and dwellings. No one left him uncomforted. He took indigent priests to his table and gave them his own garments. To all religious he showed great respect, and allowed no wrong done to go unpunished. He fasted one day every week in honor of the Blessed Virgin, and daily prayed that he might live and die under her protection. For the renovation of Saint Peter’s Church, as the grandest and most venerable church on earth, he gave large sums of money, and had also a golden chalice made for it which was studded with precious jewels, that had been presented to him by several princes, and kings. On account of these and other great virtues, Engelbert stood in great esteem with every one. The Emperor Frederic respected him so highly that when he went to Italy, he left to him the administration of the Empire in Germany, and also the guardianship of his son Henry. Both offices were discharged to the great satisfaction of the Emperor and the entire land. It would have been very beneficial if Engelbert had been permitted to continue for many years so holy a career; but in the ninth, or as others say, in the tenth year of it, a violent death ended his life and labors.

Frederic, Count of Isenburg, a cousin of the holy bishop and protector of the famous princely abbey at Essen, had for a long time oppressed this religious house and deprived it of many revenues. Pope Honorius and the Emperor Frederic, to whom the religious of the above abbey had gone with their complaints, commanded Engelbert to assist the oppressed. Engelbert admonished the Count, in writing as well as by word to abstain from his wrongful dealings, and even promised him a considerable yearly pension, out of his own revenues, in order to induce him to return to the path of justice. But all was in vain, and when at last the Count feared that the bishop would use force, he made the resolution to kill him. The Saint had been invited to consecrate a church out of the city; the day of his departure was appointed; and no sooner had the wicked Count heard of it, than he determined to use that occasion to put his murderous designs into execution. On the eve of his departure, Saint Engelbert received an anonymous letter warning him of the snares laid for him by the Count of Isenburg. He read this letter in the presence of the bishop of Minden, and then cast it into the fire, saying that his cousin could not harbor such criminal thoughts. But not to neglect anything for the greater security of his soul, he made on the same day a general confession during which he shed many tears and prepared himself for death. After that he said, quite consoled and cheered: “The will of God may be done now.” His friends endeavoured to detain him at home; but he would not desist from his journey, saying: “I commend to Divine Providence my body and my soul.” Thus prepared, he set out, accompanied by several officers of his court. The men of Count Isenburg, who were to assassinate the bishop at a given signal, were placed in a wood through which he had to pass, and there waited for him. When he reached this wood and was at some distance in advance of his attendants, he was suddenly attacked by the assassins, headed by the Count in person, and was so furiously struck by them, that forty-seven mortal wounds were counted on his body. Saint Engelbert said nothing, during this martyrdom, but the words of his heavenly Master: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Thus did the holy Archbishop end his life, becoming a martyr to the cause of justice. His holy body was brought to Cologne. The many miracles, which, by the intercession of this Saint, were wrought upon the lame, the paralytic and other infirm, were evidence that God, who had crowned His faithful servant in heaven, wished to glorify him also on earth. One of the greatest miracles was the repentance of him who had plotted and committed this cruel murder. He was sentenced to a hard but well deserved punishment. His hands and feet were cut off, after which, he was broken on a wheel, and was thus left, for a whole night, in terrible suffering. But he bore his torment with resignation, confessing that he had deserved the punishment, and thus ended his life as a true penitent. All who witnessed his death ascribed his conversion to the intercession of Saint Engelbert.

Practical Considerations

• Saint Engelbert manifested a great willingness to listen to the complaints of his subjects, whenever they came to him. Severe will be the account which those shall render to the divine Judge, who, although bound by their station to give ear to the complaints, prayers and demands of those under them, refuse to attend to them, especially if they are of the poorer or lower classes, widows or orphans; who speak harshly to them, refer them from one time to another, and give them no assistance or redress. God has threatened such people with a terrible woe. This will be experienced, in due time, not only by all the mighty monarchs of this earth, but also by all judges, councillors and officers who have to administer justice; as also by others of less importance, who are hard and unrelenting towards their servants and those under them; who do not al- low them to justify themselves, but who, without listening to the defense, drive them out of the house, retain their wages, or punish them in other ways. Reason and conscience demand that we do not judge or punish the accused without having heard their defense. How many have been deceived, to the great damage of their neighbor, by false accusers! The pious and wise king David experienced this, when he believed an accusation brought against Mephiboseth, and deprived him of all his possessions, and yet afterwards found him innocent. (2nd Kings 14) Hence it has become a proverb, that we must hear both sides. God himself, though he knew the crime of our first parents and that of the unfortunate Cain, yet, before denouncing their punishment to them, called them to account, to give an example to all in power, not to judge or to punish without investigating the matter and hearing the accused. The crime being investigated, punishment or reproof in accordance with the wrong committed, must be meted out, but Christian mildness and mercy must not be forgotten. “Even in the exercise of justice,'” writes Saint Chrysostom, “mercy must have some place.” “When we reprove any one,” writes Saint Gregory, “always let mildness be united with severity.”

• Saint Engelbert prayed for his murderers, after the example of Christ on the cross, as a sign that he forgave them from the depth of his heart. How do you act towards those who have offended you far less? Have you ever prayed for them? You perhaps say that this is too hard. But Saint Augustine answers: “If this be a trial, so much greater will be the reward in the other world.” Your God, Lord, and Judge commands you to pardon your enemies, and to love them with all your heart. Will you obey Him or not? He menaces you with hell if you do not obey His words. Is it easier to be condemned than to forgive? He promises you pardon for your sins and eternal salvation, if you do as He bids you. Is not that reward enough? Besides this, Christ sets you the example. He prayed for His enemies from whom he suffered inexpressibly more than you suffer from yours. What kind of Christian can you be if you do not follow Christ’s example in this great virtue? “To take offense is human,” says Saint Jerome; “but it behooves a Christian to moderate his wrath, and forgive his enemies.” Today, prove yourself a Christian. Pray for all those by whom you have ever been offended. “Father! forgive them: for they know not what they do.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Francis Xavier Weninger, DD, SJ. “Saint Engelbert, Archbishop of Cologne”. Lives of the Saints, 1876. CatholicSaints.Info. 23 May 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. <>