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The saints' guide to politics: you think today's politicians are less than perfect? Medieval politicians got away with murder and still became saints.

Election years sometimes make us wonder if we ever learn anything from past mistakes. The political figures from the Middle Ages who became saints offer some surprising sources of lessons and wisdom for the newly elected officials who will be taking office this month (although you may also wonder how some of these people ever became saints).

Surround yourself with good people.

Every politician needs a great team, but when it comes to the political saints, we mean people who are actually good. Several of these saints had saints as family members or advisors.

Perhaps the champion of this rule was the English king St. Edgar the Peaceable (d. 975). Edgar was counseled by St. Dunstan (d. 988), a monk who had advised previous kings and whom Edgar made archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan offered significant assistance (and perhaps cover) when rumor had it that St. Edgar raped a woman as a young man.

The thought of a saint committing rape is startling enough (as is a rapist being canonized), but the story gets even stranger. The victim, Wilfrida (d. 988), then cloistered in a convent, became a saint, and the union conceived yet another saint, Edith (d. 984). Makes one wonder if sainthood, perhaps, was currency in an early form of hush money. In punishment for Edgar's sin, some say, Dunstan withheld Edgar's formal coronation for years.

Keep your enemies close, and your family members closer.

Edgar was also the father and grandfather of the saint-kings of England Edward the Martyr (d. 979) and Edward the Confessor (d. 1066). Edgar was considered a successful king. Not so his saintly progeny, however, who (long before Freud or Alfred Hitchcock) had mother trouble.

After Edgar's death, his sons Edward (by his first, deceased wife) and Ethelred (by his second, still living wife) both wanted the crown. Edward won, but his stepmother preferred her own son and may have arranged Edward's untimely death (hence St. Edward the Martyr).

When Ethelred ascended, he married Emma of Normandy. During his turbulent reign Denmark conquered England and Ethelred died in exile. Emma then married the Danish king, Canute the Great, and proved she had some of Ethelred's mother's qualities.

When Canute died, Emma's sons by Ethelred had a claim on the crown, but Emma preferred Canute's son by a previous wife, then her son with Canute, then, oddly, the king of Norway. She may even have arranged the murder of one of her and Ethelred's sons. When the other son, St. Edward the Confessor, finally became king, he silenced his maternal nemesis.

But still keep it in the family.

A student of St. Cunibert (d. 663), the Frankish king St. Sigebert III (d. 656) had the renowned Blessed Pepin of Landen (d. 640) as one of his top advisors. Unfortunately, when Pepin died, his son Grimoald replaced him and ultimately overthrew Sigebert's son, St. Dagobert II (d. 679).

Grimoald was the black sheep of Pepin's family. All the other family members were venerated: Pepin's wife Blessed Ita (d. 652), his other son, Bavo (d. 654), and daughters St. Gertrude (d. 659) and St. Begga (d. 693). Perhaps this saintliness is why Pepin's line produced Charlemagne, whose own sainthood, declared by Antipope Pascal III, remained a bone of contention for centuries. When Grimoald was executed, Dagobert II eventually assumed his rightful throne but died suspiciously (a medieval motif) and became a saint.

Other political saints had saints in their families. St. Vladimir of Kiev (d. 1015), a founder of Russia, was the grandson of St. Olga (d. 969), and the father of Sts. Boris and Gleb (both d. 1015). The French king St. Louis IX (d. 1270) had a sister saint, Isabella (d. 1270), and a cousin, St. Ferdinand of Castile (d. 1252), who was a more successful warrior against the Muslims in Moorish Spain than Louis was in the Crusades.


Clean up your resume.

Or not. Several political saints overcame pretty checkered pasts to be canonized. At least three saint-kings killed to get to the top (a common medieval career move). St. Stephen of Hungary (d. 1058) killed his uncle. A successor, St. Ladislas (d. 1095), killed a rival. St. Vladimir of Kiev killed his brother. In a fit of anger (attributed by biographers to his pagan upbringing), St. Sigismund of Burgundy (d. 524) had his son killed. Early swift-boaters could have had a field day producing attack ads on these guys.

Marry wisely.

This, too, is a lesson that many politicians (or their spouses) have learned, sometimes the hard way. Arranged marriages were long a staple of medieval politics, some more productive than others. St. Clotilde (d. 545), a princess of Burgundy, married Clovis, a pagan Frankish king, probably to prevent him from invading Burgundy. That honor was left to their unsaintly sons (Clotilde frequently appealed to God to prevent them from killing each other in battle). While conquering Burgundy, the sons killed its king, their cousin, the aforementioned St. Sigismund.

More successfully, St. Stephen of Hungary's marriage to Gisela (d. 1095) was planned by their fathers to bring peace between Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire and to make Stephen the first Hungarian king. This arranged marriage was especially blessed: Husband and wife both became saints, as did their son Emeric (d. 1031). In addition, Gisela's brother was St. Henry II (d. 1024), the Holy Roman Emperor, whose wife was St. Cunegunda (d. 1040).

Perhaps the epitome of good marriages was that of Princess/Queen/Empress/St. Adelaide (d. 999). By the time of her death, she would be the daughter, sister, and aunt of three consecutive kings of Burgundy; sister-in-law, mother-in-law, and grandmother of three consecutive kings of France; and wife, mother, and grandmother of three consecutive Holy Roman Emperors.

Stand your ground.

While some political saints had saintly advisors, some advised unsaintly bosses. Nonetheless, they stayed true to their faith. Perhaps the most famous cases involved two English kings named Henry and two saints named Thomas.

Thomas Becket (d. 1170) was a brilliant advisor to King Henry II, but given their frolicsome carousing, he probably wasn't very saintly until Henry made him archbishop of Canterbury. The appointment was intended to give Henry more power over the church but instead the office seems to have made the saint. Becket's now more holy counsel obstructed the king's agenda and made them enemies. Henry's men eventually murdered Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

Like Becket, Thomas More (d. 1535) was chancellor of England, and the thoroughly devout Catholic was regarded an able advisor to King Henry VIII. He had risen through the ranks swiftly after election to Parliament (he may be the only saint--other than popes--to have been elected to office). More's betrayal, in the king's eyes, was to uphold church authority and autonomy against the crown and to criticize Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon in favor of Anne Boleyn. For this treason More was beheaded.

Help the powerless.

Like most saints, some of the political holy ones helped the suffering. The German Queen Mathilda (d. 968), mother of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, often tended to the poor, sometimes even bathing them personally. Mathilda's almsgiving was so extravagant that Otto dismissed her from his court, fearing she'd bankrupt him.

St. Bathild (d. 680), a Frankish queen, had been a slave, having been kidnapped from England and given to the king she later married. As queen, she freed slaves and suppressed the slave trade. St. Stephen of Hungary traveled his kingdom in disguise to distribute alms.

Be loved.

As unlikely as it may seem that politicians could be saints, it may seem even stranger for medieval politicians who so frequently practiced politics with a knife. Many of these saints seem to leave much to be desired, but it was their subjects' adulation that led the church to venerate them. It's hard to imagine today's politicians earning such affection, but it's certainly something to which to aspire.

On the other hand, for many of these folks, sainthood may have been the ultimate achievement of image management. Like all people, the political saints had both good and bad moments. Saints are human, too, and so are politicians. Maybe the political saints also have a lesson for those of us who expect blessed perfection from our public leaders.

By PATRICK GALLAGHER, who lives in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
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Title Annotation:WATCH YOUR BACK
Author:Gallagher, Patrick
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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