Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Henry II, Emperor

[Saint Henry II]Article

A.D. 1024.

Saint Henry, surnamed the Pious and the Lame, was son of Henry, duke of Bavaria, and of Gisella, daughter of Conrad, king of Burgundy, and was born in 972. He was descended from Henry, duke of Bavaria, son of the emperor Henry the Fowler, and brother of Otho the Great, consequently our saint was near akin to the three first emperors who bore the name of Otho. Saint Wolfgang, the bishop of Ratisbon, being a prelate the most eminent in all Germany for learning, piety, and zeal, our young prince was put under his tuition, and by his excellent instructions and example he made from his infancy wonderful progress in learning and in the most perfect practice of Christian virtue. The death of his dear master and spiritual guide, which happened in 994, was to him a most sensible affliction. In the following year he succeeded his father in the dutchy of Bavaria, and in 1002, upon the death of his cousin Otho III, he was chosen emperor. He was the same year crowned king of Germany at Mentz, by the archbishop of that city. He had always before his eyes the extreme dangers to which they are exposed who move on the precipice of power, and that all human things are like edifices of sand, which every breath of time threatens to overturn or deface; he studied the extent and importance of the obligations which attended his dignity; and by the assiduous practice of humiliations, prayer, and pious meditation, he maintained in his heart the necessary spirit of humility and holy fear, and was enabled to bear the tide of prosperity and honour with a constant evenness of temper. Sensible of the end for which alone he was exalted by God to the highest temporal dignity, he exerted his most strenuous endeavours to promote in all things the divine honour, the exaltation of the church, and the peace and happiness of his people.

Soon after his accession to the throne he resigned the dukedom of Bavaria, which he bestowed on his brother-in-law Henry, surnamed Senior. He procured a national council of the bishops of all his dominions, which was assembled at Dortmund, in Westphalia, in 1005, in order to regulate many points of discipline, and to enforce a strict observance of the holy canons. It was owing to his zeal that many provincial synods were also held for the same purpose in several parts of the empire. He was himself present at that of Frankfort in 1006, and at another of Bamberg in 1011. The protection he owed his subjects engaged him sometimes in wars, in all which he was successful. By his prudence, courage, and clemency he stifled a rebellion at home in the beginning of his reign, and without striking a stroke compelled the malecontents to lay down their arms at his feet, which when they had done he received them into favour. Two years after he quelled another rebellion in Italy, when Ardovinus or Hardwic, a Lombard lord, had caused himself to be crowned king at Milan. This nobleman, after his defeat, made his submission, and obtained his pardon. When he had afterwards revolted a second time, the emperor marched again into Italy, vanquished him in battle, and deprived him of his territories, but did not take away his life, and Ardovinus became a monk. After this second victory, Saint Henry went in triumph to Rome, where, in 1014, he was crowned emperor with great solemnity by Pope Benedict VIII. On that occasion, to give a proof of his devotion to the holy see, he confirmed to it, by an ample diploma, the donation made by several former emperors, of the sovereignty of Rome and the exarchate of Ravenna: and after a short stay at Rome, took leave of the pope, and in his return to Germany kept the Easter holydays at Pavia; then he visited the monastery of Cluni, on which he bestowed the imperial globe of gold which the pope had given him, and a gold crown enriched with precious stones. He paid his devotions in other monasteries on the road, leaving in every one of them some rich monument of his piety and liberality. But the most acceptable offering which he made to God was the fervour and purity of affection with which he renewed the consecration of his soul to God in all places where he came, especially at the foot of the altars. Travelling through Liege and Triers, he arrived at Bamberg, in which city he had lately founded a rich episcopal see, and had built a most stately cathedral in honour of Saint Peter, which Pope John XVIII. took a journey into Germany to consecrate in 1019. The emperor obtained of this pope, by an honourable embassy, the confirmation of this and all his other pious foundations; for he built and endowed other churches with the two monasteries at Bamberg, and made the like foundations in several other places; thus extending his zealous views to promote the divine honour and the relief of the poor to the end of time. Bruno, bishop of Ausburg, the emperor’s brother, Henry, duke of Bavaria, and other relations of the saint complained loudly that he employed his patrimony on such religious foundations, and the duke of Bavaria and some others took up arms against him in 1010; but he defeated them in the field; then pardoned the princes engaged in the revolt, and restored to them Bavaria and their other territories which he had seized.

The idolatrous inhabitants of Poland and Sclavonia had some time before laid waste the diocess of Meersburg, and destroyed that and several other churches. Saint Henry marched against those barbarous nations, and having put his army under the protection of the holy martyrs Saint Laurence, Saint George, and Saint Adrian, who are said to have been seen in the battle fighting before him, he defeated the infidels. He had made a vow to re-establish the see of Meersburg in case he obtained the victory, and he caused all his army to communicate the day before the battle, which was fought near that city. The barbarians were seized with a panic fear in the beginning of the action, and submitted at discretion. The princes of Bohemia rebelled, but were easily brought back to their duty. The victorious emperor munificently repaired and restored the episcopal sees of Hildesheim, Magdeburg, Strasburg, Misnia, and Meersburg, and made all Poland, Bohemia, and Moravia tributary to the empire. He procured holy preachers to be sent to instruct the Bohemians and Polanders in the faith. Those have been mistaken who pretend that Saint Henry converted Saint Stephen, king of Hungary, for that prince was born of Christian parents; but our saint promoted his zealous endeavours, and had a great share in his apostolic undertakings for the conversion of his people.

The protection of Christendom, and especially of the holy see, obliged Saint Henry to lead an army to the extremity of Italy, where he vanquished the conquering Saracens, with their allies the Greeks, and drove them out of Italy, left a governor in the provinces which he had recovered, and suffered the Normans to enjoy the territories which they had then wrested from the infidels, but restrained them from turning their arms towards Naples or Benevento. He came back by Mount Cassino, and was honourably received at Rome; but during his stay in that city, by a painful contraction of the sinews in his thigh, became lame and continued so till his death. He passed by Cluni, and in the duchy of Luxemburg had an interview with Robert, king of France, son and successor of Hugh Capet. It had been agreed that, to avoid all disputes of pre-eminence, the two princes should hold their conference in boats on the river Meuse, which, as Glaber writes, was at that time the boundary that parted their dominions; but Henry, impatient to embrace and cement a friendship with that great and virtuous king, paid the first visit to Robert in his tent, and afterwards received him in his own. A war had broke out between these two princes in 1006, and Henry gave the French a great overthrow; but being desirous only to govern his dominions in peace, he entered into negotiations which produced a lasting peace. In this interview, which was held in 1023, the conference of the two princes turned on the most important affairs of church and state, and on the best means of advancing piety, religion, and the welfare of their subjects. After the most cordial demonstrations of sincere friendship they took leave of each other, and Saint Henry proceeded to Verdun and Metz. He made frequent progresses through his dominions only to promote piety, enrich all the churches, relieve the poor, make a strict inquiry into all public disorders and abuses, and prevent unjust usurpations and oppressions. He desired to have no other heir on earth but Christ in his members, and wherever he went he spread the odour of his piety, and his liberalities on the poor.

It is incredible how attentive he was to the smallest affairs amidst the multiplicity of business which attends the government of the state; nothing seemed to escape him; and whilst he was most active and vigilant in every duty which he owed to the public, he did not forget that the care of his own soul and the regulation of his interior was his first and most essential obligation. He was sensible that pride and vain-glory are the most dangerous of all vices, and that they are the most difficult to be discovered, and the last that are vanquished in the spiritual warfare; that humility is the very foundation of all true virtue, and our progress in it the measure of our advancement in Christian perfection. Therefore, the higher he was exalted in worldly honours the more did he study to humble himself, and it is said of him, that never was greater humility seen under a diadem. He loved those persons best who most freely put him in mind of his mistakes, and these he was always most ready to confess, and to make for them the most ample reparation. Through misinformations, he for some time harboured coldness towards Saint Herebert, archbishop of Cologn; but discovering the innocence and sanctity of that prelate, he fell at his feet, and would not rise till he had received his absolution and pardon. He banished flatterers from his presence, calling them the greatest pests of courts; for none can put such an affront on a man’s judgment and modesty, as to praise him to his face, but the base and most wicked of interested and designing men, who make use of this artifice to insinuate themselves into the favour of a prince, to abuse his weakness and credulity, and to make him the dupe of their injustices. He who listens to them exposes himself to many misfortunes and crimes, to the danger of the most foolish pride and vain-glory, and to the ridicule and scorn of his flatterers themselves; for a vanity that can publicly hear its own praises, openly unmasks itself to its confusion. The Emperor Sigismund giving a flatterer a blow on the face, called his fulsome praise the greatest insult that had ever been offered him. Saint Henry was raised by religion and humility above this abjectness of soul which reason itself teaches us to abhor and despise. By the assiduous mortification of the senses he kept his passions in subjection; for pleasure, unless we are guarded against its assaults, steals upon us by insensible degrees, smooths its passage to the heart by a gentle and insinuating address, and softens and disarms the soul of all its strength. Nor is it possible for us to triumph over unlawful sensual delights, unless we moderate and practise frequent self-denials with regard to lawful gratifications. The love of the world is a no less dangerous enemy, especially amidst honours and affluence; and created objects have this quality that they first seduce the heart, and then blind the understanding. By conversing always in heaven, Saint Henry raised his affections so much above the earth as to escape this snare.

Prayer seemed the chief delight and support of his soul; especially the public office of the church. Assisting one day at this holy function at Strasburg, he so earnestly desired to remain always there to sing the divine praises among the devout canons of that church, that, finding this impossible, he founded there a new canonry for one who should always perform that sacred duty in his name. In this spirit of devotion it has been established that the kings of France are canons of Strasburg, Lyons, and some other places; as in the former place the emperors, in the latter the dukes of Burgundy, were before them. The holy sacrament of the altar and sacrifice of the mass were the object of Saint Henry’s most tender devotion. The blessed Mother of God he honoured as his chief patroness, and among other exercises by which he recommended himself to her intercession, it was his custom, upon coming to any town, to spend a great part of the first night in watching and prayer in some church dedicated to God under her name, as at Rome in Saint Mary Major. He had a singular devotion to the good angels and to all the saints. Though he lived in the world so as to be perfectly disengaged from it in heart and affection, it was his earnest desire entirely to renounce it long before his death, and he intended to pitch upon the abbey of Saint Vanne, at Verdun, for the place of his retirement; but he was diverted from carrying this project into execution, by the advice of Richard the holy abbot of that house. 5 He had married Saint Cunegonda, but lived with her in perpetual chastity, to which they had mutually bound themselves by vow. It happened that the empress was falsely accused of incontinency, and Saint Henry was somewhat moved by the slander; but she cleared herself by her oath, and by the ordeal trials, walking over twelve red hot plough-shares without hurt. Her husband severely condemned himself for his credulity, and made her the most ample satisfaction. In his last illness he recommended her to her relations and friends, declaring that he left her an untouched virgin. His health decayed some years before his death, which happened at the castle of Grone, near Halberstadt, in 1024, on the 14th of July, towards the end of the fifty-second year of his life; he having reigned twenty-two years from his election, and ten years and five months from his coronation at Rome. His body was interred in the cathedral at Bamberg, with the greatest pomp, and with the unfeigned tears of all his subjects. The great number of miracles by which God was pleased to declare his glory in heaven, procured his canonization, which was performed by Eugenius III in 1152. His festival is kept on the day following that of his death.

Those who by honours, dignities, riches, or talents are raised by God in the world above the level of their fellow-creatures, have a great stewardship, and a most rigorous account to give at the bar of divine justice, their very example having a most powerful influence over others. This Saint Fulgentius observed, writing to Theodorus, a pious Roman senator: “Though,” said he, “Christ died for all men, yet the perfect conversion of the great ones of the world brings great acquisitions to the kingdom of Christ. And they who are placed in high stations must necessarily be to very many an occasion of eternal perdition or of salvation. And as they cannot go alone, so either a high degree of glory or an extraordinary punishment will be their everlasting portion.”

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Henry II, Emperor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 25 September 2013. Web. 19 April 2014. <>