When world leaders pray (part II): Charlemagne through Elizabeth I


To be clear, the events that triggered this pair of posted articles, and the articles themselves, emerged back in 2003. But the shelf-life of the historical material in these posts is, hopefully, still not exceeded:

When World Leaders Pray, Part II
Tony Blair’s spin-doctors worried when he recently “outed” himself as a Christian. But what impact has Christianity really had on our leaders?
Chris Armstrong

Several weeks ago, British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated he would be judged on the Iraq war by “my Maker.” This gave some of his closest advisors fits. But the record shows that some of the West’s greatest leaders have been praying people—and that this has not necessarily been a bad thing.

In the last post, we looked at the Roman emperors Constantine, Theodosius I, and Justinian I. This week, we jump forward in time to three pious European leaders: the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, the French King Louis IX, and England’s Elizabeth I.

Though none of these monarchs was a perfect Christian (there is, of course, no such thing!), nor a perfect ruler, the faith of each made a difference to the way they conducted their political business.

Charlemagne (742-814) was the grandson of Charles Martel (“Hammer”), defender of Anglo-Saxon missionaries and defeater of the Muslim Saracens. Educated by his mother, Bertrada, and the monks of Saint Denis, he became sole ruler of the Franks when his brother Carloman died in 771.

For the next decade and more, Charlemagne fought and won wars that expanded his control in all directions—most notably, among the Saxons just below modern Denmark. Everywhere he conquered, he converted his new subjects, in the day’s accepted manner: at the point of a sword. Pope Hadrian, who himself was rescued by Charles from Lombard aggressors, called Charlemagne “another Constantine, who has risen in our times.”

The greatest triumph of Charlemagne’s career came at Christmas in the year 800, when Pope Leo III crowned him “Emperor of the Romans.” The monarch treasured this title for reasons not merely political. Charles was a great student of Augustine’s City of God, and believed that church and state should join forces in the interests of social stability and reform. He described the goal of this union in a letter to Pope Leo: “that the … name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified throughout the world.”

In pursuit of that goal, Charles also directed a revision of the text of the Bible, made changes to the liturgy, created monastic rules, and dismissed priests deficient in learning or piety. He had his deacon, Paul, publish a collection of homilies for use throughout the kingdom, instructing him to “peruse the writings of the Catholic fathers and, as in a flowery meadow, pick the choicest blooms and weave a single garland of all that can be put to use.” For such religious reforms as much as for his military exploits, Charles gained his moniker “Charles the Great”—Charlemagne.

France’s Louis IX (1214-1270) was that rare thing—a king who truly acted like a saint. He wore hair shirts and visited hospitals, sometimes emptying the bedpans. He collected relics and built a chapel to house them. Raised by his devout mother, Queen Blanche, to be strictly religious, Louis found himself king at the age of 12. Eight years later, he married Margaret of Provence (“a girl of pretty face, but prettier faith”), to whom he quickly became devoted. She bore him 11 children, and Louis took them all along when he left on a crusade.

Throughout his reign, Louis lived his faith, and his reputation spread. In 1242 recovered from a serious illness, and as thanks to God, launched a crusade into Egypt. When this holy mission failed miserably, Louis blamed himself for the loss, believing God was punishing him for his sins. He began dressing plainly, eating simply, and helping the poor. Instead of going home from the crusade, Louis took his army to Palestine, where they built walls and towers around several coastal cities. He stayed four years, returning to France only upon hearing of the death of his mother.

Back home, Louis redoubled his penance and his efforts to create a holy nation. He systematized customary law, recorded cases as precedents, and replaced trial by combat with the examination of witnesses under oath. Though he no doubt seemed to some of his cynical subjects to be making a show of charity and good works, as did many other feudal lords, Louis showed an exceptional humility and perseverance not shared by those hypocrites. Every year, he went to the abbey of Saint Denis barefoot and bareheaded. Louis not only served the poor at his table, but he and his sons washed the feet of the beggars. He was especially generous to the widows of crusaders. Louis had a special passion for sermons, then just coming into vogue, and he encouraged the preaching friars, repeating his favorite homilies to those at his table. Queen Margaret recorded having gotten up at night, on many occasions, to cover the king with a cloak while he was at his lengthy prayers, because he did not notice the cold.

It was while on a second crusade that Louis fell ill and died while lying penitently on a bed of ashes, whispering the name of the city he never won: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” He soon became the only king of France named a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

The royal career of England’s Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was less manifestly pious than that of Louis IX, but it radiates with a combination of strong, active faith and prudent, sensitive rulership. In the May/June 2003 issue of Books & Culture, author Jill Peláez Baumgaertner reviews the literary output of this queen (Elizabeth I: Collected Works, University of Chicago Press, 2000). In the process, she gives us a glimpse into Elizabeth’s faith and life.

A precocious, multilingual student, by age 12 Elizabeth had translated for her stepmother Queen Catherine such pious works as Navarre’s The Mirror of the Sinful Soul and the first chapter of Calvin’s Institutes. But these were not mere exercises. She claimed in later years that until her accession to the throne, she had studied only theology. In a later recorded prayer, Elizabeth asked God to help her always use her intellectual gifts to his glory.

After a precarious youth, lived for a time under the famously bloody rule and watchful eye of her Catholic sister Mary I, she spent most of her 45-year reign dealing with theological pressures raised by the Catholics from without and the Puritans within the English Church. Her solutions to these religious controversies, though easily seen as arrangements of political expediency, maintained a delicate religious balance in England, preventing her beloved nation from plunging once again into the bloody religious bigotry that had so marred its past.

Above all, says Baumgartner, Elizabeth was “a woman of strong faith who recognized her own vulnerabilities and who embraced utterly the basic tenets of Reformation theology.” When certain bishops complained of a lack of learned preachers in England, Elizabeth (unlike Charlemagne) replied that she sought not so much learned ministers as “honest, sober, and wise men, and such as can read the Scriptures and Homilies well unto the people.”

As for her own piety, we get a glimpse of it in a prayer she composed and delivered 15 years into her reign, in 1574. In part, it read:

O Lord, keep me in the soundness of thy faith, fear, and love, that I never fall away from Thee, but continue in thy service all the daies of my life. Stretch forth, O Lord most mightie, thy right hand over me, and defend me from mine enemys, that they never prevayle against me. Give me, O Lord, the assistance of thy Spiritt, and comfort of thy Grace, truly to know Thee, intirely to love Thee, and assuredly to trust in Thee.

And that as I do acknowledge to have received the Government of this Church and Kingdome at thy hand, and to hold the same of Thee, so graunt me grace, O Lord, that in the end I may render up and present the same unto Thee, a peaceable, quiet, and well ordered State and kingdome, as also a perfect reformed Church, to the furtherance of thy Glory.

And to my subjects, O Lord God, graunt, I beseech Thee, faithfull and obedient hearts, willingly to submit themselves to the obedience of thy Word and Commandments, that we altogether being thankfull unto Thee for thy benefitts received, may laud and magnifie thy Holy Name world without end. Graunt this, O mercifull Father, for Jesus Christes sake our only Mediatour and Advocate. Amen.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

2 responses to “When world leaders pray (part II): Charlemagne through Elizabeth I

  1. Pingback: Pious Politicians: A contradictio in terminis? « Apologia Christi

  2. Pingback: When world leaders pray (part I): the record of Constantine and a couple of other “Christian Roman Emperors” « Grateful to the dead

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