Bl. Charles the Good

(Twelfth Century)

The head of a state, whether man or woman, has a heavy and thankless responsibility. Whether he is emperor, absolute monarch, dictator, prime minister or president, he is bound in conscience to promote the progress of his people, to protect them against external and internal subversion, and to aid them in times of disaster. Since “the buck stops” at rulers’ desks, they can’t avoid having enemies: “friendly” enemies who by their fawning will praise the “boss” as perfect (which he never is); antagonistic enemies who will seek to entrap and even to kill him.

Blessed Charles the Good, who died in 1127, exemplifies a ruler so conscientious that he suffered martyrdom. Charles was the son of St. Canute, King of Denmark, and was Count of Flanders and Amiens, a dual principality that occupied the present Belgium and northwest France.

Falling heir to this princely crown almost by chance, Charles had to deal for a while with several counter-claimants to his position. As soon as things had settled down, however, he set about making his lands a good and decent place to live. Blasphemy he abhorred; and in his own castles he imposed forty days of bread and water on those who abused God’s name. The laws he enacted for his princedom were well planned, and he enforced them strictly. But in the last analysis he ruled more by good example than by power. He was especially attentive to the poor. (When critics said he was overdoing charity, he replied, “It is because I know so well the needs of the poor and the pride of the rich.”) For instance, he forbade taking away a child without the consent of its parents; and he severely punished any oppression of the helpless poor.

The winter of 1124-1125 was brutal, and a frightful famine followed. Charles set up feeding stations at each of his castles. At Bruges he fed 100 daily; at Ypres he distributed 7800 loaves of bread in a single day.

Now, whenever disaster befalls, there will always be parasites who try to make money out of it. Two prominent people of Bruges, (one of them, unfortunately, a churchman), were caught red-handed at profiteering in grain when Charles enacted a new law designed to prevent this sort of scalping. The two profiteers, joined by a local magistrate whom Charles had disciplined for his violence, determined to kill the monarch who was interfering with their “business.”

Charles, a consistently devout man, used to go barefoot each morning to pray at the church of St. Donatian in Bruges. One day a friend warned him that there was a conspiracy afoot against him. “We are always in the midst of dangers,” the Count replied, “but we belong to God. If it is His will, can we die in a better cause than for justice and truth?”

So he went to church. Kneeling before the Lady Altar, he prayed the psalm of mercy, the Miserere. At this point the conspirators surged in, swords in hand. One sliced off the arm of the Count, the other sliced open his skull.

It took only a tiny minority of Charles’s enemies to put an end to his good rule. The majority of his people, appropriately calling him Charles the Good, hailed him at once as a martyr to Christian duty. Each year since then, the feast of his death has been solemnly observed in the cathedral of Bruges where his relics are enshrined.

The life and death of Blessed Charles the Good is a reminder to heads of state that they receive their authority from God and are answerable for its discharge only to Him.

It is also a reminder to us, whenever we exercise any authority. We will always have enemies when we uphold justice. That’s the way it is.

--Father Robert F. McNamara