St. Cunegund

(d. 1033 A.D.)

The medieval cathedral of Bamberg, Germany, has a unique shrine. Side by side are the tombs of Emperor St. Henry II and his empress, St. Cunegund. Since few emperors have won the title of saint, this double shrine is indeed unusual.

Cunegund of the Wagnerian name was the devout daughter of a noble couple who bore the equally Wagnerian names of Siegfried and Hedwig. She married the Duke of Bavaria, Henry. They never had any children, but the older belief that theirs was an intentionally celibate marriage is no longer considered true.

Otto III, Holy Roman Emperor, died in 1002. Duke Henry was elected to succeed him. Although Henry II was thus the most important monarch in Europe, it took him until 1014 to vindicate his position against his warring subordinates. Only in that year were he and his wife finally able to go to Rome and receive the crowns imperial from the hands of Pope Benedict VIII.

Cunegund’s career as empress was not a charmed one. Some of her biographers state that she became the victim of a slander that even deceived Henry for a while. At her own request, say these writers, she submitted to the ordeal by fire to prove her innocence. She walked barefoot across a bed of red-hot plowshares, and suffered no harm. The emperor, it is reported, was not only convinced by this ordeal, but thoroughly ashamed of his moment of doubt.

While Henry II was a typical medieval politician and warrior, he was also a man of devotion, truly interested in supporting the work of the church and correcting abuses in it. His wife gave him her hearty backing. She encouraged him to found the monastery and cathedral of Bamberg. On her own, she established a convent at Kaufungen as an act of thanks for recovery from a serious illness.

Cunegund’s biographers relate an interesting and very human story about the abbess whom she chose to head her new convent.

This abbess was Cunegund’s own niece Jutta. She thought that Jutta would do well as superior. She herself had raised her, and prepared her for her task with much sound advice. But Jutta soon disappointed her aunt by her giddy behavior and her love of eating. When she failed to respond to the foundress’ correction, empress and abbess had a showdown. Cunegund even struck Jutta on the face. Oddly, the mark of the blow remained on her cheek. Even Jutta considered this miraculous. It brought her to her senses, and served as a visible reminder of self-discipline to the rest of the nuns.

St. Henry died in 1024. On the first anniversary of his death, the widowed empress invited a number of prelates to attend the dedication of the church at Kaufungen. After the singing of the gospel, Cunegund offered at the altar a relic of the True Cross. Then she doffed her imprial cloak and donned the habit of a nun. The bishop replaced her crown with the veil.

As a nun the dowager empress changed her mode of life completely. She would not allow herself or others to recall that she had formerly been a queen. She chose for her tasks the lowliest duties of the convent; in her opinion she deserved no better. Her daily schedule was one of reading, prayer, and visitation of the sick. So passed the last eight years of her life. When she died she was laid to rest next to Henry in the handsome cathedral church that both had built.

I suppose that the principal lesson that this holy couple still teaches the world is that the vocation of rulers and everybody else in authority is not to domineer their people but to serve them.

--Father Robert F. McNamara