In feudal Germany, the powerful nobility did not hesitate to pull strings to ease members of their own families into prominent and lucrative church positions. One of the abuses that they fostered was naming even children to these offices.
Engelbert (no saint at the outset) was the younger son of Engelbert, Count of Berg. The count sent this son to the cathedral-school of Cologne, but while he was still a schoolboy, he got him named provost (i.e., head of the clergy) at St. Mary’s Church in Aachen, at St. George’s and St. Severinus’ churches in Cologne, and at the Cologne cathedral itself. To be named to such posts required only that the boy be admitted to the lowest rank of the clergy. He could then enjoy the endowment that accrued to the officeholder, paying a minimal sum to some priest to do the actual work.
Engelbert, despite his “clerical” status, grew up to be a thoroughly worldly young man. In 1206 he incurred the displeasure of Pope Innocent III for taking up arms on behalf of Philip of Swabia against the Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV. For this involvement Engelbert found himself, then aged about 21, excommunicated by the pope!
Fortunately, young Engelbert was uncomfortable about this censure. He made his peace with the Holy See, and accepted as a penance participation in the crusade against the Albigensian heretics of southeast France. Even then, however, he may well have stacked the cards so that in 1217 he was elected archbishop of Cologne. Two other ecclesiastics had been making a bid for that archbishopric. Intervening to settle the dispute, Engelbert found himself chosen prince archbishop. He was then about 30 years old.
It must be admitted, that since the lifting of his excommunication, Engelbert had been leading a blameless life. If he had ambitioned the arch-bishopric, he was also highly qualified to discharge its duties. He had piety, a keen judgment, a high sense of justice, and a strong will.
Archbishop Engelbert I soon proved to be an able and active bishop. He welcomed the Franciscan and Dominican orders, at that time very new, into his archdiocese. A strict disciplinarian, he held synods to legislate order among his clergy. He was popular with the people: pleasant, thoughtful of the poor, and peace-loving.
Engelbert’s archepiscopal position was political as well as religious, so he had to spend much time in affairs of state. He supported Frederick II, the Hohenstaufen emperor; and when Frederick went to Sicily, he made the archbishop guardian and regent during the minority of his (Frederick’s) 12-year-old son, the future Emperor Henry IV. Engelbert crowned Henry king, and discharged his duties of “acting king” with ability and strength.
While King Henry himself admired the archbishop, Engelbert inevitably made many potential enemies, especially among his own relatives.
His cousin Count Frederick of Isenberg was administrator of the convent of nuns at Essen. Frederick took advantage of this position to steal the nuns’ property and oppress their vassals. The archbishop rebuked the count and demanded that he make restitution. Instead of obeying, Frederick plotted to kill Engelbert.
The prelate was warned about this threat, and took some security measures. However, on November 7, 1225, he set out for Schwelm with an inadequate number of bodyguards. At Gevelsberg, he was set upon by Frederick and some other antagonistic noblemen and 50 soldiers. At the end of the attack, Engelbert lay dead with 47 wounds in his body.
King Henry punished Count Frederick, and the papal legate, Cardinal von Urach, declared the archbishop a martyr, because he had died in defense of the rights of the nuns of Essen.
Engelbert I has never been formally canonized. In 1617, however, his name was officially entered in the Roman Martyrology, the Church’s calendar. After an early life that was scarcely holy, he had been awarded a noble end. Surely, God’s ways are strange!
–Father Robert F. McNamara