The eleventh century seems pretty remote to us. But apart from the incidental differences of times, places and customs, human beings then were like human beings now. They had many of the same joys and problems.
St. Godeleva deserves our attention in these days of “battered women”. She herself was a battered woman.
Godeleva (also called Godelieve,or Godelina) was of noble stock, born at Londesforte in the county of Boulogne, Belgium. As beautiful in character as she was in appearance, she grew up a devout young woman who had a special solicitude for the poor.
Godeleva desired to become a nun, and therefore showed little interest in the several noble suitors who sought her hand in marriage. One of them, however, Bertolf of Gistel, would not accept a no, but brought pressure on her and her father Hemfried through the powerful Count of Boulogne. Unable to resist under these circumstances, the 18-year-old Godeleva married her importunate beau. After the ceremony Bertolf took his new wife back to his family castle at Gistel, which is near the Channel port of Ostend, Belgium.
Trouble began as soon as the couple arrived at their home. Bertolf’s mother, who apparently had other plans for her son, was furious at the match, and greeted Godeleva with cruelty and insults. She ordered Bertolf to get rid of her. Bertolf was won over, and went away even before the marriage festivities were completed. Although his wife was technically chatelaine of the castle, her mother-in-law treated her like a slave, abused her unmercifully, and gave her a narrow cell to live in, with minimal food. Godeleva, with remarkable patience, offered no complaint, and shared with the needy what little food she was given. Meanwhile her husband, by this time completely under his mother’s sway, spread all sorts of false charges against his wife.
If Godeleva was patient, she also wanted to escape this persecution. Managing, finally, to run away, she returned to her father’s home. When her father had obliged her to tell all, he sought redress through the Bishop of Tournai and the Count of Flanders. These two leaders threatened penalties both of church and state if Bertolf would not restore his wife to her rightful status.
Bertolf yielded, with a show of repentance, and Godeleva returned to Gistel. But soon mother-in-law and husband recommenced their attacks with even greater vigor. Only after a year did the young husband temper this brutality and then as a prelude to a “final solution”.
The young nobleman left for Bruges shortly afterward, but before departing he had plotted to rid himself of his “detestable” spouse. On a prearranged night during his absence, Godeleva was tricked into going out of the back door of the castle. Once outdoors she was seized by two of his servants, garrotted, and drowned by holding her head under water. The assassins then placed the body in her bed so as to make it seem she had died a natural death. The “widower” hastened to remarry.
But truth will out. The burial site of the long suffering noblewoman became a center of pilgrimage; she was referred to (not quite correctly) as a martyr; and miracles were wrought on those who came to pray to her. In 1084 Godeleva’s relics were disinterred and enshrined in the church, where they are still venerated.
Fortunately, the whole brutal story had a happy ending. Bertolf’s second wife bore him a blind daughter. When his little girl recovered her sight through the intercession of Godeleva, he repented his crimes. Truly converted now, he went to Rome to seek absolution from his sins. Having made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he entered a monastery at Bergues-St. Winoc, where he did penance for the rest of his days.
Godeleva, called “the most blessed woman in Flanders”, is invoked for ailments of the throat, but, even more particularly, for peace in troubled families.
Try her if you seek family peace.
–Father Robert F. McNamara