Sanctity as royal duty

Daily Reading for November 20 • Edmund, King of East Anglia, 870

Kingship, as every medieval churchman knew and as every medieval ruler was informed, was instituted by divine concession: it was exercised Dei gratia. The kingdom, accordingly had the status of a divine trust, in relation to which the ruler functioned not in or by his own right but rather as God’s vice-regent upon earth—as the holder of an office with more or less well-defined rights and duties and with a more or less well-defined scope and purpose. In general terms, that scope and purpose may be described as protection of the trust. . . .That ruler’s overriding concern was with the attainment of national felicitas–with pax, prosperitas and national salvation. The attainment of that goal was dependent in part upon the ruler’s own right relationship with God: by providing an example of personal virtue he was to act as moral rector to his people. It was dependent also upon the public utilitas of the ruler. That utilitas comprised, first, leadership in war; internal peace was to be the product of external security. And, second, it comprised the special and all-enveloping royal virtue—that of iusticia, with its associated power of correction. . . .

In the matter of kingship, the church did far more than simply adopt the traditions of pre-Christian society. Its concern was rather to mould the rulership which it inherited in accordance with its own societal needs—to create a new model of useful rulership. In do doing it produced a radical reinterpretation of the traditions to which it was the heir. Kings might be expected to do much the same things; but the principles underlying that expectation were new and challenging. The Christian leaders created a kingship which was not sacral, and sanctity which differed fundamentally from sacrality. . . . The Lives of the royal saints, it is clear, are wholly representative of early medieval thought on the nature of kingship: they are indeed one of the most important sources upon which analysis of that thought can and should be based. The rulership which they portray is a rulership conferred by God, justified by virtue and consummated by an ultimate translation to the kingdom of heaven. . . . Edmund attained sanctity not by the manner of his life but rather by the nature of his death, by his suffering martyrdom at the hands of the pagan. The single and crucial act upon which sanctity was founded represented not the renunciation of royal status but the fulfillment of royal duty. . . . Edmund’s martyrdom was a direct and immediate product of that moral choice which represented the ultimate fulfillment of his duty as a Christian king.

From The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England: A Study of West Saxon and East Anglian Cults by Susan J. Ridyard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

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