The possibility that power and goodness might turn out to be two sides of the same coin has exerted a perennial fascination in Western society. The notion that earthly authority is underpinned by heavenly sanction may fly in the face of all known experience, but the hope that it might be so has proved remarkably hard to eradicate. Occasionally, no doubt, its persistence owes something to the exceptional personal qualities, real or imagined, of those who preside over the fate of nations. But underlying the charisma and glamour of JFK or Barack Obama, there runs a deeper longing, that brute political realities should be validated not only with personal integrity, but with the sanction of the sacred.
In the Christian Middle Ages, the conviction that the social and political order did or should reflect the will of God himself found its focus in the person of the anointed king. The anointing of a new monarch by a bishop (borrowed from the Old Testament) was taken as the sign (some even said the sacrament) of divine endorsement of the king’s authority. Monarchs were believed to be able by the mere touch of their hand to heal diseases like scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph glands), known for that reason as “the King’s Evil.” Successive royal dynasties in both France and England practiced this miraculous touching by the roi thaumaturge well into the age of the Enlightenment.
The most sacred kings of all were those who added to the intrinsic sanctity of monarchy the personal sanctity of a holy life. The saint-king was doubly blessed, a personal as well as political icon of Christ himself, ruling his people with justice and mercy, defending the poor, restraining the rich, mastering the perennial temptations to tyranny, luxury, and lust that beset the powerful in every society.
Few medieval kings, of course, were even remotely plausible candidates for sainthood, but many medieval royal houses harnessed the reputation of saint-ancestors to validate monarchy in general and their own dynasties in particular. In twelfth-century Germany, Frederick Barbarossa promoted the royal cult of the Magi, the “Three Kings of Cologne,” and persuaded the anti-pope Paschal III to canonize Frederick’s “ancestor,” the Emperor Charlemagne. In thirteenth-century England, King Henry III encouraged devotion to his predecessors among the Saxon royal saints, and rebuilt Westminster Abbey as a shrine for the greatest of them all, Saint Edward the Confessor. The abbey would serve a double function, as a royal shrine and a royal mausoleum, investing the Plantagenet dynasty buried there with the borrowed prestige of their holy forebear.
The greatest of the medieval saint-kings, however, was Henry III’s contemporary and brother-in-law, Louis IX of France. Louis succeeded to the French throne in 1226 when still a boy of twelve, and after a long regency shared with his formidable mother, Blanche of Castile, ruled till …