Having faced down the Holy Roman Emperor to remove the murderously corrupt top power in his native city-state, and replaced him with someone who appears to have been the son of a reformer who was recommended by the Milanese clergy nearly 30 years before, Erlembaldo Cotta could finally savor a sense of hard-won accomplishment.
But he was not able to rest on his laurels for long.
Not everyone in Milan was happy with the actions of the pataria, which Erlembaldo had transformed from a spiritual but largely ineffectual organization into a powerful and frankly military one. In the process, power had shifted from the traditional feudal order to a new system that was so much more inclusive of the non-aristocratic majority that to some, it may have looked like just mob rule.
On top of this, some Milanese—perhaps especially those who were not highly aware of the actual state of affairs in their church—may have been shocked to see a soldier, even one as pious as Erlembaldo, use physical force against a churchman of any kind, even one as debased and corrupt as Guido. To the less sophisticated, the imagery may have been uncomfortably suggestive of the rule of man defying the rule of God.
When a horrific fire broke out, devastating large sections of the city, Guido’s remaining supporters were quick to trumpet it as an act of divine retribution against the actions of the pataria.
The old feudal lords seized this opportunity to restore what they considered the proper order of things. They donned their armor, mounted their horses, and took to the streets.
At this point, few of the common people had the stomach left to oppose them.
Not so for Erlembaldo. He put on his own armor and rode out with a small group of still-faithful supporters to confront this feudalistic resurgence.
What he found was a force so much larger and more formidable than his own that he stood no chance of victory. But if the feudal lords expected him to flee or surrender, they were mistaken. What he did instead was put his spurs to his horse and charge straight into them.
The feudal lords quickly killed Erlembaldo, then dragged his body around in a display of gloating contempt.
The contrast between Erlembaldo's principled courage and the churlishness of the aristrocrats in this final confrontation was so striking that the people's confidence in the rightness of their cause returned, and the aristocrats' attempt to reinstate the old social order failed.
Erlembaldo was buried in the same Church of Santa Maria Pressa San Celso where St. Arialdo was interred.
In 1095, he was canonized by Pope Urban II. The Pope traveled to Milan to personally supervise the transfer of Erlembaldo’s relics to San Dionigi. Erlembaldo’s remains were transferred again in 1528, to the great Duomo (Cathedral) of Milan.
Saint Erlembaldo’s feast day is July 27.
To no small degree as a result of Erlembaldo’s actions, the social structure of Milan shifted in a lasting manner away from rigid control by the aristocracy toward a more open and inclusive system in which the middle class had a voice. The city thrived.
From Erlembaldo’s death onward, the Cottas enjoyed great prestige, and were among the most prominent, wealthy, and powerful families in the region. Despite their own blue blood, they were known for looking out for the well-being of people of all stations in life.
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Update: Since writing this, I've written a song about Erlembaldo. You can hear it here.