Friday, July 22, 2011

From Princess to Poverty: Elizabeth of Hungary

Princess Elizabeth of Hungary,
Landgravine of Thuringia
Painting by Edmund Blair Leighton


One of the most beloved saints of the Catholic Church is Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. Born a Hungarian princess and died in profound poverty at the age of 24, she is an inspiration to many and one of the influential women of the Middle Ages. Through her daughter Sophia, Duchess of Brabant, she is the ancestress of the House of Hesse and almost all royal houses throughout Europe.

Princess Elizabeth of Hungary was born on July 7, 1207 in the Castle of Sarospatak in Hungary. Her father was Andrew II, the powerful and rich King of Hungary. He was described as "valiant, enterprising, pious, and overgenerous with a reckless good nature which never thought of the morrow". Elizabeth's mother was a German countess, Gertrude of Andechs-Meran, a woman noted for her beauty and intelligence.

Elizabeth's first three years of life passed happily in the company of her sister Anne Marie and her brother Bela. From her earliest youth, Elizabeth loved music, dancing and playing in the countryside. However, her greatest joy was giving alms to relieve the sufferings of the poor. Her love for virtue and prayer corresponded perfectly with her name which in Hebrew means "worshipper of God" or "consecrated to God." But there was not even a remote chance of Elizabeth pursuing the path of her maternal aunt, Hedwig of Andechs, a Benedictine abbess. Following the custom of the time, her father, for political reasons, arranged her marriage while she was still a mere child. Elizabeth, he determined, would become the Landgravine of Thuringia.

Elizabeth was only four years old when she left Hungary to be raised in Thuringia with her future husband, and, in the course of time, to be betrothed to him: Prince Louis of Thuringia. Before departing for Thuringia, King Andrew II placed his daughter in the special care of Count Walter de Varila, saying: "Promise me on the faith of a Christian knight that you will ever protect and be a true friend to my little daughter." Count Varila pledged that he will protect her and always be faithful to her. Elizabeth's mother was rather cold towards her saying: "Act like a princess."

The journey from her native place to her new home, the town of Eisenach, Thuringia, took several months, as the royal entourage was greeted along the way with many festivities. When they finally arrived in Wartburg, a castle built on the top of the mountain and surrounded by hundreds of miles of forest and the seat of the Landgraves of Thuringia, she was received by Landgrave Hermann and his wife, Landgravine Sophia. She was then introduced to her fiance, 11-year-old Louis, and to his four younger siblings. The formal engagement of Louis and Elizabeth took place in the castle chapel, where the bishop blessed them.

Louis and Elizabeth, although very young and their future marriage was certainly for political reason, grew fond of each other. It was a "love at first sight", if that was possible for mere children, but their joy was their companionship and spent all the time they could together. But as future rulers, they both had much to learn.

Under the tutelage of Louis's mother Sophia, Elizabeth and her companions studied German, French, and Latin, the history of the realm, music, literature, and embroidery as well as the care of linens, tapestries and wardrobes. Of paramount importance, however, was the detailed training on being the future Landgravine. Louis, on the other hand, was undergoing his training as the future ruler of Thuringia. As usual with nobility destined for knighthood, he become a page at the age of seven. He learned to serve the lords and ladies with perfect manners. As a squire, he would have his own attendants, suit of armor, and horse. He, too, was taught Latin, French, music, math, equestrian skills and military arts. It was said that Louis was unsurpassed physically and mentally. He was the very picture of a medieval knight; he was "tall, well proportioned, good-looking, attracting all who came near him, kind in speech, brave and daring."

Landgrave Hernann's death in 1217 thrust the 17-year-old Louis to rule Thuringia. The Landgrave's tragic death was attributed to political difficulties and his alliances against the Church. This resulted of him being excommunicated, which at that time, was regarded as the ultimate punishment. This blow, combined with the sudden death of his son Hermann, drove him mad and for some time, Louis had to act as Regent for him.

The death of her father-in-law greatly affected Elizabeth, for he, other than Louis, was kind to her. A year after their mourning, Louis was knighted at the age of 18 and was named as Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia. According to the feudal system, Louis then paid homage to Emperor Frederick II as his vassal and at this ceremony received the pledge of fealty from his lesser nobles.

Louis IV started to rule Thuringia with honesty and noble heart, which quickly endeared him to his people and gained the respect of other rulers. He was described as "cheerful, brave, pious, temperate, chaste and just".

From the start of her life in Thuringia, Elizabeth already despised the vanities of court life, and regarded them as' insignificant and unimportant'. As a princess, she had every gown at her disposal and yet she only wore them to fulfill the duties of her state. Her ladies-in-waiting knew that she was wearing a hair-shirt.

When she was 12 years old, Elizabeth shocked the court by her disregard for pomp and show. On the Feast of the Assumption she was required to go in state to attend the High Mass. This meant that she and the princesses would be dressed in the full magnificence of their rich silk and velvet clothes, with long embroidered sleeves and surcoats, edged with fur, with magnificent long mantles carried by pages, their gloves sewn with pearls and precious stones, and their persons adorned with golden chains and jewels. The young princesses probably did not wear the customary linen coif but would have loose veils and coronets on their flowing hair. On entering the packed church they knelt before the crucifix, and then instead of moving to her place of honor with the others, Elizabeth took off her crown, laying it before the cross, and remained prostrate on the ground with her face covered. All eyes turned toward the Landgrave's future bride. When his mother corrected her for this want of protocol, Elizabeth responded: "How can I, a miserable creature, remain wearing a crown of earthly dignity, when I see my King, Jesus Christ, crowned with thorns?"

Charitable even in her young age, Elizabeth always distributed food for the poor at the castle gate. But this act of charity was regarded with disdain by the court, which viewed her as a foreigner and called her a "Hungarian gypsy". As she grew older her piety irritated the women of the court. It made them uncomfortable and they would grumble that she was too holy, prayed too long, and should have been a nun instead of being betrothed to the prince. Despite this treatment, she had an ally in Louis, who championed her cause and protected her from malicious gossip. If not for him, Elizabeth's life in Thuringia would be unbearable.

At this point news arrived that things were not well in Hungary. Her father, King Andrew II, who had vowed to lead a Crusade, had instead made a peaceful expedition across Jericho and up the Red Sea. There, he retreated after a brief encounter with the Saracens. This humiliation, coupled with his inability to pay back the monies he had borrowed for the trip, was his downfall. Now the Hungarian alliance did not seem so promising to the Thuringian people and they began to reconsider the choice of Elizabeth as a match for the future Landgrave.

It began to be openly discussed and soon Louis's mother Sophia called a council without his knowledge. The main complaint against Elizabeth was her piety and extravagance to the poor. It was said that she could not be trusted with money for the good of the realm. Elizabeth learned about the council and held her own. She confided to Walter de Varila, the knight who had been appointed to her by her father, that she feared a conspiracy was about to separate her from her beloved Louis.

Varila bypassed the court council and asked Louis what his intentions were regarding the fate of Elizabeth. Louis pointing to one of the tallest peaks in Thuringia, said that if the entire mountain were turned into gold he would not exchange it for his Elizabeth. "She is dearer to me than anything on earth and I will have no other for my bride." Once Louis's determination became apparent, the murmuring subsided and Elizabeth was treated more kindly.

In the spring of 1221, Louis and Elizabeth were finally married. He was 21 and she was 14. The entire realm participated in the week-long festivities, and Elizabeth, now Landgravine of Thuringia and the Mistress of Wartburg, received gifts from her people as well as from Hungary. Louis's mother left Wartburg and retired to live as a nun in the Convent of St. Catherine.

Castle Wartburg undergone some renovations during the reign of Louis IV. He added additional rooms and a large banqueting hall.

He was extremely proud of his young wife and the couple remained inseparable. Elizabeth dutifully performed her role as the new Landgravine and was a constant support to Louis. The new banquet hall now afforded them new opportunities to entertain. One night a German storyteller made his appearance in a gray habit of a newly founded order. He entertained the party with his tales of the "poor little rich man" named Francis and his new Order. Elizabeth, with her innate piety and selflessness, was greatly moved by all she heard. She was becoming increasing drawn to a different way of life and desired to become a follower of St. Francis. She wanted to find her way by helping the poor. She was described as thus: "She played and danced and was present at assemblies of recreation, without prejudice to her devotion, which was so deeply rooted in her soul. Her devotion increased among the pomp and vanities to which her condition exposed her. Great fires are increased by the wind, while small ones are extinguished, if not screened from it."

Louis's duties kept him constantly away from the court and from Elizabeth. When her husband was absent, she would ride through the village helping her subjects and listening to their problems. She saw the condition of these people, how they lived and how they endured hard labor. They had to pay high taxes and often suffered cruel treatment from the nobles.

Elizabeth wanted to help them in anyway and every way she could. As the Landgravine she can do anything at her disposal: she paid debts, buy food and clothing, and clean and bury the dead. Her acts of charity challenged brought forth gossip and she became increasingly unpopular at court.

She began to feel as though she was leading a double life. She was torn between her state duties and her 'duties to God'. She felt that her love for her husband competed with her love for God. She began mortifying herself by rising in the middle of the night to pray. Louis was worried but understood her wife's devotion and her increasing drawn towards spiritual life. When she told him that she yearned for a simple life, Louis gently explained to her that it was their duty to rule and their subjects would not respect them if they lived with less extravagance. Even her visit to her native Hungary disturbed her in the knowledge that the money needed for the extravagant homecoming came from taxes extracted from the poor subjects of the kingdom.

A year after her wedding, on 28 March 1222, Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy. The happy couple named the baby Hermann after his grandfather. Elizabeth was now worried that her new son would be another tie to the world. She was advised by her confessor: "Your duty is now to your son ... You are a ruler, wife, and mother. It is very difficult, but not impossible, to practice poverty as a wealthy ruler. But you can practice other virtues like patience, humility, and charity as you now do. It may be God's will that you remain as you are. Your greatest offering would be to give up your own will."

Following his advice, Elizabeth took a step more in her charity. She began to visit lepers. Her sister-in-law, Agnes, reported to Louis on his return home that Elizabeth had gone too far. Louis understood but did nothing. He loved his wife very much and he let her do as she pleased. Later on, Elizabeth gave birth to another child, a daughter, named Sophia.

In the winter of 1225, Agnes, left Wartburg to marry. This freed Elizabeth from the long penance of her sister-in-law's presence. However, that winter was a great trial to Elizabeth because of famine, plague, and smallpox. Louis was away, leaving Elizabeth, who was only 19, in charge of the castles, villages and vassals. Famine stirred the peasants to demand grain. But the stewards prevented the peasants from entering the castle and were determined not to give away the stored grain. Desperate, Elizabeth sold her family jewels to buy food and when that was gone she demanded the granaries to be opened. Elizabeth's action causes disdain to the people at court. They complained and reported to Louis his wife's doings in which he answered: "Is my wife well? That is all l care to know; the rest matters not. Let her give to the poor what she likes; as long as she loves me, I am content."

On Louis's return, he had to break a distressing news to his wife: he would be joining the Emperor on the Crusade. Elizabeth almost fainted from grief but then he consoled her, saying that it was a tradition for the Thuringian rulers to defend the Holy Land. She replied that she wouldn't hold him back. "It is the will of God. I have given myself entirely to Him and now I must give you, too."

On June 1227, Louis departed for the Holy Land. Before he left he entrusted the care of his kingdom to his knights and vassals, the affairs of state to his brother Henry, and Elizabeth, now pregnant with her third child, and children to his mother Sophia. Unfortunately, Louis was struck with fever during an epidemic in Otranto. He died on 11 September 1227, aged 27, without him reaching Jerusalem. Elizabeth received the painful news of her husband's death few days after giving birth to her daughter Gertrude. She was stricken, crying out: "Now the world and all its joy is dead to me," and for several days she mourned in isolation.

That winter, Louis's brother, Henry took complete authority as the heir of Thuringia, declaring himself the new Landgrave, and announcing that his sister-in-law was an incompetent Landgravine and a great spendthrift. He withdrew all funds from Elizabeth and her children, and finally she was forced out of Wartburg Castle into the village streets. Elizabeth wandered into the streets, the village people doing nothing to help her. Her children were put in the care of Louis's friend, and for months she had to endure harsh treatment, supporting herself by weaving, spinning and living wherever she would be received.

Finally her aunt, the Abbess of Kitzingen and her brother, the Bishop of Bamberg, heard about Elizabeth's plight, and she and her children were sent to live in Bollenstein Castle. This castle became the home of little Sophia and her small siblings. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was allowed to go back to Wartburg for the interment of her husband's remains. Then she summoned Louis's vassals and knights and thanked them for their fidelity. They pledged to defend her rights and the rights of her children, and forced Henry to restore Elizabeth to her rightful position. But Elizabeth declined life in Wartburg. Her children are now in the care of her relatives.

She joined Third Order of Saint Francis, being the first woman to do so. The members wore rough habits, recited the canonical hours, fasted most of the year and abstained from meat four days a week. Elizabeth was perfectly comfortable with these penances, and she made her vows renouncing everything. When King Andrew II heard about her daughter's condition, he sent for her to return to Hungary. She sent him a message: "Tell my father that I am happier here than in any castle. Ask him to pray for me and to ask the court to do so also. Tell my good father that I will always pray for him."

On November 1231, Elizabeth, exhausted from helping and nursing the poor and the sick as well as suffering from poor health, was stricken with fever. Finally, in the night of 19 November 1231, at the age of 24, Elizabeth died. Her daughter Gertrude, four year old at that time and living in Marburg, said: "I hear the passing bell at Marburg; at this moment the dear lady, my good mother, is dead." Elizabeth was buried in the chapel hospital that she founded.

Four years after her death, she was canonized in the presence of her children, mother-in-law and brothers.

When her relics were transferred in 1236, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who once asked Elizabeth for marriage, came and laid his crown on her tomb, saying: "Since I could not crown her as Empress in the world, I will at least crown her today, immortal queen in the Kingdom of God."


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