Politics in the Middle Ages in Europe was a very complicated affair. One of the central conflicts was between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor over who was to be the supreme leader of the Christian world. Two major political parties emerged from this conflict, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Although initially these parties supported the Pope and the Emperor respectively, over time things became far more complex, with immediate political and dynastic considerations outweighing the historical positions of the parties.
In the early 1200s, the Guelph Otto IV and the Ghibelline Philip of Swabia were rivals for the Imperial throne. Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia and King Andrew II of Hungary both supported Philip (or more precisely, opposed Otto IV), and so, to strengthen their alliance, the two arranged a dynastic marriage between Hermann I’s oldest son, also called Hermann, and the four-year-old Elizabeth, Andrew’s daughter. Elizabeth was sent to Thuringia to learn the language and customs of the region. She lived in Wartburg, the landgrave’s palace where 300 years later Martin Luther would translate the New Testament into German.
Tragedy soon struck both families. Gertrude, Elizabeth’s mother, was murdered in 1213 by Hungarian nobles opposed to German influence at court. Hermann I, meanwhile, kept switching sides in the wars over the Imperial title, and so his land was overrun multiple times by armies from both sides. Then in 1216, Elizabeth’s fiancé, Hermann, also died. To maintain the alliance, Elizabeth was betrothed to Ludwig IV, Hermann’s younger brother. The following year, Hermann I died and Ludwig succeeded him as Landgrave of Thuringia. He was named regent of Meissen and Ostmark (Austria) in 1221, and that same year he married Elizabeth. Ludwig was 21 and Elizabeth 14.
Hermann I’s court had been a center for music and poetry, pomp and politics, but Elizabeth, a religious child, preferred prayer, almsgiving, and contemplation to court life. She had taken quite a bit of abuse for this, but Ludwig protected her and put a stop to the harassment. He fully approved of Elizabeth’s charitable efforts, believing that they would result in rewards in heaven. Ludwig and Elizabeth deeply loved each other and had a strong marriage. They had three children, Hermann II (1222-41), Sophia (1224-84), and Gertrude (1227-97).
Along with the wedding, the year 1221 also saw the arrival of the first Franciscan friars in Germany. Two years later, Brother Rodegar, one of the first Germans received into the order, became Elizabeth’s spiritual director. From him, Elizabeth learned Francis’s ideals. She was very taken with them and put them into practice with the sole exception of voluntary poverty, which her station in life prevented her from adopting. In 1225 Elizabeth founded a Franciscan friary in Eisenach, just outside of the Warburg.
The Princess and the Paupers
Ludwig IV was a close supporter of Frederick II Hohenstaufen, who had become Holy Roman Emperor. Because of his association with Frederick, Ludwig was often away on imperial business. In the spring of 1226, he was in Cremona in northern Italy as Frederick’s representative to the Imperial Diet (a convocation of representatives from the various states within the Empire). While he was there, a series of disasters struck Thuringia. Floods ravaged the territory, followed by famine and a deadly epidemic.
Elizabeth, who was acting as regent in Thuringia during her husband’s absence, took charge of the situation. She began distributing alms throughout the territory, even giving away state robes and jewels to help provide for the needs of her people. She built a 28-bed hospital below the Wartburg and daily went there to minister to the sick. She also distributed food daily to 900 people outside the gates of the castle.
She was 19 years old at the time.
Some members of the family seem to have been upset with Elizabeth’s generosity, but when Ludwig returned, he approved all that she had done.
Stories are told of two miracles associated with Elizabeth’s care for the poor. At one point when Elizabeth was carrying out bread to the poor under her cloak, some of Ludwig’s relatives accused her of stealing the family’s wealth to give it away—a not unreasonable suspicion, given Francis’s biography and Elizabeth’s own actions in giving away state robes. Ludwig asked her to open her cloak to show him what she was carrying. When she did, a vision of red and white roses appeared under her cloak, the first time that roses were associated with a saint. Ludwig took this as proof that she was doing God’s work.
Another story says that Elizabeth put a leper named Helias from the city of Eisenach in her own marriage bed. Her mother-in-law was horrified and told Ludwig. He was angry about this as well and went up to kick the leper out of his bed. When he pulled down the covers, however, instead of a leper he saw Christ crucified lying in the bed.
These stories are not intended to reflect poorly on Ludwig. He was himself a godly and generous man and supported Elizabeth’s charitable work. In Thuringia, he was considered a saint himself, though he was never canonized by the Catholic Church.
Life after Ludwig
In 1227, the Pope pressured Frederick to go on Crusade. Naturally his close friend Ludwig accompanied him. Ludwig only made it as far as Otranto in southern Italy, however, where he died of pestilence on September 11. A few weeks later, before Elizabeth had received news of her husband’s death, she gave birth to Gertrude, the couple’s third child.
When the news finally reached her, Elizabeth was inconsolable. She cried out, “He is dead! He is dead! The world and all its joys is dead to me!”
By this point, Elizabeth had a new spiritual director and confessor. Pope Gregory IX, who had corresponded with Elizabeth, recommended her to Conrad of Marburg, a member of the secular clergy (i.e., not a monk or friar). He was a severe man—an ascetic, a preacher of Crusade, and an inquisitor. When he became Elizabeth’s confessor, he was hard on her—by our standards, even abusive. After Ludwig’s death, he held her to impossibly high standards and ordered her beaten on at least some occasions when she did not measure up. That said, he was an important ally to her in the conflicts that arose after her husband’s death.
Ludwig’s heir was his five-year-old son, Hermann II. Since he was a minor, Ludwig’s brother Heinrich Raspe was appointed as his guardian and regent over Thuringia. Almost immediately, trouble arose over Elizabeth’s dowry. Dowries were intended to provide for a living for the wife in the event of her husband’s death. Heinrich refused to return it to her, however, and Pope Gregory IX appointed Conrad of Marburg to argue Elizabeth’s side in the legal conflict that followed.
In the winter after her husband’s death, Elizabeth left Wartburg. Some sources say that Heinrich expelled her, but it seems more likely that she left on her own because while there she could not follow the dietary strictures laid on her by Conrad. Her aunt Matilda, who was the abbess of the Benedictine convent in the town of Kitzingen, near Würzburg, intervened and sent Elizabeth to her uncle Eckbert, who was bishop of Bamberg. Eckbert wanted her to remarry, but she refused, going so far as to threaten to cut off her nose, to make herself so ugly no man would want to marry her.
Meanwhile, Ludwig’s remains were brought to Bamberg. Elizabeth, still in deep mourning, had the body interred in the family vault at the monastery of Reinhardsbrunn in Thuringia.
Conrad succeeded in getting Elizabeth her dowry in cash rather than in land. She received 2,000 marks and immediately distributed a quarter of it to the poor. She wanted to follow the example of Francis and give it all away, but Conrad wisely refused to allow this.
On Good Friday in 1228, about six months after her husband’s death, Elizabeth took the vows of a Third Order Franciscan sister at the Franciscan convent in Eisenach. She then travelled to Marburg, where Conrad gave her and her maids the habits that marked their formal acceptance into the order. They were among the first Franciscan Tertiaries in Germany.
Because of Conrad, Elizabeth still had the rest of her dowry, so in the summer of 1228 she had the resources to build a Franciscan hospital in Marburg. Conrad continued to impose harsh disciplines on her, including sending away the attendants who had served her so faithfully. Elizabeth devoted the rest of her life to caring for the sick, working herself so hard and following such a strict ascetic lifestyle that she passed away in 1231. She was all of 24 years old.
Miracles were soon reported at her grave, and Conrad began championing her canonization. Four years later, on Pentecost in 1235, Gregory IX formally declared her a saint. Her tomb in Marburg became a shrine and a major pilgrimage site in Germany.
Ironically, 300 years later, her descendant Philip of Hesse became an early convert to Lutheranism. In keeping with Protestant opposition to relics and pilgrimage, he had her bones and other relics taken and scattered, though some were eventually returned to Marburg. Others rest in the Convent of St. Elizabeth in Vienna.
In an age such as ours in which adulthood is being delayed longer and longer, Elizabeth is an example of what even teenagers are capable of when they take their faith and their responsibilities seriously. She is also an example of the good that wealth can do in the hands of people dedicated to serving God and others.
Image by Marianne Stokes, courtesy of Wikipedia.
Michael Bihl, “St. Elizabeth of Hungary,” New Advent. Reprinted from “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” Vol. 5 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909).
Kimberly Fabbri, “Saint Elizabeth of Hungary,” Women’s History Resource Site, King’s College, 2005.