Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Some people have red hair that runs in the family, or a good singing voice, but it's a truly extraordinary family that has saintliness running in it.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary has just such a family. Her Aunts included an Abbess and a Saint, whilst an Uncle was a Bishop and a great niece went on to become a saint. That's before you start looking at the members of royalty she was related to!
Saint Elizabeth was also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia and was born in 1207, the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and his wife Gertrude. At the age of 4 she was engaged to the eldest son of the Landgrave Hermann I of Thuringia. This was to be a great political move in the alliance against the Emperor Otto IV of Germany.
The young Elizabeth had to leave her home and go to live at the fabulous court of Thuringia in the middle of the forest near Eisenach. Not only would she be leaving her familiar surroundings and family but also she would be entering the hustle of a medieval court, which was at the time considered one of the most magnificent in northern Europe.
This meant that not only would there be a steady stream of people fulfilling political obligations such as paying tribute but also servants, traveling musicians, knights and ladies along with political plotting with potentially deadly consequences.
Saint Elizabeth not only survived in this political maelstrom but also grew to be a contemplative and pious young woman who ignored the hostility those who found her strong religious beliefs an indictment of their own immoral behavior.
She too suffered the trials of many saints, first when her mother was murdered by Hungarian nobles then when Hermann who she was due to marry died in 1216.
Following this she was betrothed to the Landgrave other son Ludwig. The suffering did not end there for although she had the support and love of her future mother in law Sophia, the Landgrave Hermann suffered greatly for his political ambitions, which led to his excommunication and the loss of his sanity.
The ban of excommunication was never lifted and he died on the 25 April 1217. Ludwig succeeded him and in 1221 he and Elizabeth were married. He was 21 and she was a mere 14. Unusually for the time, their marriage was happy one with Ludwig affording Elizabeth the protection she needed in order to worship and perform acts of charity.
Although Ludwig was never canonized the Germans still refer to him as Saint Ludwig in recognition of his role as Saint Elizabeth's husband and his strength and capability as a ruler. They had three children (Hermann II, Sophia and Gertrude) who all went on to become either political or religious figures in their own right.
Unfortunately Ludwig owed allegiance to the Emperor Fredrick II so he was frequently absent including during the spring of 1226. That spring dreadful floods and ensuing famine wrecked havoc in Thuringia. Along with an outbreak of disease (probably bubonic plague) suffering was brought to thousands.
At this time the 19 year old Elizabeth began to truly show the extent of her saintly nature when she sprang into action building a hospital below the castle where she personally cared for 28 inmates along with a daily distribution of alms and aid to the poor (including state finery) which helped over nine hundred people daily.
Ludwig backed her up on everything she had done when he returned later in the year. Unfortunately as with many people at that time tragedy was never far off. In 1227, Ludwig started out on crusade with the Emperor Frederick, never to return.
He died from disease at Otranto shown on the map of Italy to the right. Tragically the news reached her just after she had given birth to their third child and she cried out ‘The world with all its joys is now dead to me.’
Despite this she carried on, The Franciscans had been in Germany since 1221 and the spiritual instruction of Brother Rodeger was a guiding light for Saint Elizabeth. She assisted them to found a monastery in Eisenach and in return they instructed her in the observance of chastity, humility, patience, prayer and chastity.
Although reports of the time say that she aspired to attain the ideal of complete poverty, she was advised against it because she was able to perform far more charitable works by taking advantage of her royal position. In actual fact her later spiritual teacher, Master Conrad of Marburg, specifically forbade her the state of poverty.
Master Conrad was a preacher and oft times inquisitor who by modern standards treated Saint Elizabeth severely by utilizing corporal punishment and fasting to help her attain sanctity; however it's important to remember that at the time this would have been very acceptable and normal. So normal in fact that Master Conrad was in regular communication with Pope Gregory IX who had recommended Saint Elizabeth to him.
Soon after this she left the castle in Marburg, it is still a subject of controversy whether she was forced about by her brother-in-law, the regent or whether she left of her own accord due to moral disagreements.
What ever the case was she turned to her aunt, the Abbess Matilda who recommend that she go into the care of her Uncle Eckbert, the Bishop of Bamberg. This did not prove to be the safe haven it should have been when her uncle tried to force her to give up her vow of chastity and marry again.
One can only imagine poor Saint Elizabeth's distress as she tried to fend off her politically motivated uncle and organize the burial of her late husband amongst his ancestors in Reinhardsbrunn, not to mention the stress it must have placed on her.
With the backing of her spiritual advisor and supporters in the church she managed to reclaim her inheritance of two thousand marks, which she gave away as alms. On Good Friday 1228, she took the vows of a Franciscan nun (a tertiary) and retreated from the world to serve in the hospital she had built at Marburg.
She devoted herself to the care of the most unwell and infectious patients whilst maintaining the rigorous schedule of self-mortification prescribed by Master Conrad. In the end her tireless work consumed her and Saint Elizabeth was gathered unto God on the 17th of November 1231, aged just 24 years old.