Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231)

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Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231)

Hungarian saint and princess who defied the customs of her age and class by her tireless efforts to care for the sick and poor. Name variations: Saint Elizabeth of Hungary; St. Elizabeth of Thuringia. Born on June 7, 1207, in Pressburg (Bratislava); died of exhaustion and malnourishment on November 19, 1231, at Marburg; daughter of King Andrew II, king of Hungary (r. 1202–1235), and Gertrude of Andrechs-Meran (c. 1185–1213); married Louis IV also known as Ludwig IV, landgrave of Thuringia, in 1221; children: Hermann (1222); Sophia of Thuringia (1224–1284, some sources note another daughter Sophia born in 1225); Gertrude of Thuringia (b. 1227).

Betrothed to Ludwig IV, future landgrave of Thuringia (1211); widowed when Ludwig died on crusade (1227); canonized by Pope Gregory IX (1235).

In many ways, the life of Elizabeth of Hungary illustrates important trends in 13th-century religious sensibilities. Her brief existence—she died at age 24—was dramatically packed with the ordinary events commonly experienced by women of her class and era: marriage and childbearing. Yet the young princess found ingenious ways to enrich these activities by suffusing them with deeper religious meaning. The great thrust of the newer religious orders of the period, especially the Franciscans, was to highlight the poverty of Christ and to stress the cultivation of spiritual riches regardless of material conditions. Elizabeth found ways to fervently embrace these ideals and live them in her daily life. In a period when women only rarely dared to pursue activity in the secular world, Elizabeth's rather flamboyant acts of charity and self-abnegation earned her both personal satisfaction and public recognition of her sanctity.

Elizabeth's many charitable acts and disregard for her personal comfort won her great admiration and resulted in her canonization only four years after her death. It is difficult, therefore, to evaluate the sources that chronicle her life and death, as legend is mixed so inextricably with biographical details. Material concerning Elizabeth's life was gathered almost immediately upon her death, as the canonization process was undertaken soon after 1231. The sources include a letter written by her spiritual director, Conrad of Marburg, to Pope Gregory IX, as well as statements made by two of her ladies-in-waiting and other servants who had assisted Elizabeth's work at the hospital she founded.

Elizabeth's father Andrew (II) became king of Hungary in 1205. Since the Hungarians were one of the last European peoples to become Christianized (King Stephen I officially converted in 1000), they were one of the newest members of the international Catholic community. As "new" Christians, they were anxious to conform to current standards of ecclesiastical discipline, and the royal family maintained close ties with the papacy. Marriage alliances were utilized to ensure healthy diplomatic relations with both the Holy Roman Empire and smaller German political entities.

Since medieval women were largely shaped by their family context, it is helpful to examine the circumstances in her immediate family that may have contributed to Elizabeth's religious attitudes. Her mother Gertrude of Andrechs-Meran was the daughter of Bertold, duke of Meran. Gertrude's family was not only extremely devout, but it produced several female saints and male bishops. Elizabeth's maternal aunt, Hedwig of Silesia (1174–1243), the patron saint of Silesia, is an interesting example of pious models available to Elizabeth within her family. Hedwig married Henry, duke of Silesia, and gave birth to seven children before she convinced him to live chastely with her. She had an extraordinary love for female lepers and imposed many voluntary hardships on herself in order to identify more fully with the poor. Elizabeth's maternal uncle, Eckembert, was the bishop of Bamberg. The longstanding piety of her maternal family, combined with the fervent convert attitude of her paternal family, help to advance the deep religious impulses that shaped young Elizabeth: she was inordinately exposed to spiritual concerns, even by the standards of her day.

In 1211, Hermann, landgrave of Thuringia, arranged for the betrothal of his son Ludwig (IV) to Elizabeth. The four-year old princess was taken to the Thuringian royal castle at Wartburg, where she was raised by Sophia, landgravine of Thuringia , her future mother-in-law. This arrangement was common among the nobility of medieval Europe, for it allowed minor girls to acquire a deeper familiarity with the cultural nuances they were expected to operate within upon their marriages. In Elizabeth's case, the early exposure to her intended groom resulted in a solid friendship between her and Ludwig; indeed, their marriage was an extremely happy one by all accounts.

However, Sophia did not develop a friendly relationship with her future daughter-in-law. Accounts of Elizabeth's life refer to strained relations between the two, apparently stemming from Sophia's disappointment that a more prestigious match could not have been found for her son. On an important feast day, the entire family attended church in their finest attire. When Elizabeth encountered the enormous crucifix on the door of the church at Eisenach, she removed her crown and prostrated herself before the cross. Sophia rebuked her with the taunt that perhaps the royal crown was too heavy for her head, suggesting her unsuitability as a wife for Ludwig. Elizabeth responded that it seemed inappropriate to wear jewels and pearls on her head when Christ himself wore only thorns.

Although charitable activities of Sophia are recorded, it appears that a "contest" was entered into early by the mother and daughter-in-law. Ludwig seems to have supported his fiancée in her struggle against Sophia's disapproval: according to the testimony of one of Elizabeth's servants who lived with the princess from her early childhood until after 1221:

[S]he endured heavy and open persecution from the relatives, and vassals, and counselors of her betrothed; they were always trying to induce [Ludwig], by every means in their power, to repudiate her, and send her back to the king, her father…. But, in spite of all, and contrary to all anticipation, she had in her betrothed a secret consoler in all her sorrow and affliction.

It is interesting that the sources collected after Elizabeth's death all stress the theme of her single-minded devotion to piety within the context of her love for Ludwig. Contemporary historians note that the model of sanctity for earlier periods involved female celibacy in the monastic milieu; but by the early 13th century, a woman who exemplified both religious fervor and devotion to her husband became an acceptable model.

Elizabeth was perfect in body, handsome, brown complexioned, earnest in her conduct, modest in all her ways, kindly in speech, fervent in her prayers, and overflowing in her charity to poor people, … and full of virtues and godly love at all times.

—Adam Baring von Molberg, 16th-century chronicler

When Hermann died in 1216, 16-year-old Ludwig became the new landgrave of Thuringia, and his marriage to Elizabeth was celebrated in 1221 when she was 14 years old. The wedding was a lavish ceremony, but Elizabeth immediately afterward began to openly practice extreme acts of charity and personal renunciation of food and comfort. Many of the sources mention her antipathy towards court finery, and her secret feeding of poor beggars, often with food intended for her own consumption. One account of her devotion to the poor and sick involves her mother-in-law Sophia's continual efforts to undermine Elizabeth's activities: the young wife allowed a leper to occupy Ludwig's bed while her husband was away from home. It was easier for Elizabeth to nurse the dying man in this way. But when Sophia learned of her son's imminent arrival, she immediately warned him that his bed had been infected by his wife's preference for poor lepers over her own husband. She took Ludwig to his bed chamber to show him the wretched leper, but her son saw instead Jesus himself cared for in the bed.

Sophia (fl. 1211)

Landgravine of Thuringia. Name variations: Sophie; Sophia of Thuringia or Thüringia. Flourished around 1211; married Hermann I, landgrave of Thuringia (died 1216); children: Louis IV also known as Ludwig IV, landgrave of Thuringia; Agnes of Thuringia (mother of Jutta of Saxony ).

In 1222, the year after her marriage, Elizabeth produced an heir, named Hermann, to the landgraviate of Thuringia, though the boy's succession was later threatened by Elizabeth's brother-in-law, Henry Raspe IV. Elizabeth named her first daughter Sophia of Thuringia (b. 1224); some sources indicate that she gave birth to another daughter the following year whom she also named Sophia, in an apparent effort to impress her mother-in-law. However, most of the evidence indicates that she and Ludwig produced three children rather than four. Her last child, Gertrude of Thuringia , was born in 1227, shortly after Ludwig's death.

During the course of their marriage, Ludwig was frequently away from their home at Wartburg castle because his position as landgrave involved frequent military expeditions. Whenever he was away, Ludwig allowed Elizabeth to oversee the financial affairs of Thuringia, and she was thus able to indulge her concern for the poor—much to the chagrin of Sophia and Elizabeth's brothers-in-law. Elizabeth established a hospital for lepers near the castle at Wartburg, and in 1226, a year of severe famine, she distributed food from the public granary and ordered all churches and chapels to house the poor. She also sold most of her personal jewels in order to distribute money to the poor. Rather surprisingly, Ludwig supported his wife's extreme generosity. Still, one of the most popular legends about Elizabeth contradicts this image of Ludwig as the magnanimous champion of his wife's compulsive giving: one night Elizabeth stole outside the castle with royal loaves of bread in her apron to distribute to the poor. When Ludwig apprehended her and inquired what she was doing outside at that hour, she opened her apron and—instead of bread—roses were revealed. This enduring tale, celebrated in artistic motifs depicting Elizabeth's life, indicates that perhaps her unstinting generosity at times alarmed Ludwig and his family.

Elizabeth's relationship with her spiritual director, a fanatical Franciscan named Conrad of Marburg, dominated the last part of her life. It is unclear whether her husband wished her to be subject to Conrad's influence, or whether Pope Gregory IX appointed Conrad as Elizabeth's protector after Ludwig's death on crusade. It is certain, however, that the association was not a beneficent one for Elizabeth. Conrad was an extremely severe and demanding presence in her life: if Ludwig was impressed by such inquisitorial zeal that he allowed his wife to be spiritually ruled by such a tyrant, he would have been appalled at the deleterious effects this ultimately had on Elizabeth's health.

Conrad was Pope Gregory IX's agent in Thuringia. His primary obligation was to find and punish heretics, and also to monitor the moral behavior of priests, monks, and nuns throughout the German-speaking lands. As the spiritual director of Elizabeth, his harsh brand of discipline and insistence on blind obedience were exercised. Once, Elizabeth disregarded Conrad's demand that she attend his sermon at Eisenach: she instead felt obligated to welcome one of her husband's relatives in person at Wartburg. Enraged at her failure to appear at his sermon, Conrad announced his resignation as her spiritual director. Since Elizabeth had pledged to take Conrad as her perpetual religious advisor, she immediately implored him to continue in this capacity. Conrad agreed but demanded that she and her ladies submit to a scourging—which they did.

In 1227, Ludwig made arrangements to join Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II on the sixth crusade. But Elizabeth's young husband died of plague in Italy before his contingent left for the Holy Land. Devastated by Ludwig's death, Elizabeth's problems were compounded by her brother-in-law's plan to usurp her four-year-old son's position as heir to the Thuringian throne. (In 1240, 18-year-old Hermann was poisoned by his uncle.) Henry Raspe ordered Elizabeth to leave Wartburg castle, and she was forced to rely on local charity for shelter for her family.

Elizabeth of Hungary endured a winter of extreme hardship in 1227–28. She was forced to sell her dower jewels in order to purchase food for her young family, and accounts of her life detail her attempts to secure lodging. Often, she had to sleep in cold parish churches. One of her servants, Isentrude von Horselgau, testified that, despite such privation, Elizabeth maintained an unshaken faith that her suffering was pleasing to God. Finally, Matilda, abbess of Kitzingen , a Franconian Benedictine monastic establishment, offered shelter to Elizabeth and her family. Soon after, her uncle, Bishop Eckembert, offered her the temporary use of his castle at Pottenstein. Elizabeth left one of her daughters with the abbess of Kitzingen—it was a common practice to present young children to monastic institutions, where they were raised to become monks or nuns—and traveled with her other children to Pottenstein in 1228.

When Ludwig IV's body was returned to Thuringia for burial, Bishop Eckembert included Elizabeth in his entourage so that her brother-in-law's hostility would not exclude her from the funeral rites. Elizabeth appealed to the Thuringian nobles who had supported Ludwig to uphold her son Hermann's position as heir to the landgraviate. Under enormous pressure, Henry Raspe agreed to grant Elizabeth the town of Marburg and maintenance at Wartburg castle, but this arrangement did not work for long. Soon her late husband's family pressured her to abandon Wartburg and occupy a smaller castle at Marburg, and a cash settlement was granted to Elizabeth in order to facilitate this move. Elizabeth's immediate impulse was to distribute this money to the poor of Marburg, but her spiritual director forbade her to do so. Conrad named himself Elizabeth's treasurer and closely monitored her charitable donations. If she gave more than he considered appropriate, he physically abused Elizabeth by beating her with a stick. In addition, he would not allow her to beg for her food—a custom she longed to follow since it was practiced by the Friars Minor whom she greatly admired. Conrad also refused to allow Elizabeth to nurse the most desperately ill lepers, although she was permitted to assist the less sick patients in the hospital she founded in Marburg.

Late in 1228, Elizabeth provided for the future of her children and became a Franciscan tertiary, but she remained under Conrad's supervision for the rest of her life. She continued to nurse the sick in her small hospital but also supported herself by spinning, and she expanded her charitable practices by cleaning the houses of the poor. Elizabeth's dietary restrictions had been an important element of her piety even during her marriage; she had appeared at banquets, but according to statements made by her servants, she refused to eat food purchased by unjust taxes on the poor—which meant, in effect, that she ate very little. In the last years of her life, her food avoidance became even more extreme. It is certain that her enthusiastic acceptance of voluntary poverty and charitable practices, along with Conrad's frequent beatings, ultimately affected the young landgravine's health. She died on November 19, 1231, at the age of 24. Elizabeth was buried in the hospital church she had founded, and immediately afterward many healings were reported at her tomb. Pope Gregory IX authorized an investigation of these claims, and materials concerning her life were collected. In 1235, she was canonized, and her body was transferred to an elaborate church built in her honor at Marburg.


Analecta Bollandiana. Vol. XXVII. Brussels: Societe des Bollandistes, 1908.

Huyskens, Albert, ed. Der sog. Libellus de dictis quatuor ancillarum s. Elisabeth confectus. Munich, 1911.

suggested reading:

Bell, Rudolph M., and Donald Weinstein. Saints and Society: The Two Worlds of Western Christendom, 1000–1700. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Renate, and Timea Szell, eds. Images of Sainthood in Medieval Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987.

Shahar, Shulamith, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages. NY: Routledge, 1984.

Uminski, Sigmund H. The Royal Beggar: A Story of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. NY: The Polish Publication Society of America, 1971.

White, Kristin E. A Guide to the Saints. NY: Ivy Books, 1991.

Cathy Jorgensen Itnyre , Professor of History, Copper Mountain College (College of the Desert), Joshua Tree, California

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Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231)

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Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231)