Followers of the Troubadour
Reflection on the lives and spirituality of the followers of Francis of Assisi
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Duchess of Thuringia,
Patroness of the Third Order Franciscans
“She lived in simplicity, humility, and minority and was open to the action of the Holy Spirit. Peaceful, joyful, humble, loving, faithful, prayerful: all describe the essence of Elizabeth of Hungary.” Anne Mulqueen, SFO
Sometimes God chooses an unlikely person to be his vessel on earth, someone whose holiness transcends all ages and all peoples and enduring for centuries as an example of a life well-lived. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, Duchess of Thuringia and patron saint of the Secular Franciscan Order, lived only 24 years (1207-123 1). In that brief span of time, her deep spirituality, her love of God and family, and her compassion and generosity to the poor and sick earned her a place among the saints of the Church.
We are fortunate to have information, albeit some of it contradictory, about Elizabeth from a number of sources, including her handmaidens Guda and Isentrude, who were ladies of her court; Elisabeth and Irmingard, who served with her at her hospital; and her confessor, Conrad of Marburg, whose testimony was part of Elizabeth’s canonization process. Other accounts come from an unknown Friar Minor, referred to as The Anonymous Franciscan, who wrote in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and a number of 13th biographies. The various accounts paint a portrait of a beautiful and joyous young woman with a deep spirituality and Elizabeth’s ancestry was the Magyar people of Eastern Europe. Her father was Andrew II, a descendent of Hungary’s first king, Stephen, who was canonized in 1083.
Her mother was Gertrude, daughter of Berthold IV, descended from Bavarian counts. Her mother’s sister, Hedwig, Duchess of Poland, was also later declared a saint.
As was the custom at the time, young children of governing royalty were betrothed to members of other noble families, usually for political and economic reasons. Elizabeth was betrothed at the age of four to Ludwig IV, age eleven, future Landgraf (or duke) of Thuringia in Central Germany, son of Duke Hermann of Thuringia and Duchess Sophie of Bavaria. And so, in order to prepare her for the marriage and familiarize her with her new country, she was taken from her family in Hungary and brought with a substantial dowry to Germany to Wartburg Castle in Thuringia, a lavish court filled with music, art, culture, and education.
Although we do not know a great deal about her early childhood, Elizabeth’s companions write about her early signs of spirituality. She was fascinated by the castle’s chapel, often slipping inside even during children’s’ games and taking every opportunity to genuflect. When she won something in one of the children’s games, she would share the prize with children who were poor. Ludwig and Elizabeth were very close even as children, spending much time in each other’s company and referring to each other as “sister” and “brother” as they continued to do throughout their married life.
Elizabeth and Ludwig were married in 1221 when she was 14 and he was 21. Ludwig became the Landgraf of Thuringia at the age of 17 upon the death of his father, Hermann I. Chronicles describe Ludwig as handsome, athletic, courteous, generous, brave, and always faithful to Elizabeth—even before their marriage. He possessed all the virtues of a Christian knight and prince. Although he was never canonized a saint, Ludwig has always been regarded as one for his virtuous life. The marriage of Elizabeth and Ludwig was one of deep love, faithfulness, and mutual respect, and not one merely of convenience. Isentrude said: ”They loved each other with a wonderful affection, gently inviting and strengthening each other in the presence and service of God.”
They had three children: Hermann, their son and heir to the ruler ship of Thuringia, who died at age 18 shortly after beginning his rule; daughter Sophia, born in 1224, who would marry Henry, Duke of Brabant, from whom would descend the princes of the House of Hesse; and Gertrude, whom Elizabeth and Ludwig promised to God from her birth. She was brought up in a monastery, became a nun, and was elected abbess at the monastery of Altenberg at age 21 and remained so for 50 years until her death. She is also
venerated as a saint.
All through her life, even during her marriage, Elizabeth disdained the trappings of royalty. When her husband was away, she wore plain clothing. She often gave away her expensive clothes and jewels to the poor in the marketplace, preferring to dress in tattered clothes, often walking barefoot, and mingling among the common people, tending to their illnesses and feeding the poor. Ludwig had given her permission in his absence to share their wealth and the fruits of their harvest with the needy, much to the consternation of his vassals and the other nobles. She emptied the granaries of the estate to feed the people during a great famine in Thuringia and established a small hospital at the foot of the Wartburg castle, a precursor of her life and ministry to come. She ministered to lepers with her own hands; gave food, money, and clothing to pregnant women and their children; and provided burial shrouds of the finest linen to indigent persons. For these things she was mocked and often called mad.
In 1223 or 1224, the first Franciscan missionaries to Germany arrived in Eisenach. Elizabeth’s encounters with them deepened her desire for a life of poverty and penance. She learned about Francis and how he had renounced his wealth and it struck a chord. She established a small house in Eisenach for the friars and even spun the wool for their habits. She began to dress like them when she was with her ladies-in-waiting, wrapping herself in a shabby cloak and an old piece of cloth on her head. She appears to have adopted the Franciscan way of life even during her marriage, but she made no formal profession until after Ludwig’s death. In a history of the Franciscan Order, it is noted that at the suggestion of Cardinal Hugolino, the future Pope Gregory IX, St. Francis sent his mantle to St. Elizabeth, which she wore until the day she died.
When Ludwig, who had been knighted by Pope Innocent III in 1218, died of a fever in Italy on his journey to a Crusade to the Holy Land with Emperor Frederick II in 1227, Elizabeth’s life changed dramatically. Chroniclers disagree about whether Ludwig’s brothers expelled her and her children from Marburg or whether she left voluntarily. In any case, she was deprived of her dowered possessions and, because she had no means to care for them, Elizabeth was eventually forced to give up custody of her children. She said that she put them “in God’s hands” to keep them from the hardships she would face in her life. There are many accounts of the difficulties Elizabeth endured, all with a spirit of humility and joy. She seemed to embrace the poverty to which she was subjected, only regretting that she had nothing to give the poor. When Pope Gregory IX heard about Elizabeth’s fate, through a Franciscan Brother Andrew of Westphalia, a friend of St. Francis, he sent papal letters placing her in the protection of Conrad of Marburg, her confessor, and her possessions under the spiritual protection of the Holy See on her behalf.
The remainder of Elizabeth’s brief life was one of prayer, poverty, charity, and compassion. On Good Friday, March 24, 1228, Elizabeth and her faithful handmaids Guda and Isentrude and two poor women from the town were publicly professed in the Order of Penance, in the chapel at Eisenach, renouncing the world and professing vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Her children were present for the profession. Elizabeth’s hair was cut off and she was clothed in the coarse grey habit and cord of the penitent. With the settlement she received from the dower her husband left her, Elizabeth built a hospital for the poor dedicated to St. Francis in Marburg and established a religious community to serve it.
Pope Gregory IX sent her a relic of the saint’s blood of the stigmata on his side for the hospital chapel. This was one of the first foundations dedicated to the newly canonized saint.
From this point on, Elizabeth gave herself entirely to the service of the poor. She saw the person of Christ in all of these people. She bathed and nursed the sick, bound their wounds, and put them to bed. She prepared their medicines, played with the children, cared for pregnant women and their children, and took the poor to eat at her table and sit at her side. She and her sisters visited the poor and distributed whatever food they had. To earn money for the hospital, Elizabeth spun wool. Elizabeth was ill for the last few years of her life and she died poor, like those to whom she ministered. Upon her death on November 17, 1231, it is reported that her humble quarters were filled with a sweet fragrant odor and the sounds of clear voices singing. She was dressed, as was her wish, in her old grey habit. Crowds came to her four-day viewing. It seemed to witnesses that the years of suffering and grief had been lifted from her face. She was buried in a simple tomb in the hospital chapel, which became the scene of many miracles.
On May 27, 1235 she was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in the Church of St. Dominic of Perugia, site of the canonization of Francis of Assisi in 1228 and St. Anthony of Padua in 1232. Her three children were present for the event.
In 1236, the Emperor Frederick II, clad in a coarse grey garment, and walking barefoot, attended the translation of her remains to a shrine and placed a crown on Elizabeth’s head. When her sacred relics were exposed, they were entire and intact and a sweet fragrance fi lled the space. Eight hundred years later, the example of St. Elizabeth of Hungary remains an inspiration to lay and religious Franciscans, to married persons, to pregnant women, to the poor and sick, indeed to anyone in the 21st century who wishes to live a life devoted to love of God and service to others.
Pope Gregory IX, in his 1235 bull entitled Jesus Filius, writes: “[Elizabeth] demonstrates a love that is not closed in on itself, but one that is illuminated from above and open to humble people; to the hungry and sick with whom she wished to be mother and sister while participating in their suffering and personally trying to alleviate it. She burnt herself out like a meteor at only twenty-four years of age—but she left an indelible memory.”
By Kathleen Gilmour
References and further reading
Higgins, M. J., TOR. (2007). Saint Elizabeth of Hungary: Patron Saint of the SFO and TOR. Koinonia, 14(53), 1 - 6.
Jones, C. A. (2005). The life of S. Elizabeth of Hungary: Duchess of Thuringia. London: Elibron Classics. (This book is unabridged facsimile of the edition published in 1873).
Mulqueen, A., SFO. (2008). Elizabeth of Hungary: Timeless model for twenty-fi rst century Secular Franciscans. Koinonia, 15(57), 2 -4.
Pieper, L. (2007). The greatest of these is love: The life of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. New York: Tau Cross Books and Media.