Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Religious

Elizabeth was born in 1207 at Pressburg, and was the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary. She was brought up in Thuringia and in 1221, was married to the saintly Louis IV, its landgrave (a feudal lord who was directly and only accountable to the Holy Roman Emperor), at the age of 13. Out of jealousy, her mother-in-law tried to prevent the wedding and constantly mocked Elizabeth for her charity and humility, and said she was totally unfitted to be consort.

Elizabeth had the reputation of being lively, passionate and good-looking. She enjoyed an extremely happy family life and had four children. She spent large amounts on alms, setting up hospitals and taking care of needy children and orphans. She wore the simplest of clothes and ate sparingly. She refused to wear a jewelled crown, when Christ’s was one of thorns. When not actively engaged in government, she spent her time either in prayer or visiting the poor and the sick.

In 1227, her husband Louis went on a Crusade under King Frederick II, but just three months later died of the plague. After her husband’s death, his family accused her of squandering his money on beggars. Elizabeth found it difficult to accept the news of her husband’s death, which upset her greatly, but it would become the turning point in her life.

She was evicted from the palace with her four children when Henry, her brother-in-law declared himself regent. He forbade any citizen to give Elizabeth hospitality, and she had to spend the first few days in a pigsty. She declined the hospitality offered by her father, but then agreed to stay with her uncle, the bishop of Bamberg.

Some people urged her to remarry, but she refused. In 1228, she settled at Marburg and lived under the spiritual guidance of her confessor, Conrad of Marburg, whom she had known since 1225. He was a severe and unpopular pursuer of heretics. Elizabeth placed herself unreservedly under his direction, which was so severe as to be deemed sadistic. He banished her ladies in waiting and substituted two unpleasant women in their stead. If she did not follow his instructions he would beat her, even for trivial matters. In spite of this, she refused an offer to return to her native Hungary, preferring to live out her days in exile, while maintaining her good humour.

She joined the Third Order of St Francis as an expression of her desire for a simple life, and devoted herself to the relief of the sick, the poor, and the elderly. She did this by building and then working in a hospital which was close to her simple residence. She also arranged for other people to bring up her children. She busied herself with simple tasks like spinning and carding, or cleaning the homes of the poor and catching fish to help feed them.

On their return from the Crusades, her husband’s friends had been entrusted with the duty of protecting Elizabeth. But then Henry the self-appointed regent, changed his attitude about her and recognised the rights of her son as heir. She had only a few more years of life left, but she spent them in constant prayer and in helping the needy. She was universally loved and respected.

She died on 19 November, 1231, and as an indication of her reputation, was canonized only four years later (in 1235) by Pope Gregory IX.

In the following year, her relics were brought to the church of St Elizabeth at Marburg where they remained the object of popular pilgrimage until 1539, when they were removed to an unknown location by the Lutheran, Philip of Hesse.

St Elizabeth is traditionally represented as dressed in rich clothes, bearing in her skirt – which is gathered up at the front to form an apron – a profusion of red roses, while behind her back she holds a loaf of bread. These are the symbols of her life, her inherited position as Queen of Hungary, and the life she elected for herself of penance and asceticism.

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