Summary: St Elizabeth of Hungary, Religious. Born in Bratislava (Slovakia) in 1207. Married at the age of fourteen, widowed at twenty, and died at twenty-four in Marburg (Germany) on this day in 1231.
Born in Bratislava in the kingdom of Hungary, Elizabeth was betrothed at the age of four to Ludwig of Thuringia (Germany) in order to reinforce political alliances between the families and sent to live at his father’s court in Wartburg. Ludwig’s affection for her grew steadily, and their marriage was solemnised when she was fourteen and he twenty-one. They had three children in quick succession, and seemed to have been happily married to Ludwig . When Ludwig died of the plague while on crusade, she continued to protect the poor and founded orphanages and hospitals, living this life of service as a Franciscan tertiary despite the hostility of her relatives and the harshness of her confessor.
Patrick Duffy tells her story
In 1223, Franciscan friars arrived, and Elizabeth learned about and began to live the ideals of Francis of Assisi. She had a hospital with twenty-eight beds built below the Wartburg castle and visited the inmates every day. Ludwig was supportive of his wife’s prayers and works of charity.
Leper in the marriage bed
However, once when told that Elizabeth had taken in a dying leper and put him in their marriage bed, Ludwig was furious, rushed in and pulled back the covers: but when he saw the leper, he could see that for him too the leper was Christ himself.
In 1227, Ludwig died of the plague at Otranto in southern Italy en route to the Sixth Crusade. Elizabeth was devastated. She went to her aunt Matilda, who was abbess of Kitzingen, then on to her uncle, bishop of Bamberg, leaving her eldest daughter at Kiazingen. He placed a castle at her disposal and and there were enquiries about a second marriage from the emperor, Frederick II. But Elizabeth had decided never to marry again, and having buried her husband and provided for her children, she joined the Third Order of St Francis. She settled in a small house outside Marburg, to which she attached a hospice for the sick, the poor and the old.
Her spiritual director
Three years earlier, Elizabeth had, with the approval of Pope Honorius III (Cencio Camerario 1216-27), taken Konrad of Marburg as her confessor and had vowed obedience to him. Konrad had been an inquisitor and soon began to exercise an abnormal degree of control over Elizabeth. In some ways he moderated her impetuousity, teaching her to avoid the risk of contracting leprosy. But he deprived her of the human support of the ladies-in-waiting who had accompanied her from Hungary as a child, replacing them with two “harsh females” who spied and reported on her activities. He is also said to have used physical violence against her in his desire for unquestioning obedience. She imposed extreme austerities on herself, and her health gave way after two years of this way of life. She was noted for her good-humoured resilience in adversity and for her humility in menial service of the needy.
Death and canonisation
Elizabeth died, aged twenty-four, on 17 Nov 1231. She was buried in the hospice chapel, and miracles through her intercession were soon widely reported. Konrad gathered a dossier of information on her sanctity and sent it to the Pope but died before her canonisation four years later. Her relics were moved to a new church of St Elizabeth in Marburg, where they remained until the Reformation, when Lutherans removed them to a destination that has never been traced.
Elizabeth soon became a figure of devotional art, and there are notable representations of her by Simone Martini, Fra Angelico, Piero dela Francesca and Jan van Eyck.
Elizabth is one of a number of patron saints of hospitals.
The others are:
St John of God, c/f 8 March
St Camillus de Lellis c/f 14/7
and St Vincent de Paul.C/f 27/9