Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) devoted her life and her financial resources to the improvement of the lives of the sick and poor. The daughter of the King of Hungary, she renounced her privileged life and worked to serve the less fortunate, creating such charitable institutions as a hospital for lepers and the first orphanage in Central Europe.
Elizabeth of Hungary was a thirteenth-century member of the Hungarian and German royalty who devoted her energy and fortune to the assistance of the sick and poor in the German region of Thuringia. Her work included feeding the hungry, building a hospital, and creating the first orphanage in Central Europe. A beloved figure of selflessness and charity among her people, her death brought reports that she had worked miracles on the behalf of those who prayed for her intervention. She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1235.
Elizabeth was born into the royal family of Hungary in 1207 in Sárospatak. Her father was King Andrew II of Hungary and her mother was Gertrud of Andechs-Meran, who was the victim of a political murder plot in 1213. Elizabeth was also connected to powerful figures in the Roman Catholic Church; her uncle Berthold was the Patriarch of Aquileia and her uncle Echbert was the Bishop of Bamberg. In 1211, a marriage was arranged for the four-year-old princess to the eldest son of Hermann I, Landgrave of the German region of Thuringia. The match provided advantages for both families—Thuringia would profit from the financial wealth Elizabeth would bring, and Hungary stood to gain political support against other German princes who threatened to invade the country. With a lavish dowry, including gold pieces and a solid silver bathtub, the young Elizabeth was sent to live at the Thuringian court at Wartburg castle near Eisenach.
Married into Thuringian Royalty
At Wartburg, an engagement celebration was held for Elizabeth and her fiancee by Hermann I and his wife, Sophia. In her new life in the Thuringian court, she was educated in subjects such as poetry, the history of royal families, art, Latin, and religion. She was surrounded by poetry and art at Wartburg, where Hermann I provided patronage for a number of writers and artists of the day. She also enjoyed the playing games, riding horses, and saying prayers in the castle's chapel. Elizabeth was an enthusiastic child with a loud laugh, but she was instructed early on by her future mother-in-law that being boisterous was not appropriate for a woman of the royal court.
After learning of the violent death of her mother in 1213, Elizabeth's disposition was changed. She took on a simple mode of dress and spent an increasing amount of time in prayer. Despite a vivid dream in which she saw the bloody body of her murdered mother, she prayed for the souls of the killers. When she was nine years old, tragedy again struck. Her fiancee died, and a year later his father was dead as well. Elizabeth's position at the court became unclear, but her status was secured when the younger son of Herman I, Louis, decided that he would marry her. The two, who had developed a close friendship, were married in 1221. The following year, the couple journeyed to visit Elizabeth's father, during which time they viewed the incredible destruction that had befallen the country with the Golden Bull revolt of the Hungarian nobles.
Built Hospital and Orphanage
Upon their return to Thuringia, Elizabeth began to focus even more heavily on the development of her spiritual life. She received religious instruction and counseling from her confessor, the Franciscan friar Father Rodinger. During this time, she also turned to public charity work, building an orphanage and founding a hospital for lepers, where she would tend the afflicted herself. Her husband was called to serve in a military campaign in 1225, leaving Elizabeth as the ruler of Thuringia. She used her increased authority to extend her work, providing food for hundreds of the poor each day. But she was a firm believer in empowering the disadvantaged to help themselves and not rely on charity; she donated tools to men who were out of work and she showed women how to spin. When natural disasters occurred, she helped people to rebuild and recover. In addition, she carried on the official duties of the court, hosting important visitors and joining in entertainments such as hunting parties.
While pregnant with her third child, Elizabeth's husband was called to war again, leaving to join in a Crusade in 1227. He never returned, falling ill and dying during his journey. Louis's brothers were concerned about Elizabeth's practice of spending large sums on the poor, and so they arranged to keep her from controlling her own money. The discord at court caused her to leave Wartburg in the fall of 1227. Unable to find refuge nearby, she placed her children in the care of others and, with two of her servants, began living in the stable of an inn and spinning to earn money. She was delivered from this situation by the abbess of Kitzingen, who provided her with a place to live in the abbey.
Turned to Life of Humble Poverty
Elizabeth received offers to return to her privileged world; her uncle, the Bishop of Bamberg, invited her to take up residence at one of his castles. He also tried to arrange a marriage between her and Emperor Frederick II. But Elizabeth declined both offers. Her only worldly interest in property and fortune was to provide for her children's future and for the poor, and with the assistance of a court official in Thuringia, she successfully fought for the control of the wealth she had inherited from her husband. With that accomplished, she turned to an austere life of material deprivation and spiritual devotion. She had come under the mentorship of a Franciscan mystic by the name of Conrad of Marburg. Under his guidance, she took religious vows rejecting earthly attachments and her own free will. She then moved to an simple earthen house in the town of Wehrda, where she worked in the leper hospital she had built and supported herself by spinning.
Conrad's methods of subjugating Elizabeth's will and forcing her to abandon all worldly things took an extreme form. As a means of teaching her denial, he limited her indulgences in charity, allowing her to donate only small amounts of money to the poor and instructing her to only give a single slice of bread to those she fed. He also forced her to endure beatings and flagellation to increase her humility. Even in her reduced physical and material state, Elizabeth used what few resources she had to aid others. She placed a boy suffering from dysentery in her own bed, where she nursed him until he died. Then she took in a leprous girl, placed her in her bed, and cared for her. But soon, the physical trials took their toll. Aware that she dying, Elizabeth arranged for her estate to be distributed to her children and the poor, and then took to her bed.
Canonized after Reports of Miracles
For the last two weeks of her life, Elizabeth remained bed-ridden, attended only by Conrad. She died on November 17, 1231, at the age of 24. Dressed in the attire of a poor woman, her body was laid in state at the Franciscan church in Eisenach for four days. People from across Thuringia came to the coffin and prayed for the assistance of the woman who had devoted her life to spiritual matters. After she was buried, miracles were said to have occurred at her grave site. After reporting her death to Pope Gregory IX, Conrad was charged with making preparations for Elizabeth's canonization. Conrad was murdered two years later, however, and the process was continued by the Bishop of Hildsheim. As part of the evidence gathered for the canonization, the testimony of four of Elizabeth's servants were written down. Elizabeth officially was named a saint of the Catholic church on May 26, 1235. One of her brothers-in-law constructed the first church in her honor at Marburg, Germany. On May 1, 1236, her remains were brought to the church and placed on the altar in a ceremony attended by her children and in-laws as well as several bishops and archbishops. Large crowds of religious pilgrims from across Europe also came to pay tribute to the woman who had provided an inspiring example of a life of service to others.
Further Reading on Elizabeth of Hungary
See also Bihl, Michael, "Elizabeth of Hungary," Catholic Encyclopaedia, Volume 5, 1909, pp. 389-91; and Butler, Alban, "St. Elizabeth of Hungary," Lives of the Saints, Volume 4, edited by Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater, P. J. Kennedy and Sons, 1956.