Elisabeth of Hungary lived for only 24 years and yet she had great influence. She exerted influence by the way she lived her life, carrying out Jesus’ commands to serve the poor and needy. Despite having the riches of a royal household at her disposal, she didn’t take advantage of this but lived simply and worked hard.
At our Thursday service the readings were Psalm 82, Isaiah 58:6-11, Matthew 5:1-12. Elisabeth’s story follows:
Today we remember a short life which made a big impact on the people who met her, Elisabeth of Hungary.
Elisabeth was a princess as she was born on 7th July 1207 to Andrew II of Hungary and his wife Gertrude of Merania. The family was approached by the rulers of Thuringia who wished to forge stronger relationships with Hungary. As a result a marriage was arranged between Elisabeth and the son of Hermann I. At the age of four Elisabeth was sent to the Thuringian court to be brought up with Ludwig, her future husband. Only two years after arriving at the court her mother, Gertrude, was murdered by Hungarian nobles, perhaps because of her German nationality.
The court was a magnificent place at that time. The rulers lived in a wonderful castle, the Wartburg, which was on a hill in the forest near Eisenach. Though surrounded by such riches, Elisabeth was known as a pious child who liked to pray. Sophia, the mother of Ludwig, was known as a religious woman and cared for Elisabeth like a mother. It may be under her influence that Elisabeth developed her spiritual life.
Aged 14, in 1221, Elisabeth married Ludwig who was then 21. This was the same year in which he came to the throne, his father having died in 1217. The two seem to have been very much in love. Shortly after their marriage they made a visit back to Hungary. The couple had three children: Hermann, born in 1222, Sophie, born in 1224 and Gertrude, born in 1227. Despite living surrounded by riches, Elisabeth chose to live simply and to devote her time to acts of charity, something that her husband admired and supported.
Ludwig was known as a good ruler and a brave soldier. He worked for Emperor Frederick II which meant he was often away from home. In 1226, in the spring, he was in Italy at the Diet of Cremona when floods and famine struck Thuringia. In his absence, Elisabeth took over control and set about distributing alms to all in need, helping 900 people a day. It is said that she even gave away state robes and costly ornaments to the poor. She sold her jewels and built a hospital below the Wartburg which had 28 beds and worked there herself. Ludwig was supportive of his wife’s charitable deeds and confirmed his approval of what she had done when he returned from Italy.
The story is told of how Elisabeth worked so hard for the poor that she tended not to notice the passage of time. On one occasion it was already time for dinner before she remembered. She didn’t want to keep Ludwig’s guests waiting and so went to the hall for the meal in her ordinary grey working dress. Angels descended and clothed her appropriately as she entered, placing a coronet on her head, a beautiful golden gown and mantle on her body. In this way she took her seat clothed in such a way that all admired her.
On another occasion, when Ludwig was away from home, a leper came to the castle to seek help. His disease was far advanced and Elisabeth could find nowhere to get help for him, so she placed him in Ludwig’s own bed. Ludwig returned to find the leper there and went to snatch the bedclothes off the bed in his anger. However at that moment he saw not the leper, but Jesus, lying on the bed.
One of her companions, Isentrude, wrote to the Papal Commission for her canonization about the hospital at Wartburg: ‘Once there were in this hospital a number of poor children for whom she provided everything and with much gentleness and kindness kept them near here; and as many as came in all ran to her calling her ‘mother’. She paid the most loving care to the worst cases among these children, the deformed, the dirtiest, the weakest, those suffering from the most repulsive of illnesses, and would take them tenderly in her arms.’
In 1227 Ludwig left home once more, this time on a crusade to Palestine with Emperor Frederick. On 11th September Ludwig died of plague in Otranto, South Italy. The news of Ludwig’s death reached Elisabeth in October, a short time after she had given birth to Gertrude. On hearing the news Elisabeth cried, “The world with all its joys is now dead to me.” Ludwig’s remains were returned for burial in the family vault in 1228.
It’s not clear whether Elisabeth left the Wartburg voluntarily or was forced out by Heinrich who acted as regent for her five year old son. It seems she came under the protection of her uncle, a bishop, who wanted her to marry again, but she had made a vow not to do so in the event of her husband’s death. It is said that she threatened to cut off her own nose in order not to appear attractive enough for anyone to marry.
The Franciscans had settled in the region of Thuringia in 1221 and Elisabeth had been influenced by them. She was given spiritual instruction by Brother Rodeger, who was one of the first Germans to join the order. The ideals of St Francis appealed strongly to Elisabeth, who followed the instructions to live as best she could a life of chastity, humility, patience, prayer and charity. She was not able to embrace voluntary poverty due to her position though she desired to do so.
Later Conrad of Marburg took over as Elisabeth’s spiritual guide and was very harsh with her in matters of spiritual discipline. His demands on her were almost impossible to keep. He is said to have insisted that she send her children away to be cared for elsewhere. He would not let her become a beggar as she wished because he told her to keep her dower (effectively a widow’s pension), including the castle at Marburg. Later, With Conrad’s help, she was given the value of her dower in money which she proceeded to disperse among the poor. She was then in a position to become a member of the Third Order of St Francis. On Good Friday in 1228 Elisabeth renounced the world at the Franciscan house in Eisenach which she had helped to build in 1225 out of her own means. She then went to Marburg and was given the dress of the Third Order along with her maids. This little group was among the first tertiaries in Germany.
In the summer of that year Elisabeth built a Franciscan hospital at Marburg and spent her time there caring for the patients. She seemed to have particular affection for those who had the worst diseases or who looked the worst.
Elisabeth was much loved by the poor and was the cause of the conversion of many who observed her holy life. Sadly, she did not live long, dying at the age of 24, probably as a result of her austere life and hard work. Conrad wrote of her: ‘I declare before God that I have seldom seen a more contemplative woman.
Before her death I heard her confession. When I asked what should be done about her goods and possessions, she replied that anything which seemed to be hers belonged to the poor. She asked me to distribute everything except one worn-out dress in which she wished to be buried. When all this had been decided, she received the body of our Lord. Afterward, until vespers, she spoke often of the holiest things she had heard in sermons. Then, she devoutly commended to God all who were sitting near her, and as if falling into a gentle sleep, she died.’
It was not long after her death that miracles were reported happening where she was buried, in the church of the hospital she built. In 1235 she was canonized by Gregory IX. Shortly after that, in August 1235 the corner stone of the Gothic Franciscan church of St Elizabeth was laid in Marburg. On 1st May 1249 her remains were placed in the choir of the church. Her shrine became a centre of pilgrimage in the 14th and 15th centuries.
She lived such a short time but influenced many with her works of kindness in her lifetime and by her example after her death. Here in SL, a long way from 13th century Germany, we too can learn from and be challenged by Elisabeth’s example.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor