November 19


It is related by Dietrich of Apolda in his life of this saint [1] that on an evening in the summer of the year 1207 the minnesinger Klingsohr from Transylvania announced to the Landgrave Herman of Thuringia that that night a daughter had been born to the king of Hungary, who should be exalted in holiness and become the wife of Herman's son; and that in fact at that time the child Elizabeth was born, in Pressburg (Bratislava) or Saros-Patak, to Andrew II of Hungary and his wife, Gertrude of Andechs-Meran. Such an alliance as that "foretold" by Klingsohr had substantial political advantages to recommend it, and the baby Elizabeth was promised to Herman's eldest son. At about four years of age she was brought to the Thuringian court at the castle of the Wartburg, near Eisenach, there to be brought up with her future husband. As she grew up she underwent much unkindness from some members of the court, who did not appreciate her goodness, but on the other hand the young man Louis (Ludwig) became more and more enamoured of her. We are told that when he had visited a city he would always bring back a present for her, a knife or a bag or gloves or a coral rosary. "When it was time for him to be back she would run out to meet him and he would take her lovingly on his arm and give her what he had brought." In 1221, Louis being now twenty-one and landgrave in his father's place, and Elizabeth fourteen, their marriage was solemnized, in spite of attempts to persuade him to send her back to Hungary as an unsuitable bride; he declared he would rather cast away a mountain of gold than give her up. She, we are told, was "perfect in body, handsome, of a dark complexion; serious in her ways, and modest, of kindly speech, fervent in prayer and most generous to the poor, always full of goodness and divine love" ; he also was handsome and "modest as a young maid", wise, patient and truthful, trusted by his men and loved by his people. Their wedded life lasted only six years and has been called by an English writer "an idyll of enthralling fondness, of mystic ardour, of almost childish happiness, the like of which I do not remember in all I have read of romance or of human experience". They had three children, Herman, who was born in 1222 and died when he was nineteen, Sophia, who became duchess of Brabant, and Bd Gertrude of Aldenburg. Louis, unlike some husbands of saints, put no obstacles in the way of his wife's charity, her simple and mortified life, and her long prayers. "My lady", says one of her ladies-in-waiting, "would get up at night to pray, and my lord would implore her to spare herself and come back to rest, all the while holding her hand in his for fear she should come to some harm. She would tell her maids to wake her gently when he was asleep -- and sometimes when they thought him sleeping he was only pretending." [2]

Elizabeth's material benefactions were so great that they sometimes provoked adverse criticism. In 1225 that part of Germany was severely visited by a famine and she exhausted her own treasury and distributed her whole store of corn amongst those who felt the calamity heaviest. The landgrave was then away, and at his return the officers of his household complained to him of her profusion to the poor. But Louis, without examining into the matter, asked if she had alienated any of his dominions. They answered, "No". "As for her charities", said he, "they will bring upon us the divine blessings. We shall not want so long as we let her relieve the poor as she does." The castle of the Wartburg was built on a steep rock, which the infirm and weak were not able to climb (the path was called "the kneesmasher"). St Elizabeth therefore built a hospital at the foot of the rock for their reception, where she often fed them with her own hands, made their beds, and attended them even in the heat of summer when the place seemed insupportable. Helpless children, especially orphans, were provided for at her expense. She was the foundress of another hospital in which twenty-eight persons were constantly relieved, and she fed nine hundred daily at her gate, besides numbers in different parts of the dominions, so that the revenue in her hands was truly the patrimony of the distressed. But Elizabeth's charity was tempered with discretion; and instead of encouraging in idleness such as were able to work, she employed them in ways suitable to their strength and ability. There is a story about St Elizabeth so well known that it would hardly need repeating here but that Father Delehaye picks it out as an example of the way in which hagiographers so often embellish a tale to make a greater impression on their readers.

Everyone is familiar with the beautiful incident in the life of St Elizabeth of Hungary when, in the very bed she shared with her husband, she laid a miserable leper... The indignant landgrave rushed into the room and dragged off the bedclothes. "But", in the noble words of the historian, "at that instant Almighty God opened the eyes of his soul, and instead of a leper he saw the figure of Christ crucified stretched upon the bed." This admirable account by Dietrich of Apolda was considered too simple by later biographers, who consequently transformed the sublime vision of faith into a material apparition. Tunc aperuit Deus interiores principis oculos, wrote the historian. On the spot where the leper had slept, say the modern hagiographers, "there lay a bleeding crucifix with out-stretched arms" (The Legends of the Saints, p. 90).

At this time strenuous efforts were being made to launch another crusade, and Louis of Thuringia took the cross. On St John the Baptist's day he parted from St Elizabeth and went to join the Emperor Frederick II in Apulia; on September 11 following he was dead of the plague at Otranto. The news did not reach Germany until October, just after the birth of Elizabeth's second daughter. Her mother-in-law broke the news to her, speaking of "what had befallen" her husband, and the "dispensation of God". Elizabeth misunderstood. "Since he is a prisoner", she said, "with the help of God and our friends he shall be set free." When she was told he was not a prisoner but dead, she cried, "The world is dead to me, and all that was joyous in the world", and ran to and fro about the castle shrieking like one crazed.

What happened next is a matter of some uncertainty. According to the testimony of one of her ladies-in-waiting, Isentrude, St Elizabeth's brother-in-law, Henry, who was regent for her infant son, drove her and her children and two attendants from the Wartburg during that same winter that he might seize power himself; and there are shocking particulars of the hardship and contempt which she suffered until she was fetched away from Eisenach by her aunt, Matilda, Abbess of Kitzingen. It is alternatively claimed that she was dispossessed of her dowerhouse at Marburg, in Hesse, or even that she left the Wartburg of her own free will. From Kitzingen she visited her uncle, Eckembert, Bishop of Bamberg, who put his castle of Pottenstein at her disposal, whither she went with her son Herman and the baby, leaving the little Sophia with the nuns of Kitzingen. Eckembert had ambitious plans for another marriage for Elizabeth, but she refused to listen to them: before his departure on the crusade she and her husband had exchanged promises never to marry again. Early in 1228 the body of Louis was brought home and solemnly buried in the abbey church at Reinhardsbrunn; [3] provision was made for Elizabeth by her relatives; and on Good Friday in the church of the Franciscan friars at Eisenach she formally renounced the world, later taking the unbleached gown and cord which was the habit of the third order of St Francis.

An influential part was played in all these developments by Master Conrad of Marburg, who henceforward was the determining human influence in St Elizabeth's life. This priest had played a considerable part therein for some time, having succeeded the Franciscan Father Rodinger as her confessor in 1225. The Landgrave Louis, in common with Pope Gregory IX and many others, had a high opinion of Conrad, and had allowed his wife to make a promise of obedience to him, saving of course his own husbandly authority. But the conclusion can hardly be avoided that Conrad's experience as a successful inquisitor of heretics and his domineering and severe, if not brutal, personality made him an unsuitable person to be the director of St Elizabeth. Some of his later critics have been moved in their adverse criticism by emotion rather than thought and knowledge; on the other hand, his defenders and apologists have not always been free from special pleading. Subjectively, it is true that Conrad, by giving to Elizabeth obstacles which she overcame, helped her on her road to sanctity (though we cannot know that a director of more sensibility would not have led her to yet greater heights); objectively, his methods were offensive. From the Friars Minor St Elizabeth had acquired a love of poverty which she could put into action only to a limited extent all the time she was landgravine of Thuringia. Now, her children having been provided for, she went to Marburg, but was forced to leave there and lived for a time in a cottage at Wehrda, by the side of the River Lahn. Then she built a small house just outside Marburg and attached to it a hospice for the relief of the sick, the aged and the poor, to whose service she entirely devoted herself.

In some respects Conrad acted as a prudent and necessary brake on her enthusiasm at this time: he would not allow her to beg from door to door or to divest herself definitely of all her goods or to give more than a certain amount at a time in alms or to risk infection from leprosy and other diseases. In such matters he acted with care and wisdom. But "Master Conrad tried her constancy in many ways, striving to break her own will in all things. That he might afflict her still more he deprived her of those of her household who were particularly dear to her, including me, Isentrude, whom she loved; she sent me away in great distress and with many tears. Last of all he turned off Jutta, my companion, who had been with her from her childhood, and whom she loved with a special love. With tears and sighs the blessed Elizabeth saw her go. Master Conrad, of pious memory, did this in his zeal with good intentions, lest we should talk to her of past greatness and she be tempted to regret. Moreover, he thus took away from her any comfort she might have in us because he wished her to cling to God alone." For her devoted waiting-women he substituted two "harsh females", who reported to him on her words and actions when these infringed his detailed commands in the smallest degree. He punished her with slaps in the face and blows with a "long, thick rod" whose marks remained for three weeks. No plea of "other times, other manners" can take the sting from Elizabeth's bitter cry to Isentrude, "If I am so afraid of a mortal man, how awe-inspiring must be the Lord and Judge of the world!" [4]

Conrad's policy of breaking rather than directing the will was not completely successful. With reference to him and his disciplinary methods St Elizabeth compares herself to sedge in a stream during flood-time: the water bears it down flat, but when the rains have gone it springs up again, straight, strong and unhurt. Once when she went off to pay a visit of which Conrad did not approve, he sent to fetch her back. "We are like the snail", she observed, "which withdraws into its shell when it is going to rain. So we obey and withdraw from the way we were going." She had that good self-confidence so often seen when a sense of humour serves submission to God.

One day a Magyar noble arrived at Marburg and asked to be directed to the residence of his sovereign's daughter, of whose troubles he had been informed. Arrived at the hospital, he saw Elizabeth in her plain grey gown, sitting at her spinning-wheel. The magnificent fellow started back, crossing himself in alarm: "Whoever has seen a king's daughter spinning before?" He would have taken her back to the court of Hungary, but Elizabeth would not go. Her children, her poor, the grave of her husband were all in Thuringia, and she would stay there for the rest of her life. It was not for long. She lived with great austerity and worked continually, in her hospice, in the homes of the poor, fishing in the streams to earn a little more money to help sufferers; even when she was sick herself she would try to spin or card wool. She had not been at Marburg two years when her health finally gave way. As she lay abed her attendant heard her singing softly. "You sing sweetly, madam," she said. "I will tell you why," replied Elizabeth. "Between me and the wall there was a little bird singing so gaily to me, and it was so sweet that I had to sing too." At midnight before the day of her death she stirred from her quietness and said, "It is near the hour when the Lord was born and lay in the manger and by His all-mighty power made a new star. He came to redeem the world, and He will redeem me." And at cock-crow, "It is now the time when He rose from the grave and broke the doors of hell, and he will release me." St Elizabeth died in the evening of November 17, 1231, being then not yet twenty-four years old.

For three days her body lay in state in the chapel of the hospice, where she was buried and where many miracles were seen at her intercession. Master Conrad began collecting depositions touching her sanctity, but he did not live to see her canonization, which was proclaimed in 1235. In the following year her relics were translated to the church of St Elizabeth at Marburg, built by her brother-in-law Conrad, in the presence of the Emperor Frederick II, and "so great a concourse, of divers nations, peoples and tongues as in these German lands scarcely ever was gathered before or will ever be again". There the relics of St Elizabeth of Hungary rested, an object of pilgrimage to all Germany and beyond, till in 1539 a Protestant landgrave of Hesse, Philip, removed them to a place unknown.

A glance at the BHL., nn. 2488-2514, suffices to reveal how much was written about St Elizabeth within a relatively short time of her death. For a somewhat more detailed bibliography of sources, consult A. Huyskens, Quellenstudien zur Geschichte der hl. Elizabeth (1908), and also the introduction and notes to the text printed by D. Henniges in the Archivum Franciscanum Historicum, vol. ii (1909), pp. 240-268. It must suffice to say here that the most important materials are supplied by the Libellus de dictis IV ancillarum (a summary of the depositions of the saint's four handmaidens); by the letters of Conrad to the pope; the accounts of miracles and other documents sent to Rome in view of her canonization; the life written by Caesarius of Heisterbach with a discourse of his concerning the translation (both before 1240); and the life by Dietrich of Apolda, composed as late as 1297, but important on account of its wide diffusion. Some of the most notable of these texts were edited by Karl Wenck, and others by Huyskens, in view of the seventh centenary of the saint's birth. A detailed criticism is provided in the Analecta Bollandiana, vols. xxvii, pp. 493-497 and xxviii, pp. 333-335. Of modern biographies the work of Count de Montalembert (1836; best English translation by F. D. Hoyt, 1904) for more than half a century held the field, but unfortunately the author's charm of style and deep religious feeling are handicapped by a lack of historical criticism. The attitude of Conrad of Marburg towards his penitent has been in some measure vindicated by P. Braun in his articles in the Beiträge zur Hessische Kirchengeschichte, vol. iv (1910), pp. 248-300 and 331-364. There are French lives of the saint of moderate compass by E. Horn (1902), Leopold de Chérancé (1927), and J. Ancelet-Hustache (1947), and German ones by A. Stolz (1898) and E. Busse-Wilson (1931). There is a sensitive simple sketch in English by William Canton; but the book called Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, by F. J. von Weinrich (Eng. trans., 1933), is a mere work of fiction based upon the story of St Elizabeth. She has sometimes been credited with the writings called the Revelationes B. Elisabeth, but these contain nothing of hers, as F. Oliger has proved: neither did they spring from the fertile imagination of St Elizabeth of Schönau; cf. Analecta Bollandiana, vol. lxxi (1953), pp. 494-496.
[1] Alban Butler's own comment, under the 16th of this month, on the De contemptu mundi of St Eucherius of Lyons, "in this piece certain superfluities might have been spared and the full sense more closely expressed with equal strength and perspicuity in fewer words", is true also of his account of St Elizabeth of Hungary in an even greater degree than usual in his lives. His long notice of her has therefore been almost entirely discarded.
[2] "She had ordained that one of her women, which was more familiar with her than another, that if peradventure she were overtaken with sleep, that she should take her by the foot for to awake her; and on a time she supposed to have taken her lady by the foot and took her husband's foot, which suddenly awoke and would know wherefore she did so; and then she told him all the case, and when he knew it he let it pass and suffered it peaceably" (Golden Legend).
[3] He is popularly venerated in Germany as "St Ludwig". See September 11.
[4] "Alban Butler's treatment of Conrad of Marburg is an excellent example of a defect of his method in writing of the saints. He says: "Conrad, a most holy and learned priest and an eloquent pathetic preacher, whose disinterestedness and love of holy poverty, mortified life, and extraordinary devotion and spirit of prayer rendered him a model to the clergy of that age, was the person whom she chose for her spiritual director, and to his advice she submitted herself in all things relating to her spiritual concerns. This holy and experienced guide, observing how deep root the seeds of virtue had taken in her soul, applied himself by cultivating them to conduct her to the summit of Christian perfection, and encouraged her in the path of mortification and penance, but was obliged often to moderate her corporal austerities by the precept of obedience." True in substance, if exaggerated in expression: but...

Back to the contents
(Butler's Lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1995)