Throughout history, there are several examples of a king’s widow marrying her husband’s successor. In these situations, the marriage to the Queen dowager was believed to strengthen the new King’s claim to the throne. One such woman who married two different kings of the same kingdom was Elisabeth-Richeza of Poland. Both of her marriages were short-lived, and after the death of her second husband, she seems to have taken her destiny into her own hands.
The birth name of this queen was simply Richeza (also spelt as Ryska or Richenza. Born on 1 September 1286 or 1288, she was the only child of Przemysl II of Poland. Her mother, Richeza of Sweden, was Przemysl’s second wife. She died by 1292 at the latest. In 1293, Przemysl married for a third time to Margaret of Brandenburg.
Poland was a divided country at the time of Richeza’s birth. Her father ruled his hereditary lands of Greater Poland when she was born. Richeza belonged to the Piasts, Poland’s ruling dynasty, which had many branches spread out among the country. One man, known as the High Duke of Poland ruled over them all. The title did not always pass from father to son, and the Piast princes often fought each other to be Poland’s supreme ruler. Between 1138 and 1295, various High Dukes would rule over Poland, all of them belonging to various branches of the Piast Dynasty. In 1290, Richeza’s father became High Duke of Poland. In 1295, Przemysl managed to bring most of Poland under his control and was crowned as King of Poland 26 June 1295. He was the first Polish ruler to be King since 1079. Przemysl did not enjoy being King for long though, for, on 8 February 1296, he was murdered by relatives of his wife. He was the last male member of the Greater Poland branch of the Piasts, so this left Richeza, his only child, a highly desirable match for a candidate for the Polish throne.
Richeza was betrothed to Margaret of Brandenburg’s brother, Otto. After her father’s death, Richeza was placed in her stepmother’s care. Margret returned to Brandenburg, taking her stepdaughter with her. After Otto died in 1299, Richeza returned to her homeland. In 1300, King Wenceslaus II of Bohemia offered to marry Richeza. He was crowned as King of Poland that same year.
Queen of Bohemia
Richeza and Wenceslaus were married on 26 May 1303. Richeza was 14 or 16 years old, while Wenceslaus was 31. He had previously been married to Judith of Habsburg, who bore him ten children and died in 1297. By this time, only four of Wenceslaus’s children were alive: three daughters and one son. The three older children were not much younger than Richeza herself. In the marriage ceremony, Richeza was crowned as Queen of Bohemia and Poland, and her name was changed to “Elisabeth” because the name Richeza was rare in Bohemia. Two years later, Elisabeth-Richeza gave birth to a daughter named Agnes. King Wenceslaus died just six days later, on 21 June 1305. As a young widow connected with a great inheritance, Elisabeth-Richeza’s presence was a source of tension, and she needed to find a new husband quickly.
In August 1306, Elisabeth-Richeza’s only stepson, King Wenceslaus III of Bohemia, was murdered under mysterious circumstances. With his death, the male line of Bohemia’s royal Premyslid dynasty went extinct. A succession crisis followed, with Elisabeth-Richeza and her stepdaughters becoming central contenders for the Bohemian throne.
One contender for the throne was Rudolf III of Habsburg, chosen by the Bohemian parliament. But, Henry of Carinthia, husband of Elisabeth-Richeza’s oldest stepdaughter, Anne, took the throne instead. To strengthen his claim to the throne, and to also possibly lay claim to the Polish throne, Rudolf married Elisabeth-Richeza on 16 October 1306. Soon Henry was deposed, and Rudolf became the new King of Bohemia, with Elisabeth-Richeza as his consort.
The Succession Crisis Continues
Elisabeth-Richeza’s second marriage and tenure as queen-consort was to be even shorter than her first. Less than one year later, on 3 July 1307, Rudolf died of dysentery. Elisabeth-Richeza was once again a young widow. Henry of Carinthia took the Bohemian throne once again. Rudolf’s younger brother, Frederick, tried to claim the Bohemian throne, and Elisabeth-Richeza supported him against Henry. It was Henry, however, who prevailed, and Elisabeth-Richeza fled to Austria with her daughter and lived with Frederick. She returned to Bohemia by 1310.
Henry of Carinthia was deposed for a second and final time in 1310, and John of Luxembourg, son of the new German Emperor, married Elisabeth-Richeza’s second stepdaughter, Elisabeth, and became the new King of Bohemia. Elisabeth-Richeza did not support John and Elisabeth. A powerful Bohemian nobleman, Henry of Lipa, also did not support them, and he, together with Elisabeth-Richeza, led an opposition of Bohemian nobles against the new royal couple. Soon afterwards, Elisabeth-Richeza took Henry of Lipa as her lover. This caused much scandal, because of their difference in rank, and by the fact that Henry was married to another woman.
Elisabeth of Bohemia did not enjoy a good relationship with her not-much-older stepmother and had Henry of Lipa imprisoned between 1315 and 1318. He was eventually released because Elisabeth-Richeza’s position with the Bohemian nobility was still powerful. In 1319, Henry was restored to his offices, and he and Elisabeth-Richeza settled in the city of Brno, where they set up a glittering court. That same year, she married her daughter, Agnes off to a Polish duke from the Silesian branch of Piasts, Henry I of Jawor. This marriage was arranged so that Elisabeth-Richeza could extend her influence into the lands of Lower Silesia. It is also said that Elisabeth-Richeza and Henry of Lipa also married in 1319, but it is uncertain if this marriage actually happened. Nevertheless, they lived together until Henry’s death ten years later.
Elisabeth-Richeza’s court outshined that of the King’s. Between 1316 and 1323, she commissioned eight illuminated manuscripts, that were presented to the Cistercian nuns, the order which she favoured. She even founded a Cistercian convert in 1323. After Henry of Lipa died in 1329, she took the veil and focused on religious projects. Elisabeth-Richeza and Agnes took a pilgrimage to the Rhineland in 1333. She spent her final years in the convent of St. Mary, Brno, which she had founded. Elisabeth-Richeza of Poland died on 19 October 1335 and was buried in the convent, besides Henry of Lipa.
Elisabeth-Richeza of Poland’s life was unique for a queen or a princess of her time. Widowed for the second time at the age of 18 or 20, instead of returning to her homeland, remarrying, or entering a convent, she remained in her adopted country and continued to play a major role behind the scenes. Elisabeth-Richeza seems to have controlled her own life and lived the way she wanted to, settling down with the man she loved. This was a privilege that many women of her rank were denied.
Crossley, Paul; “The Architecture of Queenship: Royal Saints, Female Dynasties and the Spread of Gothic Architecture in Central Europe” in Queens and Queenship in Medieval Europe.
Kabu, Nada, Ph. D.; “700th Anniversary of the Wedding of John of Luxembourg and Elisabeth of Premyslides”.
Thomas, Alfred; Anne’s Bohemia: Czech Literature and Society, 1310-1420.