Elizabeth of Hungary was born on 7 July 1207, possible in Sárospatak in Hungary. Her parents were King Andrew II of Hungary and Gertrude of Merania, and she was their third surviving child.
She would only spend the first four years of her life in Hungary, and it was at this tender age that she was betrothed to Hermann, the eldest son of Hermann I, Landgrave of Thuringia. She was then moved to Thuringia, where she would grow up alongside her future husband. Upon arrival, she was immediately placed in young Hermann’s bed to consummate the marriage symbolically. Unfortunately, Hermann died in childhood, so the actual wedding never took place.
Elizabeth was known to be devoted to religion from an early age and even kissed the door handles of churches which were closed. She was also known for her love of John the Apostle. As a young woman, she became an excellent horsewoman, and she liked to ride no matter the weather. However, her position at the Thuringian court was unstable at best. Her groom had died, and after her mother’s murder, the payments of her dowry had stopped. Her only hope was a marriage to the next heir – her groom’s younger brother Louis. They had grown up together and got along well.
Louis became the new Landgrave upon his father’s death in 1217, and just three years later, the 20-year-old Louis married the 13-year-old Elizabeth. It appears to have been a loving marriage which produced three children: Hermann (his father’s successor), Sophie and Gertrude. However, Elizabeth could not bear to be parted from her husband for long periods and went with him as often as she could.
In 1226, Louis took up the cross and embarked on the Sixth Crusade the following year. Elizabeth, pregnant with her third child, accompanied her husband initially to the border of Thuringia, but she felt unable to say goodbye to him. She accompanied him for another day until one of the knights pointed out the dangers. A tearful goodbye followed, and Elizabeth made her way home to Wartburg. There she dressed in widow’s clothes, as she always did when Louis was away. Louis died of the plague on 11 September 1227, without having seen the Holy Land. He was still only 26 years old.
Elizabeth received the news from her mother-in-law Sophia, and she reportedly exclaimed, “He is dead. He is dead. It is to me as if the whole world died today.”1 Elizabeth became enraged, screamed and banged her head against the wall. Her confessor was shocked and asked her, “Is this your piety, Lady Elizabeth? Can you not surrender to the will of the creator?”2 Elizabeth calmed down but refused to eat or drink at first. Louis’s body was returned to Germany, and a crying Elizabeth murmured her thanks for the return of his body.
Elizabeth’s brother-in-law Henry assumed the regency of his young nephew Hermann and Elizabeth left the court at Wartburg and moved to Marburg. It is not very clear if she did this voluntarily or if she was driven out. Elizabeth had always been known for her charitable works, even opening up the supply chambers of grain during the famine of 1225. She was especially drawn to the common people and often had people address her by her first name.
Elizabeth soon wished to follow a religious life and made vows to her confessor similar to those of a nun. He ordered her to separate from her three children, as they took over much of her life. It was reported that”he commanded Elizabeth to renounce the one-and-half-year-old Gertrude; she wasn’t to get too attached so that the child did not hinder her service to God.”3 Though she considered it to be the hardest sacrifice she had to make, Elizabeth decided to renounce her children. She took them to a convent and entrusted their education to the nuns. Elizabeth had begged God to free her of her “excessive love for the children” and later said, “I have given them into God’s hands, let Him treat them according to his pleasure.”4
Her family was appalled by her wish to follow a religious life, and her uncle tried to arrange a new marriage for her with Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, who had recently been widowed. Elizabeth threatened to cut off her nose so that “no man will want me.”5 Elizabeth founded a hospital in Marburg, where she cared for the poor and the sick. She was never afraid to do the dirty work and cared for everyone equally. She gave to charity everything she could miss, to the horror of her confessor, who was afraid she would spend her entire dowry.
In 1231, Elizabeth fell ill with a fever while at Marburg. While she lay ailing, she had a vision of a singing bird, and she quietly and calmly passed away on 17 November 1231. She was still only 24 years old. Not long after her burial, miracles began to happen at her grave. Her confessor was soon hoping for canonization, and he sent a letter to Rome. Testimonies were gathered of the miracles, and just four years after her death, Elizabeth became Saint Elizabeth. Her bones were taken to the Elisabethkirche in Marburg, and her shrine became a place of pilgrimage. Subsequent wars and plunderings meant that her bones were scattered all over Europe, though it is said most if not all are now in the Primatial Cathedral of Bogotá.
Speyer Cathedral holds a piece of Elisabeth’s wedding dress as a relic, though it is unclear to me how they obtained it and if it has been authenticated. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting piece of history and part of a tragic tale of love and devotion.