(A.D. 1251) Elizabeth was the daughter of Andrew II, King of Hungary. Her mother was Queen Gertrude, daughter of the Duke of Carinthia. Elizabeth was born in the year 1207. Her august parents were distinguished for their great piety, and great was their joy on seeing their child, even in her infantile years, giving herself, as it were naturally, to the things of God, preferring them to every other engagement, and centering all her delights in prayer, almsgiving, retirement, and recollectedness. Such was the precocious piety that stamped the character of the child, and, as it were, presaged the future glory of the young Hungarian princess.
The Landgrave or Duke of Thuringia, one of the most powerful of the princes of Germany, having heard of Elizabeth, and having learned how heavenly was the character of this child, then only four years old, determined that she should, one day, be the spouse of his young son, Louis.
Ambassadors were sent to the Court of Hungary, and the marriage of the young princess, Elizabeth, and the youthful Louis, was arranged. In order to give more solidity to this engagement, the contracting parties agreed that little Elizabeth should be sent immediately to the Court of Thuringia.
She was consigned to the ambassadors in a massive silver cradle; and as soon as they reached the Landgrave's Court, they proceeded to celebrate the espousals of Elizabeth and Louis, who had then completed his eleventh year. From this moment Elizabeth never quitted her betrothed, whom she called her brother - young Louis called her his sister; even after their marriage they were accustomed to address each other in these endearing appellations.
The care of Elizabeth's education was entrusted to a noble lady, eminently qualified for this responsible undertaking.
Two years after her arrival in the Court of Thuringia, Elizabeth was informed of the death of Queen Gertrude, her mother, the remembrance of whom caused her to shed many and many a tear. Three years afterwards, Elizabeth witnessed the death of Landgrave Hermann, the father of her betrothed. This, indeed, was a serious loss to her, for this prince, who was a truly religious man, always smiled complacently on the holy acts of his daughter-in-law, and never opposed any of the devotional practices in which she was wont to indulge. After his death, she was wholly at the mercy of Agnes, her sister-in-law, who annoyed her very much. Sophia, her mother-in-law, a woman singularly attached to pageantries and wordly amusements, encouraged Aglles to thwart and cross young Elizabeth. The great devotion of the latter, and her profound contempt for all the vanities so much loved by people of her rank, excited their extremest displeasure. Agnes, in fact, blushed to think that she should be educated with a person who, acCording to her uncharitable remarks, was fitter to be a tire-woman than a princess.
Duke Louis had succeeded his father, but he was still dependent on the Duchess Sophia, his mother. Furthermore, he was very often absent from the court, and this period was employed by Sophia and Aglles in tormenting poor Elizabeth.
One day - it was the festival of the Assumption - Agnes and Elizabeth received orders to dress themselves in their most sumptuous robes, and to wear their golden crowns, as the Duchess required them to accompany her to the Church of Eisenach, where she was going to hear Mass. Elizabeth obeyed; but on entering the house of God, she removed her crown. The princess Sophia, observing this act, reproached her, and asked her imperiously why she did so?
"Madam," replied Elizabeth, with profound humility, "ought I wear a golden diadem in a place where I behold Jesus Christ crowned with thorns ?"
Agnes and Sophia were struck dumb with indignation, for so much humility condemned their pride. Elizabeth, however, gave herself no uneasiness, but prostrating herself, prayed with her wonted fervor.
This event served only to augment Elizabeth's torments. "Do not imagine that Duke Louis will ever marry you;" such was the insulting language habitually employed by Agnes; "Go and become a waiting-woman, for you are not fit to be the wife of a prince." Nevertheless, poor Elizabeth bore all these injuries and outrages with patience, and when Louis returned to the Court, he did not fail to evince the sincerest love and respect for the virtues of his betrothed, despite the sarcasms of his mother and sister. He consoled her in secret, he encouraged her in the practices of humility and evangelical mortification, and, at the same time, left no doubt on her mind as to his unshaken constancy and eternal attachment.
All their persecutions tended to make Elizabeth entertain, if possible, a still more profound contempt fox: the pomps and pleasures of earth. All these trials she had to encounter on the road wherein Jesus Christ destined her to walk, taught her to entertain patience, humility, gentleness, and charity. She never failed to evince all these heavenly dispositions of soul and body for her cruel persecutors. Consoled by the benedictions of heaven, she almost disregarded all the thorns wherewith her path was strewn. Her chief happiness was to remain within her chapel or oratory, and there to pass many and many an hour in prayer. Her delight was to minister comfort to the poor and to dress the wounds of the suffering, no matter how loathsome they might be. Even in her leisure moments, in the time usually allotted to recreation, any one might have perceived how sedulous she proved herself in cultivating and practising evangelical humility and mortification.
A life like this, so totally opposed to luxury and the fatal etiquette attached to the high place which she was destined one day to occupy, excited the deadliest contempt and aversion of Sophia, and her daughter Agnes. The very courtiers labored with all their ingenuity to heap contempt on Elizabeth. Thus spake they: "She is not worthy of an alliance with the Land- grave: moreover, the prince does not love her. She ought, therefore, return into Hungary, and there marry some civilian of gentle blood."
But, at length, after long and continual absence, occasioned by his education, Duke Louis returned to the Court of his royal ancestors. He was an accomplished prince, and in every way prepared to act a great part in the theatre of the world; but that which rendered him still more estimable and worthy of Elizabeth was his great purity of morals, and his heart-felt love of piety. The wonderful virtues of Elizabeth, then only fourteen years of age, had made a deep and lasting impression on his soul. He took good care to put an end to the persecutions she had to endure for such a lenghtened period, and, at the same time, declared his determination to marry the blessed girl whom he called his sister. Her persecutors were now obliged to mask their rage, and the marriage of Louis and Elizabeth was solemnized with all regal magnificence.
Even after the marriage, the new Duchess did not, in the least degree, diminish her pious austerities; and the devout prince, her husband, far from finding fault with them, seemed rather disposed to encourage them. All the time which Elizabeth did not spend in prayer was devoted to works of charity, or manual labor, and this labor was to spin wool for the clothing of the poor.
Always united to God, she seemed to perform every act as though she was the only object of His watchfulness. Furthermore, Elizabeth possessed the grand gift of being able to pray almost incessantly.
Her austerities surpassed those of the ancient solitaries. Her aversion to the pomps, pride, and pageants of Court-life, was almost incredible. Many of her ladies of honor imitated her virtues, but they followed her at a considerable distance. In fact, she was inimitable, above all, in the practice of humility, and in her zeal to seek out whatever was of the most revolting nature to the generality of women in her elevated position.
Wishing to bestow her greatest attention on the sick, who labored under the most loathsome maladies, she made it her study to find them, that she might have the exclusive charge of their infirmities.
Her favorite virtue was to alleviate the sufferings of the poor; this was her habitual thought, and the holy passion that consumed her soul. Elizabeth justly deserved to be called the Mother of the Poor, and, to this day, the Church proposes her to us as the patroness of the poor. Such is one of the titles that she has on our veneration. In the persons of the poor, Elizabeth beheld Jesus Christ himself; and this was one of the reasons which caused her to act as their most menial servant. One day - it was on Holy Thursday - she gathered together a vast number of the unfortunates who had been stricken with leprosy, and nowise deterred by this horrid malady, so contagious, and so seldom yielding to human remedies, she washed the hands and feet of this loathsome assemblage, in imitation of our Lord, who, upon the eve of his crucifixion, washed the feet of His Apostles.
Being nowise restricted by her pious husband, there was no end to Elizabeth's alms-giving. In the year 1225, all Germany was affiicted by a terrible famine, and, at this period, Elizabeth seemed like an angel sent down from heaven to arrest this most direful scourge. The prince, her husband, was at this time in Italy, sustaining the Emperor, Frederick, the Second, with his army. On his return, his principal officers, and the treasurers of his household, were loud in their protestations against the lavish profusion which they said Elizabeth had shown to the poor. But nothing could exceed their astonishment when the prince coldly asked them, if she had not carefully preserved the strong places of Thuringia?
"Yes," replied the officers.
"Well," observed the prince, "I will not dare to censure her charities; for they will bring down the benedictions of heaven on us; and I am certain I never shall want means as long as my wife continues to employ them so usefully, and so like a Christian woman, who, in her high position, does not forget herself or her God!"
Meanwhile, a crusade had been proclaimed against the Turks, the enemies of Christ, and the enemies of civilization. Duke Louis, therefore, deemed it his bounden duty to respond to the summons of the Sovereign Pontiff, who was exhorting all the chivalry of Christendom to march to the succor of their oppressed brethren in the East.
Duke Louis, therefore, took the cross, and set out for Naples, where he was to join the Emperor Frederick, with whom he meant to pass into Palestine. Sad and painful was the parting from his holy wife. Bitter were the tears they shed, but religion resumed its empire, and at last triumphed over the feelings of nature.
The Landgrave having marched into Italy, proceeded to Otranto, where he was to have embarked with the Emperor Frederick. In that city he was attacked by an epidemic malady, then raging amongst his troops. In fact, he was its first victim. He immediately demanded the sacraments of the church, which were administered by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and he soon afterwards expired in the most pious sentiments of a true Catholic. He was only twenty-seven years of age, and his loss was sincerely lamented by all his companions in arms.
The announcement of his decease filled Elizabeth's Court with grief and gloom. Her husband, her pious friend, he who called himself her brother; he with whom she had hoped to pass many a happy year, her Louis had departed to heaven from her, and she was never to see him again till God summoned her to His mansions of glory! "Ah !" she exclaimed, "since my brother is no longer here on this earth with me, I pray God that I may die to all things: henceforth I can live only to weep and mourn."
That envy and hatred, which did not dare to show itself during Louis' lifetime, now joined in a league to ruin her. It was then alleged that Elizabeth had embarrassed the treasury by her almsgiving, that it was necessary to re-establish the exhausted finances, that Prince Hermann, son of the deceased Landgrave, was too young to take the reins of government, that some one capable of protecting the domains of the State should be selected, and they finally concluded that the only one fit for this important duty, was Henry, the uncle of Hermann.
The aristocracy succeeded in winning the sympathies of the populace, and Henry, therefore, seized the reins of government.
His first act was to expel Elizabeth from her palace, and his cruelty was so excessive, that he refused her the very necessaries of life. Furthermore, he forbade all persons inhabiting his cities, to receive or succor her.
The princess suffered all this outrages and cruelties with admirable patience, and not a word of murmuring or repining ever fell from her lips.
Full of confidence in God, she departed tranquilly from her palace with her female servants, and took up her abode in a poor cottage. At midnight, she repaired to the church of the Franciscans, just as they were chanting matins, and then and there she invited them to join her in the Te Deum, for she desired to give thanks to God for the affiictions with which it pleased Him to visit her.
Next day she employed all intelligence in seeking for some place where she might lodge, but no one dared to harbor her, as all were in dread of the usurper and his supporters. She, therefore, had to spend the whole day in the church of the Franciscan friars. In the night-time her children were brought to her, for Henry drove them out of the palace. On beholding the poor babes, now deprived of all maintenance, she could not check the current of her tears. Oh I how she then lamented the decease of their father. The caresses of the poor little creatures were not sufficient to console that afflicted mother; but she lifted up her eyes to heaven, and she, the daughter of kings, she whose alms, a few days ago, had succored the indigence and sufferings of so many, now humbly implored the King of heaven to look down compassionately on her and her tender charge. At all times full of confidence in God, Elizabeth offered all her sufferings and humilitations to Him, and her most fervent prayer was that He would give her grace to live for Him alone, to fervently desire Him only, and God did come to her aid. An abbess, who was her kinswoman, offered her an asylum in her monastery. The Bishop of Bamberg, her uncle, presented her with a mansion situated near his palace. The prelate, thinking that a new alliance was the only means by which she might be enabled to recover her own and children's rights, counselled her to marry again; but the Saint informed him, that after her husband's decease she had made a vow to remain a widow for the rest of her life, and that her only desire was to consecrate the remainder of her days to God alone.
During her sojourn in the states of the Bishop of Bamberg, the mortal remains of her husband were brought home from Italy. Elizabeth then related to the knights who had accompanied her husband's mortal remains, the sad story of her sufferings. She besought them to plead her cause and that of her children, and to obtain justice for them and her from her brother-in-law.
She never accused him as the cause of the disgraceful treatment she had experienced, but attributed it all to the evil counsels to which he had given ear. The knights were deeply affected by the story of her misfortunes, and bound themselves by an oath to see her restored to all her rights and privileges. Such was the ardor they evinced in this matter, that Elizabeth felt herself bound to moderate their zeal.
On their arrival in Thuringia, the nobles energetically reproached Prince Henry with the disloyalty of his conduct. "Remember," said they to him, "that there is a God who sees all things. What crime has this woman committed? Is not the weakness of her sex quite enough to prevent her undertaking any emprise injurious to the State? Know you not that she is distinguished for her wonderful piety and many inestimable virtues? What have her children, your own blood, done to you? Ought not their age plead in their favor? You, who should have been their protector, have proved yourself their unrelenting enemy. Have you not violated all laws, human and divine?"
Henry's heart could not withstand such well-deserved reproaches. Sorrowful for his past conduct, and softened by the tears shed by the princesses themselves, he consented that Elizabeth should return to the palace, promised to make restitution of all her property, and swore that he would resign the reins of government to her son as soon as he had attained his majority.
The knights being fully satisfied with these promises, brought back Elizabeth to her palace. Henry then caused her to be treated with all the honors due to her rank, and put her in possession of all her property.
After so many painful vicissitudes Sophia, her mother-in-law, flattered herself that Elizabeth would renounce that manner of life which had brought so many afflictions on her; but Elizabeth's hatred of vanities became more intense, and she proved still more devoted to that God, who consoled her in all her afflictions - to that God who never deserted her when she was abandoned by all those who fawned on her in the days of her prosperity.
Now that she had experience of bitter poverty, she became more attached to the poor, and to them she gave all the revenues arising from her dowry. For them she subjected herself to all manner of humiliations, such as mendings their clothes, and ministering to them with her own hands.
In vain did the King of Hungary, her father, strive to induce her to return to his Court. She refused to re-enter that world, which she had quitted for ever. She continued to live in the most perfect poverty, eating nothing but bread and herbs, and living only to pray. She, with her own hands, dressed the ulcers of the poor, and made herself an entire sacrifice to the suffering members of Jesus Christ.
At last the moment came in which the holy Duchess of Thuringia was to go to receive the glorious reward of all her sufferings and sorrows. Knowing that her end was approaching, although her malady was very slight, she redoubled her devout exercises, and the fire of her holy fervor grew stronger. Before receiving the sacraments, she desired to make a general confession of her whole life; and even to her last gasp, she ceased not to meditate on the mysteries of the life and sufferings of her divine Redeemer.
At length, after addressing many words, replete with piety and edification, to those who surrounded her, she expired in the night of the 19th of November, 1231, aged only twenty-four years. A great many miracles were wrought at her tomb. Four years after her death (A.D. 1235), she was canonized by Pope Gregory IX.