St Elizabeth of Hungary is the patroness of nurses and many hospitals have been named after her. She lived in Hungary, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, between 1207 -and 1231. In that short time she was a Queen, mother of one of the crowned heads of Europe, and friend of the poor and sick. She knew great hardship and internal exile and was steeped in Franciscan spirituality. After her short and remarkable life she was canonised by Pope Gregory IX in 1235 a mere 4 years after her death such was her place in the hearts of her people.
From an early age she showed such natural piety that her mother doubted that she could rule but rule she did whilst also ministering to the poor. She was born in Hungary on July 7th 1207 the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary and entered the Court of Thuringia. In a political alliance between families she was betrothed at the age of 4 to Ludwig whom she married at the age of 14 years and who ascended the throne of Thuringia in 1221. He was a staunch supporter of the Holy Roman Emperor and moved to Cremona to join the Imperial Diet leaving his young wife to rule Thuringia.
In 1223 Franciscan monks arrived and Elizabeth became a devout follower of St Francis of Assisi endeavouring to live according to his spirituality whilst reigning as Queen. Her husband approved of her works of charity but in 1226 famine , floods and plague struck Thuringia. The Queen distributed alms throughout their stricken territory giving away her ornaments and state robes. At Warburg she founded a hospital with 28 beds using money from her own dowry. Not only did she visit it daily but humbly nursed the sick there.
At the age of 20 she was widowed. Ludwig died en route to join the VIth crusade. Elizabeth was devastated crying,
“He is dead, he is dead. It is to me as if the whole world died today”.
Her misfortunes were just beginning. Ludwig’s brother became regent during the minority of Elizabeth’s eldest son and her family began to plan another political marriage for the young widow. She, though, took vows of obedience and celibacy and would not give way.
She was held a virtual captive in her uncle’s castle but would not move from her vows. Arguments arose over the disposal of her dowry and the Pope appointed a priest, Conrad von Marburg to be her defensor and Elizabeth left the court. Conrad was also her harsh confessor and was not beyond beating his penitent. He later became a strict inquisitor. The unfortunate woman was exiled by her brother in law who usurped her rights and those of her son the heir to the throne. No citizen was allowed to give her shelter and she took refuge in a pigsty. Eventually eventually finding a home with another uncle who was a Bishop
Her position was restored when comrades of Ludwig returned from the crusade and took up her defence. This led to her brother in law changed his attitude towards and her restoring her rights. But she died in 1231 at the early age of 24 having been widowed for 4 eventful years. In due course her son ascended the throne and her second child Sophie, married Henry II Duke of Brabant whilst her youngest daughter became the abbess of the convent of Altenburg.
She is depicted in rich robes with a loaf of bread behind her back and a lap full of red roses. This arises from a popular legend which says that when her husband asked her what she was concealing in her purse when she was secretly taking bread to the poor and on opening her purse the loaves had been changed into red roses. A similar legend this time of roses changed to loaves for the poor is attached to Queen Elizabeth of Portugal a granddaughter of King Andrew II and named after her great – aunt. The legend is depicted in a famous statue of St Elizabeth of Hungary in Roses Square in Budapest. The main church dedicated to her is the Elisabethkirche in Marburg which is now Protestant but there are churches and hospitals bearing her name all over Europe. In London the Knights of Malta dedicated their hospital in St John’s wood to St John the Baptist and St Elizabeth of Hungary.
She was interred in the church of her hospital and almost at once there were claims of miraculous healings attributed to her. The Pope opened an examination of these claims and her handmaids gave an a account of the life she had lived and she was canonised on 27th May 1235
By the 15th Century her shrine had become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in Germany and attracted the attention of Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers who dispersed her bones and took the agate chalice upon which her skull had rested. After the thirty years war it was taken to Sweden and is now in the Museum of Stockholm whilst her skull is in the St Elizabeth convent in Vienna with some relics surviving in Marburg.
She is the patroness of brides, widows, exiles, dying children and nurses. Her feast day in the Roman calendar is 19th November. She is venerated by Anglicans, Lutherans and the Orthodox as well as Catholics and there is a community of St Elizabeth in the United States where the Latin and orthodox liturgies are celebrated on alternate days.
On the 800th anniversary of her birth an “Elizabeth Year” was held in Warburg in 2007 and a musical based on her life was “Elizabeth – Legend of a Saint”, was performed up until 2009. The Catholic Medical Association (UK) have now adopted St Elizabeth of Hungary as a patroness in addition to the physicians Sts Luke, Cosmos and Damian in April of this year.
The Roman Calendar 1969. Vatican Library
“Legend of St Elizabeth” by Ruth Sawyer, Catholic Information Network
“The Charity of St Elizabeth of Hungary”, by Edmund Blair
Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedias
Dr Tony Cole