On 17 November, we mark the feast day of St Elizabeth of Hungary. Born in 1207, St Elizabeth of Hungary was a princess, daughter of King Andrew II and Queen Gertrude of Hungary.
Gertude served as regent in Hungary and was murdered when Elizabeth was six. It was this event that led Elizabeth to disregard royal life.
At the age of 14, Elizabeth was married to Ludwig, a man she had been betrothed to since birth, in Thuringia in central Germany. They had three children.
When Franciscan friars arrived in Thuringia in 1223, they taught Elizabeth all about St Francis of Assisi. This was a key moment for Elizabeth: she decided then to live her life in a way that mirrored his.
Elizabeth was driven by a need to serve the poor. She wore simple clothing and used her status as a royal and political power to benefit those most vulnerable. Daily, she would take bread to poor people in her land, insisting that no one go hungry.
In 1226, plague struck her land, and she desired to ease the suffering of those around her.
In 1227, her husband Ludwig was on his way to the Sixth Crusade and passed away from the plague. Upon learning of her husband’s death, she reportedly said, ‘He is dead. He is dead. It is to me as if the whole world died today.’
Consumed by grief, she left the royal court, renounced the world and decided to live in a similar manner to a nun.
She vowed never to remarry, although her relatives practically kept her captive in a castle in an effort to force her to marry advantageously.
She joined the Third Order of St Francis, giving away much of her possessions and built a Franciscan hospital at Marburg. There she took care of the sick until her death at the age of 24.
The best-known legend about Elizabeth is the miracle of roses, and is often depicted in art. It shows her meeting her husband unexpectedly while she is on a secret errand to deliver bread to the poor. According to legend, he asks her what she is carrying under her cloak, to counter claims that she was stealing from the castle. When she revealed her burden, the loaves of bread miraculously change into roses.
While not an especially well-known saint today, her life is the subject of an 1848 novel Saint’s Tragedy by novelist Charles Kingsley.
In art, St Elizabeth is usually depicted holding a basket of bread demonstrating her devotion to the poor and hungry.
Pope Gregory IX canonised her on 27 May, 1235 and she is the patron saint of charities, bakers, beggars, brides, death of children, homeless people, hospitals, the Sisters of Mercy and widows.