Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary

illustration of Saint Elizabeth and a Beggar, artist unknown; from 'Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Patroness of the Third Order', by Father Hilarion Duerk, OFM, 1919Article

Died A.D. 1231.

Saint Elizabeth was born at Presburg, Hungary, in the year 1207. Her father, Alexander II of Hungary, was a brave, religious monarch, and her mother, Queen Gertrude, was a woman of lofty soul, great piety, and a lineal descendant of Charlemagne.

From the very cradle Elizabeth gave proofs of her sublime destiny. At three years of age she expressed her compassion for the poor and sought by gifts to soothe their misery. Thus the virtues of her future life were foreshadowed in infancy. Her first act was an alms-deed; her first word was a prayer.

Some years before our Saint’s birth, Herman, Duke of Thuringia, had a son born, whom he named Louis. The duke obtained a promise from the King of Hungary that the little Elizabeth should be given in marriage to his son; and to confirm the engagement, it was agreed, at Herman’s earnest request, that the princess, when four years of age, should be sent to his court, and there brought up under the care of a virtuous lady.

The day arrived; a brilliant cavalcade of lords and noble ladies came for Elizabeth. The child was clothed in a silk robe embroidered with gold. King Alexander said to Lord de Varila: “To your knightly honor I confide my sweetest consolation.” The good queen, with tears streaming down her face, also commended her dear little one to his care. “I willingly take charge of her,” said the noble knight; “I shall always be her faithful servant. “He kept his word.

Great rejoicing greeted the child in her new home, and at four years of age, she was solemnly affianced to Louis, who was then eleven. Ever after they were companions. She called him brother and he called her sister. This was in the good old Catholic times, when simplicity was still honored as a virtue.

Elizabeth was a sweet and lovely child; even in her sports she thought of God. When successful in games of chance, all her winnings were distributed among poor girls, of whom she imposed the duty of saying a certain number of Paters and Aves.

As she grew up she increased in piety and virtue. She loved prayer, and often stole into the palace chapel to offer up her soul to heaven. She was very devout to her guardian angel, and had a special love for Saint John the Evangelist.

This noble girl practised many self-denials. “As the lily among thorns,” says one of her ancient biographers, “the innocent Elizabeth budded and bloomed in the midst of bitterness, and spread all around her the sweet and fragrant perfume of patience and humility.”

She was educated with Agnes, sister to the young duke. On their first appearing together at church the two were dressed alike, and wore golden crowns set with jewels. There was a majestic crucifix in the house of God, and on seeing the sacred image Elizabeth took off her crown and laid it on a bench, at the same time bowing down her graceful person to adore the Almighty.

The vain, worldly Duchess Sophia, who accompanied the young ladies, was offended. “What ails you, Lady Elizabeth?” she said rudely. “What new whim is this? Do you wish that every one should laugh at you? Young ladies should hold themselves erect, and not throw themselves on the ground like fools or old women. Is your crown too heavy? Why do you remain stooped like a peasant?”

“Dear lady,” answered the gentle Saint, “do not blame me. See before my eyes the image of my sweet and merciful Jesus, who was crowned with thorns. I am but a vile creature. My crown would be a mockery of His thorny wreath.” And the lovely girl wept as she uttered those earnest words.

She then knelt humbly as before, and continued her devotions, leaving the dutchess and Agnes to speak just as they pleased. Having placed a fold of her mantle before her face, it was soon wet with tears. The other two, in order to avoid a contrast that would be far from elevating them in the eyes of the people, were obliged to follow her example, and to draw their veils over their faces, “which it would have been much more pleasing to them not to do,” adds the old chronicler.

Elizabeth had now many enemies and few friends in the lordly home of her betrothed. The good Duke Herman, who loved her tenderly, had passed away to a better world. The duchess-mother, who governed during her son’s minority, despised her, and used every effort to oblige her to take the veil in some convent.

From the unamiable Agnes she suffered daily insult. “My Lady Elizabeth,” said she to her on one occasion, “if you imagine that my brother Louis will marry you, it is a great mistake; or, if he does, you must become quite a different person from what you are now!” Thus, in the midst of luxury and boundless wealth, this sweet, simple girl bore her heavy cross in silence and patience.

She had, however, one true friend. Louis was yet young; but, in spite of the hostile feelings of his mother and sister, his affection for Elizabeth grew day by day. He loved her with “a love that was more than love.” He loved her beauty, her innocence, her piety, her modesty, her simplicity. He consoled her in moments of sadness. At such times he whispered his pure, undying affection. When he returned from journeys or hunting-parties, he always brought her some little love-gift – a pair of beads, a crucifix, a purse, a gold chain, or something else. She called him “my dear brother,” and he addressed her as “my sweet sister.”

When eighteen years of age, Louis proclaimed his intention of marrying his betrothed, and, at the same time, imposed silence on her enemies. He did this with such manly decision that no one dared to make any opposition.

The marriage was celebrated in 1220, with great rejoicing, at the castle of Wartburg. The young duke was twenty years of age, the dear Saint Elizabeth but thirteen.

Louis was not unworthy of his bride so holy and beautiful. The purity and greatness of his soul were reflected in his manly, graceful person. Though modest as a girl, he was as brave as a lion. In short, his whole character was summed up in the motto which he had happily chosen from boyhood: “Piety, purity, justice towards all.”

As to Elizabeth, she recompensed her husband with the love of all that was good and lovely. The old biographers picture her great personal attractions – her black hair, her sweet-looking countenance, her bright eyes, which beamed with tenderness, her figure of unrivalled grace, and her simple, winning ways.

Louis and Elizabeth were never so happy as when in each other’s company. Even after marriage they preserved the custom of calling each other brother and sister. “So entire was the union of their souls,” says Montalembert, “that they could ill endure being separated even for the shortest time. Thus when the duke’s hunting excursions were not too distant, he always took his dear Elizabeth with him, and she was happy to accompany him, even though she had to travel over rugged roads and dangerous paths, and to brave storms; but neither hail, nor snow, nor floods, nor excessive heats could hinder her from going, so anxious was she to be near him who never kept her from God.”

Nothing, in truth, could be more imposing even to worldly souls than the sight of so much virtue in these young persons. United by a holy concord, full of purity and humility before God, full of charity and good will towards men, loving each other with a love that drew them both to God, they offered to heaven and earth a sight the most edifying.

Elizabeth chose for her confessor a holy and very learned priest named Conrad; and under the direction of this wise spiritual guide, she walked the narrow way of virtue, and even reached the lofty summits of sanctity.

She went on this earthly pilgrimage with her eyes ever fixed on heaven. Her mortifications were many and rigorous. She wore a hair-shirt next her skin. Every Friday and every day in Lent she used the discipline in memory of Christ’s sufferings.

But piety did not make her sad or gloomy. She was the most cheerful at festivals. “She played and danced sometimes,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “and was present at assemblies of recreation without prejudice to her devotion, which was so deeply rooted in her soul that, like the rocks about the Lake of Rietta, which grew greater by the beating of the waves, her devotion increased amid the pomps and vanities to which she was exposed by her condition.”

The pure heart of this holy princess overflowed with love and mercy for her unhappy fellow creatures. Her generosity was boundless, for she saw Christ in every poor person. She delighted in paying secret visits to various abodes of misery, the bearer of money, provisions, and words of cheer; and her fair, graceful form might often be seen on such missions of charity, as she glided along the winding, rugged paths that led from the ducal castle to the cabins scattered over the surrounding valleys.

One day, accompanied by a favorite maid of honor, she was descending a narrow pathway, carrying under her mantle bread, meat, eggs, and other food for the poor, when suddenly she was met by her husband, Duke Louis, who was returning from a hunting-party. He was astonished to see his dear Elizabeth toiling along such a rough road under the weight of a burden.

“Let us see what you carry,” said he, at the same time drawing aside the mantle which she held closely clasped to her bosom.

Only red and white roses – the most beautiful he had ever seen – met his eye, and this astonished him, as it was no longer the season of flowers. Seeing that Elizabeth was troubled, he sought to console her by his caresses, but he ceased at once on seeing over her head a luminous appearance in the form of a crucifix. The good duke then desired her to continue her route without being disturbed by him, and he returned to Wartburg, reflecting on what God did for her, and carrying with him one of those wonderful roses, which he preserved all his life.

As the castle of Wartburg was built on a steep rock which the weak and infirm poor were unable to climb, our Saint erected a hospital at the foot of the elevation for their reception and entertainment. Here she daily often fed them with her own hands, made their beds, and attended them in the heat of summer, when the air of the place seemed unsupportable to all who were strangers to her heroic charity.

During a frightful famine that desolated the country, she extended her generous aid to every part of her husband’s dominions. Sometimes a miracle smiled on her holy toil. One day as she carried a quantity of food to a group of mendicants, she saw with uneasiness that she had not a sufficiency to give some to each, and that every moment more applicants arrived. The sweet Saint, however, began to pray interiorly, as she handed around the food, and found that, according as she gave pieces away, they were replaced by others, so that after giving each of the multitude a share there was still some left!

Through motives of religion, Duke Louis took the cross to accompany the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa on the Sixth Crusade. The news of this step overwhelmed Saint Elizabeth with sorrow, for her attachment to her husband was something inexpressibly tender and beautiful.

“Dear brother,” she said, as the pearly tears rolled down her lovely cheeks, “if it be not against God’s will, remain with me.”

“Allow me to set out,” said Louis, “for I have made a vow to God.”

All at once the spirit of heroic self-denial shone out, and she said earnestly: “May He in His goodness watch over you. May all happiness attend you for ever. Go, then, in the name of God!”

But the moment of parting was extremely painful. All trembling with emotion, the princess clung to her husband; and it was only after a desperate effort in conquering his heart that his tongue could find expression. “Elizabeth,” said the noble Crusader, “look at this ring that I take with me. On the sapphire is engraven the Lamb of God with His banner. Let it be to your eyes a sure and certain token of all that concerns me. He who brings you this ring, dearest and most faithful sister, and tells you that I am still alive, or that I have died, believe all that he shall say. May God bless you, my sweetest treasure! Adieu; remember our happy life, our fond and holy love, and forget me not in your prayers.”

And Duke Louis rode away, leaving his wife bathed in tears, for she had a gloomy foreboding that she would never see him again.

A few months passed by, and, alas! the faithful ring was on its way back to the castle of Wartburg. Duke Louis was no more. A fatal fever had carried him away, and at the early age of twenty-seven he died like a saint and hero.

When the sad news reached the youthful princess, she murmured a prayer and fell to the floor, stricken with grief. Truly the shadow of the cross had fallen along the pathway of that bright and beautiful spirit! For the first time Elizabeth really saw the frown of adversity, for the first time perhaps, she felt with sensible vividness that in the day of trial virtue is the only solid comfort. Heaven was about to complete her many good works and sacrifices, and to give a rounded loveliness to a life so precious and sublime.

Envy, jealousy, and malignity – all welled up and concealed during her husband’s lifetime – now broke loose against the virtuous princess. Calumny grew loud and barefaced. It was asserted, among other things, that she had squandered the public revenue on the poor, and that as she was u nf it to govern during the minority of her little son Herman, the reins of power should be handed over to her brother-in-law, Henry. Justice and honor fled from the heart of this ambitious man. The wild passions of the mob were appealed to by fiery speeches, and Elizabeth was brutally turned out of the castle of Wartburg. Not a voice was raised in her favor.

It was midwinter, and the cold was very severe. This daughter of a royal race descended on foot – her eyes wet with tears – along the rugged, narrow pathway that led to the city. She herself carried her new-born babe, and the three other children followed with her two faithful companions.

This incident, so shocking to human nature, restored the Saint’s tranquillity. She sought shelter at a poor inn, and was not rejected – though the hard-hearted Duke Henry had issued a proclamation forbidding any one to receive herself or her children. When she heard the midnight bell ringing for Matins at the Franciscan monastery which she had founded not many years before, she immediately arose and went to church. After assisting at the office, she desired the Fathers to sing a solemn Te Deum to thank God for His mercies in visiting her with such afflictions.

For some time after this the troubles of the princess were countless. She could find no place to lodge. A poor priest offered her a room in his little house; but her enemies were on hand and drove her forth. At length she found a refuge from her uncle the Bishop of Bamberg.

A change, however, soon came about. The voice of justice was heard. A spirited remonstrance from some of the chief nobles of Thuringia brought the usurping Henry to his senses, and he even promised to restore Elizabeth her rights and all her possessions. She returned for a short time to the castle of Wartburg, but the piety of her life was not pleasing to her worldly relations.

The Saint left the lordly residence where she had spent so many years, and retired to Marburg, in Hesse. The revenues of this city were granted to her to provide for her maintenance. Here she retired to a house of her own, and, under the guidance of her director, Conrad, she labored only for heaven. She was a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis. Tattlers she detested. She spoke little, and her words were marked by modesty and reserve. She gave her rich dowry to the poor, and supported herself by spinning.

Her father, the King of Hungary, sent an ambassador to invite her home. “Say to my dearest father,” she remarked, “that I am more happy in this contemptible life than he is in his regal pomp, and that, far from sorrowing over me, he ought to rejoice that he has a child in the service of the King of Heaven. All that I ask of him is to pray and to have prayers offered for me, and I will ceaselessly pray for him as long as life is left me.”

It pleased the Almighty that a halo of glory and majesty should surround the close of this noble lady’s earthly pilgrimage. One day she met a deaf and dumb boy, and asked him a question. He at once got the use of speech. On another occasion she saw a blind man walking near a church. She questioned the poor fellow, and learned that he would like to see the sunlight and the house of God. The sweet Saint told him to kneel and pray, and she prayed with him. Immediately he saw. The light of this world dawned on his eyes for the first time as he exclaimed: “May God be ever blessed!”

Three days before she died she was warned to prepare for her departure. Elizabeth put all her affairs in order, and devoutly received the last sacraments from Conrad, her faithful friend and confessor. “O Mary! come to my assistance,” she exclaimed, and falling into a gentle slumber, her pure and beautiful spirit passed away, on the 19th of November, 1231. She was only twenty-four years of age.

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Elizabeth, Princess of Hungary”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 21 November 2018. <>