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St Elizabeth of Hungary (19th November)

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Detail of a fresco (ca. 1317) attributed to Simone Martini

Cappella di San Martino, Lower church, San Francesco, Assisi

An entry in the Roman Martyrology under 19th November reads: “At Marburg in Germany, the death of St Elizabeth, widow, daughter of King Andrew of Hungary, and member of the Third Order of St Francis.  After a life spent in the performance of works of piety, she went to heaven, having a reputation for miracles”.

St Elizabeth was the daughter of King Andrew II of Hungary, and thus belonged to the Árpád dynasty.  She was born in 1207 and married the Landgrave Louis of Thuringia, a second cousin of the Emperor Frederick II, when she was only 14 years old.  Louis  joined Frederick II when he sailed from Otranto in 1227, finally honouring an undertaking that he had given Pope Honorius III to join the crusade to liberate Jerusalem.  The fleet soon returned to port when an epidemic broke out, provoking Pope Gregory IX to excommunicate the Emperor.  Sadly, Louis was among the dead.

When she heard the news, St Elizabeth became distraught almost to the point of insanity.  Driven from court, she engaged in almost boundless charity with the poor among whom she lived.  The (probably) Praemonstratensian, Conrad of Marburg became her confessor, and she practiced harsh self-discipline under his spiritual direction.  She died in 1228 when only 21, at least in part as a consequence of her chosen way of life. 

(Allies of Henry, the rebellious son of Frederick II, murdered Conrad of Marburg in 1233, thereby reinforcing a temporary alliance between Frederick II and Gregory IX.  D. Abulafia (see below) describes the historical context of the murder Conrad of Marburg, whom he considered to be "one of the more revolting figures of the 13th century",  on p 238.)

Pope Gregory IX canonised St Elizabeth at San Domenico Vecchio, Perugia in 1235 on the basis of the account of the miracles attributed to her relics that Conrad of Marburg had compiled.  Teutonic knights built a shrine for her relics in Marburg and Frederick II presided over their translation to the new church in 1236.   (D. Abulafia (see below) describes the the attitude of the Emperor to the cult of St Elizabeth on pp 247-8.)  A riot apparently broke out as the crowd fought over the cadaver.

Frederick II wrote to Brother Elias at San Francesco, Assisi about the ceremony, stressing his kinship (through marriage) with St Elizabeth and recommending her to the prayers of the friars.  Brother Elias may well have established the Altare di Santa Elisabetta in the right transept of the lower church at this time.  She is depicted in the frescoes (ca. 1317) around the altar, which are attributed to Simone Martini.

Despite claims to the contrary, St Elizabeth does not seem to have been a Franciscan tertiary, although she did wear the habit of a penitent after her husband's death and her pursuit of poverty was worthy of St Francis.  The Franciscans' association with her was reinforced when her great niece Mary married the Angevin Charles of Salerno (later King Charles II of Naples) in 1270.  Their son Louis became a Franciscan and was canonised as St Louis of Toulouse in 1317. 

The shrine of St Elizabeth at Marburg was among the most important in Christendom until 1539, when militant Protestants destroyed her relics and stole and the precious gifts that Frederick II had given to the church.

Read more: 
A. Vauchez, "Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages", Cambridge (1997), pp 374-9 
A. Rufus, Magnificent Corpses, New York (1999), Chapter 2 
D. Abulafia, Frederick II: a Medieval Emperor, Oxford (1988)

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