Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

St. Elizabeth of Hungary

A crowd of minstrels and poets were gathered in the castle of Wartburg, in 1207, under the protection of its lord, the Landgrave of Thuringia, and great excitement reigned among them, as it had been agreed on that a prize should be for him to whose poem the palm was given, while death was the penalty which awaited the rest. But when all sung so sweetly who could decide which song was the best? and at length they resolved to fetch from the Court of Hungary to judge them, the minstrel whose name rang through the world, the famous Klingsor.

So Klingsor came, and was welcomed by every one, great and small.

'What news is there from the land you live in? Travellers such as you are rare indeed!' cried the citizens and courtiers, who pressed round the minstrel in the garden of the inn, in the town of Eisenach. Klingsor did not answer them at once; instead he gazed up at the sky, and after a pause he said:

'Know that this night a star has risen in Hungary whose brightness shall light the world. A daughter has been born to the king, and her name shall be called Elizabeth, and she shall be given in marriage to the son of your master, and she will become a saint, and be the wonder and consolation of Christendom.'

Early next morning the knights who had heard the prophecy rode up to the castle to tell the Landgrave of the words of Klingsor. The Landgrave listened with astonishment and with a grave face; but he said nothing, and in a few hours rode himself, escorted by his knights to fetch the minstrel, and brought him back to Wartburg. Alone in the Landgrave's closet they spoke long together about the affairs of Hungary, till Klingsor rose hastily, and, bowing low, begged he might go, as he was chosen to preside at the singing tournament and decide on the victor.

The minstrels were so many and so good that judgment was not easy, but at length the prize was given to Henry von Ofterdingen, and as we hear nothing of the deaths of his unsuccessful rivals, we may hope that some way was found of sparing their lives.

Stories of the goodness of the Princess Elizabeth were told almost from the day of her birth, and the Landgrave of Thuringia, who managed always to hear what was going on around him, made up his mind that his eldest son Ludwig would be fortunate indeed if he could obtain the princess for a wife. So in the year 1211 he fitted out an embassy of knights and ladies and despatched them to Hungary, where they formally petitioned for the hand of the princess. In this they were supported by Klingsor, who was a great favourite of the King's, and the minstrel drew such a picture of the wealth and prosperity of Thuringia and the qualities of Prince Ludwig, that the King and Queen consented at once to the marriage.

Now the Landgrave had charged his ambassadors to bring Elizabeth (then just four) back with them, in order that she might be brought up in his castle of Wartburg with her future husband. With a heavy heart the Queen made ready the little girl for her journey across the mountains, and one fine day she kissed her for the last time and placed her with her own hands in the silver cradle in which the child was to travel, forcing back the tears that almost choked her, lest one should fall on Elizabeth's forehead and bring her ill-luck.

'I shall have plenty of time to weep after she has gone,' thought the Queen, and when the procession passed under the gate of the castle with the famous knight, Walter von Varila, riding by the side of the big strong horse which carried the cradle, the poor mother turned away from the watch tower and shut herself into her bare, dark room, alone with her grief.

Elizabeth slept during much of the long journey, for the horse went slowly over the mountains and her cradle was very soft and comfortable. At last, however, they reached the castle, and her arrival was splendidly celebrated with balls and banquets and songs. The Landgravine Sophia slept during the first night by the side of Elizabeth, lest she should wake and be frightened at finding herself alone in a strange place, and the Prince seemed delighted with his brown-faced little bride. The next day the betrothal took place, and besides the courtiers, the citizens of the town of Eisenach and their wives were invited to the ceremony, and great was the pleasure of the good women at the sight of the young pair, for Ludwig was a tall, handsome boy of eleven, seven years older than Elizabeth. The bride herself was quite happy and at her ease, and soon grew very fond of her 'brother,' as she called her future husband. There was no lack of children for her to play with, for she had seven maids of honour and Ludwig and his brothers and sisters, Henry and Conrad and Agnes, and another Elizabeth who by and bye became a nun. And when she was tired of games, the little princess would call one of her attendants and they would go down the steep path which led from Wartburg to Eisenach, with its straggling streets and steep roofs—too steep for the snow to lie on—and into the meadows by the river where the flowers grew. For Elizabeth loved flowers and birds and animals of all kinds, and she learned to watch in the spring for the coming of the storks, standing on one leg on the chimneys, and to listen for the swallows on their return from their winter quarters, telling each other their adventures in their nests under the gables.

But amongst all the things that Elizabeth had to interest her in her new life, there was one that governed her thoughts and actions, as those who lived with her soon saw. She loved to pray by herself, but if she could not do that, she would pray somehow. Many tales are told of her childhood, when her very games would be made occasions of reminding her play-fellows of God. If some one proposed a hopping race, Elizabeth would contrive that the winning-post was the chapel door. If it was unlocked, she would go in for a moment and kneel down; if it was shut, she had to content herself with kissing the lock.

'Let us see which is the tallest,' she cried one day. 'You all lie down on the ground and I will come and lie by each of you in turn, and we shall see whose feet stretch farther than mine,' and whenever she lay down she said a short prayer or murmured a Paternoster, or 'Our Father.' When she grew up she used to tell these childish tricks with a smile, but she was very serious at the time she did them.

He prayeth best, who loveth best

All things both great and small,

sang an English poet a hundred years ago, and Elizabeth certainly 'prayed well,' for she loved everything and everybody, but especially the poor people round the castle. In the winter, when deep snow covered the mountains for months together, she would give them all the money she was allowed by the Landgrave, to buy them food and warm clothes. Or she might be met with, in some of the passages leading to the great kitchens of the castle, laden with scraps of food she had found thrown away, which she carried herself to the children. The stewards and cooks were very angry at this habit of Elizabeth's, because they thought the unused food belonged to them, to do what they liked with; but they did not dare to complain, because the Landgrave always let her do as she liked, and of course Elizabeth had not the least idea there was anything to complain about.

Unfortunately for the child, when she was nine and Ludwig sixteen, the Landgrave Hermann died, and in him she lost a constant friend, who never failed to aid her in her plans for helping his people. But Elizabeth's mother-in-law, and her sister-in-law Agnes, who was famous for her beauty, thought very differently, and told her how silly it was in a princess to behave as if she were a servant; and as soon as her maids of honour saw how she was now treated, they began to laugh at her too. Even the officials of the Court, who only wanted to please the Landgravine as being the most powerful person in the State, were very rude to her. Ludwig alone took her side, but he was often away in distant parts of his duchy which he was learning to rule, or busy practising sword-play or tennis in the court of the castle, or absent for two or three days on hunting expeditions; and as Elizabeth was always bright and happy with him, and never told tales, he did not guess the cruel way in which she was being persecuted. More and more she stayed in her own rooms with poor girls whose parents she had helped, for her companions.

For a long while Elizabeth managed to avoid a quarrel with her mother-in-law. When one considers she was in years only a child still, it is a marvel; but things grew worse and worse, and at last the smouldering flames broke out into a fire. It was the Feast of the Assumption, August 15, and it was the custom both of the Court and of the people of Eisenach to keep the day as a holiday, and to offer gifts in church of fruit and flowers, as we do at our harvest festivals. By the command of the Landgravine Sophia, Agnes and Elizabeth and their two maids of honour put on their richest dresses and golden circlets and went with her in State to the church. Sophia knelt down before the great crucifix, with the princesses on either side; but on seeing Elizabeth take off her coronet and lay it on a bench beside her, and then bow herself to the earth, the Landgravine was filled with wrath, and, forgetting where she was, exclaimed loudly:

'What is the matter with you, Elizabeth? Do you want to make everyone laugh at you? Young ladies ought to kneel upright, and not fall down like old nuns or tired horses. Is your crown too heavy for you? Why can't you behave like us?'

Elizabeth rose to her feet at these rough words, and, though her face was flushed, she answered quietly:

'Dear lady, do not be angry with me. How can I bear upon my head a crown of gold and jewels, when my Lord wears a crown of thorns?' Then, kneeling again, she covered her face with her mantle to hide her tears.

At length a whisper was heard at Court that the marriage between Ludwig and Elizabeth would never take place, and that she would be sent back to her father. Her mother was dead, murdered four years before by a band of conspirators, which had given a terrible shock to her daughter. The King of Hungary troubled himself very little about Elizabeth, and the Landgravine did not think he would resent the insult if Ludwig were to choose a richer, nobler bride.

'It had happened before,' she said, 'and would happen again,' and Elizabeth would most certainly have been expelled in disgrace from Wartburg, had it not been for Ludwig himself, who turned a deaf ear to the counsels of mother, sister, and friends. The more pressing their attack, the more he turned to Elizabeth, and in her company there was always peace; and he never was absent for a day without bringing her back a little present to show that he had thought of her—a rosary of coral beads, a purse, a knife, a crucifix, a pair of gloves—and she received them all with gratitude, for she loved him as much as ever. Once only he forgot, and then her enemies openly triumphed and renewed their persecution, and Elizabeth—her spirit almost broken—poured out her heart to Walter von Varila, the knight who had brought her to Thuringia.

'Have patience yet a little longer,' said Varila, 'and I will speak to my lord.'

A week later Ludwig was hunting in the mountains not far from Wartburg, and Varila was with him. At midday, being hungry, they sat down in a wood to eat, and as the Landgrave was in a particularly good temper, Varila felt that his chance had come. So he said:

'Will you allow me to ask you a question, my lord?'

'Ask me anything you like,' answered Ludwig.

'Well then, my lord, to be plain what do you intend to do with the Princess Elizabeth whom I brought to you? Are you going to make her your wife? Or will you break your word and send her back to her father. People are talking, and it is right that you should know it.'

At that Ludwig rose, and solemnly stretched out his hand towards the Inselberg, the highest peak in Thuringia.

'Do you see that mountain?' he said. 'Well, if it was made of gold from base to summit, and it was given to me on condition that I should send back Elizabeth, I would never do it. She is more to me than anything in the world.'

'May I tell her that, my lord?' asked Varila.

'Yes, truly, and beg her to be comforted, and to accept this gift from me,' and he drew from his wallet a little mirror on which was engraven the figure of our Lord.

After this Elizabeth paid no heed to rude words or unkind deeds till in 1220, on his return from his first war, Ludwig took her to wife with great pomp in the castle of Wartburg.

Elizabeth was then a tall, dark, well-made girl; while her husband, seven years older, was noted for his fair, handsome face, and his gentle manners. Still, he knew well enough how to make himself obeyed, and once married Elizabeth was freed from her tormentors, and suffered to visit her poor neighbours as much as she liked.

Indeed, they may be said to have occupied all the thoughts that she did not give to her husband, and this sometimes caused her to seem forgetful and neglectful of the duties of her position, and her mother-in-law's rebukes were not always undeserved. It was hardly to be wondered at, that Sophia should be angry when at the marriage feast of her daughter the beautiful Agnes of Thuringia with the Duke of Austria, Elizabeth—who, according to custom should have been ready to carry round the great bowl for each of the guests to dip their fingers in, as every hostess did on State occasions—could not be found.

'Where can she be?' said Ludwig to his mother, and then the Seneschal stepped forward and told them that he had seen Elizabeth leaving the church, but on the steps she had been stopped by a half-naked beggar, who implored her to have pity on him. The Landgravine, moved by his prayers, gave him her royal silken mantle, and hastened back to the castle; but as it was against the rules that she should appear at a ceremonial banquet without one, she stayed quietly in her room.

'I will go and fetch her,' exclaimed Ludwig with a laugh when he heard the tale, and he ran upstairs to her.

'Little sister,' he said—it had always been his name for her—'we ought to have been at dinner long ago, but we have been waiting for you.'

'I will do as you will, dear brother,' answered she, 'but I have no mantle, for I gave mine to a beggar. He was so cold;' but as she spoke one of her maids came forward: 'Madam, your mantle is hanging in your closet. I will bring it in a moment.'

Elizabeth and her husband looked at each other, and the same thought crossed their minds: 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.' But they said nothing, and went down together to the banquet.

Another time Elizabeth's boundless charity might have had more serious results. Ludwig had gone away on some expedition, where he could not take his wife. She was very sad at being left at home, for whenever it was possible she was always with him, galloping by his side, in snow and tempest, rain or sunshine. So to distract her thoughts she spent more time than ever with her poor people, and one evening in passing by a miserable shed she heard deep groans and, entering, discovered a leper in the last stage of his dreadful disease. No one would come near him or touch him, but Elizabeth was not afraid.

'Lean on me,' she said, 'and I will take you where you shall be cared for,' and in some way she found strength to drag him up to the castle, and laid him in her husband's own bed, so that she could always be at hand to nurse him, never thinking of what the consequences might be. When Sophia heard this, her fear and wrath knew no bounds. She dared not turn him out—to touch him might mean that she in her turn would become a leper—and she was aware that it was useless ordering a servant to move him, but her fury against Elizabeth was greater than ever.

Things were at this pass when Ludwig came home.

'See what Elizabeth has done now!' cried Sophia, 'as if it was not bad enough for her to visit those wretched creatures in their homes. She has brought in a leper and laid him in your bed. Do you hear, in your bed?'  But in her indignation she actually forgot her fears, and going before her son into the room, tore open the curtains! Ludwig looked down for a moment at the dying man.

'I see Christ Himself,' he answered gently, and his mother was silent.

In spite of the unkindness showed her by Sophia, Elizabeth was perfectly happy. She had by this time two babies—Hermann, who died when he was eighteen; and Sophia, who afterwards married the Duke of Brabant. Later, two other little girls were born, but they became nuns.

It was during Ludwig's visit to the Emperor Frederick II in Sicily, in the year 1225, that a grievous famine broke out in Thuringia and many died of starvation. Elizabeth gave largely out of her own stores, but ten times the amount of corn she possessed would not have fed the people. With famine came sickness, and then she built a hospital below the castle, where twenty-eight of the most ill, were nursed by her and her maids. Of course his mother and the steward grumbled at the expense, but Elizabeth went her way, only her heart sickened as she realised how little she could do, as she passed gaunt men in the road eagerly gnawing roots they had dug up from the ground, or seeking for berries to stay their hunger.

How thankful she was when Ludwig came back, and she could share her cares with him. As usual, the Court officials and his mother tried to make mischief between them, complaining of how she had wasted his goods. But Ludwig sternly bade them be silent.

'Let her alone. She has done what she could,' he said, and gave orders that corn should be bought wherever it might be got, and distributed among those who needed it so greatly. Afterwards there sprang up a story too beautiful to be left untold, for it shows what her people felt about Elizabeth. The Landgravine, says the legend, was walking down the path to Eisenach, her maid Ysentrud behind her, when she met her husband returning to the castle.

'You ladies seem heavily laden,' he remarked, smiling. 'What have you got hidden in your mantles? Nay, little sister, but I will  see,' he added, as Elizabeth hesitated, fearing he might think she was doing something unbecoming his wife, and he gave her mantle a little pull. As he did so, there fell out, not the long white loaves which were baked in the castle kitchen, but a heap of lilies and roses.

But the happy days of Elizabeth's life were fast drawing to a close, and for the four remaining years of her life she was to suffer pain of every kind, and even hunger and cold and everything which she had tried so hard to spare others. She was only twenty, when in 1227 her husband took the cross under the Emperor Frederick II, and proceeded to set his duchy in order before starting for the Holy Land. Elizabeth's heart was almost broken, but she did not try to keep him from fulfilling his vow. With a white face she gave him all the help she could, but she went silently along the dark passages of the castle, and even her babies could not make her smile. One thing only she was resolved upon. She would ride with him to the frontier, and bid him farewell there. But at the frontier, she could not make up her mind to leave him. 'I will go on to the next halting-place,' she said, and when that was reached she rode on again. At length her old friend Walter von Varila went sorrowfully up to Ludwig. 'My lord, it must be. Her Highness must go.'

Elizabeth heard the words and stood like a statue. Then a shudder ran through her; she threw her arms round her husband's neck and they clung together for awhile. After a pause Ludwig gently unwound her arms and spoke.

'Little sister,' he said, and he called her so for the last time; 'look well at this ring on my finger, with the lamb and flag engraved on the sapphire. When I reach my goal, I will send it back by one whom you can trust, and he will tell you if I am alive or dead. And now—Farewell.'

The Alps were crossed at last and the noble company made their way through Italy to join the Emperor at the State of Apulia. At Brindisi the vessels were anchored, which were to carry the army to the Holy Land; but no sooner had both the Emperor and Ludwig entered their ships than they were both seized with fever, and had to put in to Otranto. Here Ludwig grew worse and worse and felt that he must die. He sent for his knights to hear his last orders, and choosing out one or two to bear the ring to Elizabeth, he begged the rest to carry his bones back to Thuringia, after they had accomplished their vow and delivered the tomb of Christ from the hands of the infidels. As he spoke a flock of white doves entered the little cabin and flew round his bed.

'I must fly away with them,' he said, and as the doves flew out of the porthole he gave his last sigh.

The knights, charged with the terrible news, were a long time in travelling to Thuringia; and when at length they got there, Elizabeth was too ill to receive them. It was to Sophia they first told their tale, and when Elizabeth was fit to bear it, her mother-in-law broke it to her more tenderly than could have been expected. The Landgravine listened without seeming to understand, then she leaped out of bed and ran wildly about the corridors of the castle as one that had lost her wits, till she flung herself against a wall, crying 'dead! dead!' between her sobs.

All Thuringia mourned with her—all, that is to say, but her two brothers-in-law, who took advantage of the condition she was in to seize the Government and to drive Elizabeth and her children from the castle, refusing her leave even to carry away the things that belonged to her. Sophia whose heart was softened by her grief did her best to prevent Henry, the elder of the two, from behaving in this wicked way; but he would listen to nothing, and in the middle of the winter Elizabeth bade good-bye to the castle which had been her home for twenty years, bearing in her arms her baby then only a few weeks old. The other three were led by her two maids, Ysentrude who had come with her from Hungary, and the faithful Guta. Where to go they knew not, for Henry had forbidden the people of Eisenach to receive Elizabeth, and they, in spite of all that she and her husband had done for them, had not courage to disobey him. From door after door she was turned away, till the keeper of a miserable little inn took pity on the forlorn creatures, and offered them shelter for the night. The next day a very poor priest sought her out, and begged her to accept what he could offer; and thankful indeed was Elizabeth to go with him, and to put her babies to sleep on clean straw. She sold the jewels she had worn when she was sent from the castle in order to buy them bread, and after all were gone she obtained a few pence by spinning. At length some friends came forward and besought her to give her children into their charge, and they would hide them safely from their uncles. It was agony for Elizabeth to part with them, but she knew it was best, and, sad and lonely though she was, it gave her peace to feel that the children were well and happy.

St. Elizabeth and her children


It seems strange to us that some of the many German princes to whom she was related, did not interfere on her behalf; but they were generally busy with their own little quarrels, and in those days news travelled slowly. Sophia did all she could to help her, and at last she wrote to Elizabeth's aunt, the Abbess Matilda of Kitzingen, who was filled with horror at her niece's sufferings, and sent a carriage at once to fetch her to the banks of the river Main, where the poor princess found her children awaiting her. Here for awhile was rest and peace, but in a few months the Prince Bishop of Bamberg, the Abbess' brother and Elizabeth's uncle, interfered, and declared that it was not suitable that she should remain in the convent, and urged her to return to Hungary. But this the Landgravine at once declined. She had now no mother to welcome her, and her father, whom she had only seen once since her babyhood, seemed almost to have forgotten her existence. Then the Bishop insisted on her occupying a castle of his not far from Bayreuth, granting her a pension which would, he said, enable her to live comfortably, since she would not marry again, as he greatly wished. But Elizabeth would never 'live comfortably' as long as there were any poor at her gates, and though she took up her abode in the castle, between prayers and alms-giving her days were spent much as before.

One consolation she had at this time—the arrival of the crusading knights with the body of Ludwig, which had lain since his death in the town of Otranto. The journey was long and very difficult, but they were faithful to their trust, and at each town where they rested the coffin was left for the night in a church. When they drew near Bamberg a message was sent to the bishop, and he quickly summoned Elizabeth.

The whole of Thuringia was present at the funeral, which took place at Rheinhartsbrünn by the wish of Ludwig himself. Nobles and citizens alike forgot their wicked and cruel treatment of the dead man's wife and children, and for the sake of appearances Henry and Conrad did not dare to behave differently from the rest. Sophia was there by the side of Elizabeth, who wept tears of thankfulness that the desire of her heart was fulfilled, and that Ludwig rested in the place which he had chosen.

But the knights who had returned from the crusade were determined that justice should be done to the son of their master, and with Walter von Varila as their spokesman, they told the usurper sternly what they thought of him and his conduct. It is hardly to be supposed that Henry was really ashamed of himself, or that the knights' words could have thrown a new light upon his behaviour. He was only ashamed, as many people are, of being publicly blamed, and, when he found he could not help himself, agreed to be regent for his nephew till the boy grew up, and to reconcile himself to Elizabeth. She, we may be sure, went more than half way to meet his repentance, and joyfully consented to return to Wartburg with her children. But she soon found that the stir of a castle, with its continued feastings and hunting parties, had become impossible to her, and begged that she might be allowed to go and live at Marburg on the banks of the river Lahn.

Now Elizabeth might have led a long and peaceful life had it not been for a very foolish action of her own in days gone by. Two years before the death of her husband, she had, with his full consent, taken an oath to obey in small things as well as great, the priest Conrad of Marburg, a man who was the trusted friend of many popes. While Ludwig lived, things went on much as they had done in the time of her other confessor; but as soon as she became a widow, Conrad grew more and more tyrannical, and set himself to deprive her of every pleasure and to force her into acts of untold humiliation. He would not allow her to remain in the house which Henry had given her, but worked on her mind till she left it for a tumbledown hut, where she cooked her own food. In this place she stayed alone, while a little wooden cottage was built for her, and when all was ready for the move she sent for her children and her two maids.

But still Conrad was not satisfied. It is true that he would not allow her to adopt all the rules of the Franciscan sisterhoods—she had long ago taken the lighter vows—and to beg from door to door like some of the sisters; but as Elizabeth would not have minded that at all, he required of her something that cut her to the heart—the dismissal of Ysentrude and separation from her children. This done it was easy for her to give up all the possessions she had left, and swear to observe the rules and wear a nun's dress to the end of her life, to fasten a cord round her waist, and to go barefoot. Guta, her maid, joyfully took the same vows, and remained for a time with her mistress. Together they spun wool which they sold for food, and the single garment, which each wore, was of the stuff used by the peasants. At last Guta was taken from her also, and two rough women placed with her by Conrad. She submitted to all, and soon the servants understood her patience and gentleness, and grew to love her.

But this life of constant work and constant privation could not go on for ever. On first coming to Marburg she had built a small hospital and here she spent much of her time, tending the sick as of old, and especially the lepers.

At the end of two years she was attacked by a violent fever, and, much against her will, was forced to take to her bed. For ten or twelve days she lingered, cheerful and happy, but always in prayer. One evening towards sunset she fell asleep, when her maid, who was sitting with her, was startled by hearing a beautiful song proceeding from the pillow.

'Oh, madam, what lovely music!' cried the girl.

'Did you hear it too?' asked Elizabeth. 'A charming little bird came and sat between me and the wall, and he sung so sweetly that he filled my soul with joy, and I could not help singing also! He told me besides,' she added, after a pause, 'that I shall die in three days.'

And in three days she was dead as she had foretold, and was buried, as she wished, in the chapel of the hospital.

She was only twenty-four, but her whole life had been passed in the thought and service of others.