In the year 1207, a baby girl was born to Andrew II, King of Hungary and his wife Gertrude, of the Counts of Andechs-Meran. They named her Elizabeth. She was a precious bundle of joy not only to her parents, but to her brother as well.
At her birth, it was predicted to Hermann, the Landgrave of Thuringia (Germany) that a child was born to the King and Queen of Hungary. It was told to him that she would be a very holy girl, and should become the wife of Hermann’s son, of the same name. Elizabeth was born into a time where it was not uncommon for marriages to be arranged between royal families of different principalities.
This was usually done in an effort to solidify their lands, and by a coalition to add new lands to their domains. In addition, it was a form of protection against other powers who would like to take over by force, these little principalities. In this case, the tyrant they were trying to steel up their forces against was a German emperor, Otto IV, who was not on good terms with the Church, and belonged to another clan, the Guelphs, who were not friendly with the families of Elizabeth and Landgrave Hermann of Thuringia.
By the time St. Elizabeth was four years old, her marriage was sealed with the young Prince Hermann of Thuringia. She was even taken to the court of her future husband to be brought up with him and to learn the customs and niceties of his people. You must remember that although she was a very spiritual girl, she was only a little person. She was obedient, some would say to a fault, but not in those days.
While our women of today would think that a match made by the heads of two families for the sole purpose of power and politics would be unthinkable, and we’re not suggesting they’re wrong, it’s the way things were done at that time. And so whatever her parents or the parents of her betrothed felt was to be, had to be.
Elizabeth is sent to her future husband’s court.
They treated her terribly, possibly because of jealousy that she was going to marry the Landgrave’s son, or perhaps just because she was so nice. Many people can’t handle nice people. Landgravine Sophia, who would become her mother-in-law, embraced the child at first.
However, some of Elizabeth’s piety rubbed Sofia and her daughter the wrong way. There were many reverent gestures which St. Elizabeth performed in the normal course of her religious life which upset Sofia and her daughter.
One example was when they would enter the chapel.
Elizabeth would remove her coronet; the others would leave them on. When questioned about this, Elizabeth said that she could not bear wearing a coronet adorned with jewels, in the presence of Jesus who was crowned with thorns. The noble family’s feathers were ruffled at what they considered the child claiming false piety. Their suggested remedy was to send the girl to a convent, rather than having her stay at court. This is how it began, and through little things that continued to irk the family, they wanted her out.
She had one friend at the castle at Thuringia, Ludwig, the second-oldest son of Landgrave Hermann. He was very kind to Elizabeth. When he would return from a trip, he always brought her little gifts, all of which she loved, especially the Rosaries he brought for her. It was very obvious to all that they cared for each other. Elizabeth went into deep sorrow upon learning just two years after having left her home, that her mother had died, murdered as part of the political situation at home.
It was thought that she was killed by Hungarian nobility, who hated her for her ties with the Germans. This had the effect of devastating the child, who felt all alone, save for her friend, Ludwig.
To make matters worse, three years later, her betrothed, Hermann, son of Landgrave Hermann, died. She was all of nine years old. All her enemies in court took this as a perfect excuse to get her thrown out of the country. They accused her of all kinds of things, but most importantly, she was not one of them, and now that the reason she had been brought to the court was gone, the prince having died, there was no justification for her to stay.
However, what they didn’t count on was the younger brother, Ludwig, who had fallen in love with this beautiful child. They also did not consider that nothing had changed in Landgrave Hermann’s need for an alliance with the father of Elizabeth, the King of Hungary. Elizabeth was betrothed to the second son, Ludwig, whom she really cared for. It was as if the Lord had planned that these two were destined to be one, even though there was a great difference in their ages, he being sixteen, and she only nine.
Another blow to the family and the marriage proposal took place the following year. Landgrave Hermann had great difficulties trying to put through his great political plans in an effort to build a kingdom, or at least protect what he had. He made enemies in the Church, and was finally excommunicated.
This was a shock to his whole family, who were very close to the Church, especially his daughter-in-law to be, Elizabeth, who was totally committed to the Church as was her husband-to-be. Landgrave Hermann lost his mind, and died in 1217, never having made amends with the Church.
A Fairy Tale Romance
The good thing that came about was that his son and Elizabeth’s betrothed, Ludwig, became the Landgrave of Thuringia. He was well-respected by other principalities, especially in areas where his father had not been, and so he was given more and more titles and positions of importance.
It was against this background that Ludwig IV and Elizabeth were married in 1221, he being twenty one, and she fourteen. This took place amidst a great deal of controversy. The people in the court still didn’t want her to be a Thuringian countess, no matter how much Ludwig loved her. He fought them vehemently. He is quoted as having said in her defense, “I would rather cast away a mountain of gold than give her up.”
It was truly a marriage made in Heaven. The lovely couple lived an exemplary life, not only as husband and wife, but as rulers of their country. She was a benevolent ruler, caring more for the welfare of her subjects than for her own well-being. He was truly a Saint of a man. To this day, the Germans call him St. Ludwig, not only for being married to a Saint, but as an acclaim to having been one of the best men of his time.
They are described as being the perfect couple, not only in spirituality and temperament, but also in their physical appearance. She is said to have been “perfect in body, handsome, of a dark complexion; serious in her ways, and modest, of kindly speech, fervent in prayer and most generous to the poor, always full of goodness and divine love.” They don’t go to such lengths in describing Ludwig, other than he “was handsome and modest as a young maid, wise, patient and truthful, trusted by his men and loved by his people.”
They led a glorious life. Theirs was truly a story-book marriage. They had eyes only for each other. True, they were both beautiful people. But remember, he was becoming more and more important as right hand man to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. People, women in particular, looked on him as a great catch. But he saw no one other than his beloved, his Elizabeth. And she saw no one but him.
They had three children, Hermann, Sophia and Gertrude. Hermann died as a teenager; his sister, Sophia, lived a long life, married well, and was part of the German nobility. Gertrude, the youngest, was born three weeks after Prince Ludwig died in Italy from the plague, while preparing to go on a crusade to the Holy Land.
He never saw his little girl in this life. However, because of the great joy the Lord had given him and Elizabeth in their married life, he asked that when this child was born, she be dedicated to the Church in thanksgiving for the blessings the Lord had showered upon them. It was agreed upon by both parents, that, if a girl was born, she would be sent to the Abbey of Altenberg in Germany in the service of the nuns.
Accordingly, before Gertrude reached the age of two, she was brought by her mother to the Premonstratensian Canonesses at the convent in Altenberg, where she spent her entire life. She became a nun, and consequently Abbess. She was Abbess for 49 years. She took after her mother in many ways, most especially her love for the poor, and rejection of all wealth of any kind. She lived the life of a poor nun all her life. Today, she is known as Blessed Gertrude of Altenberg.