The glories, trials, and fortune of Holy Mother Church in Western Europe are rather well represented in six women; six saints who were also either Queens or Empresses. These incredible figures are not only personally admirable in their holiness, but they excel in two particulars: converting and peacemaking.
As the savage persecution of Diocletian, enthusiastically enforced by co-Emperors Galerius and Maximin Daia, seemed to mark a low point for the status of Christianity in the Roman Empire, grace yet prevailed, and the Empire rather suddenly became a patron and protector of Christianity.
St. Helena is thought to have been of humble origin, the daughter of an inn-keeper, and born around 250 in Bithynia; what is now the Black Sea coast of Turkey. (There is a rich English tradition of her hailing from Britain, but that is perhaps a discussion for another article). She, a pagan herself, married a military officer and politician–Constantius Chlorus, bearing him a son, Constantine, around 274. Despite their seemingly happy marriage, Constantius took the opportunity to become the Caesar (junior co-Emperor) of the Western Roman Empire, and put Helena away in favor of the step-daughter of the Emperor Maximian, Augustus (senior co-Emperor) of the West.
When Constantius Chlorus died suddenly in 306, his troops stationed in England proclaimed his son, Constantine–still loyal to his mother, and now demanding that she be known as Augusta–as their Emperor. This is the very Constantine that contended with the aggressively pagan Maxentius, son of Maximian, for control of the West. Constantine rather famously instructed his troops to put Christian emblems on their shields just prior to his battle with Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber in 312–having a vision that “In hoc signo vinces,” “In this sign you will conquer.” While Constantine did not immediately accept baptism, he did legalize Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313, and became a great patron of the Church.
For St. Helena, her son’s experience with Christianity seems to have brought about her conversion. Eusebius of Caesarea writes, “She became under his influence such a devout servant of God, that one might believe her to have been from her very childhood a disciple of the Redeemer of mankind.”
Like the Roman Empire itself, St. Helena had suffered much at the hands of a pagan society, but now embraced Christianity. St. Helena, in her old age, journeyed to Palestine around 324, searching for, and finding, the relics of the True Cross. She, like her son, became a great patron of the Church, and was responsible for the construction of a number of Churches. Indeed, the site of her palace in Rome is now the location of the Church of Santa Croce in Jerusalemme, where those relics she discovered in the Holy Land are now housed. She died around 330, famous for her charity to the poor.
The Roman Empire, converting to Christianity, but like the family of Constantine, enduring the theological controversies, soon found that its Western half was overwhelmed by Germanic barbarian tribes–who adhered either to paganism or Arianism. The project of the conversion of the Western Roman Empire now became a project to convert and civilize these Germanic tribes.
St. Clotilde was the daughter of the King of the Burgundians, born around 475, and actually raised a Catholic. Her solid upbringing would be crucial, as she was married to the powerful pagan king of the Franks, Clovis I. Clovis was a resolute and brutal man. The account of Clovis and the Vase of Soisson, as told by St. Gregory of Tours, gives a wonderful sense of the man’s character. [Read the account HERE.]
Through Clotide’s influence, Clovis allowed their firstborn son Ingomir to be baptized in 494, but the infant died soon thereafter. Nevertheless, Clovis, immediately prior to fighting the Battle of Tolbiac against the Alemanni, prayed to God that, with a victory, he would convert to Christianity. Victorious he would be, and that Christmas, 496, St. Remigius, Bishop of Reims, baptized Clovis. With Clovis, the leadership of the Franks accepted the Catholic Faith.
Clotilde, for her part, would endure family disputes and tragedy after the death of Clovis in 511. She did what she could as a peacemaker, and retired to a religious life at Tours near the tomb of St. Martin, dying in 545.
The Franks would eventually unite the area of what is now France, Germany, and northern Italy under their rule. The Merovingian house of Clovis I was replaced, with papal permission, by that of the Carolingians in the 8th century. The Frankish King Charlemagne restored an imperial title to the West with his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor by Pope St. Leo III on Christmas day in 800. That title, however, rapidly fell into decay, as the Empire divided and dissolved under the Carolingian heirs. By the 10th century, the title was meaningless, and France, Germany, and Italy each had their own set of monarchs.
In the chaos that engulfed Italy in the mid-10th century, multiple nobles claimed the throne of Italy, in a bloody succession of chaotic claims and usurpations. By the 920s, Rudolph II of Burgundy had a tenuous claim to the title of King of Italy, but he soon lost it to Hugh of Provence. Hugh and Rudolph did reach an understanding in 933 that called for their children to be married when they came of age.
So it was that Lothair II, son of Hugh of Provence, and nominal King of Italy, married St. Adelaide, daughter of Rudolph II, in 947.
By 950, Lothair was dead, thought to be poisoned by Berengar of Ivrea. Berengar, who held the real power in Italy, proceeded to force the young widow, St. Adelaide, to marry his son, which she refused to do. Despite temporary escape, Adelaide would end up imprisoned by Berengar at a castle on Lake Garda; she was 19 years old. If only there was a knight in shining armor to rescue her!
There was. The King of Germany, Otto I, “the Great,” happened to invade Italy at that very time in response to calls for help from various Italian nobles oppressed by Berengar of Ivrea. Otto easily defeated Berengar; not only was St. Adelaide liberated, but on Christmas day of 951, they married! Her new husband, after securing the title of Italy, was also crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 962 by Pope John XII, restoring the title.
For Adelaide, the trials of her later life came primarily from her Byzantine daughter-in-law, Theophano, wife of her son Otto II, and mother of her grandson Otto III. (Interesting trivia: it is said that Theophano introduced the fork into Western Europe) Even going into exile over the tense relationship, St. Adelaide eventually returned to act as regent for a young Otto III after Theophano’s untimely death. St. Adelaide was dedicated to care of the poor, patronage of the Church, and the conversion of the Slavs. She died in 999, having retired to a life of prayer when her grandson came of age.
Holy souls, like those of St. Adelaide and her biographer, St. Odilo of Cluny, helped guide Western Europe into the period of the high medieval period–that of the Crusades, Universities, the Mendicant Orders, Gothic Architecture, and arguably the most Catholic public social order in the history of the Church. While the ideals of Catholicism may have made a definite mark on the society of Western Europe in the high medieval period, men certainly remained fallen, and the need for heroic sanctity and peacemaking was ever-present.
St. Elizabeth of Portugal
St. Elizabeth of Portugal was the eldest daughter of King Peter III of Aragon–born in 1271, the era of the great poet Dante. She was actually named Elizabeth in honor of her great-aunt, St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Her brothers included future kings of Aragon but also of Sicily in Italy. She herself was married to the King of Portugal, Denis, who reigned from 1279-1325. While Denis was not a man of impressive morals and neglected his wife–he fathered a number of illegitimate children–he allowed St. Elizabeth to live out her faith and not only an impressive schedule of prayer and fasting, but also the foundation of monasteries and hospitals.
King Denis and his Queen, St. Elizabeth, had two children: Afosno, who would succeed his father as King Afonso IV of Portugal, and a daughter Constance, who would marry the King of Castile. It was as a peacemaker within her family that St. Elizabeth did, perhaps, become most famous. Twice her son Afonso rose in arms against his father, and in both cases, St. Elizabeth brought about a peaceful solution, even riding out between armies! She would also prevent at least two other conflicts in the Iberian peninsula, as well.
Despite her husband’s poor treatment of her, she was there to nurse him in his final illness, and saw him repentant before his death. She would end her days a third order Franciscan, dying on 4 July 1336.
St. Jadwiga of Poland
Even as Western Europe began to enjoy the fruits of Catholic civilization, in the northeast corner of the continent, the work of civilizing and conversion continued.
In a rather interesting piece of inheritance and history, a branch of the French Royal house of Valois acquired the throne of Hungary and Croatia in the 14th century. The Valois-Anjou King Louis I of Hungary and Croatia added Catholic Poland to his realm as well, in 1370, succeeding his uncle Casimir III. When Louis I died in 1382, his eldest daughter succeeded to the throne of Hungary and Croatia. Poland, however, after two years of negotiations, went to a younger daughter, Jadwiga (also known by the German form of her name, Hedwig). She was 10 years old when crowned rex, king, of Poland at Krakόw. She was quite the eligible young Queen, and of all suitors, would attract the attention and proposal of the Grand Duke of the Lithuanians, Jagiello.
The Lithuanians remained an unconverted pagan people at the end of the 14th century, having long resisted the military-missionary efforts of the Teutonic Knights. A proposal of marriage from the pagan Grand Duke was accompanied by a pledge to accept Catholicism as a prerequisite for the nuptials.
So it was that, in 1386, Jadwiga wed Jagiello after his baptism, he taking the name Władysław. They now jointly ruled the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; the union of these states continued for another four hundred years. The pagan Lithuanian nobility now accepted baptism in large numbers, and the conversion of one of the last great pagan people of Europe was now largely complete. Nearly a thousand years after the conversion of the Franks, another Queen-Saint brought a people to Christ.
St. Jadwiga was renowned for her charity and died soon after giving birth to a daughter in 1399. She was only canonized in 1997 by Pope St. John Paul II.
Bl. Maria Cristina of Savoy
The centuries that followed St. Jadwiga were ones in which the Church struggled with the corruption of the Renaissance, the religious dissention of the Protestantism, and the intellectual attack on faith launched by the Enlightenment. The very idea of a Catholic monarch now became repugnant to so many.
Victor Emmanuel I, of the House of Savoy, was only able to rule the entirety of his family lands with the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia at the Congress of Vienna. He was a conservative in the age of Metternich, was married to a member of the Italian branch of the House of Hapsburg (his wife was Maria Teresa of Austria-Este, Princess of Modena), and, after 1819, the Jacobite claimant to the throne of England and Scotland (a claim he never pursued). His wife was, interesting to note, the granddaughter of the famous Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.
Blessed Maria Cristina was the youngest daughter of Victor Emmanuel I, born in 1812, and while beautiful, she was shy and uncomfortable in the environment of the court. In 1832, she married the King of the Two Sicilies, Ferdinand II, who ruled southern Italy and Sicily from his capital at Naples.
The marriage was not the happiest, with the timid Maria Cristina too innocent and modest to be comfortable at the Neapolitan court as Queen, especially with an unsympathetic husband. Nevertheless, she was heroic in her charity to the poor and sick. She died shortly after giving birth to a son, Francis, in 1836. Francis, who succeeded his father as King of the Two Sicilies in 1859 as Francis II, would be the last king in Naples, with a distant cousin of Blessed Maria Cristina, Victor Emmanuel II, annexing the kingdom that had been conquered by the liberal revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1861.
Queen Maria Cristina was beatified in January 2014 with the approval of Pope Francis. Interestingly, while Blessed Maria Cristina died long before she would have been able to make peace in her family, the observance of her beatification, “united for the first time in 50 years the principal branches of the Bourbon Two Sicilies dynasty,” that had been disputing whom was the rightful head of the house.
In the last century and a half, monarchs have been fewer in number, and less noted for their fervor. So the Church now faces the contemporary world that seems to have so little time for the Catholic Faith or for Queens.
If only a holy Queen were able to bring about our conversion and make peace in our time…
Let us invoke the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Church, that she might do precisely that!
[Editor’s Note: These are just six of the Queen Saints, but there are many others. The list as best we can tell also includes Sts.: Balthild, Cunigunde, Radegund, Joan of France, Margaret of Scotland, Pulcheria, Seaxburg of Ely, Matilda, Hereswith, Æthelburh of Kent, Æthelburg of Wessex, Ermenilda, Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, Eanflæd, Olga of Kiev, Bl. Mafalda of Portugal, Bl. Teresa of Portugal, and Bl. Gisela of Hungary.]
Recommended Further Reading:
Saint Helena and the True Cross
Saint Clothilde: The First Christian Queen of France Tells Her Story
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