St. Hedwig (1371-1399)
Feast day: Feb. 28
Queens are rare today, but for many centuries just about
every nation in the world had a queen. Although the world has
evolved politically, devotion to St. Hedwig has been strong
and constant among Poles and Lithuanians, who remember her
not only as a skillful ruler, but also as a devout woman who
was especially generous to the needy.
St. Hedwig, or Jadwiga, to use her Polish name, was one of
those remarkable women rulers who appeared all over Europe in
the Middle Ages. At age 13 she was crowned queen of Poland,
which at the time was under threat of invasion from the
Russians, the Mongols and the Tartars. On its eastern border
lay the kingdom of Lithuania, an outpost of paganism in
Christian Europe and an aggressive military power led by the
warrior-king Jagiello. Poland's most pressing problem,
however, was the Teutonic Knights, a German operation that
was part religious order, part freelance army. The Knights
conquered bits of Poland's border land, claiming the
territory belonged to Germany. In addition, their repeated
raids on Lithuania under the guise of fighting the heathens
made it difficult for Poland to keep peace with Jagiello.
Hedwig had been betrothed to William, an Austrian prince. It
was an arranged match, yet after several meetings, the
teenagers deeply fell in love. Given the trouble the country
was having with the Teutonic Knights, the Polish aristocracy
refused to accept a German-speaking prince as their next
king. They insisted that Hedwig break off the engagement to
William and instead accept a marriage proposal from Jagiello
Although it broke her heart, the young queen saw a way to
turn the Lithuanian marriage to her country's advantage. She
told Jagiello she would marry him on three conditions: They
would unite their two countries into a single nation;
Jagiello would become a Catholic; and he would do all he
could to convert his people. It was a canny maneuver. By
marrying Jagiello she made a potential enemy her husband,
expanded the size of her kingdom and reinforced her own
military with the fearsome Lithuanian army. Now Poland was
big enough and strong enough to repel the Teutonic Knights
and make the Russians, the Mongols and the Tartars think
twice about invading. The marriage was advantageous for
Jagiello, too: Once Lithuania was a Catholic country, the
Teutonic Knights could no longer use the excuse that their
invasions were a crusade against pagans.
With her borders secure, Hedwig devoted herself to
revitalizing intellectual life in Poland and establishing the
church in Lithuania. She became the principal patron of the
first bishop of Vilnius in Lithuania.
She refounded the rundown university in Krakow and sponsored
a new college for Lithuanians in Prague, the intellectual and
artistic capital of Eastern Europe.
Hedwig was 28 when she and Jagiello expected their first
child. Tragically, the baby died in childbirth, and Hedwig
died soon after.
Grateful to the queen who made their lands strong, prosperous
and peaceful, the people of Poland and Lithuania began to
venerate Hedwig as a saint immediately after her death.
Popular devotion to her received papal approval in 1996 when
John Paul II formally declared Queen Hedwig blessed. In 1997,
Hedwig was declared a saint.
Craughwell is the author of This Saint Will Change
Your Life (Quirk, 2011) and Saints Behaving Badly