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A patron saint for queens

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 of Lithuania.

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 (Doubleday, 2006).

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015