By Emily Woodham
Although historians are unsure of the exact dates, it seems Hedwig of Silesia, Poland, was born in 1178. Her parents ruled in Bavaria (Germany) and were from some of the most prominent families in Europe, with lands that extended into Istria (Croatia). She was sent to a Benedictine convent when she was 5, where she learned to read, write and how to manage a household, including the use of medicinal herbs. When she was 12, she was sent to Silesia to marry the Duke’s son, Henry, who was 18.
Although a young bride, Hedwig was not timid. She was bright and held strong opinions about how to live her life as a Christian duchess. Their first child was not born until 1194, which may be a sign that, like many marriages in the Middle Ages when the bride was only 12 or 13, they waited until she was older before consummation.
Henry adored Hedwig. He indulged her devotions to charity for the poor, sick and imprisoned. After he inherited the dukedom of Silesia in 1202, he welcomed her opinions on how to rule his people. His one complaint about his wife was that she refused to wear shoes. To his frustration, despite her noble heritage and standing, she always went barefoot, night and day, no matter the weather, as a sign of personal penance.
Henry was so upset by her choice to be barefoot that he begged her confessor to order her to wear shoes. When her confessor gave the command, she happily “obeyed” by wearing her shoes tied to her belt in summer and boots tied to her belt in winter, while keeping her feet free.
With the guidance of her confessor, Hedwig managed her household as well as numerous projects outside the home. She fed the poor and tended to the sick. It was said that the poor and vulnerable regarded her as a mother. She oversaw the building of a hospital for lepers and would visit them to personally care for them. With her encouragement, Henry funded the first convent in Silesia at Trebnitz.
She also entreated Henry to be merciful to those in prison. Because of her in-fluence, prisoners were given opportunities to work on the building of churches in order to gain their freedom.
In addition to her hard work and hours of prayer, she delighted in embroidering cloths for churches. She lived on only 1 percent of her income, giving the rest away to the Church and charity.
She admired the Cistercian order, which was a strict branch of the Benedictines. After the death of her eighth child in its infancy, she asked Henry to take vows of chastity with her and to live separately. Henry agreed. Some historians find this puzzling. However, if she had difficulties with pregnancies, it is possible that this was a mercy for her, to allow her to live and to do what she felt God was calling her to do.
Although Hedwig and Henry lived separately as lay members of the Cistercian order, they remained friends, enduring many heartbreaks together. Six of their eight children died before adulthood. The fiancé of their surviving daughter, Gertrude, was murdered. (Not wanting to consider another man for marriage, Gertrude became a Cistercian nun and then later the prioress at the convent her parents had founded.) One of Hedwig’s sisters was murdered, and another sister was dishonored when the pope declared her marriage invalid. In addition, Henry was often at war.
Despite Henry’s devotion to Hedwig and the Cistercian order, he remained ambitious in seeking more lands and power. He had paid money to others to gain support, and he broke a treaty to take the city of Krakow. So in 1229, it was probably not a surprise to Hedwig when she heard that his treaty talks with his enemy, Duke Konrad, did not go well. Not liking what Henry had to say, Konrad sent knights to capture Henry while he was at Mass.
Hedwig walked barefoot for 208 miles, from Wroclaw to the castle in Plock where Henry was a prisoner. When she approached the throne of Konrad, she begged on her knees for Henry’s release. Konrad was so moved by her humility and piety, that he agreed to let Henry go in exchange for the city of Krakow. (The pope later declared the negotiation for Krakow invalid because it was made under duress.)
Henry died in 1238, having reigned for several years as High Duke of Poland. He left his rule to his son Henry II. Henry II died only three years later in a battle during the Mongol invasion. Although the Polish lost the battle, the Mongols retreated soon after.
Hedwig lived the rest of her life at the convent, but never took vows to be a nun. She remained true to her independent spirit, following only the advice of her confessor. Despite the sufferings she endured, she continued to practice strict fasts and other penances. She died at the age of 65, in 1243, following an illness.
She was canonized only 24 years after her death. Miracles were reported at her tomb. When they exhumed her body for examination, they found that the fingers she had wrapped around her favorite statue of the Blessed Mother never decomposed.
St. Hedwig is a patron saint of orphans and the poor. In Wroclaw, her statue is at a bridge to symbolize peace between Germany and Poland. The Czechs also have a strong devotion to her. Her feast day is October 16.
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