Blessed Princesses

One of the very odd shifts, which took place in the early 13th century had to do with the way in which the princely house of Europe changed their cultural outlook in terms of family policy. Up until then they had all scrambled to get a male family member as patron saint.

Epitomized in the concept of a Rex Justus the pantheon was populated not only by such more or less mythical figures as Æthelbert of Kent (560 – 616) but also Canute IV of Denmark (1042 – 1086), his son Charles I, Count of Flanders (1083 – 1127), David I of Scotland (1083 – 1153), Eric IX of Sweden (1120–1160), Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, 972 – 1024, Ferdinand III of Castile, 1199 – 1252), Olaf of Norway (995 – 1030), Leopold III, Margrave of Austria 1050 – 1136; not to mention the latecomer, Louis IX (1214 –1270).

In the beginning of the 13th century, however, it became royally fashionable to people the pantheon with female saints; many of them inspired by Santa Chiara and modeled on the primary archetype: St. Elisabeth of Thüringen.

One reason behind this was the attempt of the church to get a grip of a number of more or less “heretical” movements like the Cathars, the Waldenses and the Umiliati. It is well known that one of the reasons why the work of San Francesco was not outlawed, had to do with the willingness of his followers to submit themselves to the stipulations and government of the pontificate.

One specific challenge was however to find a way to regulate the female counterpart; not only the holy women like Santa Chiara and her friends and family, bit also the beguines, the pinzocheres and the other so-called “mulieres religiosae”. It is here the curious institution of the blessed princesses seemed to offer a solution.

 

In its essence it consisted of the virtuous lives of a number of closely related half-sisters and cousins from central Europe. Through their adoption of lives characterized by voluntary poverty and social service a venue was opened up for another career than marriage or contemplative cloistering.

The most prominent was of course St. Elisabeth of Thüringen, who was married at 14 and widowed as 20. Lead by a brutal and dominant priest, Konrad von Marburg, she embarked on a new holy career building hospitals and dispensing her money as alms to the poor. After her death she was canonized in 1235. It was generally believed that she had joined the third (lay) order of san Francesco, but whether this was ever formalized is not substantiated.

One legacy was her inspiration of her cousins, Anne and Agnes, daughters of the Bohemian king, Ottokar I Přemysl and Constance of Arpad. Agnes is the best known – she is the one who founded the

“Damian” cloister in Prag; but her sister also ended up in a convent of Poor Clares after she was widowed in 1257. All in all a recent monograph lists nine saintly queens and princesses belonging to this group. And then the author even forgot a couple of outsiders, who may even have been sisters.

One was Markéta Přemyslovna, half-sister to St. Agnes. In 1205 she was married to the Danish king, Valdemar 2. Before she could realise any saintly aspirations – if she any such – she died in childbirth 1212. However, at some point she was remembered in four ballads as an especially “good” person filled with compassion and mercy towards the people of her adopted nation. According to the ballad her only sin was to wear tight sleeves on Sundays. Dagmar was eventually buried in the family mausoleum cum saintly shrine in Ringsted. Today, apart from the ballads, she is primarily remembered for her reliquary cross, which was allegedly found in her grave in 1695.

The cross is 3.4 x 2.9 cm and 0.3 cm thick. It is formed as a reliquary cross in order to hold a piece of the “real” cross. Back and front are covered in delicate worked enamel. On one side is a representation of the crucifixion, on the other side five medallions: In the centre Christ Eternal, at his right Mary, and his left John the Baptist. On top is a picture of Basileos from Cappadocia and at the bottom St. John Chrysostemos. Probably the cross was made in Byzantium or in Russia. Whether it belonged to Dagmar or the sister of her husband, Valdemar, is disputed. Most believe it was brought from Russia with Sophia, the mother of Valdemar and Richiza.

Agnes as well as Markéta (or Dagmar) may even have had another sister. She is however primarily remembered because her saintly ambitions – if she had any – ended badly.

The first we hear of Guglielma of Bohemia is when she together with a grownup son arrived in Milano around 1260. Her she made a contract – a vitalizio – with the Umiliati convent of Santa Catharina di Biassona and the Abbey of Chiaravalle. As a devout widow she lived the rest of her austere life there until she was buried 1281. Immediately afterwards she became the center of a small cult. The reason, why we know of her, is that she seems to have been a charismatic personality and that she contracted a number of followers, which after her death tried to get her not only canonized but also “deified” as part of a kind of an apocalyptic vision. In 1300 the inquisition got whiff of this and started to mop it up, thus leaving us with the minutes of the trial of her small band of followers.

Due to these records we know that one of her proselytes went to Bohemia after her death in order to get help for her canonization. He testified that she was indeed the sister of the late king (and hence the sister or half-sister of St. Agnes). Unfortunately this cannot be verified.

Quickly after her death the monks at Chiaravalle succeeded in bolstering her cult. Twice a year her office was publicly celebrated and any miracles were faithfully recorded. At the same time, however, the nuns and inmates of the convent of Biassona established an alternative sect, where Guiglielma

was celebrated as the reincarnated Holy Spirit. Naturally it all ended badly. The devoted high priests in this secret cult end up being interrogated, tortured and burnt and Guiglielma herself was interred, burnt and her ashes spread on the ground.

Somehow the veneration of this saint-never-to-be was nevertheless kept alive in the villages around Milan. Which made it resurface some time in the 1425, when a friar of Ferrara wrote a really phantasmal vitae or rather hagiographic romance, in which her primary high priestess, sister Manfreda ended up as the “Papessa”, later transformed into one of the triumphs in the cards of tarot. The amusing end of this story is that in the end Guiglielma ended up being venerated as a local saint in the village of Brunate.

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