Context: St. Elizabeth of Hungary, daughter of the Hungarian King Andrew II, was born in 1207. She was betrothed at the age of four to Louis (or Lewis), son of the Landgrave of Thuringia, who was about the same age. They were married when she was fourteen. Disliking the splendors and vanities of court, she had already begun to cultivate a pious and charitable way of life; she was widely known for her generosity, particularly during the great famine of 1225. She also built hospitals and engaged in other charitable works, for all of which she was censured by Louis' family. Her husband left on a crusade in 1227 and died en route to the Holy Land; Louis' brother immediately deprived Elizabeth of her regency and exiled her from the court because her charities had wasted state funds. The people she had assisted were afraid to take her in, and her sufferings were great. Eventually she took refuge in the monastery of Kitzingen, where her aunt was abbess. When her husband's companions returned from the crusade with his body, she told them of the wrongs that had been done to her and to her three children; her rights were subsequently restored. She did not accept the regency, but joined the Order of St. Francis instead, devoting her income as Landgravine to charity. She died in 1231 and was canonized four years later. Kingsley's drama is based on the biography by Conrad of Marburg, one of Elizabeth's contemporaries. Kingsley sees her life as an internal struggle between the need for a normal human existence and the demands of a religion which believed that family relationships were depraved. The play opens with Elizabeth sorrowing because people dislike her pious ways, describes her marriage and her conflict between love and doctrine, and introduces Conrad. He is a monk who exercises a great influence over her, taking advantage of her devout nature. He is a cold fanatic devoted to a system rather than to God, and he uses Elizabeth to further his own ambitions and those of the Church. There is a meeting between Louis and his advisers in which the depleted treasury and the seditious preaching of Conrad are discussed; Elizabeth impresses all with her saintly motives. The next scene is an idyllic one, in which Elizabeth sings for her husband:
Oh! that we two were MayingDown the stream of the soft spring breeze;Like children with violets playingIn the shade of the whispering trees.Oh! that we two sat dreamingOn the sward of some sheep-trimmed down,Watching the white mist steamingOver river and mead and town.Oh! that we two lay sleepingIn our nest in the churchyard sod,With our limbs at rest on the quiet earth's breast,And our souls at home with God!