Agnes of Prague
Agnes of Prague, (1211-1282), was the youngest daughter of King Premysl Otakar I and Queen Constance of Hungary. Agnes's mother was a sister to Andrew II of Hungary, the father of Saint Elizabeth. Constance was the second wife of Otakar; the first, Adele, was the daughter of the margrave of Meissen. Otakar and Adele had four children. As time passed, Otakar grew tired of Adele preferring the younger Constance. He used the fact that Adele was a distant relative as grounds for dispensation, and convinced Bishop Daniel of Prague to annul the marriage. Adele appealed to Pope Innocent III, but died before the matter was settled. Constance and Otakar had nine children. Otakar's oldest living son from this second marriage, Wenceslas I, became his successor .
Agnes's father was a master politician who secured for Bohemia its hereditary dynasty. Anxious to expand and protect his kingdom, Otakar betrothed his daughters diplomatically. At the age of three, Agnes was sent to Silesia with her older sister, Anna, who was to be engaged to Henry II, son of the duke of Silesia.
Anna and Agnes were placed under the care of their aunt, Duchess (Saint) Hedwig of Silesia (1174-1243). Hedwig arranged that the young Agnes be cared for by the Cistercian nuns of Trebnitz. Anna stayed in Silesia and was married to Henry II in 1216.
Upon her return to Prague, Agnes was sent to the Premonstratensian convent of Doxany in Bohemia. In 1143, this convent had been founded by Queen Gertrude, Agnes's grandmother, for the purpose of educating daughters of the aristocracy. Its nuns were daughters of the highest nobility, and the convent was known for its pedagogical excellence. It was here that Agnes learned to read.
Sometime during 1219-1220, Agnes was betrothed to Henry VII, son of the German emperor Frederick II. Since Henry was in residence with Duke Leopold VI of Austria, Agnes was sent to Vienna to begin her formation as queen. Taking advantage of changing political situations, Leopold VI, however, undermined Otakar's agreement with Frederick and negotiated a wedding between his own daughter Margaret and Henry. This arrangement threatened Otakar's regional dominance and offset the delicate political equilibrium in Europe. Agnes returned to Bohemia and Otakar declared war on the duke of Austria. Although Otakar I negotiated an armistice with the Austrian duke, the Bohemian/ Austrian conflict continued during the reigns of Otakar's successors.
Meanwhile, Agnes was designing a plan of her own. The Franciscan spirit was welcomed not only by Agnes, but also by a substantial number of the royal family of Premyslids, including Agnes's cousin, Elizabeth of Hungary. In Eastern Europe, the Franciscan movement initially had its greatest impact on the upper classes of society, a phenomena opposite that which happened in Italy.
After the marriage between Henry VII and Leopold of Austria's daughter Margaret, Otakar focused his efforts toward obtaining a political alliance with England, again taking advantage of Agnes's marriageable status. Talks began which proposed Henry III, king of England, as a possible suitor for Agnes. These negotiations proceeded slowly perhaps because of Agnes's reluctance, and also perhaps because Otakar preferred to wait for a more advantageous political alliance.
In 1231, Emperor Frederick II, who had been recently widowed, asked for Agnes's hand in marriage. At this last proposal, Agnes appealed to Pope Gregory IX. In the end, her brother, King Wenceslas I rejected the emperor's request. The Legend of Agnes of Prague 2:2, describes the dynamics of the scene:
And in order that she might more surely persevere in her resolution, which she conceived through God's inspiration, putting her hand to strong things, through trustworthy and discreet messengers, she made known her intention to the noble vicar of Christ, the Lord Pope Gregory IX. This felicitous pope rejoiced at the most generous devotion of the virgin, encouraged her by his gracious letter which he sent back by the same messengers, commended and confirmed her holy resolution, and with many spiritual gifts invited her to be his adopted daughter and accorded her his devoted paternal affection all the rest of his days.
The daughter of Christ was filled with spiritual consolation by these things that she received by way of reply from the High Pontiff, and immediately, fearlessly explained her resolution to her brother the Lord King Wenceslas I. When the king heard this, he was not without great anxiety, as would be expected, about how to excuse himself, and he dispatched messengers to disclose to the emperor what his sister had resolved to do.
It is said that the emperor replied to their message in the following manner: "If this affront had been committed against us by any man, under no condition would we desist from avenging the insult of such contempt. However, since she has rather chosen a Lord who is greater than we, we do not consider this to be any insult against us, for we believe that this thing has been done through divine inspiration." Therefore, with words of praise he highly extolled the virgin's good intention and sent her rich gifts and many relics, exhorting her to bring to a fruitful end what she had happily begun.
On November 17, 1231, Agnes's cousin Elizabeth of Hungary, who was only a few years older than Agnes, died at the age of twenty-four. Elizabeth's care of famine victims, her founding of a hospital out of her own modest means for the poor and sick (1228), and many other stories concerning Elizabeth's saintly generosity were well known to Agnes. Elizabeth was canonized by Gregory IX on May 25, 1235.
In 1233, Agnes followed Elizabeth's example by establishing a hospital. The building of hospitals for the merciful care of the poor, abandoned, and ill, especially the incurable lepers, was common to the penitential spirit. Agnes placed the care of this hospital in the hands of a pious lay brotherhood, the Crosiers of the Red Star, who organized themselves with the help of the Friars Minor. This brotherhood was the first religious Order native to Bohemia and already in Agnes's lifetime extended its network of social outreach beyond the borders of Bohemia.
Agnes also built a monastery for women and a convent for the friars who would serve as its chaplains. She sent messengers to Rome asking for papal approval for her monastery and requested sisters who followed the form of life of the Poor Sisters of San Damiano. With Gregory IX's approval, Clare sent Agnes five sisters from Trent. Since Trent was part of the Austrian Tyrol, these sisters spoke German, a language commonly understood in Prague.
On June 11, 1234, at the age of twenty-three, Agnes entered the Monastery of the Most Holy Redeemer. Seven bishops officiated and Agnes's brother, King Wenceslas I, and the queen were present for the historic event.
Her role as abbess of this monastery brought her early difficulties with Gregory IX over the question of poverty. With Cum relicta saeculi (May 18, 1235), Gregory IX established Agnes's monastery as the beneficiary of the revenues that Agnes had handed over to the Hospital of Saint Francis. This violated the Franciscan ideal of living without property that was so dear to the hearts of the earliest Franciscans. After Agnes leveled a series of protests, the pope retracted and entrusted the direction and revenue of the hospital to the Crosiers of the Red Star.
Correspondence surrounding Agnes illustrates that she was truly captivated by the Franciscan ideal. Clare's tender affection for Agnes, whom she had met only through letters and through the description of messengers, united Clare with the missionary zeal of the brothers. Having been caught in the currents of noble politicking and intrigue, Agnes knew the emptiness of the propertied life, and desired to embrace with all her heart a Rule that would soundly preserve Francis and Clare's ideal of living without property. Both she and Clare received their wish when Innocent IV approved Clare's Rule on August 9, 1253, just two days before Clare's death. Clare's Rule, the first ever to be approved that was written by a woman, solved for a time ecclesiastical interference concerning the practice of poverty that both Clare and Agnes had promised to follow.
Agnes outlived Clare by thirty years. As Agnes grew older, the political situation in her beloved Bohemia became more and more precarious. Ecclesiastics repeatedly attempted to persuade Agnes to accept property and revenues in order to protect her from the destitution that falls to the poor during times of war and famine. Knowing well the consequences, Agnes and her sisters steadfastly rejected these privileges.
Although Agnes repeatedly used her influence to try to insure peace and stability for her beloved Bohemia, her nephew King Otakar II's hunger for power and possessions, and his propensity to achieve these ends by means of despotic cruelty, eventually undermined political discretion. Despite warnings from his aunt, and despite a lack of solid allegiance from the Bohemian nobility, Otakar decided to make war against Rudolph of Hapsburg and died in battle on August 26, 1278. Rudolph entrusted Otto, the margrave of Brandenburg, with Bohemia. Otto, a grandnephew of Agnes, misused his power, destroying and plundering royal and ecclesiastical property. He kept the king's widow, Cunegunda, and her three children imprisoned in a castle in northern Bohemia.
Famine, epidemics, and incessant warfare followed in Bohemia, and Agnes's convent became a refuge for the sick and hungry as well as a stronghold of Bohemian pride. There were floods that, along with bringing hardship and disease to an already stressed population, prohibited the mills from operating. Inflation soared. Meat, fish, cheese, eggs, and grain products were difficult to find. Some reports speak about robberies, armed assaults, murders, blood feuds, terrible hunger, mass graves, and even cannibalism. Agnes, who had chosen to live without property against the wishes of those who wanted to protect her nobility from the plight of the poor, now shared in the plight of the destitute and oppressed.
On March 2, 1282. Agnes died in her convent in Prague exhausted by hunger, like so many other Bohemians.(1)
(1)Cited from Joan Mueller, Clare's Letters to Agnes, Texts and Sources (St. Bonaventure, NY: St. Bonaventure University, 2001), with the generous permission of the author and the press.