Saint Hedwig of Silesia

Hedwig was born in Andechs Castle in the Duchy of Bavaria, Germany, the daughter of Count Berthold IV of Andechs and his second wife Agnes of Wettin. She was the aunt of St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

At the age of twelve, Hedwig was married to Duke Henry of Silesia, the head of the Polish Royal family. As soon as Henry succeeded his father in 1201, he had to struggle with his Piast relatives, at first with his uncle Duke Mieszko IV Tanglefoot who immediately seized the Upper Silesian Duchy of Opole.  In 1229 Henry was captured and arrested at Płock Castle by rivaling Duke Konrad I of Masovia. Hedwig proceeded to Płock pleading for Henry and was able to have him released.

Her actions promoted the reign of her husband: Upon the death of the Polish High Duke Władysław III Spindleshanks in 1231, Henry also became Duke of Greater Poland and the next year prevailed as High Duke at Kraków. In 1238, upon his death, Henry was buried at a Cistercian monastery of nuns, Trzebnica Abbey (Kloster Trebnitz), which he had established in 1202 at Hedwig’s request. Hedwig accepted the death of her beloved husband with faith. She said:

Would you oppose the will of God? Our lives are His.

The widow moved into the monastery, which was led by her daughter Gertrude, assuming the religious habit of a lay sister, but she did not take vows. She invited numerous German religious people from the Holy Roman Empire into the Silesian lands, as well as German settlers who founded numerous cities, towns and villages in the course of the Ostsiedlung, while cultivating barren parts of Silesia for agriculture.

Hedwig and Henry had several daughters, though only one surviving son, Henry II the Pious, who succeeded his father as Duke of Silesia and Polish High Duke. The widow however had to witness the killing of her son, vainly awaiting the support of Emperor Frederick II, during the Mongol invasion of Poland at the Battle of Legnica(Wahlstatt) in 1241. The hopes for a re-united Poland were lost and even Silesia fragmented into numerous Piast duchies under Henry II’s sons. Hedwig and her daughter-in-law, Henry II’s widow Anna of Bohemia, established a Benedictine abbey at the site of the battle in Legnickie Pole, settled with monks coming from Opatovice in Bohemia.

Hedwig and Henry had lived very pious lives, and Hedwig had great zeal for her faith. She had supported her husband in donating the Augustinian provostry at Nowogród Bobrzański (Naumburg) and the commandery of the Knights Templar at Oleśnica Mała (Klein Oels). Hedwig always helped the poor, the widows and the orphans, founded several hospitals for the sick and the lepers, and donated all her fortune to the Church. She allowed no one to leave her uncomforted, and one time she spent ten weeks teaching the Our Father to a poor woman. According to legend, she went barefoot even in winter, and when she was urged by the Bishop of Wrocław to wear shoes, she carried them in her hands. On 15 October 1243, Hedwig died and was buried in Trzebnica Abbey with her husband, while relics of her are preserved at Andechs Abbey and St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin.

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