by Heather R. Darsie, J.D.
Elisabeth von Habsburg was born between 1436 and 1439 to the Austrian Archduke Albert II of Germany and his wife Elizabeth of Luxembourg. Elisabeth’s early life saw great struggle between her father, who was crowned King of Bohemia and Hungary in 1537, and the Polish prince Casimir IV Jagiellon. The Polish wished for a marriage between one of Albert II’s daughters and a Polish prince so that the dispute over Bohemia could be settled. Albert was not interested in such an arrangement, wanting to keep possession of Bohemia rather than strengthening a Polish claim.
Elisabeth’s older sister Anne was born in 1432. A Polish match for Elisabeth and her sister began being pressed in at least 1437, with Albert II partially resolving the issue by agreeing to wed Anne to a German prince in March 1439. Anne was sent to live at her husband’s court. Months later, Elisabeth’s father died, adding upheaval to the toddler Elisabeth’s life. Elisabeth’s mother was pregnant with Elisabeth’s brother Ladislaus, known as the Posthumous. Ladislaw was chosen as the King of Hungary, but a someone else was chosen for the Kingdom of Poland. A civil war ensued.
Holy Roman Emperor-Elect Frederick III, a distant cousin of Elisabeth’s, offered to take in and protect Elisabeth and her brother Ladislaus, infant-king. Her mother agreed, and Elisabeth and her brother were sent to Forchtenstein Castle in Burgenland, Austria. Two years later, in 1442, Elisabeth’s mother died. Elisabeth was already betrothed to Frederick III’s nephew, another Frederick, of Saxony. Elisabeth and her brother were moved to Wiener Neustadt.
At some point in her youth, Elisabeth likely contracted spinal tuberculosis. Put in laymen’s terms (for I, Dear Reader, am not any sort of medical doctor or scientist), the tuberculosis infection spread from somewhere else in her body, possibly the lungs, into her spine. Once in the spine, the tuberculosis bacteria causes something similar to arthritis in the spine. Visually, it causes a severe bend in a person’s back, causing a hunch. It can also visually manifest more like a severe case of scoliosis. Elisabeth’s entire appearance was impacted by the spinal tuberculosis infection, including her face not growing properly and her head being tilted to her right. Aside from the impact to her visual appearance, Elisabeth was otherwise healthy and robust throughout her life.
Holy Roman Emperor-Elect Frederick III was having second thoughts about wedding Elisabeth to a Saxon prince, and instead pursued a match between Elisabeth and Philip the Good of Burgundy’s son, Charles the Bold. The idea was to swap territories to strengthen both families. However, Philip the Good wanted an inordinately high dowry, and the negotiation fell apart.
Elisabeth was still set to marry Frederick of Saxony in 1450. She was between eleven and fourteen years old, and Frederick was only eleven. Frederick’s mother apparently failed to follow through on the wedding plans, so the wedding never took place. Sadly, young Frederick died died in December 1451. On the other hand, Emperor-Elect Frederick III was free to negotiate a match for Elisabeth.
In the interim, a cousin of Elisabeth’s mother, Count Ulrich II of Celje, was thoroughly unimpressed with Frederick III keeping Elisabeth and her brother. Little King Ladislaus was offered the Hungarian crown in 1444 if only Frederick III would return the young king. Frederick refused, and Count Ulrich did his best to intercede.
In late 1451, Emperor-Elect Frederick III went to Rome for his imperial coronation, taking Ladislaus with him. Seeing his opportunity, Count Ulrich gladly took custody of Elisabeth with the help of nobles at the Viennese court. Ladislaus was returned to Count Ulrich in 1452.
In 1452, Count Ulrich accepted a marriage proposal between Elisabeth and King Casimir IV of Poland. Casimir IV was born in 1427, making him nine to thirteen years older than Elisabeth. Casimir did have some reservations about wedding Elisabeth, having heard about her deformities. He decided in the end to go through with the marriage.
Elisabeth was sent to Poland in early 1454, dramatically accompanied by around nine hundred riders. The couple married on 10 February 1454, and enjoyed a loving marriage until Casimir’s death in 1492. The couple had at least thirteen children, seven girls and six boys. Two of the girls died in infancy. When Elisabeth’s brother died, that opened the door for her sons to claim the throne of Hungary. In total, four of her sons became kings: Vladislaus II of Bohemia and Hungary, John I Albert of Poland, Alexander of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Sigismund I of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. Her son Casimir was canonized, and is the Patron Saint of Lithuania.
Elisabeth lived as a widow for roughly thirteen years. She died of illness on 30 August 1505, and was buried next to her husband.
Love learning about the Holy Roman Empire or Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!
You Might Also Like
- Anne of Bohemia and Hungary
- The Habsburgs in the Medieval and Early Modern Period
- The Iberian House of Trastamara
- Gerardus Mercator: Cartographer and Geographer
- Anna of Cleves’ Early Life and Court Culture
Sources & Suggested Reading
- Brzezińska, Anna. “Female Control of Dynastic Politics.” The Man of Many Devices, Who Wandered Full Many Ways. Central European University Press (1999).