The medieval princess who refused to marry an Emperor

Ilana Quinn

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Travel to modern-day Prague, and you will find the charming but quaint Convent of Saint Agnes resting on the right bank of the winding Vltava River. Its red roofs and white walls make it look modern, but its stone exterior harkens back to an earlier time.

While the convent is perhaps less impressive than the other medieval sites you can visit in central Europe, its simple furnishings and shallow arches are nonetheless captivating.

Most interesting than the architecture of the convent is the story of Saint Agnes, the mysterious Bohemian princess who inaugurated it.

Agnes’s radical decision to spurn the advances of the Holy Roman Emperor — the most powerful man in Europe during the Middle Ages — both shocked her contemporaries and propelled her into the historical spotlight.

An unconventional childhood

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The Middle Ages were tumultuous years in central Europe. From religious wars to devastating plagues to political coups, European royalty sought desperately to tighten their sometimes loose hold on power.

For young royal women like Agnes of Bohemia, political marriage to a nobleman from a neighbouring kingdom was the norm.

In fact, when Agnes was born in 1211 to Otakar I and Constance of Hungary, she was instantly betrothed to Boleslaw, the son of the Polish King, Henry the Bearded.

Though still an infant, Agnes’s parents would have waited until she was the apparently marriageable age of twelve or thirteen to wed her groom, like most other royal families of the time.

Otakar and Constance’s hopes of securing a good match for their daughter were momentarily dashed when Boleslaw died, only to be restored when Agnes was betrothed to Frederick II’s son.

As Frederick II was the Holy Roman Emperor—ruling over much of Europe, a privilege his son would someday inherit—Agnes was poised to become the most powerful woman on the continent.

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As her family negotiated her advantageous marriage, Agnes was thrust into one of the only places that awarded medieval women education: the nunnery. Convents encouraged female learning beyond the acquirement of simple literacy skills at a time when women were seen as inferior to men. As a result, most female intellectuals of this time were also nuns.

While most young women lived at their future husband’s court, a young Agnes was immersed in the stimulating intellectual and cultural life facilitated by the different medieval convents she was raised in.

What did Agnes learn during her childhood with the Cistercian nuns of Trebnitz and at the Bohemian convent of Doxony?

Like other women and girls in convents, Agnes likely dabbled in an assortment of subjects using the most valuable texts in medieval Europe. Her lessons probably included Latin reading and writing, spinning, weaving, music, grammar, rhetoric, choir, painting, embroidery, astronomy, arithmetic, geometry, and, of course, religion.

According to an article by historian Shirley Kersey, frequent invasions, plagues and massacres likely motivated the nuns to also teach basic medicine.

Agnes’s abundant early education provided her with sovereignty in a time when women could rarely read or write.

Rejecting Caesar

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Portrait of St. Agnes of BohemiaPublic Domain

As Agnes received her education, her match with Frederick II’s son, Henry VII, was promptly dissolved. This is because Henry was suddenly married to the Austrian princess Margaret, prompting Otakar I to unleash war on Austria over the vicious betrayal.

Otakar perished soon after, unable to fully exact his revenge against the Austrians. His eldest surviving son ascended to the throne, becoming Agnes’s ward.

By then a beautiful and well-educated twenty-year-old young woman, Agnes was vied after by many powerful monarchs. King Henry VII of Germany asked for Agnes’s hand, as did King Henry III of England.

Agnes was no longer interested in being used as a political pawn. She rejected both men to the dismay of her older brother.

Perhaps hoping to outdo his humiliated competitors, newly single Emperor Frederick II began pursuing the princess. He was considered extremely temperamental and stubborn by his contemporaries, as well as a lover of the arts and sciences.

Something of a philanderer, Frederick had sired a nursery of illegitimate children with a variety of Italian mistresses — a source of gossip that had likely reached the devout Agnes.

Agnes’s deep relationship with God and desire to devote her life to charitable work prompted her to ultimately reject Emperor Frederick II, who her friend and pen pal Clare of Assisi referred to as “Caesar” in one of her letters:

For, though You, more than others, could have enjoyed the magnificence and honor and dignity of the world, and could have been married to the illustrious Caesar with splendor befitting You and His Excellency, You have rejected all these things and have chosen with Your whole heart and soul a life of holy poverty and destitution.

Indeed, Agnes could have lived a life of unthinkable wealth and prestige. Her subsequent vows of poverty are therefore extraordinary.

Frederick II’s response was gracious considering his alleged temperament. Upon learning about the young woman’s refusal to enter a marriage contract, he allegedly remarked:

If she had left me for a mortal man, I would have taken vengeance with the sword, but I cannot take offence because in preference to me she has chosen the King of Heaven.

An enduring legacy

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Agnes continued her life as she began it: in the convent. She answered Jesus Christ’s call to care for the poor and sick, establishing and constructing a hospital with the funds from her royal dowry.

In 1234, she entered the newly established convent as an abbess wearing her fine garments for the last time, having them replaced by a coarse habit she would wear for the remainder of her life. She also cut her long, beautiful hair—a symbol of a medieval woman's femininity—to display her dedication to religious life.

Despite Pope Gregory IX’s discomfort with so many nuns turning to the Franciscan movement, which included living in extreme poverty, Agnes retained none of her physical possessions, using only the money from her family to fund her religious order’s charitable work.

Agnes was eventually canonized a saint by Pope John Paul in 1989.

The convent she established is now a museum of medieval art, reflecting her early passion for education and culture.

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