Saints like King Louis of France and King Edward the Confessor are well-known for their illustrious and holy reigns, and the Church celebrates its kingly saints with great fervor. However, the Church’s queen-saints were also pious and able rulers in their own right. They used their power to help the poor, spread the faith, and defend their people from destruction. Here are some of history’s coolest canonized queens.
Perhaps one of the best-known and most beloved queen-saints, St. Helen (also known as Helena and Helene) was mother to St. Constantine the Great, the famed Roman Emperor who instituted political tolerance for Christianity in the Empire. Hailing from a family of humble means, Helen married a man named Contantius Chlorus who later put her aside in order to marry a noblewoman who could further his political ambitions. When Constantine eventually became emperor, he bestowed upon his mother the title of “Augusta” and treated her with the greatest respect. Later in his reign, she was charged by her son to travel to Jerusalem to find the True Cross on which Christ was crucified, a mission she undertook with great zeal although she was in failing health. She succeeded in finding not only the Cross, but the Lord’s Tomb as well, and continued on to other important places connected with the life and ministry of the Lord, building more than eighty churches as she went. She died before her greatest project, the temple that is now the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, could be completed. Today, Helen is remembered as “Equal to the Apostles” for her discovery of the True Cross, and is almost never depicted without it or her son.
Saint Elizabeth of Hungary
Elizabeth’s life was short and tragic, but full of miraculous deeds. The daughter of a Hungarian king, Elizabeth was betrothed to German nobleman Ludwig of Thuringia at a very young age, and sent to live at the Thuringian court to learn its ways and become better acquainted with her fiancè. She was a very pious young woman, and her in-laws mercilessly ridiculed her plain dress and constant prayer vigils, though her husband-to-be was impressed with her faith. Elizabeth and Ludwig were married in 1221 when she was 14, and for a time, they were happy. They had three children, Ludwig became a ruler of Thuringia, and Elizabeth used her royal position to advance her charitable interests. An encounter with a group of Franciscan friars in 1223 deeply affected her, so deeply that she immediately declared that she wanted her life to mirror Francis’ in every way. She distributed bread to the poor every day in person, personally tended the sick and victims of natural disasters, and even gave away valuables from the royal treasury. Her husband, while loving supportive, was not always on board with his wife’s saintly zeal. Once, annoyed with her long hours spent giving bread to the poor, he stopped her as she was going out and demanded she hand over all the food she had under her cloak. When she threw open the cloak, Ludwig saw no loaves of bread, but a vision of sweet-smelling and blindingly radiant flowers. He immediately repented and let her pass. Another time, Elizabeth tended a leper in the same bed she shared with Ludwig, and again annoyed, he tried to strip the contaminated sheets, but was stopped when the leper before him was transfigured into Christ crucified. In 1227, Elizabeth was devastated when her beloved husband died of a fever. Grief stricken, she declared that if Ludwig was dead, the whole world was dead to her too, and she lived out the rest of her life as a Third Order Franciscan despite pressure from the royal family, tending the poor and sick until her death at the age of 24.
Saint Olga of Kiev
Dearly revered in the Byzantine Catholic Church among the Ukrainians, St. Olga of Kiev was one of the first Slavic rulers to convert to Christianity. She is also revered as a shrewd ruler. When her husband, Igor of Kiev, was killed by a tribe of Drevlians, she remained determined to hold onto the throne for her three year old son, Svyatoslav, and went on a fiery spree of vengeance worthy of Game of Thrones. When the Drevlians sent a marriage proposal from their prince, she had the emissaries burned alive. When she fooled the Drevlians into thinking she had accepted, she requested their most distinguished nobles to accompany her into Drevlian territory, and had them burned alive. She then invited the rest of the tribe to a funeral feast for her husband, killed all 5,000 of them, placed the city under siege, fooled the populace into believing she’d withdrawn, and then burned the city to the ground using crude, pigeon-carried incendiary bombs. After decades of evading marriage proposals and defending Kiev against invaders, Olga gave the throne to her son and converted to Christianity. While her grandson Vladimir would be remembered for making Christianity the official state religion of Kievan Rus, Olga exerted a powerful Christianizing influence over her people and was very concerned with their spiritual welfare. She spent the rest of her life building churches, catechizing her subjects, and guiding her son with holy wisdom. Like St. Helen, she is one of the few saints granted the title “Equal to the Apostles.”
Another beloved saint of the Eastern Churches, Tamar reigned as co-ruler of Georgia with her father George from the age of twelve until his death five years later when she assumed sole rulership. While many Georgian nobles swore allegiance to her, several were not so sure a woman could effectively rule on her own. What their names were, and what they accomplished after Tamar exiled them or else cowed them into submission, is not recorded. The early years of
Tamar’s reign was plagued by attempts from the nobility to sabotage her rule or else take advantage of her perceived naivete, the most notable of which was her first marriage to a boorish, abusive drunkard named Yuri, who was foisted upon her by the noble council. She quickly persuaded the noble council to dissolve the marriage and after two coup attempts, Yuri faded into drunken obscurity. Tamar presided over a golden age of art and culture in Georgia, and also proved herself an adept military strategist when hosts of Persian armies tried to invade her lands. She repelled two major invasions, and was famous for marching at the head of her army to the city gates barefoot to see them off, after which she would walk up to a lonely monastery chapel to pray before the icon of the Theotokos for victory. Throughout her life, Tamar secretly fasted, kept numerous vigils, and slept on a stone bed. She also generously endowed monasteries and churches in the region, and carved a monastic city from stone at Vardzia where she was known to stay during the Lenten fast. She died after a mysterious illness, and is one of the most beloved saints as well as a revered national figure in Georgia today.
As a young girl, Bathildis was captured by Danes invading Anglo-Saxon territory and sold to a chief officer in the court of King Clovis II of France, where she became a servant girl. Bathildis charmed everyone at court from the lowliest to the loftiest with her charm and sweetness, doing little favors for the other servants like cleaning their shoes and mending their clothes. The chief officer to whom she’d been sold became quite taken with her, but Bathildis wanted nothing to do with him. She disguised herself as an old woman in rags and the officer, assuming she’d run away, married another. Once she removed her disguise, however, she came to the notice of the king himself, who fell deeply in love with her. She accepted his proposal of marriage and at only 19 years old, became Queen of France. Bathildis never forgot that she had once been a slave, and dedicated her reign after Clovis’ death to alleviating the suffering of the oppressed. She lowered taxes on the poor, outlawed the sale of French subjects, accumulated vast funds for the manumission of slaves, and declared that any slave who set foot in France was considered freed. She also built many abbeys and hospitals, and when her son ascended the throne, she took the veil at Chelles. When she died, she had a vision of a ladder reaching up into heaven, which she climbed in the company of angels.
One of the most comforting and mind-blowing aspects of Catholic theology is our belief in the Communion of Saints, and that those saints come from every walk of life–from the lowliest to the loftiest. Whenever you feel hopeless, powerless, or lost, take heart that these powerful ladies are interceding for you among the saints in Heaven!