Hedwig the Barefoot Duchess of Silesia

Wroclaw, Silesia: 1209

Monsters come in many forms, including shoes.

The soft, brown leather boots are dwarfed by Lorenz the Confessor’s manly hands.

Henry the Bearded chose his conspirator well. If anyone has power to make Hedwig cover her feet, it’s Bishop Lorenz.

Hedwig feels her breath and her heart quicken.

As quickly as it starts, it calms.

Lorenz has big hands, but he is not God. Neither is her beloved husband. Her bare, bloodied, misshapen feet and her obstinacy bear testimony to that.

“God knows you are a good woman, Hedwig. You give your life to others. My darling, I love you for it. My life is yours.” He takes her hand, his eyes implore. “But you CANNOT rule Silesia barefoot. I cannot allow it. You WILL wear shoes.”

Hedwig smiles at her husband. She strokes his unruly orange beard with a gentle hand before turning to pour some water into her favourite glass.

It is the other bone of contention in an otherwise devoted marriage. The water is unclean. It makes people sick. Wine is healthier. He wishes she’d listen to him. She never touches the wine he insists on pouring her.

“I will wear your shoes, my sweet. I thank you both for your kindness. I give myself to God. But I strive to be a worthy wife too. I want to serve Silesia by your side.”

As Hedwig raises the glass of water to her lips, it turns red and viscous. Red? Wine? A miracle? It’s not water. The men look on. Their mouths drop open.

She sips and puts the miraculously clear water back down again, a trace of red left on her lips.

Hedwig lifts the shoes from the Bishop’s hand and carries them out the Statesroom.

Back in her own chambers she uses the laces to tie the shoes onto her belt.

She wears her shoes for the rest of her days as promised (attached to her belt) and continues her daily tending of those who need her… barefoot. As God intended.

Barefoot Hedwig and Henry the Bearded

Hedwig, Patron Saint of Silesia, is born 1174 into a powerful Bavarian family. Her father is Berthold IV, Duke of Merania and her mother Agnes of Rochlitte from the House of Wettin.

Her sisters are married into French and Hungarian royalty.

Hedwig is placed (age 6) in the monastery of Lutzingen, in Franconia. Those childhood experiences have a profound impact. Her own life evolves into one of prayer, hard work and self-sacrifice. She pushes herself to the limits of self-mortification with fasting, self-flagellation and hours spent in prayer. It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun.

At 12 she’s taken to marry Henry, Duke of Silesia, descended of the Dukes of Glogau. A good marriage for the family. Henry has an impressive lineage and excellent connections. The big, handsome beardy bloke is not Christian, but she can convert him through her devotion.

They govern Silesia for forty years. It’s politically turbulent, with spats over Lower and Upper Silesia. Silesia is divided in 16 principalities by the time her grandson takes the reins.

They live a minimalist Christian life, bearing seven children (including the gorgeously named ‘Konrad the Curly’). By the time number seven comes along (Władysław, after his grandad), Hedwig decides, she’s had enough and carnal relations cease. They take a vow of chastity which lasts for thirty of their forty-year marriage. They agree to only meet in public. Yikes! The middle-ages, a dark time indeed.

Hedwig negotiates Henry’s release when he’s held captive by his political opponent. She walks barefoot and begs for his freedom on her knees, refusing to leave until she gains what she came for. She is powerfully stubborn. What a woman!

Unfortunately, Hedwig’s sisters do not fare so well. Gertrude, Queen of Hungary is secretly murdered. Her other sister, Agnes is exiled from her husband’s court and dies in disgrace after the Pope declares her marriage to King Philip II Augustus of France null and void (and their children illegitimate). Agnes is never crowned Queen. Because of the surrounding scandal, the family disown her.

Meanwhile Hedwig uses her wealth to establish numerous hospitals. She works in the hospitals, as do most of her children. She spends time with lepers, washing their feet and bringing food, clothes and comfort. Hedwig also founds and endows many monasteries and convents, of which the most famous is the Cistercian convent at Treibnitz, near Breslau.

She dresses in plain, threadbare clothes and walks barefoot, even through the snow and ice, leaving bloodied martyr-footprints. For the sake of her family and her own dignity, Henry wants her in more fitting attire, at least in public. But how to talk sense into that stubborn head of hers?

When her husband dies in March 1238, Hedwig retires to the convent at Treibnitz, where she lives her remaining years in austerity.

Hedwig outlives four of their seven children. In 1241 she suffers a devastating blow when her beloved son, Henry II falls at the Battle of Legnica. It is Hedwig, accompanied by her daughter-in-law, who identifies Henry’s mutilated body at the battlefield.  His death does not come as a surprise for she sees it in a vision prior to battle.

Glasses and Miracles

Hedwig’s reputation for piety grows until it includes allegations of miracles. She’s said to be so blessed she can bring the dead back to life.

Hedwig is 69 when she dies. Over two decades later, she’s canonized (1266) and becomes Saint Hedwig, patron saint of Silesia.

The most famous of all the Hedwig miracles is that the water in her glass turns into wine.

Across central Europe there is to this day a small, puzzling group of distinctive glass beakers alleged to be Hedwig’s glasses. Scientific analyses and their deep-cut styling suggests they were made by Muslim craftsmen for the Christian market during the Crusades (almost a thousand years ago). Still intact. Still turning water into wine (perhaps). Amazing!

Medieval Europe has an insatiable hunger for relics connected to miracles. Most of the Hedwig glasses find their way into royal chapels and churches. Many believe drinking from a Hedwig glass ensures safe childbirth. Read more about the Hedwig glasses at the British Museum here: https://sites.google.com/site/100objectsbritishmuseum/home/hedwig-glass-beaker


Silesia is a beautiful, historical region of central Europe that lies mostly inside the contemporary borders of Poland, with small parts in the Czech Republic and Germany. Its area is approximately 40,000km2 (15,400 square miles). The population is estimated at around 8,000,000.

During the Middle-Ages, King Boleslaus (1102-1138), of the Piast Dynasty divides Poland into four duchies, one for each of his sons (one of which is Silesia). In 1146, High Duke Wladyslaw II acknowledges supremacy of the Holy Roman Empire, and in 1163, his two sons divide the land between them as Dukes of Lower and Upper Silesia, creating two main Piast lines of ‘Wroclaw’ and of ‘Opole and Racibórz.’ Further division continues under their successors, reaching 16 principalities by the 1390’s.

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