Margaret was born to Béla IV, king of Hungary, at a moment when the country was threatened by enemies. So the king promised God that if things reversed in his favor he would dedicate his little princess to the religious life. The prayer was answered, and Béla put Margaret in the care of the Dominican Sisters at Veszprém. When Margaret was 12, Béla built a convent for her on an island in the Danube near Buda. There the young teenager professed her vows.
A young woman of extraordinary beauty, St. Margaret attracted the attention of suitors even though she was a nun. Ottokar, the king of Bohemia, was determined to marry her. For political reasons, Béla liked the idea. He asked Margaret to get released from her commitments and marry Ottokar. Béla had not bargained for the steely resistance of his strong-willed daughter. She responded to his request with defiance:
When I was only 7-years-old, you tried to espouse me to the Polish Duke. You will remember my answer then. I said that I wished to serve him only to whom you had espoused me at my birth. As a child, I would not yield to your will in opposition to God’s claims on me. Do you think that I am likely to give in to you now that I am older and wiser? And am I more capable of grasping the greatness of the divine grace that has been given me? Then, my Father, stop trying to turn me from my determination to remain a religious. I prefer the heavenly kingdom to that which has been offered me by the King of Bohemia. I would rather die than obey these commands of yours that will bring death to my soul. Mark my words. If matters ever come to such a pass and I am driven to it, I will surely put an end to the whole affair by mutilating myself, so that I shall never again be desirable to any man.
So Béla backed down. Witnesses say that had he persisted, gritty Margaret would likely have fulfilled her threat. Margaret punished herself with extreme self-abnegation that some observers call “self-crucifixion.” She undertook the most menial and repugnant tasks. Butler’s Lives of the Saints says that she performed “marvelous” service to the sick, so nauseating that its “details cannot be set out before the fastidious modern reader.” Out of sympathy for the poor, Margaret also imitated their squalor. She so neglected all personal hygiene, for example, that she repulsed her sisters. And for long periods she denied herself food and sleep. Since she was a princess and the convent was built for her, no one seems to have been able to temper her excesses. Her utter disregard for her body certainly shortened her life. Margaret died on January 18, 1270 at the age of 28.
The church recognizes Margaret of Hungary as a saint in spite of the traces of willfulness and pride that seem to have marked her life. But she excelled in charity, and “love covers over many a sin” (1 Peter 4:8 NJB). Those of us who want to be holy, but have many “in-spite-ofs” to contend with, can be glad for that.