In late 14th century Poland, there was little expectation for the king's third daughter to do much beyond secure her country's future through a marriage alliance. Yet in her short life, the devout Jadwiga would rule all of Poland. Selfless and canny, she sought to bring disparate peoples together through a common (and comprehensible) faith.
Jadwiga was born in 1373 to Elizabeth of Bosnia and Louis I, King of Hungary and Poland. Raised at the royal residences in Buda and Visegrad, Jadwiga was well-educated, fluent in five languages, and embarrassingly pious. When Louis's death in 1382 led to a succession crisis, Elizabeth sent young Jadwiga to Krakow to end it. Beloved by the Polish people for her kindness, endorsed by the Catholic church for her faith, and condoned by the stiff-necked Polish nobility for her affability, 11-year-old princess Jadwiga found herself crowned king of Greater Poland in 1384.
The new Polish king to rule in perilous times. A fistful of Casimir’s more tenuous descendants still had claims to the throne. Worse, Poland was threatened by Germanic states and the rulers of Muscovy, as well as possible invasion by the Mongols and Tartars. To shore up allies and safeguard Poland's future, Jadwiga agreed to marry Jogaila, the Grand Duke of Lithuania—provided he (and his subjects) converted from paganism to Catholicism.
Thus, in 1386 Jadwiga wed the newly-baptized Jogaila, who promptly took the name Wladyslaw II to make his rule palatable to the patriotic Poles. Wladyslaw was hastily crowned King jure uxoris (Latin for “by right of his wife”), two days before Lithuania was invaded by the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem (in simpler terms, the Teutonic Knights). They claimed they sought to regain lands lost to Casimir—but really, any land would do.
The young king was instrumental in turning Lithuania from its pagan ways. She had a number of meetings with “Princes of the Church” concerning conversion and instructing the Lithuanians in their new faith. Wladyslaw was instrumental in this as well; it is said that he even cut down trees in the “sacred” groves of his homeland with his own hands. Jadwiga sponsored an annual scholarship for twenty Lithuanians to study at Prague’s Charles University so they could return to strengthen the faith in their homeland. And she founded a bishopric in Vilnius, that hotbed of sin.
Jadwiga and Wladyslaw made a surprisingly effective team of co-rulers. During Jadwiga's diplomatic mission to meet the Master of the Teutonic Knights, her piety was said to so shame him for his order's greed and bloodthirstiness that they temporarily ceased their depredations. She also reconciled Wladyslaw with his cousin Witold, who sought to take the Lithuanian throne. In 1387 AD, Jadwiga led two military expeditions to reclaim lands in Ruthenia that had been claimed by Hungary. Although not much fighting occurred, Jadwiga’s efforts ended with the province’s return to Poland and Petru I of Moldavia paying homage to the Polish monarchs.
Being somewhat more polished than most of her subjects, Jadwiga also sought to enlighten them to the finer things. Jadwiga was a patron to many Polish artists and authors. Among her most notable contributions to the culture of Poland was the restoration of the Krakow Academy. She donated much of her personal jewelry to finance the school, which enrolled students in astronomy, law, and theology. Jadwiga also advocated for a wider comprehension of faith, and had the Bible translated from Latin into Polish vernacular.
Jadwiga's reign ended early. In 1399 she gave birth to her firstborn, a daughter—but within a month both mother and child were dead of complications from the delivery. Though Jadwiga lived only 25 years, she had been king for over half her life. By solidifying ties with Lithuania, she secured the future of both nations. Her co-ruler Wladyslaw managed to rule over Poland and Lithuania for another 35 year.
Jadwiga was barely in her sarcophagus in Wawel Cathedral before her subjects began to venerate her holiness. Stories of Jadwiga's sanctity spread across the land, as well as miracles attributed to her. In one, the figure of Christ on a black crucifix spoke to her as she prayed. In another, she gave a piece of jewelry to a poor stonemason; when she left, her footprint remained behind in the hardened plaster floor. In yet another, a coppersmith’s son drowned while Jadwiga was part of a nearby Corpus Christi procession—she was said to restore his life by throwing her mantle over the boy. These three reported miracles were enough for the Catholic Church to canonize her as a saint in 1997.