Rose was born sometime around 1233 in the city of Viterbo. As it had been 100 years earlier, this was a time of struggle for power between the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II and two Popes, first Gregory IX, then Innocent IV.* Though Viterbo was technically part of the Papal States, it was under the control of Frederick’s supporters, known as Ghibellines. The Pope’s supporters were called Guelfs.** Street preachers were common and tensions between the two sides were high.
Rose was a pious child. According to her second vita, she already wanted to join the Third Order of St. Francis at the age of ten. Her first vita, by the way makes no mention of this. She started speaking publically as a teenager, at first only to a few other women in the private homes. Soon she began urging them out into public spaces, claiming the right and the ability to preach through visions and miracles.
Rose’s words made many city officials angry and around 1250, she and her parents were exiled. In December of that year though, Rose prophesied that something important was about to happen. She wasn’t wrong. Frederick II died less than a week later and she and her parents returned to Viterbo. At this point, she tried to join the Poor Clare monastery in the city, but was rejected. Instead, she continued her preaching up until her death in 1252, before the age of twenty. Less than a year later, her body was moved to the very convent that rejected her, which was then renamed in her honor.***
Rose preached publically and was allowed to do so because of her claim to prophecy and the fact that she took the Pope’s side. One thing both of her vitae make clear though, Rose was a woman to be admired rather than imitated.
*Technically Celestine IV was Pope between these two, but he lasted less than a month.
**After Welf V, husband of Matilda of Tuscany.
***It was also renamed in her honor. The people of Viterbo commemorate the moving of her body every year on September 3rd, the eve of her feast day.
Pryds, Darleen. "Proclaiming Sanctity through Proscribed Acts: The Case of Rose of Viterbo." In Women Preachers and Prophets through Two Millennia of Christianity, edited by Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker, 159-172. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
St. Rose of Viterbo - Catholic Encyclopedia