St. Elizabeth of Portugal

(1271-1336)

Theoretically, the leaders of society should set the best example. In practice, “nobles” have often ignored the proverb, “Noblesse oblige”; but Queen St. Elizabeth of Portugal made it her life motto.

Elizabeth (called Isabella in Portuguese) was the daughter of King Peter III of Aragon, Spain. Baptized with the name of her grandaunt, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, she seemed to have inherited that saint’s goodness, for even as a child she had a winning disposition and a gift of prayerfulness and self-denial.

Princesses married young in those days. Elizabeth was only twelve when she became the wife and queen of King Diniz (Denis) of Portugal. As queen, she set from the start an outstanding example of abstemiousness, modesty and good cheer. She followed an undeviating schedule of devotions, family duties, public duties, and charities. Her charitable works were outstanding. She founded institutions for the sick, for travelers, for wayward women, for abandoned infants. She established a convent for nuns and provided dowries for poor brides.

King Denis had the honesty to admire Isabella’s beauty, charm and piety. He interfered in no way, but he refused to imitate her religious example. Although a capable ruler, he was not a moral man. His subjects used to say of him that he “fiz tanto fiz” (“did whatever he wanted to”). The queen prayed constantly for his change of heart, but his notorious infidelity caused her great pain. Nevertheless, she showed him patient affection and took good care of his children born of other women.

Queen Isabella’s peacemaking began at home. There was no love lost between the king and their son Affonso. Affonso twice planned an armed rebellion against Denis. Fortunately, she was twice able to defuse their anger, even though at one time the king accused her of siding with Prince Affonso, and for a time exiled her from the court.

The saint also succeeded later on in stopping hostilities between Ferdinand IV of Castile and one of his cousins, and then of reconciling that same cousin to her own brother, James III of Aragon.

In 1324, King Denis fell gravely ill. The queen attended him night and day up to his death in early 1326. Although she grieved at his passing, he consoled her with his repentant death.

After the funeral, St. Isabella made a pilgrimage to the great shrine of St. James in Santiago, Spain. Her wish afterwards was to become a nun of the Poor Clare Franciscan convent she had established at Coimbra, Portugal. When her advisers counseled otherwise, she followed the example of St. Elizabeth of Hungary by becoming a Franciscan tertiary. Building a small house near the Coimbra convent, she spent the rest of her life in prayer and good works, living according to the Franciscan ideal of poverty.

In 1336, a new threat of political strife called her away from Coimbra. King Affonso IV of Portugal, her volatile son, had declared war on King Alfonso XI of Castile, her rakish nephew. Despite her relatively advanced age and the heat of summer, the saint would not be deterred from making the 100-mile trip to Estremoz, Portugal, where the battle lines were forming. The exertion proved too much for her; but before her death at Estremoz on July 8, she knew that she had again averted bloody combat. This remarkable woman apparently had a spiritual gift to calm hearts by her very presence.

Buried at Coimbra, the dowager queen was at once hailed as a saint, a model of patience and serenity in the midst of infidelity and violence. She was canonized in 1625.

–Father Robert E McNamara

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