“Prince Ferdinand the Constant” he was called by the great Spanish playwright Calderon in a play written about this patriotic son of King John I of Portugal. In Ferdinand of Portugal were blended the royal blood of both Portugal and England, but it was precisely because he was a prince that he had to suffer and die as a hostage.
These were the days in which Spain and Portugal were still engaged in religious crusades against the Moorish Moslems who had invaded their peninsula. Ferdinand and his famous explorer brother, Henry the Navigator, persuaded their elder brother, King Edward (Duarte) to send them on an expedition against the Moors in northern Africa. The expedition set out with less troops than had been planned, and Ferdinand was ill when they left. Nevertheless, they boldly attacked the Moorish city of Tangier. However, they lost disastrously, and had to accept the most humiliating terms from the enemy. Part of the agreement was that the Portuguese should cede to the Moors the nearby city of Ceuta. Also, Ferdinand and twelve others were to be held as hostages as a guarantee that the cession would be carried out.
The prince was ill for the first seven months of his captivity, but the Moors treated him well enough. However, when the Portuguese finally refused to surrender Ceuta, the captors began to take it out on their royal hostage. He was removed to Fez, loaded with chains and threatened again and again with death. In the daytime, he and his party were forced to do heavy menial work. At night they were locked up in cells infested with rats and other vermin. The prince and his brothers tried to ransom him, but the Moors would accept no other ransom than the city of Ceuta. Meanwhile, Ferdinand himself uttered no complaint and spoke no criticism of his captors. He was more concerned for his fellow prisoners than for himself. He might perhaps have escaped, but he refused to do so because if he had succeeded the jailers would certainly have revenged themselves on the other Portuguese hostages.
Ferdinand had always been a devout person. From adolescence, he had practiced self-denial and made a custom of reciting the daily prayers of the Divine Office. It was this regime of prayer and mortification that made him able to hold up under such trying circumstances. He would need even greater strength of soul as time went on. Early in 1442, he began to be dealt with still more harshly. The Moors separated him from his attendants and threw him into a bare, unventilated dungeon. By the time he had been in prison for over five years, it became clear that he was getting very weak. The jailers now allowed him to have a few visitors – a doctor and a priest, in particular. In late spring 1443, Ferdinand had a vision of Our Lady, St. Michael the Archangel and of St. John the Apostle. This gave him courage to hold on. But he died on June 5, 1443.
The Moors, in triumphant disdain, hung the prince’s body head-downward from the city wall. Eight years later his companion and biographer, Alvarez, was freed. He took Ferdinand’s heart back to Portugal for burial. In 1463 his bones were also secured and transported home for interment in the royal mausoleum-church at Batalha.
Today, all too many non-combatants are being held as political hostages by brutal terrorists. We should commend them to the intercession of this heroic hostage of yesteryear, Blessed Ferdinand the Constant, Infante of Portugal
–Father Robert F. McNamara