Saint Elizabeth of Portugal was born in 1282 as the daughter of King Peter III of Aragon, and would later marry King Denis of Portugal. She was a very pious and compassionate queen, and was known especially for her generosity and compassion towards the poor. She is called "Saint Elizabeth the Peacemaker" as her personal intervention stopped multiple wars.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, also known as Saint Elizabeth of Aragon, or Saint Elizabeth the Peacemaker.
Saint Elizabeth was born in 1271, the daughter of Peter III, the King of Aragon. She was named after her great-aunt, another saint, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary who was canonized in 1235, just 36 years before. Even as a child the Princess Elizabeth showed great devotion to her faith. In her entry in Butler’s life of the saints:
The young princess was of a most sweet and mild disposition, and from her tender years had no relish for anything but what was conducive to piety and devotion. It was doing her the most sensible pleasure if any one promised to lead her to some chapel to say a prayer. At eight years of age she began to fast on vigils, and to practise great self-denials; nor could she bear to hear the tenderness of her years and constitution alleged as a reason that she ought not to fast or macerate her tender body. Her fervour made her eagerly to desire that she might have a share in every exercise of virtue which she saw practised by others, and she had been already taught that the frequent mortification of the senses, and still more of the will, is to be joined with prayer to obtain the grace which restrains the passions, and prevents their revolt. How little is this most important maxim considered by those parents who excite and fortify the passions of children, by teaching them a love of vanities, and indulging them in gratifications of sense! If rigorous fasts suit not their tender age, a submission of the will, perfect obedience, and humble modesty are in no time of life more indispensably to be inculcated; nor is any abstinence more necessary than that by which children are taught never to drink or eat out of meals, to bear several little denials in them without uneasiness, and never eagerly to crave anything. The easy and happy victory of Elizabeth over herself was owing to this early and perfect temperance, submissiveness, and sincere humility. Esteeming virtue her only advantage and delight, she abhorred romances and idle entertainments, shunned the usual amusements of children, and was an enemy to all the vanities of the world. She could bear no other songs than sacred hymns and psalms; and from her childhood said every day the whole office of the breviary, in which no priest could be more scrupulously exact. Her tenderness and compassion for the poor, made her even in that tender age to be styled their mother.
As was the custom for royal families at the time, Princess Elizabeth was betrothed at a young age, to King Denis (or Dionysus) of Portugal. The pair married in 1288 when Elizabeth was 17.
King Denis of Portugal had a very long and successful reign, from 1279-1325. He was known as Rei Lavrador (the Worker King) and Rei Poeta (the Poet King). Despite King Denis’ worldly success, he was not a very pious man, which caused some tension with Saint Elizabeth. King Denis was not a faithful husband. One biographer counted that King Denis’ many infidelities produced 9 illigitemate children. In fact, almost immediately after his marriage to Saint Elizabeth, King Denis had an affair that resulted in an illigitemate son, Afonso Sanchez. Afonso Sanchez’s claim on the Portuguese throne would cause instability for Portugal later. Through this, Saint Elizabeth maintained her spiritual practices in the Portuguese court, attending mass regularly, keeping strict fasts and showing great love for the poor. Over time, through her faithfulness and devotion she became a good influence on King Denis
We return again to Butler’s lives of the Saints
Charity to the poor was a distinguishing part of her character. She gave constant orders to have all pilgrims and poor strangers provided for with lodging and necessaries. She made it her business to seek out, and secretly relieve persons of good condition who were reduced to necessity, yet out of shame durst not make known their wants. She was very liberal in furnishing fortunes to poor young women, that they might marry according to their condition, and not be exposed to the danger of losing their virtue. She visited the sick, served them, and dressed and kissed their loathsome sores. She founded in different parts of the kingdom many pious establishments, particularly an hospital near her own palace at Coïmbra, a house for penitent women who had been seduced into evil courses, at Torres-Novas, and an hospital for foundlings, or those children who, for want of due provision, are exposed to the danger of perishing by poverty, or the neglect and cruelty of unnatural parents. She was utterly regardless of her own conveniences, and so attentive to the poor and afflicted persons of the whole kingdom, that she seemed almost wholly to belong to them; not that she neglected any other duties which she owed to her neighbour, for she made it her principal study to pay to her husband the most dutiful respect, love, and obedience, and bore his injuries with invincible meekness and patience. Though King Dionysius was a friend of justice, and a valiant, bountiful, and compassionate prince, yet he was, in his youth, a worldly man, and defiled the sanctity of the nuptial state with abominable lusts. The good queen used all her endeavours to reclaim him, grieving most sensibly for the offence against God, and the scandal given to the people; and she never ceased to weep herself, and to procure the prayers of others for his conversion. She strove to gain him only by courtesy, and with constant sweetness and cheerfulness cherished his natural children, and took great care of their education. By these means she softened the heart of the king, who, by the succour of a powerful grace, rose out of the filthy puddle in which he had wallowed for a long time, and kept ever after the fidelity that was due to his virtuous consort.
There is a wonderful story of Saint Elizabeth’s encounter with a leper. This account is from an article by Maria J. Cirurgiao and Michael D. Hull, entitled “Elizabeth of Portugal: 'For, In Her Is A Spirit Intelligent, Holy, Unique'” published in the Wanderer, a Catholic Newspaper, referring to a story taken from a 14th century biography of the saint
St. Elizabeth brooked no injustice, provided that reparation was within her means. "God made me queen so that I may serve others," was the way she used to cut short any attempts to laud her generosity.
Some of Elizabeth's acts of charity are so sublime that one almost shies away from mentioning them, for fear of trespassing on the sacred. The following case is related in the above-mentioned 14th-century book, where it is stated that it was attested to under oath, before the bishop of Lisbon.
It was Good Friday and Queen Elizabeth, as was her custom on that day, had a number of lepers brought to her in private, through a secluded door. She used to do this because the law forbade them to approach her residence, for fear of contagion. But Elizabeth saw God in the lepers, too.
After serving them a meal, the queen washed them with her own hands, bandaged their wounds, and replaced their rags with clean clothes. Then, having filled their purses, she dismissed them. But one of those unfortunates was in such a state of deterioration that, unable to keep pace with the group, he became disoriented and ended up at the main entrance. The doorkeeper, who knew nothing of his queen's secret works of mercy, yelled at the sick man and hit him on the head with a stick.
One of the queen's ladies-in-waiting was watching from a window and reported the incident to Elizabeth, informing her that the wounded man was bleeding profusely. Elizabeth immediately took measures to have the leper removed to a secluded room, where she managed to attend to him. She washed the gash on his skull, and applied egg-white before bandaging it. When, the next day, the leper announced that he had no more pain, that the wound was closed and healed, the rumor spread that the queen performed miracles.
Another famous story told of Sain Elizabeth regarding her acts of charity was her “miracle of the Roses”. A similar version of this story was also attributed to her great aunt, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. We will hear a version told by Carlos Ferreira, writing for S+L media:
From the beginning Elizabeth showed a great compassion to the poor.
Legend says she would leave the palace disguised, in order to take food to the poor. She was very devoted to God and also passed great part of her time in prayer.
One of the miracles attributed to her is the “miracle of the roses”. After the king had discovered she was leaving the palace to take food to the poor he forbade her to do it. He threatened to lock her up and confine her to the palace. She never gave up and every day she was still leaving behind the king’s back. One day in the winter time she was carrying pieces of bread hidden in her dress. The King saw her going out and stopped her asking, “What you are carrying?” She answered, “Roses, my lord.” He didn’t believe because it was winter. He asked her to show him the roses. Obediently she unfolded the dress and there were roses instead of bread.
Despite their many differences,King Denis would eventually develop a great admiration for his wife, and he expressed his respect for her in his poems. For example, here is one verse that King Denis wrote about Saint Elizabeth, shortly before his death:
Seeing as God made you without peer
In goodness of heart and goodness of speech,
Nor is your equal anywhere to be found,
My love, my lady, I hereby tell you:
Had God desired to ordain it so,
You would have made a great king.
King Denis and Saint Elizabeth had two children, a son named Afonso and a daughter named Constance. The relationship between King Denis and his Crown Prince Afonso was very bitter, since Prince Afonso felt that his father favoured his illigetimate son, Afonso Sanchez instead. This conflict worsened to a civil war in Portugal from 1322 to 1324, between forces loyal to King Denis and Crown Prince Afonso.
Saint Elizabeth was tirelessly working to bring about peace and end this war. But it was a difficult task. There are accounts of her interfering just before an important battle, as King Denis and Crown Prince Afonso prepared to fight each other in the Battle of Alvalade. She came in riding on a mule and was able to stop the fight before it started. Butler’s lives of the saints makes mention of her many peacemaking efforts in this civil war:
St. Elizabeth had by the king two children, Alphonsus, who afterwards succeeded his father, and Constantia, who was married to Ferdinand IV., king of Castille. This son, when grown up, married the infanta of Castille, and soon after revolting against his own father, put himself at the head of an army of malecontents. St. Elizabeth had recourse to weeping, prayer, fasting, and almsdeeds, and exhorted her son in the strongest terms to return to his duty, conjuring her husband at the same time to forgive him. Pope John XXII. wrote to her, commending her religious and prudent conduct; but certain court flatterers whispering to the king that she was suspected of favouring her son, he, whom jealousy made credulous, banished her to the city of Alanquer. The queen received this disgrace with admirable patience and peace of mind, and made use of the opportunity which her retirement afforded, to redouble her austerities and devotions. She never would entertain any correspondence with the malecontents, nor listen to any suggestions from them. The king himself admired her goodness, meekness, and humility under her disgrace; and shortly after called her back to court, and showed her greater love and respect than ever. In all her troubles she committed herself to the sweet disposal of divine providence, considering that she was always under the protection of God, her merciful father. 5
Being herself of the most sweet and peaceable disposition, she was always most active and industrious in composing all differences between neighbours, especially in averting war, with the train of all the most terrible evils which attend it. She reconciled her husband and son, when their armies were marching one against the other; and she reduced all the subjects to duty and obedience. She made peace between Ferdinand IV., king of Castille, and Alphonsus de la Cerda, his cousin-german, who disputed the crown: likewise between James II., king of Arragon, her own brother, and Ferdinand IV., the king of Castille, her son-in-law. In order to effect this last she took a journey with her husband into both those kingdoms, and to the great satisfaction of the Christian world, put a happy period to all dissensions and debates between those states.
Peace would ultimately prevail with the illigetimate son, Afonso Sanchez being exiled from Portugal, and Crown prince Afonso swearing loyalty to his father King Denis. Crown Prince Afonso, son of King Denis and Saint Elizabeth, did indeed take the throne upon his father’s death, and was crowned in 1325 as King Afonso IV of Portugal. His mother, Saint Elizabeth thus became Dowager Queen of Portugal.
Saint Elizabeth then retired to a monastery run by the Poor Clare nuns, the Monastery of Santa Clara-a-Velha in Coimbra. This was a monastery that Saint Elizabeth herself had founded in 1314. Saint Elizabeth thus spent the rest of her life away from the pleasures and prestige of the royal court, to help the poor and sick in obscurity.
Nevertheless, her gift as a peacemaker was needed once more, as in 1336 her son, the King Afonso the IV went to war against her grandson, King Afonso XI of Castille (King Afonso XI of Castille was the son of Princess Constance of Portugal, who was Saint Elizabeth’s daughter). She was successful in ending the conflict, but the efforts she had to expend ultimately killed her. We hear this account once more from Butler’s lives of the saints:
A war being lighted up between her son Alphonsus IV., surnamed the Brave, king of Portugal, and her grandson, Alphonsus XI., king of Castille, and armies being set on foot, she was startled at the news, and resolved to set out to reconcile them, and extinguish the fire that was kindling. Her servants endeavoured to persuade her to defer her journey, on account of the excessive heats; but she made answer that she could not better expend her health and her life than by seeking to prevent the miseries and calamities of a war. The very news of her journey disposed both parties to peace. She went to Estremoz, upon the frontiers of Portugal and Castille, where her son was; but she arrived ill of a violent fever, which she looked upon as a messenger sent by God to warn her that the time was at hand wherein he called her to himself. She strongly exhorted her son to the love of peace and to a holy life; she confessed several times, received the holy viaticum on her knees at the foot of the altar, and shortly after extreme unction; from which time she continued in fervent prayer, often invoking the Blessed Virgin, and repeating these words: “Mary, mother of grace, mother of mercy, defend us from the wicked enemy, and receive us at the hour of our death.” She appeared overflowing with heavenly joy, and with those consolations of the Holy Ghost which make death so sweet to the saints; and in the presence of her son, the king, and of her daughter-in-law, she gave up her happy soul to God on the 4th of July, in the year 1336, of her age sixty-five. She was buried with royal pomp in the church of her monastery of poor Clares, at Coïmbra, and honoured by miracles. Leo X., and Paul IV., granted an office on her festival; and in 1612 her body was taken up and found entire. It is now richly enshrined in a magnificent chapel, built on purpose.
Saint Elizabeth was canonized by Pope Urban VIII in 1625. Her feast day is on July 4.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/
Let us end this episode with the Collect Prayer for Saint Elizabeth:
O God, author of peace and lover of charity,
who adorned Saint Elizabeth of Portugal
with a marvelous grace for reconciling those in conflict,
grant, through her intercession,
that we may become peacemakers,
and so be called children of God.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.