Elizabeth of Portugal: 'For, In Her Is A Spirit Intelligent, Holy, Unique'

Author: Maria J. Cirurgiao and Michael D. Hull


Maria J. Cirurgiao and Michael D. Hull

Centuries before July 4th came to commemorate Western civilization's great experiment in democracy and America's birthday, the date was principally associated with the name of one of the most extraordinary women in history—St. Elizabeth of Portugal. She died on July 4th, and thus her name marks this date on the Church calendar, silently attesting to the existence of a woman who, in her passage through this earth, had it all and turned it all to good.

From powerful monarchs to outcast lepers, many lives were touched and healed by the 13thcentury princess, child bride, queen, wife, and mother. Yet too few people, even among Catholics, are acquainted with her. The definitive biography of St. Elizabeth has yet to be written, but persistent searches of archival sources have yielded valuable documents that, added to what is commonly known of her life, present us with a portrait of a woman whose spiritual depths, intellectual stature, and human presence force us to revise any notions we may have formed about medieval women in high places.

Princess Elizabeth (Isabel) of Aragon, who became the queen of King Dinis of Portugal, and ultimately was raised to the honors of the altar as St. Elizabeth of Portugal, was born in Saragossa, Spain, around 1271. The daughter of King Pedro III of Aragon and Queen Constanza, she was named for her great-aunt St. Elizabeth of Hungary. Elizabeth grew up in a family of six brothers and sisters. Her childhood days were regularly divided between her studies, her sewing, her prayers—kneeling, she accompanied her chaplain at the Divine Office on a daily basis—and recreation. She was deemed a great beauty, very early in life.

Before Elizabeth entered her teen years, several European monarchs sought her hand. King Edward IV of England solicited her for his son, the crown prince, as did the king of Sicily, the king of France, and others. As was the custom, Elizabeth's parents weighed the political advantages of each proposed match. The greatest benefit, they concluded, would ensue from a matrimonial alliance with King Dinis of Portugal. Elizabeth became his wife, by proxy. She was around 12 years of age, while King Dinis was 20.

One cannot help but wonder how much the young princess understood of the document she signed, to be delivered to a man she had never met. It read, "I, Elizabeth, daughter of the Most Illustrious Don Pedro, by the grace of God king of Aragon, hereby bestow my body as the legitimate wife of Dom Dinis, king of Portugal and of the Algarve, in his absence as if he were present...."

A year and a half later, in June 1282, Elizabeth arrived in Portugal to start her new life as wife and queen.

A Lack of Domestic Tranquility

Chroniclers are in accord over the delight with which her subjects greeted their enchanting new queen. She was hardly more than a child, but in her bearing they detected already virtues that boded well for the nation. Was her husband equally enchanted? It is difficult to say. Life in the Middle Ages was not conducive to domestic tranquility in a royal household. Effective government in those times of poor communications demanded that a ruler maintain contact with his subjects by touring his lands. Transportation was cumbersome, usually by mule, and a king would lodge, along with his retinue, at the residence of one of his vassals. There the king would hear lawsuits, establish laws, and deal with other administrative issues. The queen had her own house, or houses. Knowing this affords us some insight into the fact that Elizabeth had only two children by her young and virile husband, who fathered an additional seven children—one chronicler says nine—by a number of other women. Elizabeth's daughter, Constanza, was born after the couple had been married for eight years, and Afonso, the crown prince, a year later.

While we may feel outraged at the undeserved betrayal of the young Elizabeth, she never sought the pity of those around her: There is no record of her showing jealousy or condemning her husband's behavior. Elizabeth shielded her wounds from prying eyes. A legend survives that, late one night, as the king was returning to her quarters, she sent some pages to meet him with lighted torches, and with this message: "We have come, your lordship, to light your course, for unseeing you go straying off these paths." Biographers maintain, however, that the legend jars with the character of Elizabeth. She, who never did address a word of reproach to her husband in front of witnesses, would certainly not do it through her pages.

But we ought not to suppose that Elizabeth never remonstrated in private with the man who so flagrantly broke his marriage vows. Elizabeth's natural emotions were not impaired, nor are great saints made in a vacuum of human passions. Fortunately for us, King Dinis was a gifted poet and his poetry has been preserved. We can turn to it for evidence that the "troubadour king," as Dinis is known in literary circles, was fully aware of the treasure he had in a wife who covered his sins. In one particular poem, one of 72 courtly love songs addressed to a variety of ladies, real or imaginary, we find these self-reflective lines which amount to a veritable examination of conscience:

I don't know how to justify myself to my lady,
Should God lead me to stand before her eyes;
Once I'm before her she will adjudge me
Her betrayer, and with plenty of reason.

Thoughts of Elizabeth's excellence did clearly make their way into her husband's verse. But for a substantial appreciation of her unique qualities we need to look elsewhere. A book survives from the 14th century, relating facts of the "worthy life" of the holy queen, thus attesting that centuries before she was canonized—in 1625, by Pope Urban VIII—and long before the invention of the printing press, her life, her person, and her accomplishments were held to have been extraordinary and to warrant a written record.

The Immaculate Conception

Elizabeth's Christian faith informed every aspect of her existence. She surrounded herself with a number of chaplains, and every day she recited, and sang, the Liturgy of the Hours with them. And if one of them ever misread the Latin in her presence, Elizabeth quickly corrected him, for she herself knew Latin as thoroughly as she knew the vernacular.

One can only speculate as to how much time a queen—this particular queen, at any rate—could devote to reading or studying. But it was Elizabeth who, in 1320, obtained of the bishop of Coimbra a formal proclamation establishing the celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on Dec. 8th from Coimbra, the solemn observance was extended to the whole country. Considering the prolonged and bewildering medieval controversy on the subject of the Immaculate Conception, and keeping in mind that it was during Elizabeth's lifetime that the Franciscan "Subtle Doctor" Duns Scotus (1266-1308) answered the theological difficulties of this doctrine, we may conclude that Queen Elizabeth was well-informed as to major happenings in academic circles abroad. (Pope John Paul II beatified Duns Scotus on March 20th, 1993.)

While Elizabeth's mastery of languages, and singing, may be explained by the careful education she received as a young child, more difficult to explain is her remarkable understanding of engineering and architecture. A number of buildings were erected under her direct supervision—a convent to house the Poor Clare nuns, a house for herself next to the convent, a hospice for the aged poor, a hospital, an orphanage for foundlings and other needy newborns, and churches that, although dilapidated in some cases, are still standing. She drafted the sketches herself, and managed the day-to-day progress of the projects. Twentieth-century scholars have identified the buildings that date back to Elizabeth by their common architectural features, and have concluded that she developed her own style. It has been given a name, the <isabeline> (from Isabel) style of architecture.

Flowers And Gold Coins

Elizabeth paid regular visits to the construction sites, to clarify or correct the difficult points of her drawings. The men listened to her in rapt attention, amazed at the extent of her knowledge, that 14thcentury book says. From Elizabeth's particular involvement in the building trade, a charming legend was born.

The queen had a dream one night in which God asked her to build a church dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The next morning, she had one of her chaplains celebrate Mass, and while attending the Holy Sacrifice she received further clarification.

She ordered a construction crew to be assembled and brought to her.

She told them of the plan, and specified the site for the church. The workmen went to the location, and could not believe their eyes: The foundation was already poured, and the sketches for the church were waiting for them. The men went to work and, as usual, the queen paid regular visits.

One day, while Elizabeth was supervising the work, a girl walked up to her to offer an armful of flowers. The queen took them and distributed them, one by one, to each workman:

"Let us see if today you will work hard and well for this pay," she quipped.

Each worker graciously accepted his flower, and reverently put it in his satchel. When the day's work was done, each man found not a flower in his satchel, but a gold coin.

Elizabeth ran out of cash before the church was completed, and was troubled. Unexpectedly, she received a visit from her husband, who told her to proceed with all due speed because he would make available from his own resources whatever she might need.

Elizabeth's biographers cannot verify the story of the gold coins, nor any other mysterious detail of this legend. It seems certain, however, that a Church of the Holy Spirit was completed, and inaugurated with great solemnity, during the reign of Dinis and Elizabeth. The royal couple created a Confraternity of the Holy Spirit at the time.

Despite Dinis' infidelity, Elizabeth knew the inner, God-fearing man. Indeed, he was the first Portuguese king to introduce the custom of general prayer, at canonic hours, in his residence, and it was on his initiative that a permanent chapel was installed in the palace where Mass could be celebrated regularly.

A Divided Household

Elizabeth remained Dinis' tender and loyal wife, and she obediently acceded to his will, even when he asked of her the utmost that any man could request of his wife: that she take into her care, and tutor, his illegitimate children. He admired her intellect, and rightly judged that no one better could be found to teach his children. He also judged rightly that Elizabeth's superior virtues would prevent her from turning her back on a call to do the heroic. Elizabeth saw God in the other, and the other encompassed her husband's illegitimate children.

But a far heavier cross awaited Elizabeth. As the children, legitimate and illegitimate, grew into adulthood, the peace of the realm disintegrated. The perpetrator was her own beloved son, Afonso, the heir. He was morbidly jealous of one of his half-brothers whom, he perceived, the father doted on, and chafed at having to wait for the throne. So Afonso led a revolt against his own father.

Civil war became imminent, several times, as Afonso allied himself with certain elements of the Spanish kingdom of Castile, who were only too willing to help him overthrow his father. The threat was real, and it fell to Elizabeth to mediate peace between the two men closest to her heart, husband and son, each of whom led an army.

Astoundingly, the first time that she intervened to help her son escape the consequences of his rebellion, Dinis exiled her to the fortified city' of Alenquer, forbidding her to leave the city walls. It must be said, in fairness to King Dinis, that he had been misinformed by evil tongues and had been led to believe that Elizabeth herself had counseled Afonso to rebel. Political intrigue has always been one of the hazards of court life.

Although innocent, Elizabeth obediently accepted the confinement. But upon receiving offers of assistance from a number of noblemen, who professed outrage at the injustice she had suffered and offered to rescue her, she answered them as their queen: "My primary obligation, and the obligation of all the vassals, is to obey the commands of the king, our lord."

The Angel Of Peace

Unjust sequestration is a well-known feature of the lives of most great saints, and Elizabeth was no exception. She stayed in exile until news came that the hostilities between her husband and son had heated anew. Afonso had secured additional military help from Castile, and his father had responded by greatly reinforcing his own army. The whole country—as well as her family—was in peril, so Elizabeth did abandon then her place of exile and rode for days, to mediate peace between the two men bent on destruction.

It was a scene that, with a number of variants, was repeated over and over: agreements made, agreements broken, armies on the move, and an exhausted, heartbroken Elizabeth riding out to valiantly face the warring parties, imploring, negotiating. Her biographers have dubbed her the "Angel of Peace." When he was on his deathbed, King Dinis called Afonso to his side, and entrusted Elizabeth to his care:

"Look after your mother and my lady, the queen, for she remains alone. Stand by her, as is your duty.... Think that having given you life, and for the many tears you have cost her, she is twice your mother."

In his peculiar way, Dinis held his queen in the highest esteem. He named her executor of his last will and testament, in which he made provision for the payment of all his debts, "having in mind God's Judgment," and for the disposition of castles, towns, and endowments to churches. But the king's highest praise of his wife is found, perhaps, in one of his poems:

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.

A Kingdom Of Justice

Dinis, one of Portugal's best-loved monarchs, died in February, 1325 at the age of 63, but not without taking leave also of his bastard children. The queen, who nursed him herself and stayed by his bedside day and night, led them to their dying father for his last blessing. Upon Dinis' death, Elizabeth removed her court dress and thereafter refused to wear anything but the habit of the Franciscan Tertiary order. She took up residence next to the convent of the Poor Clares, which she had founded and subsidized. It was then that the widowed queen founded a hospital near the convent, and named it after St. Elizabeth of Hungary. On a daily basis, Elizabeth worked in caring for the sick, often choosing for herself the most distasteful tasks.

Queen Elizabeth outlived her husband by 12 years. Mourning his death intensely, she said, "I have always beseeched our Lord to kindly spare me the bitterness of surviving the king, my lord. I have wished him a long life, for the good and well-being of the people."

Elizabeth always looked beyond herself, for she loved her subjects dearly. And she knew that they had also greatly loved her husband, who had taken radical measures to improve their lot. He had transformed agriculture, worked at increasing literacy, and, like Elizabeth, was moved by a deep need to see that justice prevailed in his kingdom. A striking feature of written accounts of Dinis' and Elizabeth's reign, which even the most casual reader of medieval histories cannot fail to notice, is the total absence of that "off with their heads" syndrome of medieval monarchic power, so prevalent elsewhere. When Dinis issued in 1309 a charter of privileges to the university he had founded, he began with a statement of intent: He officially established his university, he wrote, in order that his kingdom should be not only adorned with arms, but also armed with just and fair laws.

Elizabeth was of one mind with her husband, in matters of justice for her subjects. Recent researches have turned up five official documents issued by the Papal See at Avignon, attending to Elizabeth's written requests for the appointments of persons with law credentials to important posts. Scholars wonder how many other such documents lie still buried in archives.

Nor did she abide by the belief that rank has privileges and excuses injustices. Still preserved is an interesting letter that Elizabeth wrote to her brother, the king of Aragon, demanding in no uncertain terms that he pay a large debt in full. The amount was owed to a certain woman who, understandably, shrank at the prospect of seeking satisfaction from a king. "Know ye, my brother," starts Elizabeth, bypassing the niceties of usual greetings and proceeding directly to inform him, in harsh language, that the letter-bearer will not leave Aragon without the full amount in cash, and placing a time limit on her demand.

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.

A Wounded Leper

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.

Doctors have commented on this episode. If St. Elizabeth's touch was not miraculous, her knowledge of medicine certainly appears to have been. She lived in an age when healing practices consisted, essentially, in astrological prognostications. And yet, now that we know about the protein and fibrinogenic components in egg-white, it can be said that, in the absence of all other aids, it is the most effective remedy for a bleeding wound.

In 1779, the Portuguese Academy of Sciences chose St. Elizabeth as its patron saint.

An Incorruptible

Queen Elizabeth died on July 4th, 1336. She was 65 years of age, perhaps somewhat older, and had incorporated into her passage through this earth prayers, sacrifices, interventions for peace among monarchs, acts of worship, and works of mercy too numerous to mention in this brief piece. Almost three centuries after her death, His Holiness Pope Urban VIII inexplicably broke his reported vow that there would be no canonizations during his Pontificate: He canonized St. Elizabeth of Portugal on Holy Trinity Sunday, May 25th, 1625.

Little has been written in English about St. Elizabeth, yet she is a timeless role model for women everywhere. Because she moved with equal ease among powerful rulers and among the least of the least, and in passing blessed them all, because there appears to have been no task that fell outside the realm of her competence and she won over situations that would paralyze most men and women, her significance is universal.

We ought not to forget her, and God has ensured this in the land she blessed, where her body remains incorrupt. Reposing in the Church of St. Clare at Coimbra, her elaborate coffin has been opened several times through the centuries as recently as 1912. The teams of examiners, invariably composed of doctors and Church officials, consistently reported that St. Elizabeth remains intact, as beautiful and serene as if she merely slept.

This article was taken from the July 4, 1996 issue of "The Wanderer," 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733. Subscription Price: $35.00 per year; six months $20.00.