Saint Elizabeth of Portugal: The Great Peacemaker

Saint Elizabeth of Portugal: The Great Peacemaker

On July 5, Franciscans in the USA honor the memory of Saint Elizabeth (Isabel) of Portugal, Secular Franciscan (1271-1336), known in her lifetime as a great peacemaker (elsewhere her feast is observed on July 4, Independence Day in the US).

A great beauty and highly intelligent

The daughter of King Peter III of Aragon, Elizabeth was named after her great-aunt, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. Considered both a great beauty and highly intelligent, she was married in 1282 to King Denis of Portugal. Denis was a very able ruler but took his wife for granted and engaged in numerous affairs. Nevertheless, Isabel was devoted to him and bore his infidelities patiently.

St Elizabeth of Portugal portraitSaint Elizabeth, depicted by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664) as a young woman in 17th-century court dress, some three centuries after her death.

Known for her kindness and generosity to the poor

Besides attending to her obligations at court, she joined daily in the celebration of the Divine Office and Mass, and became known for her kindness and generosity to the poor, endowing hospitals and other religious projects.

Mediator of disputes

In addition to her charitable activities, Isabel played an active role in politics and became known as "The Peacemaker" for her role in mediating disputes: most famously a conflict in 1297 between her husband and the King of Castile, yielding a treaty that fixed the boundaries of Portugal and Spain.

Seeking reconciliation astride a donkey

Again, in 1322/23 she healed a bitter conflict between Denis and their son Alfonso, the heir to the throne. When nothing else worked to avert war between them, Elizabeth bravely rode out on a donkey between the opposing armies on the battlefield, shaming them into reconciliation.

St Elizabeth of Portugal riding donkey 700pxlsIsabel riding a donkey between the contending forces of her husband and her son at Alvalade (1323), depicted by Roque Gameiro (1917, public domain).

Re-founding a Poor Clare monastery

In his later years, Denis praised his wife’s wisdom and repented of his ways. After his death in 1325, Isabel joined the Brothers and Sisters of Penance (today’s Secular Franciscans) and retired to a small residence next to the Poor Clare monastery in Coimbra that she had re-founded. She gave up most of her possessions, endowing a hospital in the city in which she served.

St Elizabeth of Portugal monastery 700pxlsThe excavated remains of the former Poor Clare monastery in Coimbra, Portugal, constructed largely through Elizabeth's patronage and next to which she resided in her later years. The sisters abandoned this site in the 1600s because the monastery was prone to frequent flooding.

Brokering a peace agreement

When Elizabeth was over 60 and in poor health, she traveled to avert conflict between her son Alfonso, now king of Portugal, and her son-in-law, the King of Castile, and once again managed to broker a peace agreement. The strain of this effort, however, taxed her strength, and she died on July 4, 1336. Isabel was canonized in 1625.

St Elizabeth of Portugal tomb 700pxlsThe Gothic tomb of Saint Elizabeth, transferred to the new monastery of St. Clare in Coimbra when the sisters moved in the 17th century.

Wisdom of and about Saint Elizabeth of Portugal

God made me a queen so that I might serve others.—Saint Elizabeth

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.—Poem of King Denis in tribute to his wife

 

St Elizabeth of Portugal Tertiary habit 700pxlsSaint Elizabeth depicted in a Tertiary habit, by Francisco Gil de Castro, Afro-Peruvian artist (1820).