The Life of Saint Elisabeth, Queen of Portugal, by a Secular Priest

statue of Saint Isabel de Portugal, date and artist unknown; south facade of the Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, Spain; photographed on 19 December 2009 by Ecelan; swiped from Wikimedia Commons“Now thy brows are cold,
I see thee what thou art, and know
Thy likeness to the wise below,
Thy kindred with the great of old.”

Chapter 1 – Parentage of Elisabeth – She is born – Receives the name of Saint Elisabeth, her great-aunt – She is affianced to the king of Portugal, and travels by land to her own kingdom

When a son of Saint Elisabeth of Hungary arrived, one day, as a page in the retinue of a certain prince, at the court of Queen Blanche, and of her son Saint Louis, neither the king nor the queen, as we are told, could shew honour enough to the “dear Saint Elisabeth,” as she was represented by her youthful son. The queen called him to her, took him by the hand, kissed his brow, made him sit beside her, and spoke to him of his mother.

On the present occasion, not a son, indeed, but a grand-niece of the saint of Marburg claims our regard; and all the more powerfully, on account of the rarity with which either sanctity, or extraordinary intelligence is perpetuated in the blood. Forty years had passed since the holy princess of Thuringia had been taken early to her rest, when another Elisabeth was born, to revive the name and the memory of her who had fallen asleep at Marburg. Andrew, king of Hungary, the father of the elder Saint Elisabeth, had a younger daughter, Violanta, by his second marriage, who became the wife of James, king of Aragon, called The Conqueror. Their reign was a fortunate one; the king doubled his possessions by the acquisition of Valentie and the Balearic Islands; he also acquired Murcia, as the price of his assisting King Alphonso of Castile against the Moors. His son, Peter, the Infante of Aragon, married Constantia of Sicily, a grand-daughter of the Emperor Frederic II; and their youngest child was the second Saint Elisabeth, the subject of this memoir.

Her birth occurred in 1271, during the life of her grandfather. Her only sister had already received the name of her grandmother, Violanta; the saint of Hungary had been canonised about forty years before; the parents of our little princess, therefore, thought that they could not do better than keep the name of Elisabeth in the family; so it was given to their little darling, at the font, no doubt with the expectation that her great-aunt would not be forgetful of her, in heaven.

At the time of her birth, her grandfather King James and her father the Infante Peter were not on speaking terms. It seems, however, that the old king took a great fancy to his little grand-daughter, and predicted that she would surpass all the ladies of the house of Aragon. At the same time he made up his quarrel with his son Peter; and, five years later, finished his long reign, leaving the father of our little princess king of Aragon. She was old enough to remember, in later years, seeing two kings and three queens following her grandfather’s remains to their place of sepulture at Poblete.

When the young Elisabeth was nine years of age, Alphonso, king of Portugal, dying, was succeeded by his son Dionysius. One of the earliest acts of his reign was to dispatch ambassadors to the court of Aragon, to solicit the hand of the princess Elisabeth, as his affianced bride. It so happened that they found ambassadors from two other courts, arrived on the same errand. Edward I of England wished to secure our young princess for his son; and Charles, king of Sicily, was a suitor, on behalf of his son Robert, who afterwards married Violanta, the elder sister of Elisabeth. It was with the greatest difficulty that her father could bring himself to part with his little favourite. Her sweetness of disposition was such, that he considered her very presence in his house a source of blessing to it, which he could ill spare. Even at this tender age, Elisabeth could not conceal her love of prayer and of almsgiving.

State policy and the remonstrances of his counsellors at length compelled her father to make an election for her, among her suitors. He determined that a king actually reigning was a more eligible match for his daughter than the heir-apparent to a throne; perhaps, too, the fact that Portugal was the nearest of the three kingdoms, may have helped him in his decision, as it promised him a better chance of sometimes seeing his beloved child. It seems, also, that she was related to both the English and the Sicilian princes, within the forbidden degrees, and her father declined the expense of procuring a dispensation from Rome. The matter was therefore decided in favour of Dionysius, king of Portugal. It was a barbarous kind of way, no doubt, of disposing of the future happiness of a mere child; but it was the custom of the age, and, indeed, of much later times, especially among persons of high rank. Nor, after all, are we quite so sure that if things were looked into very narrowly, matches, quite as summarily made, would not be found, even now, and among persons of very middling rank indeed.

The next step in the business was to send away the young queen to the court of her future husband. But now the question arose, How should she be sent? A land-journey, through a country devastated by war, appeared to the Portuguese ambassadors rather too great a risk to run; it was therefore proposed to send the bridal party by sea. On farther consideration, this was thought to be decidedly the more dangerous way of the two; so a land-journey through Valencia and Castile, was resolved upon. The bishop of Valencia, and a company of nobles and of knights, escorted the young queen, and her train of maids of honour, and of ladies in waiting. Her trousseau was of the costliest description. What became of it, we shall see by and by.

At a certain point in the journey, the king took an affectionate leave of his favourite child. He called himself the most unfortunate of men, to be thus robbed of his dearest treasure in life. He blessed her over and over again, adding that he had imparted to her all the advice he had to give; and that in gifts of mind as well as in disposition and manners, she left him nothing to desire. And so they parted; the little queen continuing her journey, with her maids and her ladies, surrounded by a cavalcade of Aragonese and Catalonian knights. On the confines of Portugal, they were met by a brother of king Dionysius, and by another cavalcade of Portuguese nobles and knights, to whom the Aragonese consigned their treasure. At Francoso king Dionysius was waiting to receive his bride; their nuptials were celebrated, and a settled provision made for the royal maintenance of the queen. Yet it was barely eleven years since the name of Saint Elisabeth had been given her at the font.

Chapter 2 – The young queen’s daily life – Birth of a daughter, and of a son and heir – Frequent wars – Elisabeth is a peace-maker – Conference of kings at Turiaso – Death of her daughter Constantia – Story of the hermit – War between the king of Portugal and his son the Infante – Elisabeth is deprived of her income – She makes peace several times between her husband and her son

This tender young creature, thus early assigned so conspicuous a position, began her new life by making such arrangements as should divide her time between her domestic duties and the service of God. Instead of the inexperience of eleven years, people seemed to see a degree of wisdom not often found even at five and twenty, or at thirty years. When she was not hearing mass, or reciting the canonical hour of prayer, she was spinning among her maidens and her ladies; or she was doing something for the poor, or trying to set people right who had fallen into trouble, or become the victims of oppression. The income which the king had settled on her found its way, in great part, into the hands of the poor, and into convents, and the houses of decayed ladies who were too high spirited to beg.

In her eighteenth year, her first child, Constantia, was born. Three years afterwards, the kingdom was rejoiced by the birth of an heir to the throne, at Coimbra. Alphonso, the young Infante of Portugal, afterwards married Beatrix, a daughter of Sancho, king of Castile. This young princess was, like her mother-in-law, sent as a child to the Portuguese court, and educated by Elisabeth as her future daughter.

King Dionysius, although kind and indulgent to his queen, was still more indulgent to himself, and led an irregular life, to the great injury and sorrow of Elisabeth. Her greatness of soul was never more remarkably evinced than in her way of managing him. She appeared blind and deaf to all that she disapproved of in her husband, never listening to stories about him, and never reproaching him. She had calculated well in her estimate of his character. Reproaches would only have hardened him; whereas her silence affected him with remorse for his ingratitude; and her forbearance was rewarded by his abandoning the irregular practices of which she had never complained, but to God.

There were in those days rather too many small kings in the limited area of the Spanish peninsula, to permit the country long to enjoy the blessings of peace. And, failing an independent sovereign to quarrel with, any one of the four peninsular kings was ready, on the shortest notice, to go to war with his brothers, or even with his eldest son. If a king of Aragon failed to find in his next neighbour of Navarre, or of Castile, an enemy ready to his hand, he had always his son, the Infante, to pick a quarrel with. If a king of Portugal found all of his three neighbours too pacific for his wishes, his father’s sons were nearer home, and more at his mercy. The life of kings was too generally one long brawl, continued at the ruinous expense of the country and of their unhappy subjects.

One of the cases which we have mentioned actually happened, within no long time after Elisabeth’s coming to Portugal. Her husband and his brother Alphonso went to war with each other, and much blood would have been wasted in the quarrel, had not Elisabeth engaged the good offices of the counsellors and prelates of the kingdom to make up matters between the brothers. And further to facilitate the business, she gave up the part of her revenue which she drew from the town of Cintra, and persuaded the king in other ways to increase the income of his brother.

Constantia, her eldest daughter, became the wife of Ferdinand IV, king of Castile (1301). The throne of Aragon was then filled by Elisabeth’s brother, James. War, almost as a matter of course, was engaged in, by those two sovereigns, against each other. Its nominal cause was a dispute about the possession of certain towns and lands of which the Moors had been deprived. The art of making peace, in which Elisabeth excelled, was again put in requisition; her efforts were seconded by the imminent risk of an attack from the Moors, while the Christian forces were destroying each other. Our gentle queen prevailed on the belligerents to meet at Turiaso, a town on the confines of Aragon and Castile, and to submit their claims to the arbitration of the king of Portugal. Elisabeth accompanied her husband to the conference (July, 1304); the queens of Castile and of Aragon also repaired to the place of meeting, attended by the flower of the nobility of both kingdoms. It was quite a family meeting for Elisabeth. She found her brother of Aragon, and she met her daughter of Castile. Her spirit of peace pervaded the proceedings of the conference; the decision of Dionysius gave satisfaction to all parties; new alliances were formed, and the assembly dispersed in perfect harmony. Elisabeth and her husband, however, prolonged their absence from home until September, returning to Portugal in time for the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. It is in allusion to her repeated successes in hushing the storm of war, that Elisabeth is called in her office in the Roman Breviary the Mother of Peace, and of her country.

The next incident in her family history is the marriage of her son Alphonso with Beatrix of Castile, a sister of Ferdinand IV. The event was celebrated at Lisbon, with great rejoicing (1309). In no long time after, however, our queen had to mourn the premature decease of her daughter Constantia, queen of Castile. A singular tale is related, in connexion with this sad event. Elisabeth and her husband happened, soon afterwards, to be travelling from Santarem to Lisbon, and on the way they stopped at Azambuja. Here the queen was met by a hermit, whom no one knew, and who cried out, In the name of God, my royal lady, I pray you to grant me an audience; for I have something important to tell you, and your attendants will not permit me to approach you. The queen having invited him to deliver his message, he went on to say that her deceased daughter Constantia had appeared to him in his cell several times, and had enjoined him to inform her mother of her detention in purgatory, and to beg that a mass might be said daily for her, for one year. The hermit had said this loud enough for the courtiers to hear. When he had finished, they began to chaff him, and to say. If Queen Constantia is in purgatory, is it a likely thing that she should appear to thee, rather than to her father or her mother? The hermit, meanwhile, disappeared; no one could give any account of him, and he was never seen again. Elisabeth, on conferring with her husband, resolved to act on the instructions she had received. She engaged a pious priest, of the name of Mendez, to say mass for her daughter, daily, for a year. At the expiry of the time fixed, Elisabeth was at Coimbra, and one night had a dream about her daughter, who appeared to her in white clothing, and thanked her for procuring her deliverance from the penal flames of purgatory. Elisabeth had quite forgotten that the year was expired, until Mendez came, next morning, to remind her of it, and to speak about continuing to say mass. She was much comforted about her beloved daughter, and gave thanks to God.

A few more years brought back the miseries of war; and, this time, the king of Portugal found an enemy in his eldest son, the Infante Alphonso. Secret measures were taken by the king to surprise his son at Cintra, in the night-time; not even Elisabeth was made privy to the scheme. She was first alarmed by her husband’s suddenly leaving her in the night, at Lisbon, and setting out, attended by troops; and at once suspecting the truth, she managed to dispatch a courier to Cintra, who rode faster than the soldiers, and reached it in time to give the young prince warning. He thus escaped from the trap laid for him, and went straight to Lisbon, to his mother, whom he had not seen for a long time. The queen kept him with her for a while, and spoke to him very seriously of his duty to the king, his father; and so dismissed him.

The most violent of the king’s counsellors instigated him to punish this interference of the queen’s as virtually abetting the young prince in his rebellion. Dionysius, still smarting under his late disappointment, too readily listened to the evil counsels of his courtiers, and sent Elisabeth an order to remove at once to Alanguera, at the same time depriving her of all her sources of income. This bitter trial found our holy queen prepared for the will of God. She at once obeyed the peremptory orders of her husband, and abandoned her court at Lisbon. Presently, numbers of the nobility flocked to her new residence, to offer her their castles for a home, and their swords to regain her rights. She thanked them very graciously for their good intentions, but declined all their offers, alleging her resolution to remain at the absolute disposal of the king. So dismissing her impetuous defenders, she collected about her a number of pious women, who passed their time with her, in fasting and abstinence, in prayer and the public recitation of the praises of God. By and by, her humility and moderation were acknowledged by the king, and she was restored to her rights as his queen.

But the war with the Infante still continued, to the bitter grief of the queen. Coimbra was held by her son, and his father was besieging it. Elisabeth had influence enough to bring about a meeting between them at Lieria, where the prince made an apology for his conduct, renewed his fealty to his father, and received back his income.

Jealousies subsequently arising again between them, the king rode out of Lisbon one day, to meet his son, and to forbid him to enter the city. The result was a fight between their respective followers. Elisabeth, hearing of it, rode out on a mule, into the thickest of the fray; none of her ladies ventured to follow her, yet she pushed on alone, through the storm of darts and stones, till she found the king; and then to the other side, in quest of the prince. She brought them once more together; the young Infante submitted, and kissed his father’s hand; the king gave him his blessing, and so they parted, finally reconciled, at the instance of this heroic lady.

Chapter 3 – The queen’s religious observances – Her love of fasting – Her charities – Her industrial school at Santarem

The practice of religious duties was by no means the least arduous part of Elisabeth’s daily life. She carried it far beyond the limits of mere obligation, impelled to what must appear to many good people to have been excessive, by the ardour of her devotional feeling, and by her profound spirit of penitence. Not satisfied with reciting the Divine Office every day, as it is in the Breviary, this holy queen also daily recited the Office of the Blessed Virgin and of the Dead. She carried about with her on her journeys, a portable oratory, in charge of her chaplains and her clerks, who chanted high mass every day in her presence. She also attended the service of vespers, every afternoon, in her oratory.

But the extent to which she carried the practice of fasting seems to belong rather to the cloister of a severe order than to the court of a reigning sovereign. During her husband’s life she was not permitted to carry the severity of her practice as far as she wished, but was obliged to restrict herself to three fast days in the week, and to Lent and Advent, and the eves of saints. When she became free to follow her own inclination in this respect, she kept every Friday and Saturday in the year, and the vigils of the Apostles, of the Holy Virgin, and of the saints to whom she had a special devotion, as fast-days, on bread and water. In like manner, besides Advent and Lent, she observed an additional Lent in the year, from Saint John Baptist’s day (June 24) to the Assumption; and yet a third, called the Lent of the Angels, from the Assumption till Saint Michael’s day. There could not have been thirty days in the year on which she tasted anything better than bread and water.

Her piety also frequently incited her to visit holy places, and churches served by religious communities distinguished for their devout lives. The poor in the neighbourhood of these places, and all along the road to them, reaped a rich harvest from her bounty at such times; indeed, such was the reputation of her sanctity, that many persons used to feign poverty for the occasion, in order to receive a trifle from her hands. The queen was a constant visitor of the sick, smoothing their pillows for them, and prescribing for their maladies, for she had some skill that way. Among her poor friends, she manifested especial compassion for those who were too high-spirited or too shy to ask for alms; she said that they were often worse off than the poor; and many of them she had the happiness of restoring to competence and their former position in society. She conferred many favours on poor young women, by clothing them, and settling dowries upon them to facilitate their marriage. And all this was accomplished with as much secrecy as was possible. For this holy lady shrank from the whisper of her own praises.

In her many journeys about her kingdom, no sick or poor person and no prisoner had to complain of being overlooked by the queen in her charities and her alms. Nor among the useful applications of her income did she refuse to reckon assistance given to various public works; such as churches, hospitals, bridges, and fountains. Nothing, in short, that had for its object the good of her people, failed to secure her co-operation.

During Holy Week, she redoubled her alms and her works of mercy. On Maunday Thursday, she washed the feet of poor women; the following day, she distributed alms among a multitude of the poor; and while attending the services of Good Friday, she manifested the grief of her soul at the remembrance of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. The practice of frequently communicating was not so common as it is now; we must therefore not be surprised to be told that Elisabeth received holy communion only three times in the year, at Christmas, Easter, and at Pentecost. It would be well if some of our daily communicants approached a little more nearly the perfection of her Christian life.

Among the religious foundations which owed their endowment to the charity of the queen, there was one which has an especial interest for us, as it seems to have anticipated the application of industrial training to the education of poor children, a principle which has received the highest sanction in our own day. The bishop of Eidania, an episcopal see afterwards translated to Guarda, had begun to build an hospital for the poor foundlings, in the town of Santarem; but finding himself on his death-bed before the hospital was finished, he entreated the queen to take it under her patronage, and fulfil his intentions, for the love of God. Elisabeth readily undertook the duty thus bequeathed to her. The hospital was enlarged, and more amply endowed; and became the home of poor foundlings. When the queen went down to visit them, she served them at table with her own hands.

Under her directions, as soon as the children were old enough, they were taught useful trades, by which they might earn their livelihood; and as soon as they were able to do so, they ceased to be a burden on the house, until they fell sick, when the hospital again took charge of them.

Chapter 4 – The king dies – The queen goes to Santiago – Builds a convent at Coimbra, and resides near it – Her daily life – She goes to Estremoz, to make peace, and dies – Her tomb – Her canonisation – Miracle of the Roses – Tale of Fridolin

Such was the tenour of our holy queen’s married life, until it pleased God to deprive her of her husband. During the long illness which preceded his death, the queen waited on him like a domestic servant, discharging the duties of a sick nurse with unwearied affection. He died, at last, in the castle of Santarem, when the year 1325 was hardly a week old; and was buried at the Cistercian convent of Odivellas, which he had founded, near Lisbon.

In the first hour of her widowhood, Elisabeth assumed the dress of a Franciscan nun. The following summer she made a pilgrimage to Santiago, in time to keep the festival of the apostle Saint James at his tomb. At high mass on that day, celebrated by the archbishop, the queen offered her royal crown, together with robes of the most costly kind, which she had worn at state ceremonies, the richest drinking vessels! of her table, and stuffs of untold value from the looms of Portugal and of Aragon. On her return from the tomb of the apostle, she attracted vast crowds of people about her; for her reputation had preceded her, and they flocked together to see her as she passed. In going to Santiago she had avoided this, by keeping her destination secret, till she was almost within sight of the place.

At the expiry of a year from the king’s death, Elisabeth is found at the convent of Odivellas, celebrating his anniversary, in company with the young king Alphonso, her son, and the nobility and clergy of the kingdom. Returning to Coimbra, where she then chiefly resided, she gave directions to have all her silk dresses, some of them richly interwoven with gold, cut up, and made into vestments, for distribution among the churches, according to the poverty of their wardrobes. Her gold plate was also broken up, to make chalices, crosses, thuribles and lamps. The remainder of her jewels she divided between her daughter-in-law Queen Beatrix, and her grand-daughters. Queen Mary of Castile, and Queen Eleanor of Aragon.

The queen had lately commenced a great undertaking at Coimbra; a convent for the nuns of Saint Clare. We are told that she was an excellent judge of architecture, and frequently made suggestions which were found to improve her architect’s plans. While the building was in progress, she gathered around her a few pious women, who wished to devote themselves to the service of God, and in due time to enter the convent. Among them was a lady of royal blood, a cousin of the queen’s, who took a large fortune with her into the convent, and became its second abbess. The church was the first part of the work that was finished. It was named after Saint Clare, the disciple of Saint Francis. The queen directed that her own tomb should be prepared in it. The completion of the refectory, the dormitory, the infirmary, and the kitchen soon followed, and the whole was surrounded with a high wall. In the immediate neighbourhood of the convent, a suitable residence was built for the queen and her attendants, and close to it a chapel, and two hospitals, one for fifteen poor men, and the other for a similar number of poor women.

When the whole establishment was finished, the queen took serious counsel with her advisers, as to her own future life, whether she would do better to enter the convent herself, or remain without, dispensing her charities among numbers of the indigent. Her advisers represented to her, that in the circumstances of the ease, she would do more good by serving God in the world. She at once resigned her favourite plan of becoming a daughter of Saint Clare, and made her arrangements accordingly. The day when the nuns took possession of their new convent, Elisabeth and her daughter-in-law, Queen Beatrix, by special permission obtained from Rome, were present in the refectory. When the nuns were all seated, the queens carried their food from the kitchen, and served it to them at table.

Elisabeth then took up her residence in the new buildings close by. She spent much of her time in the church and among the nuns, singing the Divine Office with them every day, and encouraging them in the service of God. The neighbouring hospitals supplied her with many opportunities of active duty among the sick. This mode of life began about six years after her husband’s death.

Let us follow her through one of her ordinary days. Five of the nuns of Saint Clare resided with her; she rose with them before dawn, to recite matins, lauds and prime. After prime, they prepared the altar in the queen’s private oratory, for mass. When this private mass was finished, the queen repaired to the chapel of her residence, where two high masses in succession were sung in her presence, her household also attending. One of these masses was always a mass of requiem for the soul of her husband. By the time that they were finished, and the rest of the Hours sung, it was the hour for going to dinner.

After dinner the queen gave audience to all sorts of people, who had business with her; to the superintendents of her works in various places, to religious or to secular persons, who had petitions to present; in short, to all, whether rich or poor, who had a mind to address her on any subject. The principles of the largest charity regulated her reception of persons who frequented her levees.

In the afternoon, vespers were sung in her chapel; and when it was not a fast-day (which was not often), the queen went to supper. This repast was immediately followed by Complin, and the Office of the Dead. Then she retired to her bed-chamber, and her nuns and her household to theirs. But this pious soul did not retire to sleep. She generally spent the greater part of the night in meditation and prayer, and often rose from bed to resume her spiritual exercises. So strong is the yearning of holy souls towards that place where their communion with their Lord is subject to no interruption from the demands of nature for repose; where there is no night, because there is no weary body to repair, no exhausted spirits to renovate.

The last year but one of her life the queen once more visited the tomb of Saint James at Santiago; but this time she went on foot, with few attendants, dressed like a poor pilgrim, and begging her way along the road, from house to house, both going and returning – an astonishing effort for a woman sixty-four years of age. By this means she escaped the crowds which had distressed her humihty on her former journey.

A great opportunity for the inexhaustible charity of the queen occurred, while she was residing at her convent, near Coimbra. Her kingdom was visited by a famine, which destroyed numbers of the poor. The liberality of Elisabeth was so profuse, in her efforts to mitigate the sufferings of her people, as to provoke the remonstrances of her attendants that she left nothing for herself and her household.

The latest act of her beautiful life was faithful to the spirit of peace which it had been her mission, for more than fifty years, to propagate among the crowned heads of the Spanish peninsula. The rumour reached her in her retreat at Coimbra that her son, Alphonso of Portugal, was about to plunge the kingdom in the disasters of war, in consequence of a quarrel with her grandson, Alphonso of Castile. Her immediate impulse was to sacrifice the calm routine of her life, and set out at once in search of the belligerents, with the intention of using her old influence to promote peace. Her attendants urged the inexpediency of her undertaking a long journey, during the hot season, and at her advanced age. But in such a cause no difficulties could turn her from her purpose. In this her last effort she received the crown of her many virtues.

She had got as far as Estremoz when the king, her son, met her; but here she was taken ill with a tumour in her arm. On the Monday after, she was unable to rise for mass, Queen Beatrix, her daughter-in-law, attended her very carefully, rallying her spirits, and doing all she could to cheer her mother, and alleviate her sufferings. While Queen Beatrix was sitting by the invalid’s bed, Elisabeth suddenly turning to her companion, said, “My daughter, pray give place to this lady who is coming.” “What lady, my august mother?” was the answer of Beatrix, who saw no one. “That is she,” rejoined the sick queen, “who is coming to me, in a white dress.” Still Queen Beatrix could see nothing. Neither did Elisabeth say more; they were therefore left to conjecture that the Mother of Jesus was near, to comfort her sick daughter, who had always cherished a warm affection for the Queen of Angels.

On the Thursday the queen saw her confessor early in the morning, and heard mass in her chamber. When it was finished, she rose without assistance, and went out of her chamber to the altar where her confessor was then saying mass, and kneeling down she received holy communion with great devotion and many tears. In the afternoon of the same day, she was conversing with the king, after vespers, and as the physicians maintained that there was no danger in her complaint, she begged her son to leave her and go to supper. He had supped already; but he went outside the door of her chamber with the physicians. While they were standing outside the door, the queen rose from her bed, and stood leaning against it; all of a sudden she began to sink. Her attendants called the king, who ran in, took his mother’s hands and kissed them. She presently recovered a little, spoke of her fainting, and conversed awhile with the king about the princess Eleanor, her favourite grandchild, and about all her grandchildren. While they were conversing, the queen feeling her end approaching began to pray – “Mary, Mother of Grace, Mother of Mercy, protect me from my enemy, and receive me in the hour of my death.” She then repeated the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and other prayers; and as she went on, she grew fainter and fainter, till her words were no longer audible. Thus, still praying, she ended her life of prayer in the castle of Estremoz, on Thursday, July 4th, 1336.

She had often entreated our Lord that her son might be present at her death, and even this little favour was granted her. When her holy soul had departed, her eyes and her mouth are said to have closed of their own accord.

Next day the funeral train set out to convey her precious remains to her convent at Coimbra. The journey occupied seven days, and it was regarded as something more than a natural occurrence, that, notwithstanding the great heat, the body of the queen exhibited no signs of decay on its arrival at its last resting-place. It was laid with great ceremony in the tomb which the queen in her lifetime had prepared for it, among her nuns.

Many instances of divine interposition are recorded, in behalf of devout persons who visited that tomb, during the two following centuries. It was reserved for Leo X at the instance of Emmanuel, king of Portugal, to permit the public honours due to a saint to be paid to Elisabeth within the city and the diocese of Coimbra; a privilege which was confirmed by Paul IV and extended to the whole of Portugal.

The inquiries set on foot by the eminent biographer of Saints, the Carthusian Surius, for his Lives, seem to have much promoted the knowledge and the honour of Elisabeth both in Portugal and throughout the Catholic world; in fact, the collections made for him ultimately became the basis of the process of her canonisation. In 1619, the tomb of the saint was opened in presence of a commission of inquiry, consisting of clergymen and of medical men, and the body “was found to be incorrupt. The decree of her canonisation was finally pronounced by Urban VIII., 1625. Innocent XII, seventy years later, changed the day of her festival to the 8th of July, on which it is now universally kept, and made the recitation of her office of obligation throughout the church. The beautiful office in the Roman breviary is attributed to the pen of Urban VIII himself.

Saint Elisabeth is perhaps best known out of her own kingdom by the miracle of the roses – a legend which is, however, not found in the oldest biography, and which is also attributed to Saint Elisabeth of Hungary, and to Blessed Germain Cousin, the Shepherdess of Toulouse, lately beatified. The legend relates, that on one occasion, wishing to conceal from her husband the alms she was distributing to a number of poor persons, her lap was found to be full of roses, in the winter time. Another anecdote is recorded of her, which must be familiar to some of our readers, in Schiller’s tale of Fridolin. It is to the following effect:

A courtier, desirous of making mischief between Elisabeth and the king, accused her of too great intimacy with a young page. The king believed the tale, and prepared a terrible punishment for the youth. Orders were given to the workmen about a smelting furnace, to throw into the boiling metal the first messenger who should come to them from the king, on a particular morning. The page was accordingly directed to go to the furnace, and ask the men if the royal order had been obeyed. As he hastened to it, unconscious of his fate, he heard a chapel bell in the forest tinkling for mass. He paused, entered the chapel, and served the mass. The king, meanwhile, impatient to hear that his orders had been obeyed, dispatched the accuser of the page to the furnace, to make inquiry. He reached it before the young man had left the chapel, was seized by the workmen, in obedience, as they imagined, to the king’s orders, and amidst vain struggles and protests was hurled into the lake of molten metal. When the page arrived, he was informed that the king’s commands had been obeyed; and he hastened back with the message, to the horror and confusion of his master.

The count stood still, an icy chill
   Crept o’er each shaking limb:
“But Robert to the wood I sent –
   Hast thou not met with him?”
“No trace of Eobert, sir, I saw,
   By wood or field or road!”
“Now,” cried the count in sudden awe,
   “This is the hand of God!”

With gentler mien than his wont had been
   His servant’s hand he took,
And he led him to his wondering wife
   With a chang’d and thoughtful look:
“This child is pure and clean of heart –
   No angel purer is:
Though I was led by treacherous art,
   God and his hosts are his!”

– Schiller

Notes

The reader who desires more particular information, will find it in the Life of the Saint, edited by Father Conrad Janning, S.J., Acta SS. Bolland., July 4th. The author of this Life, though anonymous, is presumed to have been nearly contemporary with the Saint. The manuscript written in Portuguese, was found in the convent of Saint Clare, at Coimbra. The learned notes of F. Janning must be received with caution, where they refer to English history; as for example, where he makes Edward IV to reign from 1273-1307; and Edward VI, the Sovereign of England, at the queen’s death in 1336. Edward I and Edward III would have been nearer the truth.

In Portugal, as in Spain, the name of Elisabeth, by a slight transposition of letters, is frequently called Isabella: Elisabe – Isabele – Isabella.


The text of this article is taken from the short book The Life of Saint Elisabeth, Queen of Portugal, by “A Secular Priest”, published in London, England in 1900, which was later published as part of the book The Sainted Queens.