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The patron of family squabbles

Peter Fleming  |  08 August 2019

St Elizabeth of Portugal dealt with her fair share of family drama. But as a Queen, her family dramas had further reaching consequences than most.

Peace. Only the foolish do not yearn for it with all their heart.

Think of those joyous photographs of peace, when war is ended and the treaty is signed. You feel it in the black-and-white of a ticker-tape rain-shower, falling on the shoulders of a sailor’s uniform as he hugs a woman in the street, in a sea of relief. Peace can feel like bliss.


Traditionally, kings and queens have not been associated with peace-making. Our image of the medieval world, full to the brim with royal families, is often one of countless battles – territorial squabbles on the grand scale: a game of thrones for real.

But Saint Elizabeth (Isabel) of Portugal, a Queen, devoted herself to peace at every turn, and between members of her own royal family, who did indeed fit the medieval stereotype we imagine. As such she became the patron saint of family rifts. In her case, ‘rifts’ meant kingdoms at war.

The young Elizabeth of Aragon was betrothed to King Denis of Portugal at the age of about 10 or 12, and they married when she was 17. It was not a peaceful marriage. Peaceful? New Idea would kill to have been publishing back then!

The King, her husband, was known as ‘The Farmer King’ for his diligent environmental concern: he once planted an entire pine forest to halt soil erosion, but unfortunately, pine seeds were not the only seeds he planted flagrantly. Denis, beloved by Elizabeth, was a serial adulterer: he had more illegitimate children with other women than he had legitimate ones with her.


If that were not enough, Denis, prone to paranoia, became convinced that Elizabeth herself was having an affair with one of his servants, a page. This poisonous thought was sewn in his mind by another, deceitful page who was in turn jealous of the innocent one.

The story goes that King Denis ordered the royal lime-burner to kill the first page whom he sent to him that day; but the innocent page went to Mass on his way there, and when the King sent the wicked page to confirm that the other had been killed, the lime-burner killed the wicked one. Simple lesson: it always pays to go to Mass.

Elizabeth, who from a very early age had Christian notions of forgiveness and unconditional love instilled in her, continued to pray for her husband to be healed of his sin. Meanwhile, she took a leading role in Portuguese politics, regularly assisting Denis in making peace with enemies, and sometimes between related warring parties, such as Fernando IV of Castile and James II of Aragon (her own brother) in 1304.


In 1323, Elizabeth played peacemaker in a civil war between the King and her own son Afonso, who was incensed that the King treated his illegitimate sons better than he treated him. She took up a position between the armies and refused to budge until the men came to terms.

King Denis died in 1325, converted at heart by the example of Elizabeth’s love. Not one to go quietly into the night, Elizabeth joined the Third Order of St Francis and continued to work for the poor and the sick as she had done devotedly during her reign as Queen.

Elizabeth did not merely seek peace as a royal convenience for herself and her kingdom; she pursued it, privately and publicly, for the sake of others: for her husband’s immortal soul, for her household, and for the common folk who quickly recognised in their Queen the soul of a saint.


Topic tags: saints

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