St. Elizabeth of Portugal, Great Queen and Humble Peacemaker, Pray For Us!

Elizabeth’s life is a gentle rebuke to our fractious age of outrage

“St. Elizabeth of Aragon, Queen of Portugal,” Portuguese school, 18th century
“St. Elizabeth of Aragon, Queen of Portugal,” Portuguese school, 18th century (photo: Public Domain)

St. Elizabeth of Portugal falls among that cadre of holy kings and queens who achieved heaven despite the distractions and temptations that surrounded their earthly lives. The 14th-century queen received the moniker “The Peacemaker” for her notable conciliatory efforts during her lifetime both as queen and as dowager. But in reflecting upon St. Elizabeth’s heroic virtue, I confess that it was not her diplomatic prowess that moved me, but her almost superhuman humility, if such a thing is not a contradiction of terms.

Beautiful, pious and disciplined, Elizabeth, a Spanish princess, wed her royal husband at only 17 years old, marrying King Diniz of Portugal. Diniz was by all accounts a very good king and a very bad husband, known for his rampant philandering.

For nearly the entire 27 years of their marriage, Elizabeth quietly endured the great humiliations wrought upon her by her faithless husband. Living as she did in the center of royal court life, she could not escape the whispers and rumors that shadowed her marriage and scandalized the country. No doubt she personally knew many of her husband’s mistresses, as indeed, she must have been acquainted with his seven illegitimate children. It would have been impossible for her to shield her own two children from the vicious gossip mongers they lived among, even as she sought to preserve their innocence and respect for their father.

Yet despite these great trials, we find not one record of Elizabeth losing her temper or sinking to the sordid levels of courtly intrigue. Instead, the holy queen maintained her gentle demeanor and religious devotion. She attended Mass daily, recited the Divine Office every morning and fasted regularly. Unable to maintain her husband’s affections and fidelity, she offered up her sufferings in prayer for King Diniz, from whom she never strayed. Ignoring the contempt of courtiers who disdained her charitable works, Elizabeth cared for the sick and the poor. She even secretly tended to lepers, bathing and clothing them despite the law forbidding them from approaching the castle walls.

In 1323 Elizabeth first earned her title of Peacemaker, though once again, her humility outshines her actions. Alfonso, the eldest son of Elizabeth and Diniz and heir to the throne, had grown impatient with his father’s perceived favor for his illegitimate sons. He rose up in rebellion against his father. The king’s army rode against Alfonso’s, with civil war imminent until Elizabeth intervened. Elizabeth, who had far more cause for anger at her husband and his disregard for their marriage, refused to support her jealous son. Instead, she fearlessly rode a mule between the opponents. The two armies, tensed for battle, faced each other while the brave queen insisted that her son reconcile with his father, whose very sins against her were to blame for the violence. Against all odds, they listened to her wise arguments. Having achieved a seemingly impossible peace, Elizbeth withdrew once more into her quiet life and habits.

Elizabeth’s life is a gentle rebuke to our fractious age, where we often exist in a state of outrage over slights, both perceived and real. How many barbs must she have endured, how many tears she must have shed after being publicly discarded and abandoned. Yet armed with the graces of the sacraments and fortified with her spiritual discipline, she strove to always sow peace and love in her midst, ignoring the myriad pathways to vice around her. Softly, humbly, she turned aside from gossip, reacted with grace to the daily humiliation of her husband’s infidelity, and never ceased in striving to honor her marriage vows.

King Diniz died in 1325, but not before repenting of his past sins and abuses against Elizabeth. He died a happy death in communion with his Church and reconciled with his wife. After nearly 30 years of praying for her husband’s soul, Elizabeth rejoiced, and, with her customary humility, she lived out her remaining 11 years as a tertiary Franciscan, serving her beloved poor.

St. Elizabeth of Portugal, pray for us!