Saint Elizabeth, Queen Isabel of Portugal
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.
Princess Isabel was born in Saragossa, Spain in about 1271. As the daughter of King Pedro III of Aragon she became a valuable asset to be married off to another powerful family. She was wooed by the Kings of Sicily and France and was sought as a bride for the son of Edward IV of England, but her father chose King Dinis of Portugal as her spouse. Married by proxy at the age of 12, she only travelled to Portugal a year and a half later and probably saw little of her husband for many years.
Isabel had been brought up studious and devout and she was described as very beautiful. Her husband King Denis (or Dinis) was a good ruler but an unfaithful spouse, who had seven illegitimate children. Isabel was a dutiful wife and a daughter, Constanza, was born after the couple had been married for eight years. A year later their only son, Afonso, was born.
Renowned for her modesty and cheerfulness, Isabel spent her days caring for and tutoring all of Denis’s children as well as establishing orphanages, a hospice, a hospital, churches and a convent. In fact, she directly supervised the erection of these buildings, drafting the sketches herself, and managing the projects. Twentieth-century scholars have identified the buildings by their common architectural features, and have concluded that she developed her own style.
Her generosity and compassion extended to hands-on gifts to the poor. An apocryphal story tells of how she hid bread beneath her clothing to take out of the palace and that when challenged by the King the bread was discovered to have changed into roses. This Miracle of the Roses explains why she was later beatified as Saint Elizabeth of Portugal. Roses are symbols of beauty and love and their short life connects with martyrdom.
The King was not quite the tyrant he is claimed to have been. Known as the “troubadour king," for his acclaimed poetry, Denis was fully aware of his wife’s virtues. In one verse he wrote,
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.
Isabel’s other name was the Angel of Peace. Her calming presence was usually very effective. But Afonso, her son was jealous of one of his half-brothers whom, he believed, their father preferred, so Afonso led a revolt against his own father. Isabel did her best to bring peace between her husband and son, each of whom led an army.
When King Denis died in 1325 Isabel retired to Poor Clare’s Convent which she had founded at Coimbra. She died eleven years later as she rode between the armies of Alfonso XI of Castile and that of her son, Alfonso IV of Portugal.
Rainha Santa as Saint Elizabeth (Isabel) is called is remembered on July 4th.