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St. Elizabeth of Portugal, patron saint for healing family rifts

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St. Elizabeth of Portugal (1271-1336)

Feast day: July 4

Like St. Elizabeth of Hungary, her great-aunt, Elizabeth of Portugal, married young. At age 12 she became the bride of Portugal’s 20-year-old king, Dinis. Today such a match is shocking, but child brides were commonplace in the Middle Ages. Among royal families every marriage was a political alliance, and the sooner the alliance was sealed at the altar, the better.

It’s to be expected that Dinis would have no interest in a 12-year-old girl, and probably several years passed before the marriage was consummated (Elizabeth was 19 when she gave birth to her first child). In the meantime, Dinis was not lonely. He had a string of mistresses by whom he fathered at least seven, perhaps as many as nine, children. 

Dinis was very fond of his illegitimate children; he brought them all to live in the palace, and insisted that Elizabeth raise them. It is the kind of heartless demand that could wreck a marriage, yet whatever Elizabeth may have felt — jealousy, resentment, rage — she kept to herself and proved to be a loving foster mother. 

Yet it appears that Dinis was not an ogre. He tried to be a good king: he improved the code of law in Portugal, founded the country’s first university at Coimbra, and collaborated with his wife in building churches and religious houses. Some historians have looked on Dinis’ reign as a golden age for medieval Portugal.

st elizabeth of portugal

Still, there is no denying that the king was callous to his wife. He compounded the problem by favoring one of his illegitimate sons over his eldest son and heir Alfonso. Unlike his saintly mother, Prince Alfonso did not suppress his feelings of resentment. Four times Alfonso schemed to overthrow his father and seize the crown; once he even contrived to murder his half-brother, the illegitimate son Dinis loved best. Each time, it was Elizabeth who made peace in the family, although with each of Alfonso’s plots it become increasingly difficult. Once, when Prince Alfonso’s army was arrayed at one end of the field and King Dinis’ on the other, Elizabeth rode between them and refused to leave the battlefield until father and son reconciled.

We do not know if Dinis ever asked Elizabeth to forgive him for all the pain he had caused her. After Dinis died, however, in his will he made Elizabeth executor of all he possessed. If he could not show his trust and esteem for Elizabeth in life, at least Dinis displayed it after death.

Queen Elizabeth died July 4, 1336. Her last words were a prayer to the Blessed Virgin: “From the foe shield us; in the hour of death take us.”

Craughwell is the author of St. Peter’s Bones and This Saint Will Change Your Life.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017