Elizabeth: Portugal’s Queen, Mother & Saint

Jul 15, 2013 / Written by: Andrea F. Phillips

Feast July 4

Every mother is a queen. And every queen should be a mother. In honor of mothers, we publish the marvelous story of a woman and a queen who excelled in her motherhood, which embraced not only her family, but a kingdom.

In this era in which femininity is given a “complex,” this is the story of a woman so secure in her feminine gifts that she won the heart of her nation and beyond; and from her husband the ultimate praise:

“Had God so wished, you could have been king.”

Elizabeth, Princess of Aragon

All was ready. Robed religious, armored warriors, ladies-in-waiting, pages and peons stood by the royal coach waiting to escort their princess to her new kingdom. The crowd, gathered before the palace, whispered in sad expectation.

And then she was there, framed in the castle’s gate, tall, stately, fair beside the king her father. She was Elizabeth, Princess of Aragon, one of the kingdoms of today’s Spain.

Queen Elizabeth

Elizabeth was born in 1271 to Peter III of Aragon and Constanza of Hohenstaufen, granddaughter of the famous Frederick Barbarossa. The young princess was also a grand-niece of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary after whom she was named.

On this summer day in 1282, Elizabeth was twelve, and already a queen. Married by proxy to Don Dinis, young king of Portugal, she was now about to set off with a large entourage for her new kingdom.

As she stood there, gracious and kind, she felt her people’s pain echoing her own. She was loved here, in this rugged land, and though young, had the maturity of her class, born and reared to serve. Her goodness and famed beauty had attracted many a royal proposal. And now that Portugal had accepted, she knew she would probably never see her country again.

Earlier, her father had tearfully blessed her, “Daughter, may God who calls you to this marriage…protect you on the way. And may God Who loved you in the land of your birth, and Who made you beloved of all, direct your life and your actions in your new land toward His holy service.”1

Indeed, Elizabeth was beloved of all. Charming and vivacious from infancy, she had so won the affections of her grandfather, James I, that he and Peter, formerly estranged, reconciled over the doting of her. James I once said, “Elizabeth will be the best woman born of the House of Aragon."2

It was this grandfather, educated by Saint Peter Nolasco, who initiated Elizabeth in her Catholic Faith. And after the example of her holy aunt, 3 she found fulfillment for her affectionate heart and gifted mind in God and the truths of His Church.

The earliest chronicles attest, with continuous prayers she served God “doing so from when a young maiden in her father’s house. . .” using a “breviary. . . daily she prayed the Hours” and read “other spiritual, devotional books, so that many times she was seen weeping alone with tears of devotion.” 4 Elizabeth also distributed alms, and practiced mortifications, seeking to conquer her passions, and the narcissistic tendencies that are every human’s lot.

So as the coach veered towards Portugal, the princess within had already chosen the road of solid virtue. She was going to need it. The man who had won her hand over several crowned heads was to try that virtue sorely.

Don Dinis

Dinis was born in 1261, the son of Afonso III and his second wife Beatriz, natural daughter of Afonso X of Castille, son of Ferdinand III of Castille, warrior and canonized saint.

Don Dinis

Dinis succeeded his father before turning eighteen. The re-conquest of Portugal from Muslim rule being complete, he was able to focus on the juridical organization of his kingdom, as well as its cultural and agricultural advancement. Known as the “Farmer King,” and the “Poet King,” Dinis was considered a good ruler despite his faults—for faults he had.

Of a testy temperament, at times even cruel, he failed to follow the sterling moral example of his great-grandfather, Saint Ferdinand. According to an early description, “he was a good-looking youth, of a sharp and sensual imagination…”5By age twenty when he met his bride at Trancoso, Portugal, Dinis already had three illegitimate children.

Still, as the princess descended from her coach, the better side of the young king’s nature, that of the cultured man and poet, did not fail to appreciate Elizabeth’s golden-haired, green-eyed beauty, wrapped in an aura of purity and virtue. But, alas, he had already become incapable of honoring such grace, and though he showered his bride with lands and gifts, his serial infidelities and many bastards were to be a dark cloud in her life, a cloud which her sanctity ultimately conquered.

Young Queen

Dinis and Elizabeth became man and wife when the maiden turned fourteen. They first lived in the massive palace of Alcáçova (Alkaassova), wrested from the Muslims, today the University of Coimbra, which Dinis founded. Throughout their reign, the royal couple mostly lived between Coimbra, Lisbon and Santarém.

St Elizabeth

From the onset Elizabeth established a daily schedule for herself. She began by rising early and engaging in religious exercises which included the Divine Office. To his credit, the king respected his wife’s devotions.

She spent her time sewing and embroidering with her ladies (several of whom were from Portugal), organizing her household, and helping the less fortunate. She found special strength and solace for her new position in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to which she had a life-long devotion. Eventually, she even had a portable altar built so that when traveling, she could attend Mass.

Elizabeth also had a great devotion to Mary Most Holy, and was to be a great promoter of devotion to her Immaculate Conception.

As time went on, to win her husband, she employed a heroic stratagem for which only holiness of life could muster the strength. To a lady, infidelity—not to speak of serial adultery—is the ultimate humiliation.

But Elizabeth’s shame was also public. The young queen not only chose a dignified stance, showing a seemingly unruffled countenance to the world, but looked to the welfare of Dinis’ bastards, of which history records eight.

Notwithstanding the fact that each was a daily reminder of her husband’s betrayal, she looked to their needs, their education, their marriages and their placement in life.

Portugal watched in awe as one so young showed so much courage and maturity. The nation felt for their queen’s silent sorrow, and honored her pain in prose and song. In time, Dinis could not help but come to respect, admire, and even love Elizabeth. He so trusted her, that he later made her official guardian of his bastards in case anything happened to him.

Yet, as charity-filled as she was, Elizabeth had an impeccable sense of justice. When later in life Dinis gave one of his natural daughters a stately wedding, she did not attend. She maintained that love, attention and a measure of honor was to be given to these children, indeed the king’s own; but full public honors belonged to legitimacy.

Finally, in 1291 the queen gave birth to a son. Dinis’ joy was immense, and he named him Afonso. He would eventually reign as Afonso IV, “the Brave.” Only one other child, a little girl, was born to the Portuguese monarchs, a special joy to Elizabeth’s heart, whom she named Constanza after her mother.

After the birth of the heir, the king’s escapades seem to have diminished, as he made an effort to amend his sinful ways. History records no bastards after the mid 90’s.

Fidelity Avenged

A drastic occurrence that undoubtedly contributed to the king’s reform shows how God did not tolerate so faithful a woman’s reputation to be questioned.

Around the time when Dinis vacillated between his sins and good resolutions, he grew jealous of a page of Elizabeth, whom the queen esteemed and trusted in view of his deep piety.

Another envious page insinuated to the king that there was more to the relationship between Elizabeth and the young man.

Fuming, Dinis personally contacted the owner of a lyme oven and ordered that when a page came inquiring after the king’s errand, he be cast into the roaring flames. Later, another page would be sent to ascertain that the order was carried out.

The next morning, at the crack of dawn, the king ordered Elizabeth’s page to the oven to ask if his command had been fulfilled.

Off went the good page, but on hearing the church bells, he couldn’t resist attending Mass. After the first, he heard two consecutive Masses, thinking a couple of hours couldn’t hurt his errand.

Meanwhile, the anxious king sent out the envious page to ask if his orders were fulfilled. At which the poor wretch was seized and thrown into the fiery furnace.

When Elizabeth’s page arrived at the oven and asked if the royal orders were carried out, all he received was an affirmative answer. And he returned to the palace.

At the sight of the pious youth, the king grew pale. And as the young man, blustering, explained his delay, finally delivering his message that “the king’s errand had been fulfilled,” Dinis understood what had happened. He discerned the hand and judgment of God protecting the innocent youth, chastising the calumniator, and vindicating the queen’s virtue.

Roses in January

Another occurrence from a popular legend, that could only have awed Dinis into reverence for his wife, happened in a cold January, presumably when Elizabeth was still young. Much like her saintly great-aunt, she was a dedicated patroness of the less fortunate. One day, as Elizabeth was walking the streets of Coimbra in the company of a lady-in-waiting, the king came upon her as she clutched bread and gifts for her proteges. Irritably, the king inquired what she carried.

“Roses, my lord,” was the quiet response.

“Roses in January?! Ha!”

And he pulled at her mantle only to watch as his boots became covered with profuse blooms.

Blue tiles depicting St Elizabeth and the roses

A Queen Who “Could Have Been King”

As the young queen matured, both in spirit and body, she cut an inspiring figure. At an impressive 5’ 10,” her beautiful face was now framed by tresses that had deepened into a rich, golden chestnut, which age never whitened. Also remarkably talented, Elizabeth spoke several languages, sang beautifully and had a great penchant for architecture, directing many a building project. She personally designed and oversaw the construction of churches, monasteries and hospitals, developing her own “Elizabethan Style.”

She also manifested a marked diplomatic intelligence. Never competing with the king, but rather using feminine tact, affection and wisdom, she became invaluable to Dinis in negotiations not only of a familial nature, but of a political reach as well.

At the death of her father in 1285, her brother, James, had ascended the throne of Aragon. Many letters survive, to “Brother King,” treating of personal and political affairs. Yet she never placed family fondness above the interests of her husband and the good of Portugal.

The oldest known chronicle about Elizabeth’s life stresses that “she took great pleasure when ill will was dissipated, and where there had been enmity and evil, love was reestablished.”6

She reconciled her brother-in-law to his brother, the king; she helped reconcile disputes among the neighboring nations, several of who were family. For instance, Ferdinand IV of Castille married her daughter Constanza. But her most famous reconciliation was between her own son Afonso and his father whom the prince deeply resented over the king’s open favoritism of one of his bastards.

Fearing for his throne, Afonso rallied a following and took several Portuguese cities. Elizabeth suffered deeply and tried her heroic utmost to reconcile them. But Dinis listened to intriguers who rumored that the mother favored the son. Consequently, he exiled her to the town of Alenquer where she suffered much and prayed more.

Finally, after reconciling them once, and hoping things were settled, she was horrified to hear that father and son were facing off in battle. She promptly mounted and, riding like the wind, arrived in time to interpose herself between the contenders, and call them to their senses as father and son, and to their duties as rulers. Then turning to the warriors, she reminded them of their allegiance to the king and rallied them back to obedience. Through the intercession of the holy queen, once more peace was restored. This time it held.

Blue tiles depicting Elizabeth meeting Dinis on the battle field

Sobered once more, Dinis was again sorry he had put his peerless queen through humiliation and exile. In one of his poems he extols her virtues:

God made you without peer, in goodness of heart and speech
.…Had God so wished, You could have been king.7

Mother in the Full Sense of Her Calling

Elizabeth was not only a matchless mother to her own, but also took a deep interest in her husband’s subjects as extended children, rather than vassals, helping the less fortunate from her own purse. She also had a special place in her heart for those who, though born to families of nobility and means, had fallen on hard times.

St Isabel

She established monasteries, hostels for the poor, a hospital, a house for repentant wayward women, a free school for girls, a house for ladies who had come upon financial grief, and a hospice for orphaned and abandoned children, of whom she wished to lose not one. She built bridges in dangerous places, visited and procured doctors for the ill, and endowed poor girls for the convent or marriage. She kept a beautiful tiara and gown to lend to poor brides so they could “shine” on their special day.

A popular legend has it that one day while inspecting a construction site, a girl offered her a bouquet of flowers. The queen distributed the flowers, one to each of the workers, saying: “Let’s see if today you will work hard and well for this pay.” The men reverently placed their flower each in his satchel, only to find, at the end of the day, a gold coin instead.

Another story touches on a great thorn in Elizabeth’s maternal heart, which was the early death of her only daughter, Constanza. The princess, married to the young Ferdinand of Castille, passed away in 1313, shortly after her husband who died the year before. They were both in their twenties.

On a trip with her husband from Santarém to Lisbon, a hermit suddenly stepped up to the coach with a message for the queen. “My lady,” said the man, “your daughter Constanza appeared to me several times in dreams asking me to let you know that she suffers in Purgatory and to please help her thus: have a chaste priest, for the space of a year, celebrate a daily

Mass for her, offering the holy Sacrifice of the altar according to the norms of Holy Mother Church.”8And he was gone.

Elizabeth decided to have the Masses said. Exactly one year later, she saw her daughter in dreams, dressed in white, who said, “My lady mother, I’m freed from the pains I suffered, and may God be praised. I now go to that place where I will suffer no more.”9

Evening of Life

King Dinis died in January of 1325 at age sixty-five. Through his illness the queen cared for him “as if she were a simple nurse, a common woman, and as if she had no one else to tend to her husband.”10 'Dinis’ last words were directed to his children recommending them to Elizabeth “…whose love for all of you is well known. As to my love for her, if at a certain point it was not so strong, it is now as I recommend her to you; for I trust that because of her, my name will be known and the kingdom honored.”11

After receiving the last Sacraments, the king turned to Afonso, “Dear son, I’m about to die. My last thought is for the queen, your mother, to whom, when young, I caused some grief. I ask you to make up for a portion of that grief, by standing by her and serving her. For this, you will have my blessing and hers.”12

Then, with tired breath, he said goodbye to Elizabeth, and with a last prayer directed at the crucifix in her hands, he gave up his soul to God.

The day after Dinis died, Elizabeth donned the Franciscan habit of the monastery of Santa Clara. In her new garb, she spent many hours in prayer by her husband’s body. Still, she made it plain that she was not becoming a religious, but was remaining a lay person.

Now, as “queen mother,” Elizabeth looked to retire to her beloved monastery of Santa Clara which she founded in 1314. With the exception of sums applied to Masses for the dead, some crowns, silver and gold vessels, and jewels bequeathed to her son, the rest of her will was in favor of works of charity.

At Santa Clara she continued to care and provide for the poor and the needy of all classes. She specially kept close to her several young girls whom she either helped to discern a vocation, or marry well.

Holy Death

The holy queen finished her life as she had begun it, working for peace. At age sixty-five she undertook a trip to settle a dispute between her son Afonso and the Castillian Afonso XI. By the time she reached Estremoz where Afonso and his wife, Beatriz, received her with deep affection, she was a very sick woman.

A tumor had appeared on her arm, and physicians were summoned. All hoped for recovery, but Elizabeth knew differently. On July 1, 1336, her temperature was so high that she was unable to attend her beloved daily Mass. On July 4th she made her Confession from bed, then, with enormous effort, stood up and attended the Holy Sacrifice receiving Holy Viaticum on her knees.

Back in bed, she conversed with Afonso and Beatriz when, suddenly, she said to her daughter-in-law, “Daughter, make room for the Lady standing there…”

“Which lady?” asked Beatriz.

“The Lady dressed in white, right there…”

Thus, we know that the Immaculate Queen came for this queen who had loved her all her life, especially devoted to her Immaculate Conception.

“Mary, Mother of Grace, Mother of Mercy, protect me from the enemy and receive me at the hour of death,” she now prayed. Then, reciting the Apostles’ Creed, the Our Father and other prayers, she gently breathed her last.

Miracles and Incorruptibility

As Elizabeth was translated to Coimbra, a trip of seven days in the scorching summer’s heat, her son and family feared that her body would quickly decompose. Instead, such a sweet, unknown perfume began to emanate from the coffin that all realized that they carried relics and no mere mortal remains. Many were the miracles and healings that also occurred before and immediately after the queen’s body was solemnly interred.

A candle light procession
A candle light procession winds through the streets of Coimbra, Portugal for St. Elizabeth's feast day on July 4.

In March of 1612 Elizabeth’s grave was opened for the first time in over 270 years before judges, procurators, doctors, several nuns and many devotees. Her body was found to be perfectly incorrupt. One of her eyelids, a little ajar, revealed green eyes. A few small golden locks escaped from her headdress.

It was only fitting that she who had resisted the corruption of the best this life can offer, remained untouched by the worst that death can muster.

In May of 1625 the holy queen was solemnly raised to the altars by Pope Urban VIII.

Thus, the green-eyed, golden-haired maiden of Aragon, and peerless queen of Portugal, continues to reign from many an altar in her beloved adopted land. To her come all with their pains and petitions as if she still lived–for she whose virtue transcended the ills of this earth, also transcended the confines of time, and from heaven is still Portugal’s queen, mother and saint.

Prayer of a Wife and Mother


  • 1 Jose Miguel Pero-Sanz, Santa Isabel, Rainha de Portugal, p. 29
  • 2 Ibid. p. 16.
  • 3 Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Isabel’s great aunt, born in 1207 and deceased in 1231, was canonized by Pope Gregory IX in 1235, only four years after her death.
  • 4 Jose Miguel Pero-Sanz, Santa Isabel, Rainha de Portugal,p. 38.
  • 5 Ibid. pp. 20, 21.
  • 6 Ibid. p. 83.
  • 7
  • 8 Jose Miguel Pero-Sanz, Santa Isabel, Rainha de Portugal, p. 110.
  • 9 Ibid. p. 110.
  • 10 Ibid. p. 152.
  • 11 Ibid. p. 154.
  • 12 Ibid. p. 155.