Today marks the feast day of St. Elizabeth of Portugal, one of the few women in history to be both queen and nun.

Elizabeth showed an early enthusiasm for her Faith. She said the full Divine Office daily, fasted and did other penance, as well as attended twice-daily choral Masses. Religious fervor was common in her family, as she could count several members of her family who were already venerated as saints. The most notable example is her great-aunt, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, T.O.S.F., after whom she was named.

St. Elizabeth and her husband King Denis

Her marriage to King Denis of Portugal, contracted when she was 10 years old, was an unhappy one. Denis, although a hard-working king, was not a man of high morality, and his court was famous for its corruption. Nevertheless, Elizabeth quietly pursued the regular religious practices of her youth. She was devoted to the poor and sick, and gave every moment she could spare to helping them, even pressing her court ladies into their service. Naturally, such a life was a reproach to many around her, and caused ill will in some quarters.

Denis does not appear to have reformed in morals till late in life, when we are told that the saint won him to repentance by her prayers and unfailing kindness. They had two children, a daughter Constantia and a son Alfonso. The latter so greatly resented the favours shown to the king’s illegitimate sons that he rebelled, and in 1323 war was declared between him and his father. St. Elizabeth, however, rode in person between the opposing armies, and so reconciled her husband and son. Diniz died in 1325, his son succeeding him as Alfonso IV.

Icon of St. Elizabeth

St. Elizabeth then retired to a convent of Poor Clares which she had founded at Coimbra, where she took the Franciscan Tertiary habit, wishing to devote the rest of her life to the poor and sick in obscurity. But she was called to act once more as a peacemaker in 1336, when Alfonso IV marched his troops against King Alfonso XI of Castile, to whom he had married his daughter Maria, and who had neglected and ill-treated her. In spite of age and weakness, the Queen-dowager insisted on hurrying to Estremoz, where the two kings’ armies were drawn up. She again stopped the fighting and caused terms of peace to be arranged. But the exertion brought on her final illness. As soon as her mission was completed, she took to her bed with a fever from which she died on 4 July, in the castle of Estremoz.

St. Elizabeth of Portugal, who lived your life in service to the Franciscan values of peace and care for the most marginalized, pray for us!