The preparations for the conquest of Moslem Africa were in advanced stages. The good King Don Ferdinand, close to embarking, spoke to the two Alfonsos, his son and his brother, during one warm evening while walking through the gardens, trying to convince one of the two to remain in Spain to govern it. However neither would yield in their insistent desire to go to Africa with him….
The month of May was ending and the weather was very hot in Seville. That morning the King had gone to see the various projects on the docks, and was returning tired, but happy, when suddenly an attack of his old sickness assaulted him. It was so terrible and accompanied by such a sharp pain that he clearly realized that this time he would not escape. He was taken to bed, and as soon as he recovered somewhat and was able to talk, he said to Alfonso and all there present:
“Time is running out and the hour for me to die has come.”
Thus, with simple naturality and with no sign of sorrow, he renounced his glorious dreams. For him the will of God was everything….
Ferdinand, in the meantime, requested the Viaticum to be brought to him. While a procession was being organized in Santa Maria, the humble King was preparing himself to receive his Lord and his God in the palace. He asked to be dressed in the beautiful white and gold rich silk shirt he wore on feast days, and, in reverence to Christ’s royal dignity and power, he ordered every reminder of human majesty to be removed from his chamber. He no longer wanted to see his crown or his scepter, or to think about government or honors of this world. Facing the bed where he was lying his men erected a beautiful altar with purple damasks and fine linens whiter than snow. On it they placed a sacred crucifix and six great silver candlesticks with lighted candles. One after another, the sons and brothers of the King arrived. The Queen was shedding tears of great affliction, and Teresa, Aldonza and Urraca shared her grief. With them were their husbands and the other noblemen of the King’s house and wise men of his council. Don Ferdinand’s eyes were closed, and, absorbed in prayer, he was oblivious to the things of this world. The only sounds in the large room were the difficult breathing of the patient, the crackling of a sputtering candle and unrestrained sobbing.
Suddenly the silvery sound of a distant bell was heard approaching. King Ferdinand opened his eyes and looked at the door. Clergymen, friars and knights entered, all bearing lighted candles whose small golden flames wavered with mysterious restlessness in the darkness of the large room. And, after them, carried in a gold ciborium wrapped in silk cloths by a devout and recollected priest of a military order, was the Most Holy Body of Christ. Seeing Him, a powerful surge of love revived Ferdinand, who lifted himself from the bed, knelt on the hard marble tiles, and placed a rope he had prepared around his neck as a sinful penitent. Thus, contrite and humiliated, King Ferdinand laid down his royalty before the divine royalty of Jesus Christ. Near the altar Don Remondo waited dressed in the pontifical vestments; before the ceremony began, the voice of the King rose: “Give me first the Holy Cross so that I may repent for my sins before It.”
They placed It in his hands, and, fixing his eyes on It, he began to shed bitter tears while he said:’
“Look at me here, my Lord Jesus Christ, in Thy presence as a wicked sinner, for I know well the many sins with which I have offended Thee. But great as they may be, I trust in Thy mercy that, through the merits of Thy holy Passion and Thy most precious death, Thou wilt forgive me of them. Remember, Lord, the many outrages and torments Thou suffered for my sake and by which Thou hast the name of Savior, and deliver Thy servant of his sins, which were the cause of Thy sufferings.”
At this point the King’s voice faltered, breaking in a sob. Recovering, he continued:
“I regret these offenses very much, Lord, and I grieve also for the death Thou suffered for me; and since Thy Holy Church forgives these sins, I want to confess them, to erase the bad example I have given to these my vassals here present, knowing that I detest these sins most heartily and would that I had never committed them…”
And humbly, painfully, he manifested in a loud voice all the sins of his life, from his childish actions as a boy to his last faults of yesterday. The noble countenance was covered with shame, because, although his sins were the inevitable weaknesses of which only the Mother of Christ was free, they seemed to him like great sins and, as such, he felt great sorrow. But because he understood the infinite holiness of God and because of the ardent love he had for Him, he performed this work of justice to satisfy the divine majesty he had offended. In his contrition, he continued:
“I well deserve every humiliation for my sins, yet Thou, Lord, wanted to suffer the humiliation of making them Thine and of appearing in the presence of the Father covered with them, and because of the great shame Thou didst shed blood.… And then Thou wast betrayed by one of your men, and imprisoned by the executioners and tied with rough ropes… And Thou suffered this so that I would be free! And Thou wert taken, Lord, to be judged by Annas and Caiphas and Pilate, and there Thou didst stand like a criminal… And I, who have performed so much evil, have judged Castile and León! So many outrages and so many blows Thou didst receive, and they spit on Thy Face so that I, a sinful man, would be honored by all… And Pilate’s soldiers seized Thee and scourged Thee fiercely; and while Thou were suffering it, I was in the midst of pleasures!… And they placed on Thee a crown of thorns and gave Thee a reed scepter and an infamous mantle, and while Thou wast thus mocked, I have been obeyed by all! And Thou, my Lord, wast condemned to death on the cross that I would live, and Thou carried the cross up the hill of Calvary, and on it Thou didst let Thyself be nailed and Thou didst die so that I would have Paradise with Thee!”
At this point, tears choked Ferdinand’s voice again, and the lofty head, always erect in battle, fell defeated on his chest, vanquished by love and grief, the tears sliding like a string of pearls onto the silk of his shirt down to the floor. And striking his breast with great blows, he ended his confession:
“And because by Thy death Thou earned life for me, I request, O Lord of Thy Holy Church, and you, my Father Archbishop, that you would absolve me of my sins.”
Don Remondo absolved him, and then asked him if he believed in God One, and Triune.
“I believe in Him Who is God, true and eternal, and Who gave to us of His glory; I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. And I believe that the Son made Himself man in the womb of the Glorious Blessed Virgin Mary; and I believe in and consent to all the doctrines of our Holy Mother the Church.”
Don Remondo took the Host in his hands and approached the King who lifted his head and gazed at the Host with an indescribable expression of faith and desire. He received the Body of Christ and remained absorbed in a true union with his King: it was the supreme communion between the Lord of Lords and His lieutenant in Castile.
As if he were a third person and witnessing from a distance, Ferdinand saw the devout procession leave his room. Then he ordered to have the precious tunic he had worn to be taken off him and went back to his bed. He remained motionless for sometime, his head inclined on the pillows that kept him half-raised in calm and quiet prayer. The Queen cried at his side, and his sons surrounded his bed, awaiting the moment of the last blessing.
Finally Don Ferdinand opened his eyes and called his eldest: “My son, Alfonso, come here!”
The Infante knelt at his father’s side. Ferdinand lifted his right hand, and, very slowly because his strength was already seeping away, made the Sign of the Cross on him as a blessing. Then, taking his right hand between his, the King said:
“Son, you well see how my life is ending, and I am leaving to give my soul to Him Who created it and redeemed it. Tomorrow you will be King of all these realms of Castile and León. Fear, love and obey God and join your will and deeds with Him and you will have a good end. Do not fail to do good while you can, as these good works will save your soul, and everything will pass before you like a dream. Rule the people justly and follow my instruction to continue the task of compiling the laws so we can govern all the people with the same consistent code. Take care of your brothers and strive to improve their situations and treat them in such a way that they do not regret having been born second. Consider the Queen like a mother and give her all the honor appropriate for a queen. I also recommend to you Don Alfonso my brother, and all my other brothers and sisters. Honor all the noblemen of your kingdoms and always favor the knights, and faithfully follow their laws and their exceptions and freedoms and those of all your people.”
The King paused briefly to regain his strength because life was leaving him; he looked in Alfonso’s eyes again and added with an effort that made him tremble convulsively: “If all this that I entrust to you, plead with you, and order you to fulfill is accomplished you will have my full blessing, and if not, my curse.”
“Amen,” answered Alfonso, his voice also somewhat choked from the emotion of that supreme moment.
Then the other children who were in Seville began to approach: Fadrique, Henry, Felipe, Manuel, Ferdinand, Doña Eleanor and Luis; each one the king blessed, making the Sign of the Cross on them with his own hand. Manuel, in his turn, approached with his tutor Don Peter López de Avala who said to Ferdinand when the Infante knelt: “Lord, if I have served you well, I beg of you as a favor not to leave Manuel without an inheritance.”
Don Ferdinand was nearing his end, exhausted by the effort of being on his knees for such a long time, the emotional confession and the farewell to his sons. Such was his condition that he could only speak with great effort. He lifted his hand, purple as a lily, and placing it with a gesture of a caress on the head of the distressed young man, said: “Son, you are the last son I had of Queen Doña Beatrice, who was a very good and holy woman, and I know she loved you very much. However, I cannot give you any inheritance, but I give you my sword Lobera, which has religious significance and with which God did much good for me.”
He then wished to be alone. Watching them leave, he again called Don Alfonso, his firstborn, whom he had loved and honored so much and whom he so greatly trusted.
“Son, you will be rich in land and in many good vassals, more than any other king in Christendom. Try hard to do good and be good; I leave you lord of all the land this side of the sea that the Moors won from the Visgoth King Roderick. All of it remains under your lordship, either conquered or tributary. If you maintain the boundaries of the state as I am leaving them to you, you are as good a king as I; if you conquer more, you are better, and if the boundaries decrease, then you are not as good as I.”
The Queen was supported by her ladies. After his sons had left, Alfonso de Molina, Rodrigo Alfonso and his other brothers, the noblemen, his companions in toil and glory, all passed before him, kissing as farewell the rigid hand that had fallen on the sheet. The dying King looked at them, saying his goodbye with his eyes because the fatigue of his heart, which no longer wanted to beat, was choking him like a halter. The Mayor Chamberlain dared to ask him: “Do you want us, Lord, to make a statue of your sepulcher?”
The King, sincere and contemptuous of all human vanities, gave him this reply: “Let my life and my works be my sepulcher and statue!”
Don Remondo, the other priests of Santa María and the friars of the monasteries of Seville remained in the royal chamber. After having bid final farewell to all those whom he loved and associated with in this life, now these religious were the only companions that he wanted in this supreme hour. On a small table at his bedside was the Virgin of the Battles, helping him to win this last one. Suddenly Ferdinand looked fixedly on high, his face transformed by an ineffable happiness that swept away the pain of his final agony. He was like this for some time, and the churchmen surrounding him even believed he had died. Coming back from his ecstasy, he smiled joyously and said to them: “The hour has come…give me the candle!”
Lifting his eyes, he continued speaking to God: “Lord, Thou gavest to me a kingdom I did not have and more honor and power than I deserved. Thou gavest me life as long as it was Thy pleasure. Lord, I give Thee thanks; and I surrender to Thee and deliver to Thee the kingdom Thou gavest me, with the improvements that I was able to achieve, and I offer Thee my soul.” Then he looked at those present. “If, through my fault, you have any complaint, please forgive me for it.”
Shedding many tears they answered: “We pray to God to forgive you and know that you depart forgiven by us.”
Then he took the candle with both hands, and somehow found strength in his moral energy to lift it on high while he said: “Lord, naked I came out of my mother’s womb which was the earth, and naked I offer myself to her; and, Lord, receive my soul in the company of Thy servants.” He lowered the candle and adored it as representative of the Holy Ghost.
The sounds of his final agony began. Perspiration made his hair adhere to the livid forehead, and large drops fell and soaked the pillows. Their voices dulled by tears, the choir intoned the Litany of the Saints. Toward the end, Ferdinand fixed his sight on that point where heaven opened for him.
“Sing the Te Deum!” he ordered in a rapture of joy.
What was he seeing? Was it the angels and saints whom God was sending to receive him? Was it his Lady Holy Mary? Or the Eternal King Jesus Christ coming to receive his knight? Don Ferdinand very simply and gently lowered his eyes, wishing to lock forever in its pupils that last and sweetest vision of his life. The purple face became white, the fine whiteness of ivory; the lips remained half-open with an expression of both supreme desire and ineffable enjoyment…. The holy King Don Ferdinand was entering the last and noblest of all of his conquests, the Kingdom of Heaven. “Te Dominum confitemur,” the choir continued singing near his body.
And there above the white roofs of Seville, in the star-filled sky of that May night, they say the angels were heard singing a song that human ears had never before heard.
Sr. Maria del Carmen Fernández de Castro Cabeza, A.C.J., The Life of the Very Noble King of Castile and León, Saint Ferdinand III (Mount Kisco, N.Y.: The Foundation for a Christian Civilization, Inc., 1987), pp. 272-278.
Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 181
Nobility.org Editorial Comment: —
Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira sustained that the full expression of nobility is only found within the Catholic faith.
This post on St. Ferdinand helps understand why this is so.
A noble lives a life of sacrifice in the furtherance of the common good of his people. What can possibly inspire him to this supreme self-abnegation better than the example of Our Divine Savior, who suffered everything for our redemption, to open for us the gates of Heaven?
Our Lord was St. Ferdinand’s supreme inspiration and reference point in life. May his example help us and our leaders today, “to try hard to do good and be good,” as St. Ferdinand instructed his eldest son and heir, the future Alphonsus X, the Wise.