Blessed Ferdinand of Portugal
Prince of Portugal, b. in Portugal, 29 September, 1402; d. at Fez, in Morocco, 5 June, 1443. He was one of five sons, his mother being Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and his father King John I, known in history for his victories over the Moors and in particular for his conquest of Ceuta, a powerful Moorish stronghold, and his establishment of an episcopal see within its walls. In early life Ferdinand suffered much from sickness, but bodily weakness did not hinder his growth in spirit, and even in his boyhood and youth he gave evidence of remarkable qualities of soul and intellect. With great strength of character and a keen sense of justice and order he combined an innocence, gentleness, and charity which excited the wonder of the royal court. He had a special predilection for prayer and for the ceremonies and devotions of the Church. After his fourteenth year he recited daily the canonical hours, rising at midnight for Matins. Always severe with himself, he was abstemious in his diet and fasted on Saturdays and on the eves of the feasts of the Church. He cared for the spiritual as well as the corporal necessities of his domestics, while his solicitude for the poor and oppressed was unbounded. His generosity towards the monasteries was impelled by his desire to share in their prayers and good works. He had himself enrolled for the same reason in all the pious congregations of the kingdom.
Upon the death of his father in 1433, his brother Edward (Duarte) ascended the throne, while he himself received but a small inheritance. It was then that he was induced to accept the grand-mastership of Aviz, in order that he might be better able to help the poor. As he was not a cleric, his brother, the king, obtained for him the necessary papal dispensation. The fame of his charity went abroad, and Pope Eugene IV, through the papal legate, offered him the cardinal’s hat. This he refused, not wishing, as he declared, to burden his conscience.
Though living a life of great sanctity in the midst of the court, Ferdinand was not a mere recluse. He was also a man of action, and in his boyhood his soul was stirred by the heroic campaign against Ceuta. His mother, the queen, had nurtured the martial spirit of her sons, and it is even said that on her deathbed she gave them each a sword, charging them to use it in defence of widows, orphans, and their country, and in particular against unbelievers. An opportunity soon presented itself. In 1437 Edward planned an expedition against the Moors in Africa and placed his brothers Henry and Ferdinand in command. They set sail 22 Aug., 1437, and four days later arrived at Ceuta. During the voyage Ferdinand became dangerously ill, in consequence of an abcess and fever which he had concealed before the departure, in order not to delay the fleet. Through some mismanagement the Portuguese numbered only 6000 men, instead of 14,000, as ordered by the king. Though advised to wait for reinforcements, the two princes, impatient for the fray, advanced towards Tangiers, to which they lay siege. Ferdinand recovered slowly, but was not able to take part in the first battle.
The Portuguese fought bravely against great odds, but were finally compelled to make terms with the enemy, agreeing to restore Ceuta in return for a safe passage to their vessels. The Moors likewise demanded that one of the princes be delivered into their hands as a hostage for the delivery of the city. Ferdinand offered himself for the dangerous post, and with a few faithful followers, including João Alvarez, his secretary and later his biographer, began a painful captivity which ended only with his death. He was first brought to Arsilla by Salà ben Salà, the Moorish ameer. In spite of sickness and bodily sufferings, he continued all his devotions and showed great charity towards his Christian fellow-captives. Henry at first repaired to Ceuta, where he was joined by his brother John. Realizing that it would be difficult to obtain the royal consent to the restoration of the fortress, they proposed to exchange their brother for the son of Salà ben Salà, whom Henry held as a hostage. The Moor scornfully rejected the proposal, and both returned to Portugal to devise means of setting the prince free. Though his position was perilous in the extreme, the Portuguese Cortes refused to surrender Ceuta, not only on account of the treachery of the Moors, but because the place had cost them so dearly and might serve as a point of departure for future conquests. It was resolved to ransom him if possible. Salà ben Salà refused all offers, his purpose being to recover his former seat of government.
Various attempts were made to free the prince, but all proved futile and only served to make his lot more unbearable. On 25 May, 1438, he was sent to Fez and handed over to the cruel Lazurac, the king’s vizier. He was first condemned to a dark dungeon and, after some months of imprisonment, was compelled to work like a slave in the royal gardens and stables. Amid insult and misery Ferdinand never lost patience. Though often urged to seek safety in flight, he refused to abandon his companions and grieved more for their sufferings, of which he considered himself the cause, than for his own. His treatment of his persecutors was respectful and dignified, but he would not descend to flattery to obtain any alleviation of his sufferings. During the last fifteen months of his life he was confined alone in a dark dungeon with a block of wood for his pillow and the stone floor for a bed. He spent most of his time in prayer and in preparation for death, which his rapidly failing health warned him was near at hand. In May, 1443, he was stricken with the fatal disease to which he finally succumbed. His persecutors refused to change his loathsome abode, although they allowed a physician and a few faithful friends to attend him. On the evening of 5 June, after making a general confession and a profession of faith, he peacefully gave up his soul to God. During the day he had confided to his confessor, who frequently visited him, that the Blessed Virgin with St. John and the Archangel Michael had appeared to him in a vision. Lazurac ordered the body of the prince to be opened and the vital organs removed, and then caused it to be suspended head downwards for four days on the walls of Fez. Nevertheless he was compelled to pay tribute to the constancy, innocence, and spirit of prayer of his royal victim. Of Ferdinand’s companions, four shortly afterwards followed him to the grave, one joined the ranks of the Moors, and the others regained their liberty after Lazurac’s death. One of the latter, João Alvarez, his secretary and biographer, carried his heart to Portugal in 1451, and in 1473 his body was brought to Portugal, and laid to rest in the royal vault at Batalha amid imposing ceremonies.
Prince Ferdinand has ever been held in great veneration by the Portuguese on account of his saintly life and devotion to country. Miracles are said to have been wrought at his intercession, and in 1470 he was beatified by Paul II. Our chief authority for the details of his life is João Alvarez, already referred to. Calderon made him a hero of one of his most remarkable dramas, “El Principe Constante y Mártir de Portugal”.
ALVAREZ, in Acta SS., June, I; OLFERS, Leben des standhaften Prinzen (Berlin, 1827); DUNHAM, History of Spain and Portugal (New York), III.
HENRY M. BROCK (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Nobility.org Editorial comment:
Prince Ferdinand is called “O Santo” (the Saint) in Portuguese history and literature.
What virtue, heroism, and honor! He becomes a captive and a victim in the hands of his cruel enemies. One of his entourage reneges the Catholic faith to escape the suffering. But not the Prince. He ever gives the example of honor. He will never betray his Faith, nor his beloved land of Portugal. His “troops” now are his fellow Christian captives, subject to abject slavery in Muslim lands. He rallies and leads them on with all the valor and noble dignity he would display on the battlefield. At last he succumbs to disease and dies alone in a dungeon, far from his native land. Only his heart ever makes it back to Portugal where it receives honorable burial. His soul flies to Heaven to join the court of the King of Kings, while on earth, his immortal example inspires men of good will to admiration.