Saint Ferdinand of Castile: A Holy and Victorious King

On May 30, 1252, Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon, whom today we venerate on the altars and admire in history, died. King and archetype of the tireless fighter, St. Ferdinand of Castile was an extraordinary example of the strong man and hero.

Gaudium Press English Edition

Newsdesk (08/06/2022 10:30 AM, Gaudium Press) Accompanying the luminous dawn of the 13th century, which opened full of promise for the Christian people, Ferdinand came into this world on a date not found recorded in the parchments of the time.

The hypotheses of scholars range from 1198 to 1202, without reaching an absolute conclusion.

One solid tradition, however, places the birthplace at a mountain on the route between Zamora and Salamanca, in the midst of a journey undertaken by his parents, which is why the little prince was affectionately called “the Mountaineer”.

What we know for certain is that the royal wedding into which St. Ferdinand was born was marked by the seal of misfortune, for his parents, Alfonso IX of León and Berenguela of Castile, had their nuptials annulled by Pope Innocent III, because they were close relatives to a degree forbidden by the ecclesiastical legislation of the time.

So, in 1203, the consorts separated and each returned to their own domains, with Dona Berenguela taking Fernando, the heir, and the other three infants – Constance, Alfonso and Berenguela, since little Leonor had died the year before – in order to educate them at the court of her father, Alfonso VIII of Castile.

The Queen Mother, a lady of great natural gifts and no lesser virtues, certainly sensed the decisive responsibility that Providence had placed in her hands in this sad circumstance: she would be the educator of a predestined male, who would not have been who he was without her magnificent example of life.

Sovereign of Castile and Leon

Court life in Castile was serene during Ferdinand’s childhood, as he progressed in piety, in the sciences, and in arms with a truly regal resourcefulness, showing the greatness of his heart through the perfection of his exterior actions. He dreamed of one day being able to build beautiful churches to his “Holy Virgin Mary” – in fact, he made his dream come true – and he gave generous alms to the poor.

He spent about a year with his father in Leon, returning to Castile with his soul strengthened by the hard struggle that integrity in the practice of virtue demanded of him during this period.

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Upon his return to his mother’s territory, Dona Berenguela prepared a surprise for him: she intended to proclaim him king, abdicating the crown that was hers by inheritance after her father died.

The saint was crowned in 1217, in a memorable ceremony in Valladolid, accompanied by the enthusiastic support of the clergy, nobility and people of the kingdom, who felt encouraged to do good by the charming figure of the young monarch, whose mere presence seemed to attract the blessings of Heaven and peace to the kingdom.

The mission of kingship – always considered by him as a gift from God and a privileged opportunity to glorify Him, for which he would give a severe account on the Day of Judgment – began with difficulties that could discourage less resolute spirits.

Determined to face them to their ultimate consequences, he gave himself to his vocation with as much ardor as the most fervent of friars in a convent, and began to unravel the thorny affairs of state, as duty dictated.

Here is how one of his biographers describes the God-given reward for his efforts: “King Ferdinand, in his ceaseless journey through the kingdom administering justice, heard fewer and fewer quarrels and, increasingly, more blessings. He saw his Castile drained of the blood of the wounds inflicted by so many wars, conflicts, and upheavals, strong and brave, wishing to set out once again on the course that God, the supreme arbiter of history, had marked out for him”.

When his father died in 1230, he also obtained the crown of Leon, through a tortuous path that involved the renunciation of the throne by the Infantas Sancha and Dulce, daughters of the first marriage of Alfonso IX.

Once the question of the succession was settled, thanks to divine aid and the diplomatic acumen of Doña Berenguela, he was crowned King of Leon 13 years after the first acclamation, definitively uniting both states.

“The Lord is my strength”

When choosing the motto for his royal shield, Ferdinand’s preference fell on a passage from Psalm 28: “The Lord is my strength,” a phrase through which he expressed his ideal of life.

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A deep sense of the divine animated the sovereign, which early on gave him the conviction that, without the help of the Most High, his hand would not wield the scepter with due firmness, nor lead the people in conformity with his will.

Driven by a blind – yet, paradoxically, how lucid! – confidence in Our Lord, and by an unconditional love for Him, he was considered by all to be the best Christian in the kingdom, both for his faithfulness in fulfilling the precepts and for the broadness of vision with which he understood and practiced the Gospel.

He dedicated long hours of the day to prayer. And when these were not enough for his desires, he would retire into the early hours of the morning, resting only in conversations with his “Counselor”, as he called the relic of the Holy Face of Christ, today venerated in the cathedral of Jaen.

The members of the court once urged him to rest more, but the saint is said to have replied, “If I did not watch, how could you sleep peacefully?”

A discreet suspicion, accompanied by a buzz that went from mouth to ear in the kingdom, spread the comment that the Lord of the Veil spoke to St. Ferdinand, revealing to him mysteries of time and eternity.

No one ventured to ask for details about this. Nevertheless, the facts seemed to prove their suspicion, for the king’s plans, audacious, unusual and even humanly reckless, were invariably successful, seeming to surpass the most sagacious calculations and to be identified with the Divine Will.

He never lost a battle

Saint Ferdinand lived during the Spanish Reconquest, in a time when leading armies to war was one of the main duties of kings, for which they were prepared from childhood.

Such a situation made him a man of arms. His military campaigns began in 1224 and, starting in 1231, continued uninterrupted until the time of his death. It was more than 20 years of war effort during which the Castilian hosts recovered, among others, the cities of Cordoba, Jaén, Seville and Murcia.

The courageous conquests of the Holy King still infuse respect in the greatest strategists, for he never lost a battle, no matter how great the disproportions in numbers and forces, a fact that led Innocent IV to call him the “undefeated champion of Jesus Christ”.

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Using his power for good

Seeing his political and military power growing daily, St. Ferdinand had the virtue not to become conceited about it, since he was so sure that everything came from God and belonged to Him.

To this end, he greatly benefited the spiritual and material works of the Church, laying the foundations of the cathedrals of Toledo and Burgos, among the greatest Gothic jewels erected on Spanish soil. Both are dedicated to Our Lady, to whom he showed indescribable affection.

The people, seeing themselves supported in their needs in such an extraordinary way by the king, had an enthusiastic and filial devotion to him.

Even his enemies learned to admire him, to the point where princes and kings embraced the true Faith through his example. Such was the case of the Valencian king Abu Zayd, who received Baptism a few years after his encounter with St. Ferdinand.

The people were filled with respect for him

At the time of his death, which took place in Seville on May 30, 1252, he serenely closed his eyes to this world, ready to meet his Lord, after having surrendered the talents he had received from Him.

In fact, says a famous Iberian historian, “no Spanish prince, from the eighth to the thirteenth century, had collected such a rich inheritance as that bequeathed by Saint Ferdinand to his firstborn son Alfonso”.

In the Cathedral of Seville, under the maternal gaze of the city’s patroness, the Virgin of the Kings, his body is preserved, with a plaque on which the following epitaph reads in ancient Spanish:

Here lies the most honourable King Don Fernando, Lord of Castile and Toledo, of Leon, of Galicia, of Seville, of Cordoba, of Murcia and of Jaen, the one who conquered all Spain, the most loyal, the most true, the most frank, the most hardworking, the most gallant, the most illustrious, the most long-suffering, the most humble, the one who feared God the most, who served Him the most, who slaughtered and destroyed all his enemies, who elevated and honoured all his friends, and conquered the city of Seville, capital of all Spain”.

Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel, May/2012, n. 125.

Cathedral of Seville, Spain

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