It is a battle to remain faithful and strong. Saint Ferdinand III was a king, husband, father and warrior whose battle for his soul was just as vigorous as his renowned crusades against the Moors. His cousin, Saint Louis IX, King of France, is generally familiar to Christians and Catholics in the West, but King Saint Ferdinand’s story could use a bit of dusting off. His practices as a man of faith are invaluable to men of any generation, for he combined the virtues of a saint with the courage of a soldier.
Saint Ferdinand III, King of Castile and León, was born in 1198 to Alfonso IX, King of León, and Doña Berenguera of Castile. Ferdinand’s childhood was wrought with uncertainties. The marriage of his parents was annulled by the Holy Father due to the blood relationship between the spouses. With a broken heart but peaceful soul, Doña Berenguera was welcomed with open arms back into the court of Castile. Eventually, her happiness increased when her children were allowed to join her there.
Of all her children, Ferdinand held a special place in the mother’s heart. When Ferdinand was around ten years old, he was consumed with such an extreme illness, that all believed death loomed over him. His devoted mother raced the child, accompanied by knights and ladies, to the chapel of Santa Maria de Oña, where the repulsive sores on his little body miraculously disappeared. After this episode, a change appeared in the boy. He was often found kneeling before an image of Our Lady, praying the Little Office. From this tender age, the future king began to recognise his God-given mission—to expel the Moors from Spain and to propagate the holy Catholic Faith within his beloved country.
A Quest to Reconquer Spain
In the early eighth century, a major part of the Iberian Peninsula was taken from the Visigoths by the Moors. Not until the eleventh century were Christian kingdoms in Spain powerful enough to reconquer some of the lost territories. However, much of the land still required liberation from the hands of the Moslems.
In 1212, Ferdinand’s grandfather, King Alfonso the Noble of Castile, alerted Christendom that his kingdom was in imminent danger of Moslem attack. Heeding the call, Christian princes, Spanish and otherwise, rallied together to do battle against the Moors. Following this, Pope Innocent III extended the Crusades to Spain. The reconquering of Spain became known as the Reconquista (“reconquest”).
Much to his shame and dismay, Ferdinand discovered that his father, King Alfonso IX of León, did not initially join the Crusaders. Instead, Alfonso took the opportunity to make war against other Christian kingdoms. His father’s greed caused Ferdinand many sleepless nights. Then and there, Ferdinand resolved to never make war against another Christian prince. This promise, though tested countless times, he faithfully kept throughout his life.
Seeking Out Suffering
Ferdinand’s enthusiasm to reconquer Spain for Christ and Our Lady never faded, but it did mature. Now, as a young man, Ferdinand would close his eyes after receiving the Blessed Sacrament and ponder the great labours he would need—want—to suffer for Christ. He fearlessly told his mother: “I tell Him [Jesus] that He is my King and I am His knight, that I want to suffer great labours for Him in wars against the Moors, that I want to shed my blood for Him, and that His Glorious Mother is my Lady.”
Growing up, Ferdinand encountered pious and courageous models, such as his grandfather and mother, and ones less so, such as his father. His eyes glistened with enthusiasm, as would be the reaction of many boys of today, when he listened to his grandfather’s exhilarating stories of battle. But when he observed his father’s failures, Ferdinand became fearful of falling into the same corrupt habits. Still, he obediently heeded his father’s summons to the court in León. As all good men possess a plan of action on spiritual battlefields as well as physical ones, the young man departed for León spiritually armed for battle. A man of balance, he lived not as a hermit isolated from society, but instead combined asceticism with the practical sense of the realities of his position.
To become accustomed to hardship, Ferdinand trudged through the fields of León in the rain and snow. When asked about his laborious excursions, he explained: “…Since in war I shall have to command many men who know how to suffer, and who will not appreciate it if I do not know how to suffer with them.” He maintained silence about the private penances performed within the walls of his room. However, when he returned to Castile, a statue of Our Lady and a bloody scourge near his bedside wordlessly told his mother he had preserved his innocence within his father’s court.
The young man’s spirit of sacrifice never faded, for later during times of battle, King Ferdinand wore his armour day and night for the sake of both preparedness and sacrifice. Never did he order his men to do anything he would not do. For this reason, he would include himself in tedious duties, such as the strict nightguard rotation.
A Crown for Christ
Sooner than expected, Ferdinand was called to implement his leadership capabilities. Upon the death of Henry I in 1217, Doña Berenguera was proclaimed Queen of Castile. Immediately, the Queen sent for her son and proceeded to renounce the crown, transferring it to the head of Ferdinand with the approval of the nobles present.
Before long, King Alfonso IX of León declared war on his son, with the intention of seizing Ferdinand’s crown. His father’s hostility was a blow and a true sorrow for Ferdinand. He often knelt alone at night in the palace chapel to pray. He asked God to deliver him from a trial more fearsome than death, for he was repulsed at the idea of making war on his father. Always, he sought out his “Counsellor,” Our Lord. He developed a habit of spending the night before every battle in prayer before an image of Christ. His confidence in God was so great, that all had developed a tremendous respect for his spirituality. His vassals were also proud of his strength and wisdom. He carefully listened and considered the opinions of all present, but when the time came, he would make a decision without hesitation. In the end, Ferdinand and Alfonso were reconciled, by virtue of Ferdinand’s refusal to attack his own father.
During the days Ferdinand was not at war, he devoted himself wholly and generously to the dry work of administration of justice. Lengthy hours were consumed in his private apartment, as he listened to complaining men and helpless widows. At that time, every city in Spain had a unique code of law, which made Ferdinand’s administrative tasks difficult. To improve the confused codex of laws for future generations, Ferdinand worked to compile them into one magnificent body of laws.
Mary as Man’s Stronghold
King Ferdinand’s fidelity to his duties as king was akin to his total devotion to Our Lady, whom he tenderly called “My Lady.” This steadfast devotion to Our Lady is the most brilliant jewel in his spiritual crown. So captivated was he by the beauty of His Heavenly Queen, that no other woman had yet captured his interest. Thus he entrusted his mother, his closest advisor, with the task of finding for him a Christian wife, one who would graciously share his service to Our Lady rather than separate him from her. So it was that Princess Beatrice, daughter of Philip of Swabia, King of Germany, and renowned for her piety, purity, and beauty, entered Ferdinand’s life. Together, they produced seven sons and three daughters, two of the children dying quite young.
After their marriage, Beatrice bequeathed her royal husband and knight with a token of her virtue—a small ivory statue of Our Lady. From that time forward, Ferdinand fixed the statue to a hook on his saddle and carried Our Lady with him into battle. It is no wonder, then, that King Ferdinand III never lost a single battle.
In the Heat of Battle
Besides Our Lady’s presence at his side, Ferdinand’s vigils before the Blessed Sacrament were also invaluable to his faith and his victories. These prayer vigils gave him a clear understanding of the vocation to which Christ was calling him: a life of renunciation of comforts. In the camp, he came to know what it was to be truly hungry and thirsty. Wars, sleepless nights away from home, wounds, and betrayals became his daily bread. Yet, he felt an eagerness to embrace all the crosses of the Crusade, both large and small. Ferdinand’s one solace lay in this: every morning, his battle tent became like a cathedral, complete with the reverent offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The sufferings of those arduous campaigns and constant danger of life did not fail to receive their earthly reward. Before long, the Moors and Moslem cities trembled at the sight of Ferdinand’s army. Fearsome as his warriors were, Ferdinand did not allow the power to cloud his just judgment. He believed that true masculinity is not to be paralleled with brute force, and so he gently spared the towns that offered tribute. He could not annihilate an enemy willing to surrender peacefully.
Capturing Heart and Soul
One such example of King Ferdinand’s regard for justice is found in his meeting with King Zeyd of Valencia. Zeyd, a Moor, was frightened when notified that the mighty army from Castile had established its general quarters so near to his own frontiers. He swiftly sent an embassy to request a peace conference. Accepting the meeting, Ferdinand guaranteed that the Moor would be respected within his Christian lands.
Everywhere Zeyd went, he was regarded with the honour due to his dignity as king. When the moment arrived for the Moor to appear in the Castilian’s presence, Zeyd lowered himself to kiss Ferdinand’s hand. Instead of complying, Ferdinand lifted him up and embraced him as a friend, offering the King a chair at his side under the canopy. Through this small action, King Zeyd became convinced that Ferdinand of Castile was courageous and good. Ferdinand not only won the Moor’s heart, but also his soul, for the Valencian King was later baptised and dethroned by the Moors.
Saints on His Side
The Communion of Saints supports its members, and Saint Isidore of Seville’s aid to Ferdinand is no exception. It was Saint Isidore who guided the fortunes of Ferdinand after the death of his father King Alfonso IX. Much to his dismay and sorrow, Ferdinand was betrayed in his father’s will when the kingdom of León was left to King Alfonso’s daughters, Doña Sancha and Doña Dulche. Being daughters of a ruling monarch of Spain, the young women were known as the infantas. As a consequence, the young and rash Count Don Diego Lopez appointed himself protector of the infantas.
Recklessly, the Count invaded the church of Saint Isidore to use as a fortress. He forced the monks to support the cause of the infantas, when they preferred Ferdinand. Satisfied and vainglorious, Count Don Diego suddenly developed a strong headache, which soon became so intense that he was found moaning and crying out. Pale and with distorted features, he exclaimed: “San Esidro [Saint Isidore] is killing me!” His friends rushed him to the tomb of Saint Isidore, where he begged forgiveness and swore to leave King Ferdinand in peace. Amazingly, the Count was cured of his illness and the infantas soon relinquished the throne of León to their step-brother. Hence, the two kingdoms of Castile and León became united under King Ferdinand.
As King of Castile and León, Ferdinand continued to gloriously reconquer lands for the Faith. It was well-known to the army of Ferdinand that the King could not bear to place one of his vassals in greater danger than himself. This noble conduct rang true when the fearsome Christian army planned to conquer Córdoba.
Upon evaluating the best way to seize the city, King Ferdinand decided they would need to first seize a strong castle. Before that, they must seize the bridge, a dangerous feat. This task the King reserved for himself, which resulted in multiple disputes from his men: “You, Lord? Never do such a thing! Remember that a wide and deep river separates you from the army, and all the Moors are at your back. If they would attack, Lord, how could we come four miles to your aid?” The King ordered silence and reminded his men that Our Lord would defend him. That night, the Moors witnessed the purple flag of Castile and the Cross of Jesus Christ victoriously wave over what was once their tower.
After Córdoba was conquered, Ferdinand led a grand procession into the city, followed by several bishops, the clergy, and the military orders. In the mosque, which was purified and consecrated as a cathedral, Ferdinand discovered the bells of Santiago de Compostela. In 997, Al-Mansur had sacked Santiago and used the backs of chained Christians to carry the bells of the cathedral to Córdoba. Ferdinand promptly ordered the Moslem captives to return the bells to the Cathedral of Santiago, so they may once again give glory to God in the place they belonged.
The Father: A Model of Manhood
Even back in Castile, Ferdinand desired to give glory to God through his family life. It was important to Ferdinand, to fulfil his strenuous duties well, that he balance them with enjoyable pastimes.
The King rarely went a day without hunting, and he encouraged his knights to participate in this agreeable sport. To the men, these games were future victories in battle. In the evenings, the music and jokes of the fools and jesters pleased the King and his family, as did extended games of chess and the like.
Apart from enjoyable activities with his family, it was important to Ferdinand that his sons witness the spirit of sacrifice required of any man of virtue. The pious King was a model of manhood to his sons. Like all boys, Ferdinand’s son Alfonso based his idealism on modelling himself after his father. Because of the courageous example set before him, Alfonso witnessed the harshness of the life of a crusader, but did not shy away from that life.
During the campaigns, Alfonso was told that his father slept in the open air, and sometimes in the rain and cold weather. Enthusiastically, the young boy threw himself on the ground that very night. Also like his father, the youth earnestly made his confession on the eve of battle.
Yet, Ferdinand’s example of true masculinity to his sons did not end on the battlefield. In the evenings, when the King’s children would surround their father, arranging themselves on pillows at his feet, Ferdinand would remind his sons, “Bring a stool for your sister, for you know that a good knight must always be courteous to the ladies.” When he convalesced between battles, Ferdinand inspired his sons with story times of great heroes. Then, he would look for his young daughter Berenguera, for whom he held a special fondness.
As soon as Berenguera noticed him free of obligations, the girl hurried to find a place near her father. During their intimate talks, she listened with wonder to the examples of strong and saintly maidens set before her. With intense pain of separation but joy in the love of Christ, the King eventually escorted his cherished daughter into the Royal Monastery of Santa María de las Huelgas, where she fulfilled her dream of exchanging her rank and palace for humility and a hard, poor bed.
After the death of his first wife Beatrice, Ferdinand’s mother worried for the young King and his many children, and desired to see him married once again. In 1237, Ferdinand wed Joan of Ponthieu, the virtuous, graceful and intelligent daughter of a Count. He developed a deep love for Queen Joan, who accompanied him to the encampments and earned the admiration of her people. Ferdinand enjoyed her confidence and said that to die a thousand times would be more preferable than to violate the trust of his wife.
The Greatest Conquest
As appealing as life in Castile was to King Ferdinand, he yearned to purify the remainder of Spain. The siege of Seville proved to be the most challenging but most rewarding of all Ferdinand’s conquests. As campaign life began for the three thousand men that comprised Ferdinand’s army, there were so few of them that they had to simultaneously maintain a constant blockade on the city and guard the herds grazing on the plains that supplied them with necessary food. Their manpower was also drained by their vigilance of two unconquered strongholds, Lebrija and Jerez, further down the river. By the end of October, as the result of six months without a drop of rain, the good men endured a severe drought with no harvest, and therefore nothing to eat for the Christian soldiers. Undeterred, the men continued to fight.
On the anniversary of his mother’s death, Ferdinand concluded that he must leave for Alcalá de Guadaira, to pray and do penance for rain. With only a piece of bread and some water, the King set off. Upon arrival, he laid aside his armor in exchange for a humble tunic and placed a cord around his neck, as was his habit during penitential practices. For two days, he prayed for rain, but not a small cloud formed.
Finally, on the third day, after the King had not eaten a crumb, his confessor, Don Remondo, intervened to convince Ferdinand to eat something. At almost midnight, the priest was en route to the King’s quarters to recite matins when he heard the King exclaim: “Holy Mary! My Mistress and Mother!”
He ran to find Ferdinand kneeling, his arms in the form of a cross, while rain dripped steadily outside. In the strictest confidence, Ferdinand opened his heart to his confessor—he had seen a vision of Our Lady—and nothing could compare to the motherly smile she gave him. He would never forget it.
Virgin of the Kings
During the conquest of Seville, Ferdinand, who was usually energetic and optimistic, became relentlessly oppressed by doubt and sorrow. He who had beheld the Blessed Mother and been told by Saint Isidore that he would reconquer Seville, began to fear he might die before that imperative victory took place. Despite Ferdinand’s deep anguish, there was no discernable change in his appearance.
Only Queen Joan understood Ferdinand and remained within the camp to console him. She perceived the special tenderness her husband had for Our Lady and correctly deduced that he had seen her in a vision. He often complained that no artist could produce a life-like image of her, particularly her smile. Under cover of secrecy, the Queen commissioned artists to sculpt a true image of Our Lady. Meanwhile, aided by her ladies-in-waiting, the Queen sewed garments for the statue.
At last, the statue was complete. The next morning, when the King arrived in the chapel to recite Prime and attend Holy Mass, he was captivated as he beheld the exquisite beauty of his Lady. “This is the Virgin of the Kings!” he blissfully exclaimed.
Surrender and Sacrifice
After sixteen months of brutal warfare, the Moors, driven by famine within the walls of Seville, thrice attempted negotiations with King Ferdinand. Resolute, the King accepted no conditions, but demanded a total surrender of the city with complete evacuation. In November of 1248, Ferdinand’s youthful dreams of fighting without truce or rest for a holy ideal were realised when the city of Seville surrendered.
Unlike the victories of other kings, Ferdinand’s victory was not for his own honour, but for the glory of God and Our Lady. Humbly accepting the advice of a court jester, King Ferdinand remained in Seville and made the sacrifice of never returning to his beloved Castile, lest the Moors return to the “best city in the world,” as he christened it.
At his deathbed in 1252, the King laid down his royalty before the divine royalty of Christ. His parting counsel to his son and heir was to, above all else, do good and save his soul. Atop the resting place of Saint Ferdinand III, King of Castile and León, in the Cathedral of Seville, is enthroned the Virgin of the Kings. Saint Ferdinand’s body remains incorrupt to this day, for it is embalmed with the rich perfume of his virtue and faith. Of all earthly kings, only his majesty has not passed away like the things of this earth.
– By Stacie Hiserman
Published in Crusade Magazine, Vol.171, May-June, 2021, pp. 10-15.