Saint of the Day – 5 June – Blessed Ferdinand of Portugal (1402-1443) “The Holy Prince.” Blessed Ferdinand spent as much time as he could in adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament especially during the Easter Triduum when his habit was to be constantly in adoration, from Holy Thursday to Easter. He was the youngest of the “Illustrious Generation” of 15th-century Portuguese Princes of the House of Aviz and lay Master of the Knightly Order of Aviz. Born on 29 September 1402 at Santarem, Portugal and died on 5 June 1443 (aged 40) in prison in Fez, Morocco of maltreatment by the Moors – for this reason some call him a Martyr. Also known as Ferdinand the Prince, “Saint Prince” or the “Constant Prince.”
Ferdinand was born in Santarém on 29 September 1402, the Feast of St Michael, a Saint to whom he would remain affectionately attached. He had a complicated birth and would remain a sickly child throughout much of his youth. Relatively sheltered because of his illnesses, Ferdinand had a quiet and very pious upbringing, a favourite of his English mother, from whom he acquired a preference for the Sarum Rite of Salisbury in the religious Liturgy of Holy Mass. 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.
Ferdinand had a special predilection for prayer and for the ceremonies and devotions of the Church, especially time in adoration before our lord in the Blessed Sacrament. 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.
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. 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 the Knightly Order 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 the Moors. 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 on 22 August 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. Realising 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. aged just 40. 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 Monastery amid imposing ceremonies.
Prince Ferdinand has ever been held in great veneration by the Portuguese on account of his saintly life and devotion to the country. Miracles were wrought at his intercession and in 1470, he was Beatified by Paul II.