St. Ferdinand III of Castile
1199 – 1253
“St. Ferdinand the Victorious—wearing his crown, and keeping guard with his valiant sword Lobera—the terror of the Saracen”.
Alphonso IX, King of Leon, was the father of St. Ferdinand, while his mother was Berengaria, the eldest daughter of Alphonso III, King of Castile. St. Ferdinand was born on 5 August 1199 at the monastery of Valparaiso, near Salamanca.
His mother, Berengaria, was sister to Blanche, the mother of St. Louis, King of France. In order to form “the Catholic kingdom,” there was needed one of Our Lord’s Apostles, St. James the Greater; there was needed a formidable trial, the Saracen invasion, which deluged the Peninsula; there was needed a chivalrous resistance, which lasted 800 years, and by which Spain regained her glory and her freedom.
St. Ferdinand is the worthy representative of the brave heroes who drove the Moors from their fatherland and made her what she is: but he had all the virtues of a saint, as well as the courage of a soldier.
While a young child his parents' marriage was annulled by order of Pope Innocent III in 1204 (due to consanguinity) and his mother took their children, including St. Ferdinand, to the court of her father. When St. Ferdinand’s uncle, Henry I, died in 1217, his mother became heiress of the throne of Castile; however she resigned her rights immediately in favour of St. Ferdinand, although she served as Regent for a time and his mother advised and assisted him during his young reign. He was declared King of Castile at age eighteen and proclaimed King of Palencia, Valladolid, and Burgos. Some disturbance and opposition was experienced but the young monarch, who displayed remarkable prudence and clemency, dismissed these.
St. Ferdinand was greatly assisted in the administration of his duties by the wise advice of his mother, whom he consulted and obeyed until the day of her death. On his mother’s advice in 1219 he married the accomplished and virtuous Princess Beatrice, daughter of Philip of Swabia, King of Germany. This happy and blessed union produced seven sons and three daughters. One daughter and one son died young. It was reported that this marriage was never clouded by the least discordance.
It was reported that St. Ferdinand was severe in the administration of justice but readily pardoned all personal injuries, and rebellions were no sooner crushed than he granted general amnesties. He selected his governors, magistrates and generals wisely, and he devised an improved court system. He compiled a code of laws, which continued in use until modern times.
No necessity could make him impose heavy taxes on his subjects. When it was suggested that he should raise a subsidy for his struggles against the Moors, he rejected the proposal, saying that God would provide other means. He stated that he feared the curse of one poor old woman more than the whole army of the Moors.
St. Ferdinand had long resolved to never wage war against any but enemies of the Christian Faith. When the infidels grew bolder and a confrontation to check their advances was imperative, St. Ferdinand opened his first campaign in 1225 and continued battling Islam until his death. By the year 1230 he had taken some 20 strongholds. Totally devoid of personal ambition, he was far more interested in rescuing Christians and Christian property from the hands of the unbelievers. He was known to have prayed “Thou, O Lord, who searches the heart of man: Thus knowest that I desire Thy glory and the increase of Thy Faith and holy religion.”
When his father died in 1230, the clergy and people of Galicia-Leon approached St. Ferdinand to take the throne and he united the thrones of Leon and Castile, over a period of two to three years, from that time onwards. He was the King of Galicia-Leon from 1230. He thus became the first sovereign of both kingdoms since 1157. He, during his reign, went on to finish the work done by his maternal grandfather Alfonso VIII and consolidated the Reconquista. In 1231, he permanently united the kingdoms of Castile and Galicia-León.
For his soldiers, Ferdinand set an example of devotion by fasting, praying, spending whole nights in pious exercises, especially before an engagement, and giving to God the glory of his victories. He watched over the conduct of his soldiers, confiding more in their virtue than in their valour, fasted strictly himself, and wore a rough hairshirt. Amid the tumult of the camp he lived like a religious in the cloister. The glory of the Church and the happiness of his people were the two guiding motives of his life.
His devotion to the Virgin Mother of God was most tender, and he used to call Her, “My Lady”: in return, Mary Most Holy procured for him victory in all his battles, and kept away all pestilence and famine from the country during his entire reign, which, as his contemporary chroniclers observed, was an evident miracle, considering the circumstances of that period. A large picture of Our Lady was carried before him into battle, while a small picture of Our Lady was attached to his saddle.
In 1234 St. Ferdinand resumed his wars against the Moors. The city of Cordova, which had been in the hands of the Moors for 520 years, was next laid siege to by the Catholic army. St. Ferdinand entered the city on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in the year 1236. Cordoba, the city of the Caliphs, was conquered by this warrior Saint after a long siege. At once its Alhambra ceased to be a palace of mohammedan effeminacy and crime. The chief mosque was purified and then consecrated for Catholic worship, and afterwards became the Cathedral of the city. The followers of mohammed had robbed the Church of St. James of Compostella of its bells, and had them brought in triumph to Cordoba; St. Ferdinand ordered them to be carried thither again, on the backs of the Moors.
During 1236 his first wife died, and later, after a respectable length of time, St. Ferdinand married Joan, Countess of Ponthieu in 1237, who bore him four sons (two died young), and one daughter, Eleanor (1241-1290), the future wife of Edward I of England.
St. Ferdinand laid siege to Seville, the largest, strongest and most densely populated city in Spain. After sixteen months the Moors surrendered in 1248. Seville’s fortifications consisted of a double wall, with 166 towers. The Christian army was weak in numbers; the Saracens fought with incredible ferocity, and had the advantages of position and tactics on their part: but the Crescent was to be conquered by the Cross. St. Ferdinand gave the Moors a month to evacuate the city and territory. 300,000 withdrew to Xeres, and 100,000 passed over into Africa. The renowned Moorish general, when taking his last look at the city, wept and said to his officers, “None but a Saint could, with such a small force, have made himself master of so strong and well-manned a place.” In thanksgiving for his victory, which completed the downfall of Mohammedanism in Spain, St. Ferdinand rebuilt the Cathedral of Seville.
The highest aims of St. Ferdinand's life were the propagation of the Faith and the liberation of Spain from the Moorish yoke. He took from them vast territories, Granada and Alicante alone remaining in their power at the time of his death. In the most important towns he founded bishoprics, re-established Catholic worship everywhere, built churches, founded monasteries, and endowed hospitals. The greatest joys of his life were the conquests of Cordova and Seville. He turned the great mosques of these places into Cathedrals, dedicating them to the Blessed Virgin. St. Ferdinand rebuilt the Cathedral of Seville, following his victory over the Moors. In addition to founding and aiding many places of worship, including the Cathedral of Burgos and the Cathedral of Toledo, St. Ferdinand is acknowledged as the founder of the University of Salamanca.
He always looked upon himself as the humble instrument of God’s designs, and zealously laboured to accomplish them. Though most austere towards himself, he was a father in his compassion for his people. He richly endowed the Churches that he built.
The life of our Saint was one of happiness and success, whereas the life of that other admirable king, St. Louis of France, was one of almost uninterrupted misfortune; as though God would give to the world, in these two Saints, a model of courage in adversity, and an example of humility in prosperity. They form together a complete picture of what human life is, regenerated as it has now been by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, in Whom we adore both the humiliations of the Cross and the glories of the Resurrection. What happy times were those, when God chose kings whereby to teach mankind such sublime lessons!
St Ferdinand spent much of his reign fighting the Moors. Through the use of diplomacy and war, as well as exploiting the internal dissensions in the Moorish kingdoms, he triumphed in expanding Castilian power over the southern Iberian Peninsula, thereby reconquering all Andalusia save Granada, whose king nevertheless did homage as a tributary state to St. Ferdinand. St. Ferdinand divided the conquered territories between his Knights, the Church, and the nobility, whom he endowed with great land estates.
As for the spoils of war, he kept nothing for himself, but richly endowed his kingdom, including the Cathedral of Toledo. During the last three years of his life, St. Ferdinand remained in Seville regulating the affairs of the city. He was preparing an expedition against the Moors in Africa when he contracted his final illness. St. Ferdinand had proposed to invade Africa, and thus crush the Muslim power forever. The noble project was prevented by his death, which took place in the 54th year of his age.
St. Ferdinand on realising that his death was approaching, prepared himself by a devout confession, and after receiving the Last Sacraments he died on May 30th, at the age of 53. Prior to his death when the time approached for his receiving Holy Viaticum, as soon as the priest entered the room with the Blessed Sacrament, the holy king got out of bed, prostrated himself in adoration, and, humbly putting a cord around his neck, received the Sacred Host. This done, and feeling that he was on the verge of eternity, he ordered his attendants to remove from him every sign of royalty, and called his sons round his bed. Addressing himself to the eldest, who was Alphonsus the Good, he entrusted him with the care of his brothers, and reminded him of the duties he owed to his subjects and soldiers; he then added these words: “My son, thou seest what armies, and possessions, and subjects thou hast, more than any other Christian king; make a proper use of these advantages; and as thou has the power, be good and do good. Thou art now master of the country which the Moors took, in times past, from King Rodriguez. If thou keep the Kingdom in the state wherein I now leave it to thee, thou wilt be, as I have been, a good king, which thou wilt not be, if thou allowest any portion of it to be lost.”
As his end drew nigh, the dying Saint/King was favoured with an apparition from Heaven. He thanked God for granting him that consolation, and then asked for the blessed candle; but before taking it in his hand, he raised up his eyes to Heaven and said: “Thou, O Lord, hast given me the kingdom, which I should not otherwise have had; Thou hast given me more honour and power than I deserved; receive my thanks! I give Thee back this kingdom, which I have increased as far as I was able; I also commend my soul into Thy hands!” He then asked pardon of the bystanders, begging them to overlook any offence that he might have given them. The whole court was present, and, with tears, asked the Saint/King to forgive them.
The holy Saint/King then took the blessed candle into his hands, and raising it up towards Heaven, said: “Lord Jesus Christ, my Redeemer! Receive my soul, and through the merits of Thy Most Holy Passion, deign to admit it among those of Thy servants!” Having said this, he gave back the candle, and asked the Bishops and priests who were present to recite the Litanies; which being ended he bade them sing the Te Deum. When the hymn was finished, he bowed down his head, closed his eyes, and calmly expired.
St. Ferdinand was buried in the great Cathedral of Seville before the image of the Blessed Virgin, clothed, at his own request, in the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis, having been a member of that Order for a number of years. His body, it is said, remains incorrupt. Many miracles took place at his tomb where his body venerated to this day.
St Ferdinand was canonised in the year 1671 by Pope Clement X. St. Ferdinand’s feast day is the 30 May and he is the Patron Saint of Engineers.