King. Conqueror. Saint.
Join me today as we encounter a saint, a king, a conqueror, and a father to his people.
Name: Ferdinand (or Fernando) III, King of Castile and Leon
Life: c. 1199 - 1252 AD
Feast: May 30
It’s said that, as he was dying, Ferdinand III, King of Castile and Leon, passed on his sword, wolf-killer, to one of his younger sons. It was a rare gift. Over the previous 35 years, since becoming king, Ferdinand had rarely been without his sword. He had been at war so long in Spain that whereas most kings are painted with a scepter, Ferdinand holds a sword.
The sword had even helped him to understand his vocation.
“Christ, my Lord, I am in Thy hands, the same way this sword is in mine.”
None of this seemed a very likely destiny for the sickly child born in what is today Spain around 1199 AD. At the time, Spain was split into several Christian kingdoms in the North facing the powerful outpost of the vast Almohad caliphate in the South. Although the caliphs and dynasties had changed, the Muslim Moors had occupied Spain since their invasion in 711 AD. When the armies of Islam first swept into Europe, they had seemed unstoppable. Then they were halted in Frankia - modern France - by Charles the Hammer, in 732. Slowly, very slowly, European Christians began to reverse the invasion. By the time Ferdinand was born, five centuries of war had reclaimed about half of the Iberian peninsula. Ferdinand would retake almost all of the remaining half.
Ferdinand’s father was Alfonso, King of Leon. His mother was Berenguela, a princess of Castile. Over the years, these two kingdoms had sometimes been unified, but monarchs had a bad habit of dividing the land between their children. The union of Alfonso and Berenguela seemed like a step toward reunification, with sickly Ferdinand as the heir. If he survived, that is. At one point the doctors gave up hope, but Berenguela never stopped praying and Ferdinand recovered. Along with his health came a deep and abiding faith. Much later, his own son, Alfonso the Wise, would make the connection between his near death as a baby and his devotion as a man: God loved Ferdinand and Ferdinand loved God, and it was this love of God, Alfonso said, which led him from victory to victory.
After he had recovered, Ferdinand faced a different sort of challenge: one much more familiar today than it was in the middle ages. His parents were separated. In 1204, they received a shocking letter from Rome. The pope had annulled their marriage. The issue was that Alfonso and Berenguela were related. Marriages between related nobles were not all that uncommon, and Alfonso and Berenguela could reasonably have expected that since no objections had been raised four years before, none would be. It’s not entirely clear why their marriage was annulled. Perhaps part of the explanation is that the church was in the middle of debating exactly how to handle consanguinity, though some have suggested that the annulment was politically motivated. No one was happy about it. Alfonso returned to Leon and Berenguela went back to her father’s court in Castile. Young Ferdinand went to live with his father. Although he remained a legitimate son, his position was tainted by what had happened. Again, his future was uncertain.
Time passed. In Castile, Ferdinand’s grandfather died. His uncle, Enrique, ruled for a few years, until he too died. And so it was that in 1217, when Ferdinand was 18 years old, the crown passed to his mother, Berenguela. She asked Alfonso to send their son for the coronation ceremony. But when they handed Berenguela the crown, instead of putting it on her head, she turned and crowned young Ferdinand. And just like that, he was King of Castile.
Many of the nobles of Castile looked at the young king and smiled. They read Berenguela’s unexpected decision to give up the crown as weakness. Ferdinand was witty and handsome, but they were pretty sure they could handle a young man. A powerful noble tried to set himself up as a sort of regent for Ferdinand. Others simply rebelled. Even worse, Ferdinand’s father Alfonso felt he had been tricked, and marched his armies into Castile.
But Berenguela hadn’t been showing weakness. She had recognized something extraordinary in her son. Ferdinand moved quickly against his rebellious nobles, using intelligence gathering to outwit one powerful lord and then find him when, after his defeat, he tried to hide among the dead. Berenguela became and remained one of her son’s most trusted advisors. She also set about finding the young king a suitable bride, and a few years later Ferdinand married Beatrice of Swabia, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. They would have ten children together.
The real problem for Ferdinand was his father’s invasion. It wasn’t that Ferdinand couldn’t fight. He was trained in strategy and combat like all young aristocrats, and Ferdinand was good at war. The problem was that Ferdinand didn’t think it was right to fight his own father. He laid out his views in a letter, asking his father what he had done to injure him and sketching what would be his lifelong foreign policy: Castile and Leon working together to push the Moors back to Seville in the South and beyond. Although that goal would have seemed hopelessly optimistic, the letter cooled Alfonso’s anger, and he asked for an old debt to be paid as a face-saving measure. Ferdinand gladly agreed. The last obstacle to peace was out of the way.
After the rebellion, the smart political move for Ferdinand was to declare an amnesty. This would allow any remaining rebels or rebel sympathizers to stop worrying that Ferdinand would come after them. But what Ferdinand did was characteristic of his approach to kingship. He promoted a general amnesty in Castile, telling his subordinates to make peace and forget old grievances wherever possible.
This was an expression of his lifelong domestic policy. A king or a lord should be a father to his people. On this way of thinking, manly leadership, just like fatherhood, is a dim expression of God’s Fatherhood. A king isn’t there to get something from his people, he’s there to protect his people and make them flourish. He’s there to meet them where they are, the way Ferdinand lowered taxes for those rebuilding ruined homes, or let petitioners come see him long after business hours should have been over.
This didn’t mean that Ferdinand wasn’t serious about public morality. One thing for which he had no tolerance was heresy. On one occasion, when a heretic was to be burned, Ferdinand sent over a bundle of firewood.
Ferdinand built up Castile, spiritually and physically, for the fight ahead. One of Ferdinand’s favourite sayings, taken from the Roman Scipio, nicely captures his foreign and domestic policies: “I value the life of one citizen more than taking the lives of a thousand enemies.” And so, by 1224, Castile was ready for the next step. Ferdinand went to war.
When his well organized campaign began, some areas simply surrendered to him, surprised by the force of his attack. Others, like the city of Quesada, put up resistance and were crushed. Year after year, Ferdinand’s armies would ride out, pushing the borders of Christendom ever southward. By the time of his death, he would leave only a tiny Muslim rump state on the Southern coast.
Ferdinand’s conquests meant he needed a way to control the volatile borderlands. For this he turned to the knightly orders. The most famous of these orders were the Knights Templar, founded in the early 12th century. But since then many other knightly orders had emerged, including three based in modern Spain: the Order of Alcántara, the Order of Calatrava, and the Order of Saint James. The first two were orders of warrior monks - in fact, the Order of Calatrava had been founded when the Templars had pulled out of a fortress at Calatrava and a group of Cistercians had felt the call to defend the position. The Order of Saint James, unusually at the time, allowed for married members and functioned under the more permissive Rule of Augustine. As the Muslims were pushed back, Ferdinand brought in these Spanish knights to stabilize the area.
Then in 1230, King Alfonso of Leon died. He left the kingdom to his two daughters, but many of their advisors could see the benefit of a united Castile and Leon under Ferdinand. According to one story, one of the biggest opponents of the unification had his mind changed when he walked into a church of Saint Isidore of - then Muslim occupied - Seville, and was suddenly struck with a blinding headache and heard a voice saying Saint Isidore was furious with him for holding up the purification of his church, presumably through Ferdinand freeing Seville. The man changed his position, and Ferdinand became the King of both Castile and Leon.
As Ferdinand won victories, he inspired his men to be more daring. A group of light infantry pushed into Muslim Cordoba, and then sent word to Ferdinand. He brought an army to reinforce their position, and set up a siege, breaking the city down militarily and psychologically. He knew that the defenders were counting the Christian campfires to estimate the size of his army, so he had his men light double fires to make the army seem impossibly huge. When Cordoba surrendered, Ferdinand allowed Moors who wanted to leave to take all that they could carry, but there was one additional stipulation. In 997, the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur had stripped the bells from the great shrine of Saint James at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in North West Spain. Al-Mansur forced his Christian subjects to carry the bells to Cordoba on their shoulders. Now that he had captured Cordoba, Ferdinand added to the terms of surrender that the Muslims would lug the bells all the way back.
Victory didn’t change Ferdinand very much. He gave much of what he captured to the Church, and reconsecrated those old churches which had been turned into mosques. His personal life was modest. His hobby was statecraft - not that he had much free time to fill. He fasted often, and wore an uncomfortable hair shirt. Before a battle, Ferdinand would famously spend some time in prayer, and emerge with his strategy largely formed. He was also known for showing up in a city and leaving the local lord waiting for him as his first stop would be a church. To him, the physical war was a small part of the spiritual one. His explanation could be the motto of any manly saint:
“I do not fear my enemies, as long as I have God on my side. Let me conquer my passions, and they will be conquered.”
Indeed, enemy after enemy fell before him. Ferdinand had the combined might of Castile and Leon at his back. Meanwhile on the Muslim side, Spain was divided, and there was little help available from the failing mainland caliphate. Many towns preemptively surrendered. And so it was that by 1247, despite all odds, Ferdinand’s armies were laying siege to the wealthiest city in Spain: Seville.
Medieval sieges were always chaotic, with plenty of skirmishing between the besiegers and the besieged. My favourite story from the siege of Seville concerns a particularly tough knight by the name of Garci-Pérez de Vargas. He is riding along with his squire when they come across seven Moorish warriors in a camp. The odds aren’t in his favour, but he’s so famously tough that he tells his squire that they’re just going to keep going. He and the terrified squire ride straight at and through the camp. The Moors are so surprised by this apparently suicidal activity that they don’t know how to react, so they don’t do anything. The squire breathes a sigh of relief when they’re out of sight until Garci-Pérez de Vargas realizes he’s dropped a piece of his equipment. Unfazed, he follows his path back and there it is, in the Moorish camp. So he rides back in to the even more shocked Moors, picks his equipment up with his spear, and rides back out again.
It turned out that the siege was not enough to cut off Seville on its own, and Ferdinand organized a supporting naval attack. This worked, and Seville surrendered in 1248.
Ferdinand now began planning his most ambitious project. It was time to take the fight to the homeland of the caliphate: to North Africa. From newly liberated Seville, Ferdinand planned the invasion. But his life on campaign was catching up with him. He was suffering from edema, a physical swelling that is usually a symptom of underlying conditions. He was getting sicker. Like so many saints, he felt death coming, and received the viaticum. He was 53 when he died.
There are many manly saints, but few of them are kings and conquerors like Ferdinand. Yet I’m struck by the fact that Ferdinand’s final words to his heir, the future Alfonso the Wise, weren’t about his plans for conquest. They were about being a father, about protecting and growing the lands that Ferdinand had regained. It was keeping these lands safe, he told Alfonso, that would be the measure of his reign.
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