A Cistercian of Royal Blood:Blessed Teresa of Portugal 1178–1250

Bede Lackner O. Cist.

Early Life

Little has been written in English about the Cistercian monks and nuns of mediaeval Spain and Portugal. This study proposes to sketch the life of Blessed Teresa, daughter of King Sancho I of Portugal who abandoned secular life after turbulent years in the world and became a Cistercian nun at Lorvão and as such reached a high degree of sanctity and spiritual perfection.

Source material for this undertaking can be found, above all, in the Vita recens of Blessed Teresa, written by the seventeenth–century Franciscan Francisco Macedo who, in turn, used a book presented to the Cardinal Infante in 1574 by the Cistercian abbot of Tamaraes. Also two other Cistercian authors, Bernard de Britto and Antonio Brandao, both official historiographers of Portugal, wrote about Teresa. The Bollandists followed Macedo's text,1 although in view of the latter's occasional disregard for chronology and historical accuracy, several corrections and explanatory notes had to be added to it. Angelus Manrique used Brito's work when reproducing Teresa's life in his Annales Cistercienses, but because his text adds no new information to the material given by the Bollandists, it seems preferable to consult secondary source material in order to establish the necessary background and perspective.

Teresa (also spelled Tarasia), oldest child of King Sancho I of Portugal (1185–1211) and Queen Dulce, daughter of Berengar IV, Count of Barcelona, was born in the early months of 1078 or in late 1077. With her four brothers (Enrique, Afonso, Ferdinand and Pedro) and as many sisters (Sancha, Mafalda, Blanca, Berengaria), she grew up at Coimbra, the capital city of the new kingdom of Portugal. Here she learned all the arts and skills that women were expected to acquire in those days. Under the influence of her tutor Goda who was noted for her piety and religious fervour, Teresa soon developed a great liking for spiritual exercises — prayer, meditation and spiritual reading, especially the lives of the saints. She used to kneel during the whole Mass and never once looked away from the altar. In addition to these qualities, Teresa also had other winning characteristics. Indeed, King Afonso I (1128–1185) her grandfather was so fond of her beauty and talents that, contrary to custom, he had her brought to his court by the time she was seven years old. Her company was the old king's greatest relaxation. This is not surprising for Teresa surpassed her peers with her beauty, intellect and obvious supernatural gifts.

After Afonso's death in 1185, Teresa returned to her former surroundings although her signature can be found on several donations which Sancho I made between 1186 and 1191. The fame of her piety, evidenced by her prayers, fasting and almsgiving, soon began to spread and reached even Peter Monoculus, abbot of Clairvaux (+ November 1186) who addressed a letter to Teresa in which her praised her great zeal and expressed his gratitude for her benevolence towards the Cistercian Order.

Marriage and Divorce

Towards the end of 1190 or in early 1191, Teresa was married at Guimarais to King Alfonso IX of León. According to Archbishop Rodrigo of Toledo and Lucas of Tuy the marriage was concluded in odium regis Castellae. Through this marriage, the king of León hoped tow in Portuguese military assistance against Castile. There was considerable tension between the two kingdoms. For one thing, Alfonso IX had kissed the hand of the king of Castile during the assembly of Carrion in 1188. The latter, mistaking this gesture of reverence, thereupon claimed suzerainty over León. A second reason for the friction was that Castile, victorious against the Muslims with the help of the Leonese, refused to share the booty with the latter, even though this had been agreed upon beforehand. The king of León decided, therefore, to ask for Teresa's hand and sent his emissaries to the king of Portugal. Sancho I eagerly approved the plan since Castilian preponderance had also aroused his uneasiness. Some even say that the marriage project originated with Sancho I.

As husband and wife, Alfonso IX and Teresa led a harmonious and virtuous life. Teresa continued her usual exercises but, in view of her husband's marital rights, exchanged her bodily mortifications for more spiritual sacrifices. Their union was blessed with three children: Sancha (c11930), Ferdinand (1194) and Dulce (1195).

Since the marriage — which had been approved by the bishops of León and Portugal — was concluded rather hastily, the important factor of the partner's consanguinity had been overlooked. Alfonso IX and Teresa of Portugal were first cousins. Although some believed that rulers could dispense themselves in such cases, consanguinity in this degree was a legal impediment for which a papal dispensation should have been obtained. The news of the marriage therefore caused great misgivings in Rome and Pope Clement III ordered the cardinal legate of Spain to declare it null and void. THe latter proceeded to León and sought to effect a separation by peaceful means. Alfonso and Teresa objected on the grounds that the impediment did not apply to royal persons and that, in cases like these, they could dispense themselves. The legate, seeing the futility of his efforts, thereupon threatened to excommunicate the partners and place their countries under interdict. Meanwhile Clement III died in 1191 and the cardinal legate was elected as the new pope, Celestine III. A new legate, Cardinal Gregory of San Angelo, was sent to Spain and in 1192 summoned an assembly to Salamanca to settle the question of the royal divorce. Most of the bishops of León and Portugal, the lawyers of the king and a group of canonists were present at the meeting. The king's representatives defended the validity of the marriage and supported their claims with arguments taken from Scripture and classical law. they also used more personal arguments, referring to the innocent children and the family that was to be disrupted. The canonists, for their part, rejected these arguments; they pointed out that Church law forbade marriages within the seventh degree without proper dispensation and stressed the supremacy of papal law over civil legislation. In the canonists' view, since no papal dispensation had been obtained, the marriage never really existed. The partners were therefore ordered to separate. This Alfonso and Teresa refused to do. Because of their disobedience they were both excommunicated and their kingdoms, León and Portugal, placed under interdict. The bishops of Astorga, León, Salamanca and Zamora who had defended the marriage were not present at Salamanca; they, too, were excommunicated. Alfonso IX and Teresa then made another attempt to save their marriage. They sent Bishop Martin of Zamora to Rome to secure the pope's dispensation. Celestine III remained adamant. but he lifted the interdict, while retaining the excommunication.

For about the next five years things remained unsettled until Alfonso and Teresa separated under the pressure of events. The great calamities of nature and nation — floods, violent storms, drought and hunger, the destruction of Alcobaça by the Muslims, the taking of 15,000 Christian prisoners to Cordoba and, finally, the rout of the Christian forces at Alarcos in 1195 — came to be viewed by the people of León and Portugal as divine chastisements in punishment of the public sins of Alfonso and Teresa. They demanded that Alfonso dismiss Teresa. The final separation, however, was the product of practical political considerations, for Alfonso VIII of Castile compelled the king of León to dismiss Teresa in order to marry his own daughter Berenguela and she and Alfonso of León were married at Valladolid, probably at the end of 1197. Since the they also were cousins, Pope Innocent III declared it similarly uncanonical and invalid.

There is no documentation concerning Teresa's refusal to follow the pope's decision. It may be safely assumed that the reason why she did not leave Alfonso IX on her own initiative was that she always acted in good faith and only followed the advice of the bishops and the clergy. Furthermore she probably felt that in view of her husband's status in the Christian family it was improper for her to take the first step.

The Foundation of Lorvão

With the annulment of her marriage, Teresa returned to Coimbra in Portugal with her youngest daughter and there resumed her usual exercises. When Pope Innocent III heard of it, he sent her a letter in which he praised her virtuous life, especially her generosity towards the clergy. It was at this time that Teresa once again thought of leaving the world in order to follow a consecrated life. Her sister Sancha had retired to the remote city of Alenquer where she devoted her life to God and this example must surely have played a part in Teresa's decision. The question was settled when King Sancho I voiced his approval.

With her father's permission, Teresa decided to acquire Lorvão in the vicinity of Coimbra — once a flourishing Benedictine monastery, but now in the process of decay — and to people it with Cistercian nuns and to share their life. The pope approved of the plan and although the few monks who still lived in the monastery resisted for a time, they eventually yielded to royal pressure. Since the Cistercians had by this time established numerous monasteries in both León and Portugal, Teresa was well acquainted with the Order and she invited nuns from Carrizo and Gradefes to introduce their observation at Lorvão.

Meanwhile the monks of Lorvão regretted the loss of their monastery and bitter quarrels ensued between the two sides. Sancho I referred the matter to Rome and Innocent III asked the bishops of Lamego, Suerio and Oporto to study and resolve the dispute. On December 28, 1206 the bishops decided in Teresa's favour. The monks protested and appealed to Rome, and in 1211 the bishop of Coimbra as papal plenipotentiary again settled the matter in Teresa's favour — this time permanently — after more compensation was promised to the monks.

Teresa's future now decided, she went to the king to bid him farewell. When Blanca, her youngest sister, saw what was happening, she asked on the spot for permission to join Teresa. The king tearfully consented. Following the example of the two royal daughters, many noble ladies and servants volunteered to go to Lorvão. After the necessary structural changes had been made, the bishop of Coimbra formally opened the convent in the presence of the entire court. One of the nuns, God, was named abbess, and after the monastic offices were distributed, the regular life began.

The foundress of the convent, however, did not at first become a Cistercian nun, for she wished to wait until the future of her children was assured. As much as possible, however, she followed the monastic regulations as a familiaris — an associate who lived outside the enclosure — and became a real mother to all. Furthermore, since she was still receiving her revenues, she extended her charity to her own monastery as well as to other religious houses.

The Legacy Feud

According to the will Sancho I made before his death, his son, the future Alfonso II, was to inherit the kingdom of Portugal, while the daughters were to receive a number of cities and monasteries. Teresa was to receive 40,000 morabitinos, 150 to 200 silver marks and the cities of Montemor and Esqueira. The pope was left 100 gold coins so that he would execute the king's will with all the force of his authority. Alfonso II was made to take an oath in which he promised to carry out his father's will faithfully and in every detail. He further swore to the bishops of Braga and Coimbra and to the abbot of Alcobaca “to fulfil and hold in special care of all these things.” As a precaution, a number of ecclesiastics and noblemen signed the document as guarantors “under pain of being held traitors and caitiffs.”

The clergy, as well as the royal family, hastened to secure Innocent III's confirmation of their legacies. With one exception, the pope approved Sancho's will: since canon law forbade the interference of laypersons in purely ecclesiastical matters, Mafalda was to receive only the usufruct and patronage of the monasteries of Arouca and Bouca. Innocent also advised his petitioners to implement the will immediately — that is, during King Sancho's lifetime — in order to prevent disputes in the future.

Sancho I died on March 27, 1211 and was buried in the abbey of Santa Cruz next to his wife Dulce. Teresa and her sisters took possession of their legacies but in view of the new king's menacing attitude, asked the pope for his help. The king agreed, as his two letters written in October 1211 show.

The new king, Afonso II (1211–1223) — known as Afonso the Fat — was twenty–seven years old when he became ruler of Portugal. No fighter, he had been a weakly child and had survived a serious illness in his adolescence by an apparent miracle. Although he was wholly incapable of sustaining the hardships of military life, he was fully convinced of the inviolability of his royal prerogatives. For this reason and in view of the extensive privileges granted by his father to his sisters, he was prompted to fight — at times desperately — for the principle of keeping his patrimony intact.

Afonso first attempted to obtain his objective by peaceful means. He demanded that Teresa and her sisters acknowledge him as overlord by paying the usual crown property taxes and accepting his nominees as governors in their towns. The sisters refused. Afonso then proposed that Teresa should hand over Montemor to a mutually agreeable rico–homem who would be paid by the king and do homage to him, while she would retain the revenues of the town. Teresa again refused. Afonso then sent the bishop of Lisbon and the dean of the Lisbon chapter to Rome to secure the annulment of Sancho's will. They were told to stress Afonso's right to the towns controlled by his sisters in virtue of the integrity of the royal patrimony and in order to be able to give effective help to the king of Castile in the fight against the Muslims. Furthermore, they were to tell the pontiff that Sancho I had been insane when he composed his will. On receiving these messages, Innocent III asked the bishops of Astorga, Burgos and Segovia to deal with the matter.

When they learned of the machinations of their brother, Teresa and Sancha began to hire troops and to prepare for an armed clash in defence of their inheritance. Meeting at Lorvão to discuss their strategy, they decided to send a letter to the pope and to seek the help of Teresa's former husband, King Alfonso IX of León. When the latter showed his great willingness to oblige, Teresa and Sancha proclaimed their fidelity to the Leonese king and, in order to ensure popular support for their cause, they granted a number of privileges (forais) to their towns.

In February 1212 Afonso II, unwilling to wait any longer for the bishops' verdict, took matters in his own hands and proceeded with an army against his sisters. He took Aveyras from Sancha and began the siege of Monemor and Alenquer. The papal legates at once excommunicated him and placed Portugal under interdict. When Afonso protested, new legates were appointed. Although the king paid no attention to the ecclesiastical penalties, he gave up the siege of the two cities when the news reached him in August 1212 that the king of León, his brother Pedro, a number of Portuguese barons, and Teresa's son Ferdinand had come with an army to Teresa's defence and had destroyed or occupied eleven cities, including S. Esteva de Chaves. The Portuguese and Leonese armies met at Valdevez and in the ensuing battle the Portuguese were utterly defeated. The splendid Castilian (and Portuguese) victory at Las Navas on July 16, 1212, however, induced the king of León to come to terms with Afonso II. They signed an agreement at Valladolid in which Alfonso IX promised to give up all his Leonese conquests with the exception of Chaves.

Exploiting this propitious moment in order to proceed with the reconquest of Muslim Spain, the pope proclaimed a truce among the Christian nations after the great victory at Las Navas. Predictably, Afonso II took advantage of the truce and seized the castles of his sisters. He took them by surprise for, expecting no attack during the truce, the sisters had disbanded most of their troops and could not hope for sufficient outside help.

With his sisters' castles secured, Afonso II informed Innocent II of his desire to make peace. He expressed his readiness to accept the pope's terms and to make adequate reparations on condition that the ecclesiastical penalties be removed. He, however, failed to mention that his sisters' towns were already in his possession. Innocent III accepted the king's offer with great joy and, in a letter dated August 30, 1212, commissioned the abbots of Espina and Osseira to act on his behalf. The abbots went to Coimbra and presented themselves to the feuding parties. They were on the point of absolving the king when the sisters' protest arrived, charging that Afonso had deceived the pope by not telling him of the forcible seizure of their towns during the truce. The matter was finally referred to Rome on the request of Teresa, Sancha and Afonso and on May 21, 1213 the pope's answer arrived. The excommunication could be revoked if Afonso promised submission to the Church's decision. For their part, the legates were ordered to restore peace between the king and his sisters. Furthermore the pope wished that the king, Teresa and Sancha take an oath and promise, under pain of excommunication, that they would no longer harm each other, either directly or indirectly. Finally, the legates were told to arrange a financial settlement between the king and his sisters. Only after all these terms had been agreed upon would the pope give his final approval.

The next meeting took place in January 1214 at Coimbra. Afonso II declared his readiness to cooperate and to surrender the contested cities to the Templars for custody and was absolved from the excommunication and the interdict. The legates then turned their attention to the question of financial compensation. They ordered the king to remit to his sisters the enormous sum of 150,000 morabitinos which the sisters refused to pay. The abbots thereupon excommunicated the king, even though their instructions had not empowered them to do so. Both sides then made new appeals to Rome. Afonso's very able lawyer, a certain Silvestre, successfully pointed out that when Pope Alexander III had conferred the royal title upon Afonso I and his successors, he ordained that the integrity of the king's possessions must be preserved. The kings of Portugal therefore had no right to alienate their possessions to the detriment of their successors. The king's advocate also impressed Rome by proving that Mafalda had disposed of possessions of which she only had been given usufruct. Finally he reiterated the previous argument that Sancho I had been insane when he drew up his will. The pope settled the dispute in Afonso's favour and in his bull Cum olim charissimus, dated April 7, 1216, he confirmed the primacy of the rights of sovereignty since Sancho's will did not imply that the cities given to his daughters enjoyed any exemption from the future king's jurisdiction. The castles, therefore, should be placed in the hands of the Templars, although the sisters were entitled to live in them, unmolested by either the king or any nobleman. The bishop of Burgos and the dean of Compostela were charged to removed the unauthorised ecclesiastical censures and, further, were bidden to determine which party had started the hostilities and to make the guilty side pay reparations. This settlement was accepted in principle by both sides, even though the question of compensation continued to remain a stumbling block. Teresa wanted reparation for her losses: she had spent more than 50,000 cruzados on troops and messengers and her losses in men, cattle, fruits, grain and shiploads were so great that they could not be determined with accuracy.

Innocent III died in 1216 and his successor, Honorius III, continued to monitor the situation. In 1217 and 1218 he sent several letters to the bishop of Burgos and the dean of Compostela and asked them, with the bishop of Lugo, to settle the financial question. He further made known his desire that the customs prevalent in Spain be observed in the cities of Montemor and Alenquer. He concluded by inviting both sides to send their representatives to Rome to receive his instructions.

Once more lengthy negotiations followed. The final settlement came only after the death of Afonso II on March 25, 1223. The new king, Sancho II quickly made peace with his aunts, more or less on the basis of the terms proposed by Innocent III. This settlement left Teresa and Sancha in possession of their cities for as long as they lived and provided that they jointly administer Alenquer which would return to the crown after their death. Teresa should keep Montemor and Esgueria for her lifetime. After her death Montemor was to be given to Sancha and upon the latter's death, it should revert to the king and his lawful successors. Esqueira was to become the property of Lorvão. The two sisters were guaranteed and annual income of 4,000 morabitinos to be paid from the revenues of Torres Vedras. If Sancha were to predecease Teresa, the latter would receive Alenquer and all its revenues. The king also confirmed the forais — the local privileges granted by the princesses to the cities of Montemor and Alenquer — and extended an amnesty to all who had supported their cause. In return, Teresa and Sancha promised to furnish the king with soldiers, to use the king's coinage, to keep one of Sancho's vassals in each castle, and to permit a judge who was acceptable to both sides to sit in their cities. Finally, the town of Chaves was to be retained by Alfonso IX of León as security for Teresa so that she could enjoy her possessions in undisturbed peace.

Cistercian Nun at Lorvão

In March of 1229 Teresa was called to Sancha's deathbed at Celle. She was present during her sister's last hours and at her death, she sent the nuns into the chapel to pray the divine office. While they were praying, Teresa secretly left the monastery with her sister's body and buried it at Lorvão.

With Sancha gone, Teresa's outlook on life changed. Deciding to become a Cistercian nun, she disposed of her belongings and informed both Sancho II and Alfonso IX, her former husband, of her decision. She gave a portion of her considerable estate to Lorvão and Celle and distributed the rest among the servants and the poor.

Teresa entered the monastery of Lorvão in July 1229 and was invested by the cardinal legate himself, bishop John of Sabina. It is also reported that Alfonso IX was present at the ceremony. If true, doubtless the reason was to make arrangements for the future of their daughters — their son Ferdinand had died in 1214 — and it was indeed agreed upon on this occasion that Sancha and Dulce should receive Villabuena in the county of Villagranca for the purpose of building a Cistercian monastery there.

As soon as she became a full–fledged member of the community of Lorvão, Teresa insisted she be treated like an ordinary nun. She participated in the community exercises in the choir, the chapter room, workshops, refectory and dormitory, and continued her customary devotions and mortifications. She wore a hair shirt at all times and mortified her senses in every possible way through hunger, thirst, vigils, and the like. On Fridays she redoubled her penances; she retired to her cell where she prostrated herself and kissed the floor, shed streams of tears for her sins, and inflicted all kinds of mortifications on her body. She was always the first one in church and the last to leave, often spending entire nights in meditation. The recipient of many heavenly consolations, she was often seen in ecstasy with a radiant face and already in her lifetime worked miracles. She thus restored the use of a beggar's lifeless arm, cured one of her fellow sisters of a bone ailment, embraced and brought back to life a dying infant, and reawakened a nun who had died without the last sacraments so that she could confess her sins before facing God. Practising sororal charity, she urged her fellow sisters to examine their consciences, confess their sins to a priest, and use Holy Communion as a weapon against the devil's temptations. She strengthened the discouraged, cared for the sick and comforted the dying.

Most of Teresa's revenues went to Lorvão, although other religious houses also benefited from her generosity. Thus in 1242 she bought a place for the Dominicans at Coimbra and built a monastery for them at her own expense. She also received numerous visitors, for many came to ask advice of the former queen. She, however, made these visits as brief as possible and, though attentive and kind, invariably gave only short answers in order to avoid unnecessary conversations. When possible, she referred matters to the abbess.

The Question of the Daughters' Legacy

The dispute over Teresa's legacy had hardly been settled when the former queen of León and now a Cistercian nun became involved in yet another quarrel, this time in defence of her daughters' rights. As has been mentioned, Alfonso IX of León and Teresa of Portugal had three children: Ferdinand (who died in 1214), Sancha and Dulce. The future Ferdinand III, born in 1198, was the son of Alfonso and his second wife Berenguela of Castile. In 1200 Pope Innocent III declared the marriage invalid in view of the partners' consanguinity and, after some delay, Berenguela went back to Castile, leaving young Ferdinand with his father. In 1217 King Enrique of Castile died at the age of thirteen and Berenguela was offered the crown of Castile. Shortly before, the shrewd Berenguela, pretending motherly longings, had asked her former husband to let Ferdinand visit her and the unsuspecting Alfonso consented. Hardly had Berenguela been made queen of Castile when she suddenly resigned in favour of her son Ferdinand and he became king of Castile on August 30, 1217.

On hearing the news of his son's accession to the throne of Castile, Alfonso was greatly disturbed since he had hoped himself to become king of Castile. In his anger towards his son, he excluded him from the succession in León although he had previously officially proclaimed him as his successor. On his deathbed in 1230, he made his daughters, Sancha and Dulce, heirs of the Leonese throne and ordered the knights of Santiago de Compostela to protect their rights.

On the death of Alfonso on September 23, 1230, the kingdom was on the verge of a civil war between the supporters of Sancha and Dulce and those of Ferdinand III. The two princesses, then under the protection of the grand master of the Knights of Santiago at Castro–Toray in Galicia, sent a letter to their mother in Lorvão asking for advice and assuring her of their readiness to follow her instructions. Teresa encouraged her daughters to defend their rights.

In the meantime, Berenguela of Castile had also written to Teresa asking her for a meeting so that they cold settle the dispute peacefully. Teresa agreed and, clothed in her Cistercian habit, went to Valencia de Minho where the two queens met in November 1230. It is reported that although Berenguela knelt down and attempted to kiss Teresa's foot, Teresa was faster and embraced Berenguela on her knees.

The meeting at Valencia brought results in two days. Teresa renounced the throne of León in the name of her daughters, while Berenguela promised a large sum of money — to be determined by Ferdinand III — to Sancha and Dulce. On the third day of the meeting, Teresa and Berenguela, along with the clergy and nobility, assembled in the palace where Teresa, acting on behalf of her daughters, solemnly repeated the declaration of abdication.

When Ferdinand was informed of this agreement, he went to Benavente where he met Sancha and Dulce. He had always been kind towards his half–sisters and he granted them a yearly pension of 30,000 gold coins for life as well as the revenues of twelve localities. The settlement was proclaimed with full solemnity on December 11, 1230 with both Teresa and Berenguela in attendance. After the ceremony, Teresa and Dulce returned to Portugal, accompanied by Ferdinand who travelled with them as far as Sabugal near Lisbon where he met Sancho II of Portugal and thanked him for his neutrality in the dispute. To show his gratitude, he returned Chaves to Portugal in 1231.


As the years passed, Teresa grew increasingly disinterested in the things of this world and began to prepare for eternity. She asked the sisters to build her tomb near the altar of the Blessed Virgin and, visiting it every day, she recited the prayers of the dead. When her last hour came, she confessed her sins and received the sacraments of Holy Communion and Extreme Unction. She then asked the sisters that they take her to the church where, embracing the crucifix, she died in prayer. It was June 17, 1250. She had forbidden the sisters to build her an expensive monument and she was buried in simple grave near Sancha.

Renowned during her lifetime for her holiness, Teresa was regarded and venerated as a saint as soon as she died. The Portuguese people had a great devotion to her and continued to flock to her tomb for many years after her death. On June 17, 1617, her tomb was opened by the Cistercian nuns and to their great joy they found her body intact and covered with flowers. The nuns, however, had acted without the proper ecclesiastical authorisation and they were excommunicated and the censure revoked only after the prescribed penances had been performed. The coffin was again opened on August 12, 1617 but this time by the Church authorities and Teresa's remains were once again found in a state of complete preservation.

After a lengthy canonical process, Teresa was beatified by Pope Clement XI on December 23, 1705 and her cult formally approved by the Church. Her feast day was originally observed on June 17 but since 1962 her feast and the feast of her two sisters Sancha and Dulce is celebrated on June 20.