A magpie with ambitions
The other day, I made a comment to a friend regarding Richard the Lionheart’s wife, Berengaria (or Berenguela) de Navarra. You see, I always confuse her name with berenjena, which is Spanish for eggplant, and so I keep on seeing a rather violet lady in my head. Berengaria is a bit of an odd name, I suppose, but nothing comes quite close to that royal Spanish name, Urraca.
Other than being a rather harsh name, (double rr in Spanish is not exactly a caressing sound) Urraca means magpie, and why one Spanish king after the other saw fit to load his daughter with a name representing a thieving bird is beyond me. Although to be fair, at the time magpies were often held as pets, and seeing as these handsome birds are very intelligent, I imagine they made quite an impression on their owners.
Today’s lady is one of these Urracas – perhaps the most famous of them. And so, with no further ado, let me sweep you several centuries back in time, to the very distant Spanish kingdom of Castile in the very early twelfth century.
At the time, Spain did not exist. Instead, the Iberian Peninsula was home to various kingdoms, such as Aragón, Zaragoza, Castilla, Galicia, and, in the south, al-Andaluz, the most famous of the Moorish kingdoms on the peninsula. At one point in time it seemed as the Moors were about to conquer all of Iberia, but in a cave in the mountains of Asturias, the determined (and very few) Christians led by a certain Pelayo made a stand, and no matter what the Moors hurled at them, the Christians refused to give up. The cave of Covadonga represented a turning point: “here, but no further!” Don Pelayo yelled, and as per some of the more exaggerated chronicles, 31 Christian heroes wiped out 250 000 Moorish warriors. Not likely, but Covadonga was a victory, and Pelayo was elected king of Asturias and went on to spend the rest of his life being a burr up the Moors’ backside.
While the “faithful & righteous” of Europe had to gallop off all the way to the distant Holy Land to battle the infidel, in Spain, they were the next-door neighbour. Truces, skirmishes, more truces, war, more war. The Christian kingdoms were determined to reclaim their lands from the Moors, a holy war waged over generations (it took 800 years to re-conquer the lost territories). Accordingly, the various kings of the various kingdoms were first and foremost military leaders, men who donned armour as a matter of course and spent their lives expanding their borders – preferably at the expense of the Moors, but now and then at the expense of their Christian neighbours.
Such kings needed male heirs. In medieval Europe, the idea of women riding into battle was preposterous. Men wanted to be led by men, not by a frail creature in skirts. So when Alfonso VI of Castilla and León, despite several marriages, found himself with only three legitimate daughters, he had a major problem on his hands.
Alfonso was something of a complex characters: born the second son of three to Fernando the Great, he was given the kingdom of León when his father passed away. Not enough for our ambitious Alfonso, and after a decade or so of manoeuvring he had claimed Galicia from baby brother García (whom he kept locked up) and Castilla from big brother Sancho (who was serendipitously assassinated). After this, Alfonso proclaimed himself “Emperor of Spain” and continued with his efforts to dislodge the tenacious Moors.
As per the various cantares about Alfonso, he was honourable and brave, a man who treated his foes with respect. Hmm. Not so sure García or Sancho would agree, but his sister Urraca most definitely would, seeing as Alfonso had defended her and her lands against Sancho’s grasping hands.
In difference to his predecessors, Alfonso went beyond the Iberian Peninsula for a bride, which is how he married Constance of Burgundy as his second wife. Alfonso was pushing forty, his first wife had died childless, and his French wife – granddaughter to Robert II of France – had high expectations to live up to. She didn’t. After producing a healthy girl child who was named Urraca after her paternal aunt, Constance went on to have several more pregnancies, but none resulted in a living child. She died in 1093, leaving Alfonso plus fifty – and still without a male heir. Unless…
You see, Alfonso did have a son. A strapping lad called Sancho who was the result of Alfonso’s affair with the fair Muslim princess & refugee Zaida of Seville. This lady seems to have had quite the grip on Alfonso’s heart, and some speculate that she converted to Christianity, took the name Isabel, and as such is the same Isabel Alfonso took as his fourth wife. Whatever the case, baby Sancho was born prior to any such marriage, making him illegitimate. But he was a boy, and so Alfonso designated Sancho as his heir. I imagine this did not please his daughter Urraca – or her French husband, Raymond of Burgundy.
Urraca was only eight when she wed Raymond, at the time made Count of Galicia. The marriage was not consummated until later, but by the time she was 13 or 14, Urraca suffered a stillbirth before going on to live through nine pregnancies that resulted in a surviving daughter, Sancha, and, after ten years or so of trying, a healthy son, also an Alfonso. Very confusing, with all these very similar names…
In the meantime, her bastard brother Sancho had upped and died, as had Raymond. Alfonso saw no other option but to proclaim Urraca his heir – but just to make sure things would go well, he also insisted she marry again. Her new husband was Alfonso I of Aragón. Urraca was vocally opposed to this union, and hoped to get out of it when her father died, but her nobles insisted, and so, in 1109, Urraca and Alfonso were wed.
It was not a happy marriage. Some say Alfonso I was homosexual, and found the idea of sleeping with his wife repugnant. Obviously, this may just be slander, and Alfonso must have done his duty in the marital bed, as he loudly complained about the lack of little heirs. The marriage agreement stated that should there be a child born of this union, that child would inherit it all: León, Castilla and Aragón. If there was no child, the respective kingdoms would go to the respective heirs. Urraca had a son she loved and wanted to see as king, so maybe she did what she could to avoid conception.
Whatever the case, the marriage quickly fell apart. Urraca refused to play the role of submissive wife – she was the ruling queen of Castilla and León, he was but her husband – and this drove Alfonso nuts. In his opinion, women should stay well in the background and leave the ruling to men of worth such as himself. Their quarrels became increasingly heated and Alfonso reputedly abused Urraca physically – repeatedly and brutally. In fear of her life she fled for the security of a nearby convent.
Domestic hostility exploded into civil war. Alfonso was known as “El Batallador”, the warrior, and this was a well-earned sobriquet, him being an astute general, veteran of close to thirty pitched battles. He’d learnt the art of warfare from El Cid himself, and years of fighting the Moors had left him an experienced campaigner. There was not a chance in hell Urraca could beat him, but fortunately for Urraca, Alfonso managed to antagonise the powerful church, and by 1110 the marriage had been annulled by the pope.
Alfonso chose to ignore this at first, and even managed to lure Urraca into believing their marriage could be salvaged – only to imprison her in Aragón. Urraca fled, returned to Castilla and insisted the marriage was over. Only in 1114 did he relinquish his claims on Urraca – by then, he’d realised the men of Castilla and León might not be happy with a female ruler, but they were even less happy with the idea of an Aragonese king. Plus, of course, a little bird had whispered that Urraca was not beyond assassinating him if she had to.
Urraca’s problems were far from over. Her treacherous sister and her husband, the count of Portugal, had taken the opportunity to claim Extremadura. Large parts of Castilla remained in Alfonso of Aragón’s hands. And then there were the Moors, eager to take the opportunity offered by the spectacular fall-out among the Christians to forward their own interests. On top of this, her nobles remained disgruntled at having a queen, and in Galicia things were fast spinning out of control.
In an effort to keep some of her lands out of Alfonso I’s grasping hands while they were married, Urraca had approved the coronation of her little son, Alfonso VII, as the king of Galicia. Now Urraca wanted to retake the reins of government (her son was ten or so), but this was violently opposed by the Galician nobles who quite enjoyed doing their own thing, their boy-king an easily managed regent. To show their independence, they even chased the bishop of Santiago de Compostela out of the city.
Urraca opted for a show of force. She had Santiago de Compostela besieged, and soon enough the nobles were suing for peace. Urraca, triumphant, entered the city to receive their submission with the ousted Bishop Gelmírez at her side. No sooner were they ensconced in the bishop’s palace but the people of Santiago de Compostela rose in revolt. A howling, angry mob surrounded the bishop’s palace, the central tower was set alight, the mob demanding the death of the bishop, who was seen as too loyal to the Castilian cause. Death was imminent. The doors creaked under the weight of the angry men attempting to break through, the crowds bayed for blood. The bishop heard the confessions of his few companions, including that of the queen. They prepared to die. The wood splintered, someone cheered. Urraca ordered that they stop this nonsense. I guess she was met with derisive laughter and a mocking suggestion that she come outside to talk to them if she wanted to save her precious bishop. Seeing as Urraca did not lack balls, whatever her gender, she did just that. The mob surrounded her. She was beaten, her clothes were torn off and she was thrown into the mud, where her naked body was subjected to stones, whips, feet, whatnot. Somehow, she got away – as did the bishop, disguised as a mendicant.
Once reunited with her troops, Urraca unleashed her revenge: the besieging army entered Santiago de Compostela, looting and killing at will. Pay-back for her recent humiliation, with the further benefit of making it very clear to the Galician people that they might have a boy-king, but it was the mother, Urraca, Empress of Spain, who held the true power. At last, Urraca had come into her own, respected as a ruler throughout her various kingdoms.
Other than being queen, Urraca was also a woman of passions. Once her marriage had been annulled, she lived openly with Pedro Gonzales, count of Lara, and gave birth to at least two more children. By late 1125, she had re-established some sort of control over her extensive lands, ensuring her young son’s inheritance was safe. She’d reclaimed most of Castilla from Alfonso, had thwarted her sister’s ambitions to expand at Urraca’s expense, and had brought the Moors to a halt. All in all, our king in skirts had proved she too could lead an army, as determined as any man to safeguard her dominions.
Urraca died on March 8, 1126, giving birth to yet another child. A propitious date, IMO: a strong woman dying on the day that would one day become the International Women’s Day.
Alfonso VII would go on to become a strong ruler. In 1128 he married Berenguela, daughter to Ramon Berenguer III, Count of Barcelona. And there, somehow, this post comes full circle: yet another Berenguela (although this Berenguela is the grandmother of Richard the Lionheart’s wife) . And as to Urraca, there would be very many more such little magpies in the royal nurseries of Castilla. But none would ever become as famous as this Urraca, Queen of León and Castilla, Empress of Spain.