ANNA BELFRAGE

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From humiliated divorcee to ruling queen

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Eleanor of Castile

I recently purchased a book about Eleanor of Castile. (I am toying with the idea of writing a novel in which she plays a bit part, together with her larger-than-life hubby, Edward I)
I started reading, and after a couple of pages, I felt Ms Inspiration leaning over my shoulder.
“Did you know about her?” She stabbed a finger in the direction of a name.
“No. Well, beyond her being Eleanor’s grandmother.”
“Huh.” Ms Inspiration gave me a condescending look. “Would you like to be defined by your descendants?”
“Err…” No, not really. I was merely trying to tell this very vivid, demanding and imaginary task-mistress of mine that I knew next to nothing about Eleanor’s grandmother. Ms Inspiration curled her lip and twirled, sending her long, multi-layered skirts swirling. I swear, Ms Inspiration has a deep-seated desire to be a flamenco dancer…
“Time to find out some more then,” she said, pointing at the page. “The lady deserves some air-time.”

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Berenguela – as depicted centuries after her death…

Ms Inspiration had a point. While I find Eleanor of Castile quite fascinating, her grandmother is something else, yet another one of those strong women who go to prove the Middle Ages were not exclusively a male domain when it came to temporal power.
Which is why, dear people, today I’d like to introduce you to Berenguela, very briefly Queen of Castile in her own right, peace-broker and political advisor to her son, Fernando the Great (or St Fernando). Through her granddaughter Eleanor of Castile, she is also the ancestress of a long, long line of English kings.

Let us take some steps back: In 1170, Eleanor of England was betrothed to Alfonso VIII of Castile. This young boy had grown up in constant fear of his grasping uncle (you can read more here) and needed an alliance with a strong kingdom. At the time, Eleanor’s parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, had a very strong kingdom – and they were interested in an alliance that would secure Aquitaine’s Pyrenean border. One of those win-win situations, made even better by the fact that Eleanor Junior (or Leonor as she is in Spain) and Alfonso would go on to have a successful marriage.

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Alfonso VIII

Eleanor was twelve when she married Alfonso in 1174. The groom was all of nineteen. Six years later, she presented her husband with a daughter, and ten more children were to follow over twenty-four years (!).

Born in 1180 as the first of her parents’ many children, Berenguela was for a long time considered the rightful heir to Castile, as one brother after the other was born and died. The little Infanta was therefore given an excellent education, and prospective grooms flocked round her like eager flies round a sugar-lump.

One of these potential husbands was Conrad, Duke of Swabia and Rothenburg and a son of Frederick Barbarossa. In 1187, the betrothal was celebrated, but because Berenguela was not yet eight, things were postponed and Conrad rode of, never to return. In actual fact, already in 1191 Berenguela petitioned the pope to release her from her engagement, probably because Eleanor of Aquitaine was distrustful of the powerful House of Hohenstaufen (Conrad’s family name). In retrospect, Eleanor of Aquitaine was proved right, seeing as Conrad’s brother, Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, was the man who held Berenguela’s uncle Richard Lionheart captive and demanded a huge ransom to set him free.

Whatever the case, Berenguela was probably lucky to escape a marriage with Conrad who had a reputation for being vicious. In 1196, Conrad died, reputedly because the virgin he was attempting to rape bit him in the eyeball. Well…

Once Conrad had been discarded, the search for a suitable husband for Berenguela continued closer to home. By now, she had a brother who showed signs of being healthy and strong, and so her marriage was no longer quite as dynastic a concern as it had been previously. (Hmm: this son too would predecease his father…) But a princess was always a princess, and Berenguela’s marriage would be used to shore up whatever political alliance her father considered needed strengthening.

Things, however, were to some extent taken out of Alfonso VIII’s hands by that constant scourge of the Christian kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula – the Almohad Caliphate, or, as the Christians would call them, the infidel. In 1195, the armies of the Almohad Caliphate almost destroyed Alfonso VIII’s army at the aptly named Desastre de Alarcos (The disaster of Alarcos), and Castile was to see its territory decimated, the border castles taken over by the infidel moors, while the blood of its slaughtered menfolk seeped into the ground. Alfonso VIII retreated to Burgos to lick his wounds – and to defend his savaged kingdom from his Christian neighbours who gladly took the opportunity to do some raiding and conquering of their own now that Castile was weak.

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Alfonso IX of León

One of these raiders was another Alfonso, this time Alfonso IX of León. He was Alfonso VIII’s cousin, and as Alfonso VIII had not exactly been supportive and nurturing towards his much younger cousin previously, I suppose Alfonso IX felt entitled to cause some havoc. Things were rapidly getting out of hand, which is when Alfonso VIII played out his trump card: in 1197 he offered cousin Alfonso Berenguela’s hand in marriage, thereby cementing a truce between León and Castile.

Before we go on, allow me to apologise for any name confusion you may be experiencing. Medieval Spain is chock-full of kings named Alfonso. Clearly, the royal parents of the time had a very restricted number of names to choose from – or maybe they all loved cooing “Alfonsito” at their sons…

Back to the impending wedding: There was a teensy-weensy problem in that Berenguela and Alfonso were related within the prohibited degree. There was actually a further problem: Alfonso had previously been married to Teresa of Portugal, yet another distant cousin, and the pope had forced through an annulment on account of their consanguinity, despite the loud protests of Alfonso and Teresa – Alfonso in particular did not want to lose his portuguese wife, as through her he had Portugal’s support in his constant harrying of Castile. As a result, Alfonso IX’s relationship with the Holy See had soured permanently, and the pope was no more inclined to accept a marriage with distant cousin Berenguela than he’d been to accept a marriage with distant cousin Teresa. Details, schmetails, everyone seems to have thought. After all, the Christian kings on the Iberian Peninsula felt they were far more Christian than those dratted Italians – they were fighting for their faith on a daily basis.

What Berenguela may have thought of all this, we do not know. It would be reasonable to assume she wasn’t entirely happy about wedding a man who was such an implacable enemy of her father (and Alfonso VIII must have been choking on bile at giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to this dratted cousin of his). But Alfonso was a charismatic man and there must have been some attraction between the couple, seeing as the babies came regular as clockwork – despite the pope having annulled the marriage already in 1198. For six years, Alfonso and Berenguela fought the pope, doing everything they could to have him retract his annulment. The pope refused, going as far as placing the Kingdom of León under interdict. (Not that it helped, seeing as the Spanish clergy sided with their king, not their pope.) And while they were arguing with Pope Innocent III, Berenguela gave birth to three daughters and two sons.

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Alfonso IX and Berenguela, while they were still married

In the end, all this fighting proved futile: the marriage was annulled, and the children were tainted with illegitimacy. In 1204, Alfonso and Berenguela separated. The first thing Alfonso did was attack the Castilian border castles – and return to the consoling arms of his first wife. Maybe he was acting out his rage at losing Berenguela, who now returned to live with her parents together with her five children.

Whatever the case, Alfonso’s repeated bellicose actions caused further negotiations between Castile and León, and the winner in all this – at least from a material aspect – was Berenguela. Already as a part of her marriage to Alfonso IX, she’d been given a series of border castles to hold in her own name – her arras, or dower. (In Spain, the groom paid for the bride by giving her land that became immediately hers) Now, as a consequence of all these skirmishes, both Alfonso her father and Alfonso her ex-husband, were ok with establishing a substantial buffer zone between the kingdoms by expanding Berenguela’s dower lands, an area in which Berenguela ruled on behalf of her young son. In 1207, all of this was formalised in a treaty, the document being the oldest example of written Castilian that survives to this day.

After her separation from Alfonso, Berenguela dedicated herself exclusively to her children. Maybe she still considered herself married, annulment or not. Maybe she missed her husband. Not a reciprocated feeling – or maybe it was, except that Alfonso consoled himself with other women rather than retiring into voluntary celibacy. (Other than Teresa, he had several mistresses. In total, he fathered close to 20 children – but to be fair to Alfonso, he was not all about war and sex: among other things he founded the university of Salamanca, and held the first Parliament in Spanish history) Once again, what Berenguela may have thought about all this we do not know – but we have a clue in how quickly she acted to ensure her recently widowed son (many years later, obviously) was re-married so as not to fall into “vice and lustful fornication”.

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The tomb of Alfonso VIII and Eleanor or England (photo Eduardo Maldonado Malo)

The years went by, and in 1214 Alfonso VIII died and was buried at the Monastery of Huelgas. His distraught widow, Eleanor of England, died a month later, incapable of facing life without her husband. Berenguela’s baby brother Enrique was ten at the time, and Berenguela was named regent and guardian of King Enrique. This did not please some of the haughty Castilian magnates, principally the Lara family. They forced Berenguela to resign the regency and the guardianship of the king. At first she acquiesced, but the Lara family was rapacious, so some years later, she struck back. Things deteriorated rapidly, and soon enough Castile was on the brink of civil war. So concerned was Berenguela that she sent her adolescent son, Fernando, to his father in León for safekeeping.

In 1217, little Enrique was playing a boisterous game with his friends when a tile came loose and hit him on the head, thereby killing the thirteen-year-old king. Álvaro de Lara tried to keep his death a secret, but Berenguela soon found out that her brother was dead. However, at this point in time she had to play her cards very close to her chest. Should her ex-husband find out Enrique was dead, chances were he’d claim the throne as being the deceased king’s closest male relative (Berenguela’s son was arguably as close, but there was that whiff of illegitimacy that clung to young Fernando). Not something Berenguela wanted to happen – at all.

Instead, she wrote to Alfonso and requested that he send Fernando to visit her. Alfonso complied. Berenguela acted with impressive speed. First, she was recognised as queen of Castile, then she abdicated in favour of her young son while remaining as his regent. This had the benefit of hopefully neutralising any threat from Alfonso IX – after all, Fernando was his son as well – and of peddling to the male pride of the Castilian nobility who much preferred having a king than a ruling queen, even if in this case the lad had been born of a union that was later annulled. Plus, of course, it effectively gave her full power, as Fernando was only sixteen – and wise enough to listen to his mother’s counsel.

Unfortunately, Alfonso IX held little paternal affection for his son – how else to justify his attempted invasion in 1218, aided and abetted by the power-hungry Lara family? In the event, this came to nothing – mainly because Berenguela swooped down like a hawk on the unsuspecting Álvaro de Lara and had him arrested. Whatever lingering feelings Berenguela may have had for her ex-husband were probably doused forever by all of this – but in the interest of Castile, she strived to maintain some sort of cordial relationship with him.

Together, Berenguela and her son steered their kingdom through one crisis after the other, and by the time they were done, Fernando was not only king of Castile, he was also king of León (acknowledged heir to his father, despite daddy’s attempts to leave his throne to his daughters by his first marriage) – a union of crowns that he’d pass down to his successors.

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Fernando accepting the keys of Seville

Fernando was to become one of the most successful leaders of the Reconquista – the Christian movement to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors. Over two decades, this pious and determined warrior would eat his way into the Moorish territories, reconquering huge chunks of it – which is why he earned that sainthood of his. I will return to this impressive man in a future post – Fernando el Santo deserves as much.

While he was away doing his holy war thing, his mother ruled the kingdom in his name, and by all accounts they were both happy with this arrangement – Fernando trusted Berenguela implicitly. So did the Castilians in general, seeing in Berenguela some of the traits of her ancestress, the famous Queen Urraca.

Berenguela arranged a prestigious marriage for her son. Yet again, political advantages seemed to go hand in hand with marital contentment. Fernando’s bride was born Elizabeth of Hohenstaufen but took the name Beatriz to honour her dead sister and yes, she was related to vicious Conrad – she was his niece – although by all accounts she wasn’t at all vicious, rather the reverse, taking after her mother who was known as the “rose without thorns”. The happy couple went on to have eleven children, of which seven were sons, before Beatriz died in 1235 – possibly in childbirth – approximately thirty years old.

The bereaved widower was not allowed to grieve for long. His mother feared Fernando might console himself with “sundry women” – a legitimate fear when it came to the Spanish kings, seeing as many of them fathered a series of bastards. So she contacted her formidable sister, Blanche of Castile, who was Queen of France, and asked if she had any suggestions for a new bride. Turns out Blanche did – plus she had her own political axe to grind – which was how Jeanne of Dammartin ended up as Fernando’s second wife. She was seventeen, he was twice her age, and to Berenguela’s delight, her son seemed quite pleased with his new bride, going on to father five children with her, one of which was Eleanor of Castile, future queen of England.

And here, dear people, this post comes full circle: it started out as an intention to explore Edward I’s wife, and ends with said wife still most unexplored. Fortunately, Eleanor of Castile is not going anywhere, so I hope to return to her at a later date. Or maybe I will yet again end up stuck in the fascinating and complex history of Spain – or those Christian kingdoms that would one day become Spain. As we say in Spanish, nunca se sabe 🙂

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10 thoughts on “From humiliated divorcee to ruling queen

  1. so much intrigue

  2. If Henry II was her father Richard is her brother not Uncle.

  3. Jane Darcy on said:

    Spanish medieval royal/aristocratic women are fascinating, as are the various mistresses of Spanish Kings. I wish there was more to read about them in translation.

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