A Conquering Saint – meet Fernando
Okay, so some days ago, I gave you a post about Henry III and St Louis – two royal gents in head-to-head competition as to who was the most pious king around. St Louis, of course, would argue he was – and that the pope agreed – discreetly pointing at the ‘saint’ preceding his name. But there was another contemporary king who would scoff at both his cousins (what can I say? A lot of intermarriage going on among the European royals) and point out that while they were off building chapels and squabbling as to the merit of a sliver from the True Cross versus a vial of Holy Blood, he, Fernando, he was fighting for his faith. Constantly. More or less all the time. And, as a further plus point, he mostly won.
So today we’ll be spending time with Fernando. “Mejor asi,” he tells me in a barely comprehensible Spanish – sorry, Castillian. “Me merezco más interés que esos dos, sean o no sean mis primos.”
Well yes, you’ve already made that clear, that you feel somehow left out. Truth be told, while most Spanish people have a grasp of who San Fernando was, he is somewhat eclipsed by his son, Alfonso X “el sabio” (the wise) and by his impressive mother, Queen Berenguela – of whom I’ve written in a previous post. Unfair, one might think, given just how much of Moorish Spain Fernando managed to reconquer.
Prior to digging into Fernando’s life, maybe we should start by a very, very brief overview of what the Spanish label “La Reconquista.” In the beginning of the 8th century, the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula, leaping over from North Africa to work themselves determinedly north. The Moors were on a holy mission – spreading the word of God as per Muhammed and the Koran – but I dare say there was a substantial amount of covetousness as well, the rich lands of southern Iberia offering a good life to whoever ruled it.
In 732, the Moorish expansion north came to an abrupt stop after their defeat by Charlemagne at the battle of Tours. By then, they’d subjugated large chunks of the Iberian Peninsula, and so they retired to construct their own little kingdoms or caliphates. Did not go down well with the remnant Catholic kingdoms in present day Spain. Rather the reverse, actually.
Already in 722, a gentleman by the name of Pelayo had roundly defeated the Moors attempting to conquer Asturias at the battle of Covadonga. In effect, the Reconquista – i.e. the reconquering of previously Christian land now held by the Muslim Moors – began at Covadonga, although for many, many years it was not exactly hugely successful, rather more a determined effort to ensure the survival of the few Christian strongholds left. Asturias, Navarra, Galicia, León and Castilla – small kingdoms that hung on, expanding slowly but safely.
And then, in the 11th century, along came Rodrigo Díaz, El Campeador – more commonly known as El Cid, the dude who had his dead body strapped to his horse so as to instil courage in his men at the Siege of Valencia. With their dead lord astride his horse, Babieca, the starving and desperate defenders of Valencia rode forth in one last desperate attempt to lift the siege. All very beautiful and tragic, with the Christians carrying the day but losing the siege… Prior to riding about as a corpse, Díaz had spent most of his life in battle. He was Castillian and started out serving king Sancho II as battle commander. Part of his duty involved defeating Sancho’s brothers (who both wanted a piece of the pie), so when Sancho died (some say murdered by orders of his brother Alfonso VI) Rodrigo had to flee Castilla and ended up fighting for the Moors – at least for a while. All very complicated and quite exciting, but the end result was that in El Cid, the Christians in Spain had found their national hero, someone to inspire them when hope failed.
The Reconquista went on. There were some set-backs, such as the disastrous Battle of Alarcos in 1195, where yet another Alfonso, this time nr VIII, saw his entire army more or less crushed by the Moors. Castile was in shock, but Alfonso was not about to give up, and in 1212, he decisively defeated the Moors at the Battle of Las Naves de Tolosa, thereby securing the borders of his Castile, no matter that most of southern Spain remained under Moorish control.
Alfonso VIII is a good starting point for Fernando, seeing as he’s Fernando’s grandfather. He married Eleanor of England in 1174, and this was a successful and happy marriage, except for one thing: there were to be no surviving sons. Daughters, however, there were aplenty.
One of them, Blanche of Castile, was married to the French king and became the mother of St Louis of France. The eldest, Berenguela, suffered an unhappy and very, very complicated marriage and became the mother of Fernando. Unfortunately for Fernando, his parents’ union was not approved by the pope, so our young prince was actually an illegitimate prince, and therefore not entirely sure of his place in the world.
Berenguela had no such qualms. When in 1217 her baby brother, Enrique, died after an unfortunate accident at the age of thirteen, she became queen of Castile by right. Yes, there had been other ruling queens in castile before Berenguela, but in general the Castilian noblemen preferred a real man at the helm. So Berenguela smiled sweetly, said “Si, mis estimados caballeros,” and abdicated – on behalf of her seventeen-year-old son, Fernando. And while Fernando might have been formally illegitimate this was considered mostly a technicality by his noblemen, a silly attempt by the pope to pull rank on them, the fiercest defenders of the faith around.
One person was very miffed by Berenguela’s speedy actions: Fernando’s father, Alfonso of León. Why? Because Alfonso had a legitimate claim on the Castilian throne (his father was Alfonso VIIIs uncle) Instead of congratulating his son, Alfonso therefore made war on him, but thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Berenguela, some sort of peace was quickly brokered.
By 1224, Fernando III was safe on his throne in Burgos, twiddling his thumbs. Well, maybe not precisely, but undoubtedly he shone up like a sun when news reached him of the bloody infighting among the Almohad rulers of Moorish Spain. Here at last a chance to carve a name for himself, and seeing as daddy Alfonso was an experienced and extremely capable battle commander, son and father rode out together.
What followed was a twenty-year campaign. Fernando left the administrative duties to his capable mother, the raising of his children to his equally capable (and beloved) wife, Beatriz, strapped on armour, gripped his sword and rode forth to once and for all cleanse Spain of the infidel – hence his status as a saintly Christian king defending the faith. It helped that the infidel were caught up in bloody internal strife, but undoubtedly Fernando was a skilled general, leading his troops to one victory after the other.
In 1230 Alfonso of León died. To judge from his will, he’d not quite forgiven Berenguela and Fernando for cheating him out of Castile, which was why he willed his kingdom to his daughters by his first wife. Fernando was having none of it. He wanted León, desired to add it to Castile permanently. With the help of his formidable mother, an agreement was drawn up whereby Fernando became king and his half-sisters were compensated with money. The kingdoms of León and Castile were thereby united, never again to be split apart.
In between all this fighting and feuding, Fernando found the time to remarry when his first wife died in 1235 after having given him ten children. Actually, it was Berenguela who acted very quickly to ensure her virile son had new welcoming arms in the marital bed – the Castilian kings had a reputation for lechery, and she wasn’t about to have her Fernandito succumb to such vices. Much better he find relief for his carnal desires with a wife – which he did, his second wife giving him a further five children.
Now and then, he had his numerous family come and stay with him in his camps. Eleanor of Castile, future wife to Edward I, likely spent a lot of her childhood in one tent or the other, and was no stranger to strenuous travelling, to battle wounds, blood and gore. Eleanor’s eldest brother, the future Alfonso X, was often at his father’s side, a trusted commander in the victorious Castilian army that, bit by bit, ate its way into formerly Moorish lands.
One by one, the Moorish strongholds fell: Jaén, Córdoba, Murcia… Castile was growing at an impressive rate, and soon enough there were only two major Moorish strongholds left: Granada and Seville. With Granada, Fernando reached an agreement whereby the rulers of Granda would recognise him as their overlord and pay him a huge annual tribute. Thereby, the Moors of Granada bought themselves a further two centuries on Spanish land – the last Moorish king, Boabdil, was expelled by The Catholic Kings, Isabel and Fernando, in 1492 , formally concluding the Reconquista.
With Sevilla, things were a bit different. This huge sprawling city had support from their Muslim brethren in North Africa, and the Gudalquivir river which runs through Seville was deep enough to allow ships to sail all the way into it, bringing troops and food and weapons and whatnot. So Fernando decided he needed a little navy to stop the Moorish ships and ordered a certain Ramón de Bonifaz to get this navy thing going. Ramón found 13 ships of relevant size, and a naval battle ensued on the Guadalquivir. The Christians were victorious, and Fernando settled down to besiege Seville into submission, arranging his troops along the land side, seeing as his navy patrolled the entry to the Guadalquivir.
The Sevillanos were not yet beaten. Since centuries back, there was an old floating bridge (present day Puente de Triana) over the Guadalquivir, and while Boniface’s ships ensured no help came via the sea, the emir of a nearby city smuggled goods over the floating bridge, all the way to the water gate of the besieged city. Once Fernando found out, he ordered his navy to destroy the bridge, which involved breaking the massive chains that held the bridge and its various components in place. Seville was thereby lost, and in November of 1248 its emir prostrated himself before Fernando and presented him with the keys to the city.
I dare say it grieved Fernando that by then his mother was no longer around to rejoice with him. Berenguela had died in 1246, and as to Fernando, all those years of constant fighting had taken their toll, no matter that his efforts had essentially rid Spain of all Moors but those in Granada – and more than doubled the size of his kingdom. Far more importantly (at least from the perspective of these medieval knights), wherever Fernando and his men rode forth, they re-established the Holy Church, thereby reclaiming Spain to the Christian faith. God, they said, had given Fernando the gifts required to reconquer Spain – Fernando was but God’s instrument. He seems to have agreed, and so as to spread the word and bring his infidel subjects to the “right” faith, he founded friaries throughout the conquered territories – Fernando was a big fan of the mendicant orders.
To be fair to Fernando, he wasn’t all about war and religion. He was a fan of music and poetry, was more than happy to arrange and participate in tournaments and feasts. An eager proponent of learning (just like his father), he ensured his children were all excellently educated, and was more than happy to employ troubadors and painters, architects and masons. Just like his son, Fernando was quick to appreciate the beauty of Moorish culture, and it is said that during the siege of Seville, the inhabitants were warned that they would all have their throats cut should they damage as much as one tile on the magnificent mosque. Obviously, this was because he intended to convert the mosque to a church, but his interest in Moorish culture went beyond appropiation- he genuinely admired their technological advances in agriculture, enjoyed their lifestyle and their food.
In 1252, Fernando felt death approaching. It is said he immediately sent for his children and wife, wanting to speak to them one last time. His sons, his daughters, his weeping wife – they all assembled as requested, as did various monks and priests. It was time to divest himself of earthly goods and glory, prepare himself for his meeting with God, and Fernando asked for a crucifix and a rope.
He placed the rope around his neck and repeatedly beat his chest with the crucifix. He took Holy Communion, divested himself of his clothes until he was only in shirt and rope – a humble penitent, no more, prostrate before the greatness of God. He was fading fast, shared some words of final advice with his son and heir, and then, after having expressed his gratitude to God who had given him so much, he died. He was not much more than fifty-two years old, had spent more than half his life on the battlefield, left behind a strengthened and united realm, and a bevy of children.
Fernando was buried in Seville, in the former mosque turned cathedral. He lies beneath the statue of the virgin he was supposedly given by his cousin St Louis, and despite expressing a wish for a simple memorial, Fernando’s tomb is a magnificent piece of work – Alfonso X believed in pomp and circumstance. In 1671, the Conquering King was canonised, but by then he was already San Fernando to many, many Spanish people, many of whom had set out to do their own Conquista – that of the New World.