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The life and loves of Felipe II

Felipe King_PhilipII_of_Spain

Felipe II

If you ask a Spanish person who Felipe II was, they’ll likely tell you he was a great and learned king who rebuilt the Escorial, had major issues with his insane eldest son but managed to do his duty and father a (relatively) healthy heir, Felipe III. In passing, they may mutter something about constant wars in the Netherlands and a rather unsuccessful naval venture.

If you ask an English person the same thing you may of course get a blank look and a “Philip who?” reply. But if there’s one historical period (inexplicably so, IMO) most English people have some knowledge of it is the Elizabethan period, and one of the major, major events during Elizabeth I’s reign was Philip’s attempt to invade England. As we all know, the Spanish Armada in 1588 was not “a rather unsuccessful naval venture”. It was a major catastrophe for Spain, wiping out I don’t know how many ships and men.

The Armada was not Philip II’s first contact with England. In 1554 he had married Mary, Elizabeth’s older half-sister. While Mary was very much in love with her much younger husband, Philip married for political reasons and likely closed his eyes and thought of England on those few occasions when he fulfilled his husbandly duties.

One could think, based on this, that Philip had a special affinity for England, that his heart and soul longed to be an Englishman. I’m sorry to break this to you, but from Philip’s perspective, England was pretty insignificant – this was a man with more titles than would fit on the fly leaf of a Bible, ruler of a huge empire. No, Philip’s interest in England emanated from his irritation with this pesky Protestant kingdom and its determined support to those equally pesky Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands.

EHFA Philip_IIPhilip II comes down to us through the years as something of a bore. Too stiff, too dour, too fond of black…Rarely does anyone mention his impressive library in El Escorial, where the books were turned the wrong way so that instead of spines, the visitors saw only gold-edged pages. Philip knew exactly where each book was anyway. Rarely does anyone mention that Philip had read a substantial part of all those books – conversant in multiple languages, raised to rule, and from a family that set a high value on schooling their princes, Philip had received an excellent and thorough education. And rarely does anyone mention his other wives, his problems with his children, his affectionate letters to his daughters, his carefully chosen gifts to both his children and his wives – or his gruesome death.

So today, I thought we’d spend some time with Philip – or Felipe el Prudente, as those of us who speak Castilian prefer to call him. (And I will stick to his Spanish name for the rest of the post)

In 1527, Felipe was born as the eldest son of Carlos I & V, that powerful Holy Roman Emperor who championed his aunt, Catherine of Aragon against her hubby Henry VIII (see? Another, if indirect, English connection) and ruled an empire so vast the sun never set on it.

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Felipe’s mother – a beautiful lady (Titian) 

Carlos married Felipe’s mother Isabel of Portugal (who also happened to be Carlos’ cousin) to keep his Spanish grandees happy. He himself was in no hurry to wed, but by all accounts he was happy with his Portuguese wife, and his son and heir was raised in a harmonious household. Once again, to appease those Spanish grandees, Felipe was raised in Spain, speaking Castilian as his first language.

Felipe was a serious man – and somewhat shy. Already as a boy, his distinguishing characteristic was his sense of duty. Duty to his father, duty to his mother, duty to his tutors – and as he grew, this would morph into duty to his country, to his family and wives. Rarely did Felipe do something for himself. Never did he caper about while warbling “don’t worry, be happy.” In Felipe’s strictly regimented life, happy was not something a serious man aspired to, and as to worry, well Felipe always worried. About being good enough. About the lack of sons. About the situation in England. About the Spanish Netherlands. About God. About the state of his linens – Felipe had an abhorrence of anything dirty and was meticulous about his hygiene. Major plus, if you ask me…

Carlos tried to teach Felipe everything he knew about ruling an empire consisting of various people, various languages, various cultures. There was one fundamental difference between them: Carlos had been raised in the polyglot court of his aunt Margaret of Austria, had as a matter of course been exposed to various creeds, various cultures. Felipe, on the other hand, had been raised in the tender care of devout Catholics in a rather xenophobic country. Let’s just say that Felipe’s upbringing left him somewhat less…flexible.

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Maria Manuela

When Carlos arranged Felipe’s first marriage with Princess Maria Manuela of Portugal, Felipe of course agreed. As an aside, being a prince – just as much as being a princess – meant little say in who you married. Royal marriage was for building alliances and consolidating power, not for something as ephemeral as love.

Anyway: Maria Manuela and Felipe were of an age – both of them were sixteen – and liked each other. They were also very closely related: Maria’s mother was Felipe’s paternal aunt, and Felipe’s mother was Maria’s paternal aunt, plus Felipe’s maternal grandmother was his father’s maternal aunt. Very complicated – and it didn’t help that the somewhat unstable bloodline of the Trástamara dynasty appeared all over the place. So when little Maria Manuela gave birth to a son in 1545, the baby had a DNA mix that resembled a Molotov cocktail. Even worse, Maria died in childbirth, and Felipe was left with a feeble if male heir but no wife.

Years passed. In England, that heretic of a king, the man who’d broken with the Holy Church finally died – and it was Felipe’s conviction Henry VIII was destined for hell. As we all know, Henry’s son was not long for this world, and in 1553, Mary Tudor became queen of England. Holy Roman Emperor Carlos made happy sounds, as did the Pope. At last an opportunity to bring England back into the fold of the true faith! At the time, Mary was in her late thirties and wanted an heir of impeccable Catholic lineage. Carlos slid a look at his son – at the time 27 or so – slid a look at Mary, and suggested they wed, despite being cousins. Well: it was suggested to Mary. Felipe was ordered to comply with daddy’s wishes.

Felipe_of_Spain_and_MariaTudor-2Mary was over the moon. Handsome Felipe had everything she desired in a bridegroom. Whether the groom was as thrilled is debatable. His aide wrote that “the marriage was concluded for no fleshly consideration” but as always Felipe set his shoulders and proceeded to do his duty. In this case, his duty was to preserve control over the Low Countries. A fiercely Protestant England had offered succour to the Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands, but now, with Mary and Felipe firmly in charge, such safe harbours no longer existed.

Mary very much wanted a child. Here, yet again, Felipe did his duty, but despite hope, prayers and effort there was no child – there was just a phantom pregnancy. Felipe seems to have doubted all along that Mary was pregnant, and after the sad matter had come to an end, he left his bride for the restless Low Countries. Mary was inconsolable. What Felipe felt is unknown, but he was courteous enough to bid his wife a tender farewell.


The young (and pretty) Elizabeth

We are now in 1555, and this is when Felipe supposedly was starting to regard Elizabeth Tudor as a potential replacement for her sister. Hmm. At the time, Mary was not yet forty, and while barren there was nothing to suggest she was about to die anytime soon. Felipe enjoyed Elizabeth’s company – he liked intelligent and erudite women – and Elizabeth came with the added plus of being younger than Felipe rather than eleven years older. But there were issues regarding Elizabeth’s faith, and Felipe would never consider marrying a Protestant – his soul shrieked in pain at the thought.

In 1556, Carlos abdicated in favour of his son and brother. Felipe became king of Spain and all its dominions, his uncle became the next Holy Roman Emperor, based in the historical homeland of the Hapsburgs, namely Austria.

Mary’s reign was plagued by famine, by her cleansing of the heretics among her subjects, by dwindling trade as her Spanish husband forbade her from doing anything detrimental to Spain. Of course her subjects grumbled, and there were risings aplenty. To complicate things further, France and Spain were at loggerheads, so France considered England an enemy too. Felipe wanted England’s help in defeating the French to show them just who was the most important Catholic monarch in the world. That’s why Felipe popped by on a short visit in 1557 – to convince Mary to support war with France. Mary hoped this conjugal visit would lead to other things, and lo and behold, some months later Mary declared herself pregnant. Yet again, a phantom pregnancy…

Poor Mary – no child, no loving husband, just a cool political union as expressed by Philip’s rather laconic comment upon hearing about Mary’s death in 1558. “I feel reasonable regret.”

By now, Felipe had other matters to handle, first and foremost the situation in France. And then there was the matter of his son, Don Carlos, all of thirteen and showing worrying signs of mental instability. Don Carlos had been proposed as a groom for Elizabeth of Valois, this as an attempt to heal the rift between France and Spain. Felipe went one step further and offered to marry Elizabeth himself, despite an age difference of almost twenty years.

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Elizabeth of Valois

By all accounts, this was a happy marriage. Felipe was a devoted husband, entranced by his pretty and vivacious wife. She stood by his side during that most difficult time in his life, when his son went from bad to worse until at last Felipe had no option but to incarcerate Don Carlos, by now mad as a hatter. Felipe’s wife might have been young, but she was wise, and in her company he found comfort and hope – plus she gave him children. Daughters, to be sure, but healthy living children. A son would surely follow. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Elizabeth died in childbirth – yet another girl, stillborn, and Felipe was devastated.

By now we’re in 1568, and while relationships with France remained coolly cordial, Philip now had another mess on his hands: the Low Countries had risen in insurrection, protesting the heavy yoke of Spanish taxes and demanding the right to embrace the Protestant faith. England, of course, hastened to the aid of their religious brethren. Felipe was pissed off, putting it mildly. Here he’d been advocating a lenient approach towards the upstart English and their Protestant queen, urging the Pope to not do anything hasty, and this is how the English dogs repaid him?

On top of the utter political mess in the Spanish Netherlands, plus the rather urgent matter of halting Ottoman expansion into Europe, Felipe had the pressing matter of begetting an heir, which was why he married his niece, Anne of Austria, in 1570. (Yes: those Hapsburgs had a predilection for keeping things in the family – unfortunately)


Anne of Austria

Anne was yet another young bride, more than twenty years his junior, but just like Elizabeth she was affectionate and kind, and Felipe was as happy with her as he’d been with his French princess. Anne gave him sons – beautiful boys, and at last Felipe had his heir, the Infante Fernando. He died at age six of dysentery. A grief-struck father consoled himself with the fact that there was the Infante Diego to take the dead son’s place. Except that four years later he also died, this time of small-pox. Fortunately, there was one son left, little Felipe. Not that baby Felipe was the son his father would have hoped for, being small and sickly, but at least he was alive.

Anne died in 1580, leaving Felipe a widower for the fourth time. He was never to re-marry. Instead, he invested his efforts in his children and his empire, a lot of his energy directed at pacifying the Dutch now that the Ottomans had been adequately crushed at Lepanto in 1571.

In England, Elizabeth encouraged support to the Dutch, quietly applauded English pirates when they attacked the treasure-laden Spanish galleons, and in general caused Philip much irritation. However, he chose to do nothing. Why? Well, as Elizabeth had no children the obvious heir to the English crown was Mary, Queen of Scots, at present Elizabeth’s prisoner and a devout Catholic. A light in the tunnel for Catholics everywhere, was Mary – a light brutally extinguished when Elizabeth was prevailed upon to sign the execution order for her cousin in 1587.

Felipe Invincible_ArmadaThe situation in the Spanish Netherlands went from bad to worse, and with Mary dead, there was no hope the English would come to their senses and turn from their heretic faith. No, it fell upon Felipe to take responsibility for their souls – and, while he was at it, effectively squash all support for the Dutch reformers – which was why he decided to send the Armada to invade England and once and for all reinstate the Catholic faith. We all know how that ended, don’t we?

Today, we tend to measure Felipe by his few failures rather than his numerous successes. Partly because he was who he was, partly because of his turn-coat secretary Antonio Perez, generations of Europeans have been fed an image of Felipe as a cold-hearted fanatic who delighted in seeing heretics twist in torment. Felipe has become a victim to the Black Legend, whereby Spain – and Felipe – are depicted as infested by evil. Felipe has been accused of killing his own son, of strangling prisoners with his own hands. He has been defamed and ridiculed – even in his own lifetime – and rarely has anyone risen to defend him, least of all Felipe himself, who chose to never respond to the more ludicrous of Perez’ accusations.

Felipe_II,_King_of_Spain_from_NPGI would argue Felipe was much more than this: in his private letters, we see a man who concerned himself greatly with the well-being of those he loved. In how he managed his empire, we see a man who eschewed absolute power, attempting instead to ensure there were robust controls in place. Genuinely devout, he quelled some of the more fanatic aspects of the Counter-Reformation, he encouraged learning and education and brought Spain firmly out of the Middle Ages. Yes, he was the enemy of Protestants champions such as William the Silent. But he was equally the hero of his Catholic subjects, the determined defender of Europe against the Ottomans, and a man who always tried to do his duty. Always. Not, IMO, a bad epitaph.

In 1598, an old and weakened Felipe fell ill. By now, he was a lonely old man – of his eleven children only tree remained alive, and his favourite daughter had recently died, the single recorded occasion when Felipe gave in to open despair, cursing fate for taking his loved ones from him. For 55 days, the king lay dying, covered in pustules and weeping sores. It was impossible to keep him clean so he lay in his stinking waste—a humiliating death for a man who abhorred being dirty. He died clutching the same crucifix his father had held when he died. At the moment of his death he was lucid, and it is said he saw Death coming and smiled in welcome, free at last from this life of duty and sorrows – so many, many sorrows.

The Silent Man who Founded a Nation

William the silent Philip_II_of_Spain_berating_William_the_Silent_Prince_of_Orange_by_Cornelis_Kruseman

Today’s protagonist, William, to the right. Philip II to the left

It is an obvious challenge for someone as vocal as myself to approach the historical gentleman known as William the Silent. Given the times he lived in, holding his tongue was probably a wise move – not that it ultimately helped. Still, let us not get to the end before we’ve even touched upon the beginning, which is why I hereby grab you, my dear reader, by the scruff of your neck and pull you straight back to 1533.

Now, by 1533, Europe was no longer the harmonious continent it used to be (kidding: Europe has seldom been harmonious). In fact, since 1517, Europe was being rent apart for religious reasons, some countries clinging to the Old Faith, a.k.a. the Holy Roman Church, others embracing Protestantism in one of its many forms. After all, Protestants was an umbrella term encompassing various new versions of the Christian faith, from Calvinists to Lutherans and onwards.

People who convert to (or adopt) a new faith are generally very intense about their beliefs. So, as a consequence of the Reformation sparked by Luther on the last day of October 1517, religious fervour swept the European nations. Those who chose to remain Catholic experienced a resurge of devoutness as they took a stand against the heretics, and thing in general became very tense.

William the silent father Willemderijke

William Sr

William, Count of Nassau, and his wife Juliana were among those very devout, very intense Lutherans. In 1533, Juliana gave birth to the first of their twelve children, a boy named William after his father.

Our young William grew up in a big family who took their Lutheran religion very seriously. But in 1544, little William’s cousin, Rene of Chalon, Prince of Orange died. He had named William as his heir with the condition that he be raised a Catholic. Now, one would have thought that for such devout people as William Sr and his wife, the thought of having one of their children raised a papist was anathema. Not so. Taking a leaf out of Henri IV’s book (except, of course, that Henri IV had yet to appear on the French stage) William Sr obviously concluded that a principality was worth a mass or two. And it was a LOT of land, both in France and present-day Germany as well as in the Netherlands. In one fell swoop, the Nassau family became truly important, adding a hyphen and Orange to their family name. Today, the Orange-Nassau line still sits on the Dutch throne, and William remains a preferred family name.

William the silent Mary_(1505–1558),_Queen_of_Hungary

Mary of Hapsburg, Queen of Hungary

What William himself thought of all this is unknown, but being an obedient lad he did as his father wished, bid his large family farewell, and went first to Breda, then to Brussels, to be properly educated in his new faith under the supervision of Mary of Hapsburg, one of those rather impressive female relatives of Emperor Charles V (in this case she was Charles’ sister) whom he liked to place in positions of great power. In fact, Charles V can be viewed as something of a trailblazer when it comes to gender equality, but that is probably the subject for another post.

Now as William was a minor, all his new vast lands were managed by Charles V who also ensured William was properly educated. Clearly, there was a strong bond between William and Charles—I guess William saw in the Emperor a second father.

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Anna, wife nr 1

By the time William turned eighteen, he had become an exemplary Catholic and a much-admired up-and-coming young man. Four years later, he was made commander of one of the Emperor’s armies, which, I presume, indicates William was quite good at the martial stuff. By then, William was a married man and father, having married his first wife, Anna van Egmond in 1551. It was a happy marriage, but unfortunately Anna died already in 1558. A difficult year for William, who not only lost his wife but his mentor, Charles V.

Philip II of Spain trusted William as implicitly as his father had done, and by the end of 1559, William was not only in control of his own various lands, but also the Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland and Utrecht. Obviously, Philip expected William to be adequately grateful and toe the imperial line when it came to policies and religion, but William was having second thoughts about his Catholicism—even more so when Philip unleashed the Inquisition in Spanish Netherlands.

Even worse, in 1559 William discovered a secret. While in France as a hostage, William was invited to ride out with Henri II on a hunt. Now Henri was all chatty, sharing with William the not-so-appetizing fact that he and Philip II had a secret alliance.
“Mmm,” William said. (This is supposedly the incident which gave him his nickname, hence the monosyllabic response)
“Well, you already know, don’t you?” Henri continued.
“Mmm,” came the enigmatic reply. Henri went on to describe that the purpose of his and Philip’s collaboration was to exterminate all Protestants. Violently. That did not sit well with William—after all, most of his family were Lutherans, as were many of the people living in his domains.

According to Apology, a text William published in 1581, this was when he realised he could no longer side with the Spanish king. Soon enough, he had become the leader of the Dutch rebels, thereby instigating a period of conflicts that would last for eighty years (which is probably why it is called..ta-daa…the Eighty Years’ War).

William Avsachsen

Anna, wife nr 2

One indication of his new loyalties was his choice of a second wife. Anna of Saxony was impeccably Lutheran (and very rich) She was also not the easiest of women, prone to tantrums, depressions and an over-consumption of alcohol. But the marriage gave William valuable connections in Germany—connections he needed to take on the might of the Spanish Empire.

By 1567, William was persona non grata in the Hapsburg domains – sort of comes with the territory if you lead a rebellion. Even worse, his eldest son, Philip, had been seized by the Spanish and sent to Spain as a hostage. William would never see him again. Furthermore, his Dutch estates were confiscated which meant he depended on his wife’s wealth to tide him over. She had just given birth to their third child, having recuperated after an attempted suicide after the death of their first son. She was worried about their financial status and this resulted in quarrels and discord.

William escaped from all this by throwing himself into the religious wars, spending months away from home. In retaliation, his wife contracted a lawyer, a certain Jan Reubens, to help her claim her jointure from what little remained of William’s estates.

800px-William_I,_Prince_of_Orange_by_Adriaen_Thomasz._Key_Rijksmuseum_Amsterdam_SK-A-3148 (1)

William himself. A rather handsome man, IMO

Anna and Jan hit it off, so when William came home for a visit he was surprised to find his wife pregnant. Major scandal, although I suspect that in secret William punched the air and said “Yes!” Finally he had the means with which to push through a divorce from his difficult wife. Said and done, and as Anna’s family were utterly disgusted by her adultery poor Anna spent her last years locked up in a room reinforced with bars at the window and the door. She died in 1577, and was, sadly, not much missed.

By then, William had married for the third time. He had also had some success against the Spanish, plus he’d eschewed his Catholic faith and instead declared himself a Calvinist which could be considered opportunistic but probably reflected his true religious preferences. This didn’t exactly endear him to the Spanish, and the somewhat extreme views of the Calvinists regarding Catholics in general led to a partition of the Spanish Netherlands, where the southern provinces (more or less present-day Belgium) remained Spanish, while the northern provinces signed the Union of Utrecht, thereby laying the grounds for present-day Netherlands. William was not happy with this partition. He felt all the provinces should be ruled as one entity, but he didn’t have the resources with which to oust the Spanish, and years and years of warfare had worn him down.

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Charlotte wife nr 3

If he was less than satisfied with what was happening with the Spanish Netherlands, he was extremely happy with his new wife. Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier had been raised by a mother who leaned towards the Reformed religion but was forcibly made a nun at the age of thirteen. Instead of accepting her fate this spirited lady escaped from the convent, declared herself a Calvinist and fled to the Electorate of the Palatinate. She and William hit it off from day one, and over the course of six years she gave him as many daughters, the eldest of whom would go on to become the ancestress of the House of Hanover.

In 1580, Philip formally outlawed William. The Spanish king was sick to death of the stubborn Dutch and especially of William. What do you do when you just need someone to disappear? Well, you put out a contract on him, which is just what Philip II did, offering a minor fortune to whoever assassinated that foul outlaw, William the Silent.

In 1581, the Northern Provinces declared that they no longer recognised Philip II as their king. Instead, the fledgling state pronounced William their stadtholder. A very determined Spanish bounty hunter ambushed William in Antwerp. His injuries were life-threatening, and for some time, his life hung in the balance. The dedicated efforts of his wife and sister kept him alive, but unfortunately this dedication came at a cost, and an exhausted Charlotte died in May of 1582. William was devastated—but had no choice but to soldier on, for the sake of his subjects and family.

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Louise, wife nr 4

I think that when Charlotte died, life lost some of its vibrancy for William. But he still had a duty to fulfil, and albeit that he had a full nursery, he only had one son at home, his eldest being held in Spain. One son was not enough—anything could happen to an adolescent boy—so in 1583 William decided to marry again. This bride was also French, a Huguenot named Louise de Coligny who’d lost her first husband and her father in the St Bartholomew massacre. Nine months after the wedding, a son was born.

Unfortunately, William was not destined to enjoy life with his new wife and son for long. A certain Balthasar Gerard had made it his mission in life to rid the world of William. Gerard was a Catholic and a most loyal subject of Philip II. According to Gerard, William was a disgusting traitor, a man best erased from the surface of the earth. His plan was simple: earn William’s trust and then kill him. So in 1584 he presented himself at William’s court, pretending to be a French noble. He also offered to travel to France on William’s behalf and deliver messages to various of William’s allies.

Some months later, Gerard reappeared in Delft and requested a meeting with William. When William entered the room, Gerard produced two wheel-lock pistols and shot William at close range. William thereby became the first head of state in history to be assassinated with a handgun, a distinction I suspect he would have preferred not to have.

There is another version of how William was murdered, whereby Gerard simply loitered in the vicinity of the Prince’s residence, armed with two wheel-lock pistols he had bought off one of William’s soldiers. When William paused to talk to one of his Welsh soldiers, Gerard took the opportunity to shoot him and then fled, pursued by the Welshman. Both versions agree on William being shot.

Gerard fled but was apprehended before he made it out of Delft. So instead of living the good life in Costa de Sol at the Spanish king’s expense, Gerard suffered through horrific torture and one of the most extended and brutal executions in history. First, he had his right hand burned off with a red-hot iron. Then he had huge pincers ripping flesh off his body in six different places after which he was quartered while still alive, disembowelled, had his heart cut out and thrown in his face before he was beheaded. The beheading was probably unnecessary—I don’t think anyone survives being quartered.

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17th c depiction of William’s grave

As to William, he was buried in Nieuwe Kerk, Delft. Since then, most of his descendants have joined him there, generation after generation of Orange-Nassau men and women, including all Dutch monarchs. His original grave was a modest affair, but in the early 17th century our William was already considered some sort of Founding Father, and accordingly it was decided he needed an impressive monument. Like really impressive.

Other than liberty and all his descendants, William has bequeathed the Dutch not only an obvious connection to the colour orange but also their flag and their national anthem, the Wilhelmus, which began its days as a little ditty sung back in William’s day. This makes the Dutch national anthem the oldest in the world (with the possible exception of the Japanese anthem). It is also an anthem I know how to sing, thanks to lovely Dutch friends. But that, dear peeps, is neither here nor there.

When a Spanish señorita set an English princely heart aflutter

There are many things one can say about Charles, James I’s second son, the rather uninteresting and sickly spare that was destined to live forever in the shadow of his beloved and admired older brother Henry Fredrick.
One could call him lucky, seeing as big brother died in typhoid fever, thereby making Charles the heir.
One could call him unlucky, in that his reign was to end with his own beheading – to a large extent caused by Charles’ obdurate take on the divine right of kings.
One could call him elegant, a good father and a loving husband. Some would say he was priggish and small-minded. Rarely would one call him flamboyant or daring. And yet, there is one incident in Charles’ early life that speaks of a desire for adventure, a streak of recklessness. I am, of course, talking about the infamous Spanish affair.

EHFA MAurice Der_junge_Friedrich_V._C-B_011 (1)


Long before there was a Spanish affair, there was the Bohemian debacle. In 1613, Charles’ older sister, Elizabeth Stuart, had married Frederick, Count of the Palatinate Rhine – or Elector Palatinate for short. A wedding mainly contracted for political reasons quickly blossomed into a passionate love-affair, and Elizabeth was head-over-heels with her staunch Protestant German prince. Frederick was of impeccable bloodlines, related with more or less every single royal house in Europe, and the young couple seemed destined for a happy, fruitful union, bringing squalling sons into the world at very regular intervals.

So what does this have to do with Spain? Well, at the time, Europe was a patchwork quilt of loyalties, and ever since the Reformation a century or so before, these loyalties had been realigned, redesigned and generally moved around, creating a political instability equivalent to that of a grumbling volcano.

In 1619, the Holy Roman Emperor Matthias II died. A man who tempered his own Catholic beliefs with a sizeable dose of pragmatism, Matthias had promoted a tolerant approach to the Protestants living within his empire. His successor and cousin, Ferdinand II, was much more hard-core and had every intention of eradicating Protestant influence in his empire. Out with those dastardly heretics ASAP, ensuring the Holy Roman Empire lived up to its name and reputation as the staunchest of staunch Catholic strongholds. Obviously, this did not go down well with his Protestant subjects. It definitely raised the hackles of the Bohemian nobles – not only were many of them Protestants, but Ferdinand II was a great believer in absolute monarchy, thereby over-riding the hereditary rights of the Bohemian nobles to have a substantial say in their government.

Elizabeth,_Queen_of_Bohemia_from_NPG 1613

Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia

Being creative, the Bohemian nobles decided to fall back on their right to choose their own monarch (a right that had not been much exercised over the last few centuries seeing as the Holy Roman Emperors tended to dislike such open displays of rebelliousness) and invited Frederick to take the crown. Frederick was hesitant. His wife wasn’t. Elizabeth wanted a crown, and besides, this was an opportunity for her beloved Freddy to show his prowess and defend his co-religionists. After some hemming and hawing, Frederick accepted the crown and was formally installed as King of Bohemia in November of 1619.

Ferdinand II was not about to tolerate such disobedience from his Bohemian subjects. Who did they think they were, hey? So in November of 1620, the Holy Roman Emperor’s forces (including a large number of Spanish soldiers) trounced those of Frederick at the Battle of White Mountain. The first pitched battle of the Thirty Years’ War had thereby been fought, and Ferdinand and his armies would go on to aggravate most of Protestant Europe for (taa-daa) thirty more years, give or take. For Frederick and Elizabeth, the effects were far more immediate: after one year, they’d been ousted from their thrones and forced into exile.

This is where Spain comes into play. Ferdinand II was a Hapsburg. The Spanish royals were also Hapsburgs. The two branches of the Hapsburg family were very close, as testified by their preference for marrying each other. They were also undoubtedly the most powerful royals in Europe (for a little while longer) and James I had long nurtured the hope of uniting his family with the Hapsburgs, thereby creating an impressive alliance between England and Spain that would effectively crush France between them. Clearly, once James added the English crown to his Scottish one he set little store on the “Auld Alliance”, that very old pact between France and Scotland against England.


Henry Frederick

Originally, James’ intention had been to wed Henry Frederick to a Spanish Infanta. Given just how fervently Protestant Henry Frederick was, and how fiercely Catholic the Spanish royals were, that would probably have been a rather unhappy match. In actual fact, it is rather odd that the Spanish Ambassador to England even suggested the match. After all, he – and his royal master, Felipe III of Spain – would have known the pope would never give the dispensation required for a princess of such august Catholic blood to wed an upstart heretic. Unless said heretic converted, of course. “When hell freezes over,” would likely have been dear Henry Frederick’s reply to that suggestion.

Henry Frederick died, the formerly so disregarded Charles was installed as Prince of Wales in 1616, and the hope of a Spanish alliance still lived. Ambassador Gondomar sweetened the deal by offering a huge dowry – large enough that James could do without that pesky Parliament, at least for a while. All the Spanish wanted in return was for England to throw out all that anti-Catholic legislation, such as Test Acts and the like, and stay well away from the turbulent situation in the Spanish Netherlands.

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James in all his glory

James considered himself a great statesman, and was probably more than flattered by the Spanish interest. Being possessed of the ability to ignore that which did not please him, he didn’t pay much regard to the heated protests from various subjects, along the lines that England had not defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 only to hop into bed with that popish whore of a nation four decades later.

After the Bohemia debacle, James had hopes that a Spanish match could lead to the Spanish Hapsburgs putting pressure on their Austrian cousins so as to reinstate Frederick and Elizabeth. In the aftermath of the Battle of White Mountain, James saw no option but to call a Parliament, hoping thereby to raise the funds required to help Frederick and Elizabeth retake what was rightfully theirs. Parliament was all over itself in its anti-Catholic furore, but saw no reason to expend any larger amounts of English tax money on the Elector and his wife. James was miffed. Even more so when Parliament argued for war with Spain, thereby threatening the potential Spanish match.

After months of arguing with Parliament, James dissolved it. He still had his heart set on the Spanish alliance, but we were now in 1621, Spain had a new king, there was a new pope, and James was also astute enough to realise that Parliament was, in effect, expressing the view of the English people when they opposed a marriage alliance with Spain. Besides, even James must have realised the religious differences between the Spanish and the English were too much of an obstacle.

King_Charles_I_by_Gerrit_van_Honthorst_smJames’s son, however, did not share his father’s defeatist view on the Spanish match. Neither did Prince Charles’ new bosom friend, George Villiers, the soon-to-be Duke of Buckingham. These two gentlemen decided to take matters in their own hands, and what better way to woo the reluctant Spanish Infanta than by popping in on a surprise visit?

At the time, royal courts worked to defined protocols. Compared to the formal Spanish court, James’s court was like a laid back two-week inclusive in the Caribbean. In Spain, one DID NOT pop by on a surprise visit, even less travelling under an alias. Such minor details did not deter our amorous prince. Charles and George chose (rather unimaginatively) to travel as Thomas and John Smith and set off in February of 1623, Charles determined to win his Spanish bride and return home a married (and richer) man.

Off they went, George and Charles, failing miserably at keeping the low profile required to even slip out of England unnoticed. At some point, Villiers had to reveal himself as the Lord Admiral he was, and only then were our two Mr Smiths allowed to step aboard the ship that was to take them to France. In Paris, they donned periwigs to disguise themselves, which worked surprisingly well, and so after some days of enjoying La belle France incognito, they set off south, riding hard for Madrid and the waiting Doña María Ana, Infanta of Spain and as Catholic as they came.

Mariana's mother Diego_Velázquez_-_Maria_Anna_of_Spain_-_Prado

Infanta María Ana

It seems no one had thought to investigate whether the purported bride had any interest in marrying the gallant English prince. María Ana was very devout, and would no more wed a heretic than she would one of the multiple flea-ridden urchins that prowled the streets of Madrid. Unless, of course, the young man in question were to convert, thereby ensuring María Ana a permanent place in heaven.

Early in March, Charles and George arrived in Madrid. As a matter of course, they went directly to the residence of the Earl of Bristol, England’s ambassador in Spain. The poor ambassador was shocked. Incensed. Aghast. Gobsmacked. All of these. Charles, however, was quite pleased with himself. From his perspective, all the needed to do was to meet his intended, charm her petticoats off, and that was it.

Spanish Infantas did not meet men outside their immediate family just like that. María Ana was no exception to the rule, and Charles’ request that he may be allowed to pay court in person was met with a polite but firm no. Disappointment must have etched deep lines in Charles’ face, because Felipe IV came up with a little plan whereby Charles would be able to see his intended without any breach of protocol.

In Spain, at the time there was a tradition called “hacer la rúa”, or “el paseo”. In essence, it meant people took to the outdoors, whether astride a horse, in a carriage or on foot, and made a pre-defined circuit, thereby upping the chances of running into someone you really wanted to meet. In Madrid, the route circled the Plaza Mayor, detoured round San Gerónimo, and ambled through El Prado (at the time a park, not an art museum). Buckingham and Charles were bundled into a carriage. María Ana was placed in another, accompanied by her brother’s queen, the pretty Isabel of Bourbon. By chance, as it were, these vehicles passed one another a couple of times. Enough for Charles to see bright blue eyes and a stray lock or two of golden hair. Not enough to exchange as much as a word.


Felipe IV

For five months, Felipe IV kept Charles hanging. James dispatched a retinue from England, Charles met frequently with Felipe IV and his closest advisor the Count of Olivares. He was feted in grand style, was acclaimed by the Spanish people who were rather taken by the English prince – even more so given that his mere presence in Spain reasonably indicated his intention to return to the True Faith.

There were banquets and balls, there were bull runs and afternoons at the Madrid playhouses, and not once was Charles allowed to spend as much as a moment alone with María Ana, the precious Infanta always impressively chaperoned, never more than an enticing promise.

In a grand gesture, Felipe IV released hundreds of English prisoners from his galleys, but smiled blandly whenever Charles pressed his suit, reminding the eager prince that he needed reassurances, promises that the English anti-Catholic legislation would be repealed, that María Ana would be allowed to worship in accordance with her conscience.

Charles (or his father) had no authority to agree to the Spanish terms – but they did, off the record, like. And still Felipe IV procrastinated. Even after James had signed the contract, Felipe hemmed and hawed, saying he couldn’t be parted from his dear sister until the promised changes had been made.

Truth was, Felipe never had the slightest intention of forcing his sister into marriage with Charles – but he negotiated with Charles as if he did, and all the while Spain was carefully jockeying for a more favourable position in the European conflicts, keeping England docile by waving the carrot of a potential marriage under Charles’ nose. As to the Elector, Felipe was not about to support a Protestant upstart against his Austrian uncle. Besides, Ferdinand II had a son, yet another Ferdinand, and María Ana would make an excellent Holy Roman Empress, wouldn’t she?

Eventually, Felipe came clean and admitted that his sister would not consider marrying Charles – unless he converted. To convert was not on the books as far as Charles was concerned. Humiliated and furious, Charles embarked on the long trip home, and his previously so warm feelings for fair María Ana, for Spain, were replaced by the conviction that nothing good could come from interacting with the accursed Hapsburgs – no matter how blue their Spanish eyes might be.

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Charles w Henrietta Maria

In 1625, James died, and Charles wasted little time in finding a new bride. This time, his eye fell on Henrietta Maria, French princess and just as fervent a Catholic as María Ana. And yet the English heaved a sigh of relief: at least their future queen wasn’t Spanish!

And as to that pretty Infanta, María Ana went on to marry her cousin Ferdinand III. One of her daughters, Mariana, would subsequently marry Felipe IV, María Ana’s brother. Not at all unusual among the Hapsburgs, to marry close relatives, but this time round all that inbreeding was to result in a number of short-lived babies and a seriously impaired heir – both mentally and physically.

As we all know, Charles I was not destined to live a long and happy life (very much due to his own incompetence), but he was fortunate in his wife, a loyal spouse who stood by him through thick and thin. To Charles, it mattered little that Henrietta Maria was Catholic. Sadly, to his subjects it most certainly did, and the little queen who was so warmly welcomed in 1625 would be viewed with suspicion as the English succumbed to an ever-growing hatred of all things papist. But that, as they say, is an entirely different story.

P.S. For those that, like me, are major Alatriste fans, Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s first book about this Spanish gent is centred round Charles’ spontaneous visit to Madrid. Great read!

Crusading in Finland – or how to use God as an excuse


Henry II and Thomas

Back in the good old days, any Christian king worth his name would at least consider going on a Crusade. For some, it was mostly lip-service. As an example, I seriously doubt Henry II of England had any desire to gallop off to the Holy Land, given just how much he had on his plate back home: rebellious sons and a disgruntled wife required his immediate attention, and if we’re going to be quite honest, he probably only agreed to take the cross so as to keep the Pope happy after the whole Thomas Becket scandal.



For others, riding off on a crusade was an endeavour undertaken to
a) spread the word of God
b) cover themselves with glory
c) become rich. Quite often, b and c were sort of mutually exclusive, as demonstrated by the tragedy that went by the name of the Fourth Crusade. The “valiant and pious” Crusaders chose to pillage Constantinople rather than to ride to the rescue of the Holy Land, and while this may have resulted in nice piles of booty, it definitely did their reputation no favours.

Others saw it as a military adventure – crusaders such as Richard Lionheart would fall in that category.

Most Crusaders made for the Holy Land, albeit that they were now and then distracted elsewhere (like in the Fourth Crusade, and we can blame the Venetians for that. They wanted to gain control over the trade in the Mediterranean, and the best way to do so was to crush Constantinople). In Spain, there was no need to ride off all the way to Palestine to do the crusading thing: with the infidel Moors camped in their backyard, generations of Spanish kings did their crusading at home.

And then, of course, we have the Swedish Crusaders, who felt the Holy land was very, very far away, and so decided it was time to bring the Christian faith to the wild and savage Finns. Not that the Finns at the time were all that much more savage and wild than the Swedes. Nor were they heathen – but in difference to the Swedes, the Finnish early contact with the Christian religion came from the east, so their take on Christianity was influenced by Greek Orthodox beliefs. Not good, as per the Pope, which was probably why he gave his blessing to the various Swedish crusades into Finland.

From a Swedish perspective. Finland offered two things: a buffer versus the growing powers further to the east (the future Russia was still a long way off, but Novgorod was a pain in the butt), and ample opportunity to increase its wealth. But for a crowned king to just ride off on a general pillaging expedition was not the done thing, which was why it was convenient to label the activity as being a crusade. The Finns, of course, never quite agreed with this description.


St Henry

The first Swedish Crusade was headed by St Erik. Truth be told, we don’t know if this expedition ever took place. Instead, one can suspect the future generations created the story of St Erik riding to baptise the heathen Finns so as to motivate the next Crusade, and the first complete description of this adventure first appears in the early 14th century. However, as per the chronicles, in the 1150s St Erik set of to save Finland from itself. He was supposedly accompanied by a future fellow saint, St Henry. This Henry was an English clergyman who accompanied Cardinal Nicholas Breakspeare to the far north. I imagine just how delighted he was by all this, because at the time, Sweden was only rudimentarily Christian, Henry’s countryman St Sigfrid having done his best to baptise as many as he could.

Things didn’t exactly get better when Henry was asked to accompany the Swedish king east there to salvage Finnish souls. The Finnish souls in question had been safely within the fold of a Christian church for like two centuries, but as it was the wrong Christian church, that didn’t count – or at least that was St Erik’s argument, and Henry agreed, being a loyal subject not only to the king, but also to the pope.

Off they went. After a relatively short stay, Erik returned home, there to meet his untimely death and become a saint. As per legend, Henry stayed on in Finland, aspiring to be a good shepherd to this very new flock. The flock wasn’t entirely thrilled…

Come winter, Henry was obliged to travel by horse and sleigh, using the ice-covered lakes as convenient highways between the few populated places that existed. One night, he came to a farm and asked the farmer’s wife to give him room and board for the night. She did as asked, but she was no big fan of this new bishop or his new faith, and when her husband returned the next day, she told him the bishop had forced himself inside and stolen victuals and beer. Enraged, her husband Lalli set of in pursuit of the bishop, who, I imagine, was whistling a chirpy little tune as his horse made good progress across the ice.


Lalli killing Henry

Once Lalli caught up with Henry, he killed him. Earlier versions say he used a sword. Later versions go with an axe, but this is probably because Finnish people fell in love with St Olof – and he died by axe. Once the bishop was dead, Lalli helped himself to his belongings, among them his cap (some would say it was a mitre. Seems unpractical to me, to travel about with one of those stuck on your head). He put on the cap, returned home, but when he took off the cap his scalp tore off and he subsequently died a terrible (and justified) death. Finland had its first martyr. (Henry, not Lalli, in case you were confused)

It took some time for the Swedes to come back. Internal turmoil and civil war kept them busy at home, and I dare say no one in Finland missed them. But in the 13th century, Birger Jarl, ruler (if not king) of Sweden, decided it was time to drop by for a new visit. Birger Jarl is a pivotal figure in Swedish history, one of the first to start forging a national identity. For him, controlling Finland was a way of controlling the Baltic Sea, and whoever controlled the Baltic Sea sat on potentially enormous wealth, as any trade conducted this far north relied on travelling by the sea. Also, bringing Finland under Swedish control would make it easier to handle the Hanseatic League – not that those wily German merchants were ever easy to handle.

Royal 19 B.XV, f.37Yet again, a bellicose intention was shrouded in the banners of faith. (Has happened repeatedly, hasn’t it?) The stories of St Erik and St Henry were dusted off and presented as gospel truth, and to further increase the enthusiasm of those willing to join the crusade, Birger Jarl promised generous grants of land – in Finland. As per the legends, Birger Jarl was in Finland when the Swedish king died, which means he was in the late 1240s. As per the odd comment in surviving records, he went to Finland in the 1230s, to quell a rebellion. Whatever the case, there is very little recorded from the Crusade as such. This is because most of the time, it was all pretty boring, our crusading Swedes riding through unpopulated wilderness, and only rarely coming upon villages to forcibly convert to the Catholic faith. Those who refused to convert ended up dead. Those who agreed, ended up baptised – and much poorer, as the Swedes helped themselves to booty as they went.

From a strategic perspective, Birger Jarl’s intrusion into Finland was a success. He pushed the border of Swedish-controlled land even further east, lay the foundations for a defensive fort at Tavastehus, and rewarded his eager companions with large estates in Finland, thereby ensuring they’d be interested in defending what was now theirs. To the east, the rulers of Novgorod and Kiev were less than pleased. Birger Jarl now controlled all of the Baltic Sea down to the Gulf of Finland, albeit that the eastern and southern shores of the gulf remained outside of Swedish control.


One of Birger’s sons, Magnus. He locked up big brother and took the crown for himself

Anyway: Birger Jarl did his conquering thing and then, as per those legends mentioned above, he hurried back to Sweden as the king had died without an heir, and Birger had every intention of seeing his own son, Valdemar, crowned king. In this the wily old fox succeeded – a capable and determined man, Birger mostly succeeded at everything he set out to do. In fact, his most obvious failure only became apparent after his death, when his sons plunged Sweden back into civil war and general unrest, a situation that would continue well into the 14th century.

Not that the people in Finland gave a rat’s arse as to what happened in Sweden. I’m guessing they were delighted by the fact that political events in Ruotsi (Finnish for Swedish. Please note just how similar this word is to Russia) kept the Swedes busy at home. Another delighted party were the rulers in Novgorod. With Sweden busy elsewhere, they quietly moved their positions forward, aiming to retake the land Birger Jarl had conquered some decades earlier.

After like three decades of unrest, Sweden had an underage king named Birger. He, in turn, had a regent named Torkel Knutsson. He also had two brothers, Valdemar and Erik, who would over time give Birger substantial grief – but at this point in time, this was in the future. Let’s just say that these three brothers developed a very infected relationship, ending with the two younger being locked up and left to starve to death. Nice.

Torkel had his finger in every royal pie around, including the raising of the three princes. So when Novgorod attacked Finland, it fell on Torkel to prepare and lead the retaliating expedition, which he did with immense success – at least from a narrow Swedish perspective. The Novgorodians were beaten back, the border of Swedish-controlled Finland was moved even further east, into Karelia, and just to really make it clear who was in control, Torkel founded the city (and castle) of Viborg, situated deep in the Gulf of Finland. Viborg would remain Swedish until 1710, when Tsar Peter crushed the Swedes in the Great Nordic War.



While successful in Finland, Torkel wasn’t as lucky back home. Those three brothers were already locking horns with each other, and repeatedly Torkel had to mediate. Throughout, Torkel was unfailingly loyal to King Birger, but I guess he had a tendency to preach – and to rule Sweden as if he was king, not Birger. Did not go down well with the young, hot-tempered king. So, at some point the three royal brothers decided it would serve them best to get rid of Torkel, and in a surprising show of unity, they arranged for him to be captured and struck in chains. In 1306, Torkel was executed on trumped of charges of treachery.

So where does all this leave us regarding those crusades to bring the light of God to the heathen Finns? Other than fragmentary evidence of Swedish knights making for Finland in the 13th century, the first cohesive description of these crusades is to be found in the Erik Chronicle (Sweden’s oldest surviving Chronicle, estimated to have been written in 1320 or thereabouts.) By then, these purported crusades had become building blocks in a complicated political story, that had as its purpose to strengthen royal authority in Sweden. Therefore, I think it is wise to take the notion of “Crusades” with a huge pinch of salt, and instead recognise these marauding expeditions for what they were, namely an invasion of Finland.

Finland would remain Swedish until the beginning of the 19th century, when instead it became a Grand-Duchy in Tsarist Russia. Not necessarily a better thing for the Finns, who would have to wait until the early 20th century before they finally became independent. But to this day, a large minority in Finland has Swedish as its mother tongue, descendants of those ancient Swedes who came, saw, conquered – and settled in the land of a thousand lakes and endless forests.

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.”


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”.


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.

Berengaria Entrega_de_las_llaves_a_San_Fernando

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 🙂

Foreswearing your faith – the smart thing to do for a 17th century English Catholic

MLWhen Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to that church door in Wittenberg, he had no idea what he was unleashing on the world. Or maybe he had, hoping that his actions would cause an incendiary debate and reform in all things religious. Well, he succeeded in creating debate, all right, and when he died close to thirty years later, he was still under excommunication by the pope. By then, Martin Luther no longer recognised the pope’s authority – and neither did a growing number of people throughout Europe.

At a distance of five hundred years, we can’t comprehend just how cataclysmic the Reformation was. Over a couple of decades, God-given truths were turned upside down, one of the more controversial aspects being that the true believer had no need of priests in his communication with God. It sufficed to study the Bible and meditate on God’s truth as expressed in the Holy Book.

LutherbibelWhere before the Bible was printed in Latin, now it was being translated into vernacular, making God’s word available to anyone who could read. Literacy exploded in Protestant regions, and these newly literate soon discovered other reading matter than the Bible, thereby starting an educational process that would culminate in our present day democratic society.

The Holy Roman Church responded forcefully to this new threat to its hegemony (and finances). Not only was there an impressive out-pouring of art and literature defending the true faith plus an increase in efforts to bring the lost sheep back to the fold – such as the installation of the Society of Jesus under Loyola, an order whose main purpose was to defend and bolster the faith- the Counter Reformation also applied other methods: heretics were persecuted, arrested, tortured and burnt at the stake – nothing new, really.


The Last Judgement

As the Protestant factions grew stronger, they resorted to their own persecution, torture and execution – but of Catholics. A sort of tit for tat, one could say. In general, the assumption was that all Catholics were loyal to the pope, not to their king or queen. That, I would think, was in general a correct assumption. For people who still believed in the afterlife and for whom heaven and hell were realities rather than metaphors, protecting their eternal souls came first. But from there to assume all Catholics were nefarious traitors – well, it’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it?


James I

In England, the authorities were taking no chances. James I introduced legislation aimed at Catholics who aspired to public office whereby any higher official should regularly receive communion as per the Church of England rites – anathema to a Catholic – but initially no one seems to have bothered with upholding it. In fact, James had several capable Catholic men in positions of trust. Things became somewhat trickier as per the reinforced Corporation Act of 1661, making it mandatory to partake of the sacraments as per the Church of England. However, not all Catholics were subject to the law – Catholic peers were generally exempt.

In 1673, Parliament in its wisdom passed the Test Act. It no longer sufficed to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as per Anglican rites, now anyone aspiring to serve as officers of the court, parliament or the military, also had to reject the concept of transubstantiation (a central tenet in the Catholic faith). Further to this, any person aspiring to public office had to take an Oath of Supremacy and Allegiance, in effect placing their loyalty to the king of England before that to, for example, the pope.

Clearly all these measures were not enough. In 1678, Titus Oates revealed the so called Popish Plot to the shocked authorities, describing detailed plans to rid England of its present monarch. There was no Popish Plot – Titus was a narrow-minded worm of a man who saw his chance to fame and grabbed it, titillating his audience with one invented detail after the other. His ridiculous construction of lies could (and should) have been exposed immediately by the members of Parliament, but certain members were utterly thrilled by this development as it gave them an opportunity to further tighten up the Anti-Catholic legislation.


Duke of York

The reinforced Test Act required all peers and members of Parliament to declare against transubstantiation, the existence of saints and the sacraments of Mass, thereby effectively ousting all Catholics from Parliament. The Catholic lords fought back as well as they could and succeeded in delaying the act plus managed to weaken it substantially by sneaking in an exception for the Duke of York – that most Catholic heir to the English throne.

A consequence of all this legislation and badmouthing was to make life very difficult for Catholics in general. When Edmund Godfrey, a Protestant magistrate, was found dead, the anti-papists went wild. London seethed with anger, Catholics were beaten and hounded, and people were warned to be on their guard: there were evil Jesuits everywhere, there were nasty recusants hiding throughout the country, horrible Catholic people that wanted to overthrow the Anglican Church and reinstate the hegemony of the Pope in England. What can I say? A crowd gone wild is a hotbed of fevered imaginations – even more so when people in authority foment the flames of lunacy.

England’s anti-Catholic legislation was to remain in place until 1829, when it was repealed by George IV. By then, the Test Act had long since played out its role, but for a number of decades in the 17th century, Catholics did best in keeping a very low profile. Very low. Especially if you were a Catholic priest.

R&R webstamp smallReligion plays an important part in my series The Graham Saga. In Revenge and Retribution, the sixth instalment of the series, Matthew and Alex welcome an injured Catholic priest into their home. Well; Alex welcomes. For Matthew, this is not an entirely easy thing to do, seeing as he is more than aware of the spiritual deficiency that characterises a papist. Alex doesn’t agree: to her the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant are very minor – probably reflecting the fact that she is a modern day woman. In the excerpt below, the Graham household has been augmented with yet another person, a Presbyterian minister, making things rather interesting.

Conversation became somewhat livelier with two men of God in the house – maybe a bit too lively, Alex sighed, when Father Muñoz and Minister Allerton settled down for yet another intense religious debate, the minister seconded by Daniel, the priest fighting his corner alone.

Father Muñoz sat up straighter and looked at Minister Allerton.

“No.” He shook his head. “Absolutely not. God allows our actions to speak for us.”

“Of course,” Minister Allerton said, “if we belong to the chosen few.” He gave the young priest a challenging look.

“Hmph!” Father Muñoz drank deeply from his mug of beer. “God is not that fickle. We live on this earth a short while, and it’s in many ways a testing ground for eternal life that comes later. God is merciful and forgives us our trespasses on behalf of His Son. He sees us labour and strive to be good, and He is pleased. He sees us fall into a life of evil, and He decides if the stay in purgatory will be long and painful or if we go to hell directly. But it’s the quality of our sins and the genuineness of our repentance that ultimately decide our eternal fate.”

Too right, Alex agreed, even if she sincerely hoped God was somewhat selective when it came to deathbed repentance. If not, heaven would be chock-full of some rather nasty types.

“Purgatory!” Minister Allerton waved dismissively. “Nowhere in the scriptures is that mentioned. It’s nothing but a figment of imagination that allows the dying sinners to hope they may still be saved.”

“Not to me,” Father Muñoz said, looking quite mulish. “To me, God is more prone to forgive than damn, and as such He has created one last opportunity for the lost soul to gain entry to heaven.”

The argument went on and on, the churchmen plunging deeper and deeper into the scriptures and the history of the Christian Church.

“Why be good?” Father Muñoz argued. “Why should we strive to lead exemplary lives if God has already preordained who goes to Heaven?”

“Why be good?” Minister Allerton replied mockingly. “Why strive to lead exemplary lives if all you have to do is beg forgiveness for your sins before you die?”

Most of the adults around the table nodded in agreement.

“Lewd and sinful,” Mrs Parson muttered to Alex. “All papists are, more or less. And then, on their deathbed, they recant. Not that it helps the misguided souls, bound for hell as they are. Pity on the wee priest who seems a good enough man – just like his father.”

“Hmm,” Alex said as neutrally as she could, and then brought the whole discussion to a halt by plonking down the pudding dish in the middle of the table.

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