ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “13th century”

A head for my lady love – a most unusual gift

At the Battle of Evesham in 1265, Roger Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer, not only killed Simon de Montfort, he also had his head and genitals chopped off, decorated the head with said man-parts, and sent the entire package off to his wife with his warmest regards.

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Salome, cradling her gift, the head of John the Baptist. (Titian) I think Maud did little cradling…

One can but wonder as to what sort of woman his wife was, seeing as Baron Mortimer clearly expected the lady to be delighted by his delayed birthday gift. Was she some sort of evil monster? A new Salome, demanding a head in return for a dance? Nope, not so much. But she was a woman who had seen her home and lands devastated at the hands of Montfort’s followers, and this was her husband’s way of telling her that wouldn’t happen again. Not on his watch.

The baroness received the gift and had Montfort’s head displayed in her great hall for a while. Soon enough, the smell of rot would have banished the sad remains elsewhere, but it is said the skull remained with the Mortimers for quite some time.

So who was this fearsome lady? Well, Maud de Braose had ferocity in her genes. Her namesake and great-grandmother, Maud de Braose Sr, is the lady renowned for having openly accused King John of having had his nephew murdered (by her husband). John punished her brutally for this. Maud Sr and her son were locked up in the same dungeon without food. They died, of course, but the son predeceased the mother, seeing as she supposedly ate bits and pieces of him. Ugh.

Anyway: the de Braose family suffered through a sequence of tough years, but King John died, chaos enveloped the land, and somehow that gallant man William Marshal managed to guide the new boy-king Henry III and the very unsteady ship that was England through the resulting fog. Good news for the de Braose family, as one of William Marshal’s daughters went on to marry William de Braose, grandson of the formidable first Maud, son of the man she’d chewed on in her dungeon.

William de Braose and his wife Eva had four children, one of which was our Maud, born around 1224 or so. She never had the opportunity of developing any stronger relationship with her father, as William was hanged in 1230 for purportedly having had sex with Llewellyn the Great’s wife. Whatever one can say about the de Braose family—and in general they were not much liked, known for their ruthless pursuit of wealth and lands—they were never boring.

As William had no son, his daughters were considered quite the catch, all of them bringing substantial lands and wealth to their prospective grooms. In Maud’s case, she was betrothed already as a child to Roger Mortimer, this despite her being seven years older than him. This might have been a bit complicated emotionally, seeing as Roger was the grandson of Llewellyn, the man who’d had Maud’s father executed. Roger, however, does not seem to have been all that keen on his Welsh blood—in fact, he spent a sizeable part of his life fighting his own cousin Llewellyn ap Gryffudd, yet another grandson (and namesake) of Llewellyn the Great. Besides, Maud’s own sister was married to Llewellyn’s son, so I imagine family reunions had been pretty tense even prior to Maud marrying Roger.

Now, the reason I find Maud de Braose fascinating—beyond her delight at being presented with a head—is because she’s the grandmother of “my” Roger Mortimer, the man who would go on to woo a queen, depose a king and rule all England on behalf of the very young Edward III. It seems to me many of Maud’s qualities, such as determination, intelligence and courage, were passed on to her grandson together with far less endearing traits such as ruthlessness and acquisitiveness. I guess those Marcher lords (and ladies) bred true, all of them eager to feather their own nests at the expense of others.

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The arch of the former gatehouse at Wigmore, slowly sinking out of sight

Once married, Maud became the mistress of Wigmore, the principal residence of her husband, Roger Sr. For those of you who haven’t visited Wigmore, I recommend that you do, albeit that today all that remains of what must once have been an impregnable castle are ruins that are being slowly reclaimed by nature. Built on a lozenge shaped escarpment, Wigmore had but one main point of entry, and the steep sides of the hill on which it stood made it virtually impossible to breach the defences. Like the eerie of an eagle, the walls of Wigmore offered unimpeded views in most directions, making it difficult for the enemy to sneak up unnoticed.

Maud was about twenty-two when she was wed to her sixteen-year-old groom. The age gap does not seem to have been much of an impediment to this marriage of two people with a similar outlook on life, and soon enough there were baby Mortimers to take care off. We know of at least six children, but chances are there would have been more.

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Henry III vs Simon de Montfort

Like all noble ladies of the time, Maud managed most of her husband’s estate, supervised the raising of her children, and took an active part in defending what was hers (theirs) should such a need arise. Which it did, frequently, as England in the late 1250s and early 1260s was not exactly a place of peace and contentment. The barons of the land had split neatly down the middle, some of them siding with Simon de Montfort and his demand for reforms, some holding to their king, Henry III. From 1259 or so, Montfort was effectively in charge of England, albeit that he suffered severe setbacks at time.

Roger Mortimer was a bit of a weather-vane in all this: initially siding with Montfort, he then sidled over to join the king’s party, less than thrilled at how Prince Edward (at the time a warm admirer of Montfort) blamed him for the loss of Builth, a strategically important castle on the Welsh March. Plus, of course, Montfort allied himself with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, whom Mortimer considered his hereditary enemy, no matter that they shared blood. In this, he had the full support of the other Marcher lords who had no intention of sitting on their hands while Montfort more or less handed back their hard-won lands to the Welsh prince.

Things came to a head when Mortimer despoiled three of Montfort’s manors. Enraged, Montfort sent his young sons to deal with the stubborn Marcher lords, and over a couple of months these youngsters reaped major success, even managing to take Wigmore, no matter how spirited the defence (And I imagine it was spirited, seeing as Maud comes across as being very, very spirited). Maud’s home was no longer hers, and I imagine her fleeing with her children while cursing Montfort and his allies to hell and back.

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A young Edward I

By now, Prince Edward had fallen out of love with Montfort. As always, those who grab power become enamoured with it, and I bet Montfort was no exception, causing Prince Edward some serious concerns as to the future of the kingdom. This young hawk had no intention of growing up to become a weak king like his father, and where before the prince had admired Montfort, now Edward came to the conclusion Montfort had to be stopped.

“Hear, hear,” I imagine Mortimer saying, by now safely back in control of his precious Wigmore. In the spring of 1264, Prince Edward took the field against Montfort. The first battle was a rousing victory for the royalist side, and Mortimer and his fellow Marchers sent a number of hostages back home. The Battle of Lewes did not go so well—mostly due to Prince Edward’s rash pursuit of fleeing Montfort supporters. Suddenly, both king Henry and Prince Edward were Montfort’s prisoners.

The Marcher lords, however, were allowed to return to the March so as to keep England safe from marauding Welsh. They were also requested to release their prisoners, but Mortimer and his fellow Marchers hemmed and hawed until Montfort lost patience. This time, Montfort joined forces with Llewellyn and set the entire March ablaze, thereby forcing the Marchers to negotiate. The terms were harsh: all Marcher lords were exiled to Ireland for a year and a day, but once again these gents dragged their feet, while further to the south Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, was building an army to defeat Montfort.

However, as long as Montfort held both the king and the prince, the opposition was hamstrung. This is when Maud stepped out of the wings of history to grab the limelight by coming up with an audacious escape plan.

Despite being a prisoner, Edward was allowed out to ride, always accompanied by his guards. Maud’s plan was simple: she smuggled messages to the prince, instructing him to challenge the guards to numerous races to ensure their mounts were blown and tired. And once all those horses were reduced to exhaustion, Maud’s men rode out of the forest, handed the prince a fresh horse and galloped off, making for Wigmore.

Maud took good care of the prince. He was fed, clothed, horsed and sent on his way to join Gilbert de Clare at Ludlow Castle. The royalist army had their general back, and while Edward might have been young, he was a competent leader. With him to lead them, the royalist party took heart. Due to luck Edward managed to intercept one of his Montfort cousins at Kenilworth, killing several of the men riding with him, chasing the rest into Kenilworth castle itself. With the captured Montfort banners held aloft, Edward then rode to join his men at Evesham there to destroy Simon Montfort.

It is said that the moment Montfort realised the men carrying his son’s banners were royalists, he knew the day was lost. Grimly, he and his companions prepared themselves to die. Among these companions was one Hugh Despenser, unfailingly loyal to Montfort. Together with his lord, Despenser took the field, and in desperation Montfort led his men in an uphill charge doomed to fail.

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The mutilation of Simon de Montfort’s body

Edward had no intention of taking Montfort prisoner. He wanted him dead, and a small group of men, including Roger Mortimer, were tasked with this somewhat dishonourable task. It was Roger who delivered the killing blow, thrusting his lance through Montfort’s throat. Once he was dead, Mortimer and his friends went on to mutilate his body—which was how Maud de Braose, Baroness Mortimer, became the recipient of one of the gorier birthday gifts in history.

As an aside, Hugh Despenser’s body was also mutilated, thereby spawning the unrelenting enmity between the Mortimers and the Despensers that would come to a head several decades later.

Maud would go on to live a life marked by her fair share of loss and pain. Her eldest son and precious heir, Ralph, died young. By all accounts Ralph was something of a paragon, showing an innate aptitude for the martial skills required of a Marcher lord. Fortunately, there were plenty of spares, including the well-educated Edmund Mortimer who was obliged to leave Oxford and return home. In time, Edmund’s son, “my” Roger, would inherit the extensive Mortimer lands.

In 1282 Roger Mortimer died, at the age of fifty or so. In comparison with future generations of Mortimer men who all had a tragic tendency to die relatively young, Roger Mortimer Sr had a nice long life but his wife was to survive him for a further twenty years or so before dying in 1301 or thereabouts. By then, she was well over seventy and most of her children were dead. But she must have been comforted by the fact that her eldest grandson Roger was already a vibrant young man, thereby ensuring the Mortimer star would continue to rise. Which, as we know, it did. Before it came crashing back down… (more here)

 

Brought to bed of a daughter? Try again!

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One of the things a medieval queen was expected to provide her husband with was a male heir – and preferably a spare. For a medieval king to have only female heirs caused a number of problems, primarily that of convincing the male barons to swear allegiance to a woman. Plus, from a purely dynastic perspective, whatever children the female ruler had would belong to their father’s house.

So when, in 1254, the heir to the English throne, Edward, married Eleanor of Castile, one of the expectations on the (very) young bride was that she ensure a continuation of the Plantagenet dynasty – a dynasty she herself belonged to through her great-grandmother and namesake, Eleanor of England. (Yet another young bride, this daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine married Alfonso VIII in 1174)

I’d have liked to present you with some wedding pics, but seeing as all this happened close to 800 years ago, there aren’t any. In fact, there aren’t any reliable likenesses of Edward and Eleanor. We know he was uncommonly tall. We know he lisped and had a droopy eye-lid. We know nada about her, but I imagine her as small – especially standing side by side with her lanky groom.

“Who is that?” Eleanor whispered, shrinking back behind a pillar.
“That?” Her maid peeked out. “Ah, that is your intended, my lady.”
“Him?” Eleanor pressed her cheek against the cold stone. So tall, so handsome – what would he see in her? 

As always when it came to royalty, the Eleanor-Edward union was political. Edward’s father, Henry III, needed to sort an ongoing feud with Eleanor’s brother, Alfonso X, and stop him from invading Gascony. And so, the fifteen-year-old Edward was sent off to Burgos, there to do his duty and wed the  Castilian princess. At least they met some days before tying the knot. Two tongue-tied teenagers peeking at each other on the sly, cheeks that heated when their eyes met. A shared smile, and then Edward was off to do other things (like being knighted by his future brother-in-law Alfonso) and Eleanor could go back to embroidering an elegant E on the shirt she was making for her soon-to-be husband.

The little bride, Eleanor, came with a good pedigree. Her mother, Jeanne de Dammartin, had once been considered by Henry III as a wife for himself, but due to political reasons this was not to be. Instead, Jeanne was wed to Fernando III of Castile (the future St Fernando) as his second wife.

The thirteen-year-old Eleanor not only had a saint for a father. She also came from a notably fertile family. Her mother had given Fernando five children, four of whom were sons. Her paternal grandmother, Berenguela, had produced five children during seven years of marriage. And as to her great-grandmother Eleanor of England, well she had presented her husband with twelve children – one every other year or so. However, very few of the sons survived – in fact, once the youngest was killed by a falling tile, the Castilian crown passed through Berenguela to Fernando. (More on Berenguela here)

With all these fertile females up her family tree, no one was particularly worried about the mandatory male heir. In the fullness of time, Edward’s new wife would surely present him with a healthy, squalling son.

valentine-dicksee-romeo-and-juliet-on-the-balconyAs an added bonus, the young couple seem to have taken an immediate liking to one another. This resulted in a stillborn (or dead shortly after its birth) baby in 1255, the first of sixteen (or at least fourteen) children. At the time, Eleanor was not yet fourteen, so I imagine this was a traumatic experience. There was a gap of some years – years in which the affection and love between Edward and Eleanor grew, making them almost inseparable. Whether or not there were miscarriages, we don’t know, but in 1261 Edward and Eleanor welcomed a daughter, Katherine, into this world.

Little Katherine died at three, and one year later, in 1265, Eleanor was delivered of yet another daughter, Joanna, who died some months later. I imagine that by now, Eleanor and Edward were beginning to become quite concerned. More than ten years married, and no living children – that did not bode well.

In 1266, little John arrived, and he was miraculously healthy. Prayers of gratitude rang in the royal solar, even more so when in 1268 yet another son, Henry, saw the light of the day. Two boys, albeit that little Henry was sickly. To round things off, a healthy daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1269.

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“Better leave them at home than carry them with us.”

In 1270, Edward took the cross. As a matter of course, Eleanor decided to accompany him, leaving her babies in the care of their grandmother and, in the case of the precious heir, their great-uncle. For a modern person, this seems somewhat callous: what sort of mother leaves her children to gallop off on adventure with her husband, hey? Well, first of all it is important to remember that royal children were quite often brought up in a separate household so as to give them some sort of stability. Being a medieval king – or royal heir – meant being constantly on the move, the entire court ambulating back and forth across the country.

Also, in the case of Edward and Eleanor, I do believe her first love was always her husband – he and his needs came first. And Edward seems to have been as genuinely in love with his wife, so maybe it was a symbiotic thing: he couldn’t go anywhere without her. Or maybe that is me being ridiculously romantic, seeing as we’re talking about a man with a very ruthless streak, as demonstrated by how he crushed the Welsh and attempted to subjugate the Scots. On the other hand, all men have multiple sides to them, and…Stop, stop, stop! Back to today’s topic – the quest for a male heir.

In 1271, there was a stillborn child. In 1272, while in Palestine, Edward and Eleanor welcomed yet another daughter, Joan. By then, they would have heard that their son John had died and what little joy they experienced at the birth of their daughter soured into fear when Edward was almost murdered. Clearly, they weren’t welcome in the Holy Land, and they set off for home. On the way, they learnt Henry III was dead. Edward was now king, and the pressing matter of a male heir became even more pressing – little Henry was not expected to live long.

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“Look, a son, an heir!”

In 1273, son number three, Alphonso, was born. A fine, lusty son, and Eleanor must have wept in relief. The little boy even survived his first few months, and it was therefore with great happiness Edward and Eleanor celebrated their coronation in 1274. By then, they’d been married almost twenty years, and even if little Henry died some months later, they did have their lovely Alphonso – and two healthy little girls. Does not seem much, given that Eleanor had given birth nine times. Nine. As she was only thirty-three, she could look forward to several more pregnancies. I wonder if there were times when this thought filled her with trepidation.

1275, 1276, 1277, 1279 – four pregnancies, four births, resulting in four little girls of whom two died. But at least Alphonso, this apple of his parents’ eyes, still thrived.

1281 – a little boy came and went like a shadow in the night. But still, they had Alphonso.

1282 – Elizabeth of Rhuddlan was born. A healthy child, and now there were five daughters – plus the precious Alphonso.

In April of 1284, a heavily pregnant Eleanor accompanied her husband to Wales.
Maybe you should stay at home,” he might have said to her, patting her on her swelling stomach. Not that he meant it, not really.
Stay at home? I accompanied you to the Holy Land – what is a jaunt to Wales compared with that?” she puffed, giving him a bright smile.

Royal 20 C.III, f.15So off they went, and there, in the building site that was Caernarvon Castle, Eleanor was delivered of a boy. A boy! Yes, a miracle baby, a strong little prince, and Eleanor smiled and wept as she presented her husband with the much-desired, if not so necessary, spare. After all, their sweet son Alphonso was now old enough to wed, and a marriage had been arranged for him with Margaret, daughter of the Count of Holland. For a little while there, everything was perfect in the Eleanor-Edward household. Until Alphonso fell ill, dying in August of 1284.

Alphonso lived the longest of all those children who died. Long enough for his parents to pin hopes on him, long enough to grow from an anonymous baby into an adored boy. And then, just like that, he died. It must have been utterly devastating. Yes, they had Prince Edward, but both Eleanor and Edward knew just what frail things children were – after all, with Alphonso they buried a tenth child. Even by the standards of the time, they were singularly unlucky as parents.

Eleanor was not to have any more children. After sixteen births, I guess she was worn out, and besides, her health was failing. So all hopes for a surviving male heir now rested on Edward, and even if he was a robust child, there were concerns that he too would die young.Just like with all her other children, on a daily basis, Eleanor did not see much of her youngest son. But despite not being with her son and daughters 24/7, Eleanor was a conscientious mother, ensuring her children were in good, competent hands. Did she love her children? I’d say yes – as much as she dared to. But no matter that she loved them, she loved her husband much more. It was with him she wanted to be, it was at his side she belonged.

In 1290, Eleanor died. Edward was numb with grief – so much so that for three whole days all royal business was suspended. But life goes on, and Edward had a duty to the crown – and his dynasty – to ensure there was more than one little boy in line to the throne. So in 1299, Edward married a second wife, the pretty and vivacious sister of the king of France. At the time, he was sixty and she was twenty – and fertile enough to present him with two beautiful and healthy sons.

In the event, these little spares would not be needed. In 1307, Eleanor’s last-born, Edward of Caernarvon, became king after his father. I daresay she would have been mightily pleased. She had done her duty by her husband and his family – she had birthed the next king.

Avesnes vs Dampierre – a 13th century family feud

drottning_blanka_malning_av_albert_edelfelt_fran_1877In a previous post—quite some time ago—I wrote about Blanka of Namur, Swedish queen who was immortalised by a nursery rhyme. I must admit that I knew very little about Blanka—there isn’t much to find, and other than concluding her father’s name was Jean and that she had ten siblings, I concentrated mostly on Blanka’s life in Sweden.

Now Blanka (or Blanche, as her name was spelled in French) came from a relatively illustrious family that had had the misfortune of antagonising Philippe IV of France. Antagonising this gentleman was generally a bad idea. Although Philippe had the face of an angel—hence his nickname, le Bel—he comes across as a ruthless ruler—hence his nickname the Iron King—more than willing to do whatever it took to advance his interests.

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Baldwin, setting off on Crusade

If we start at the beginning, allow me to introduce you to Guy de Dampierre. No, wait: we need to start with Guy’s formidable mother, Margaret of Flanders, born around 1202. Margaret had an unfortunate childhood in that her father, Baldwin of Hainault, took the cross and rode off to join the Fourth Crusade before she was born, and no sooner had Margaret’s mother, Marie de Champagne, recovered from the ordeal of birth but she followed her husband, leaving her two little girls in the care of their paternal uncle. Soon enough, both Baldwin and Marie were dead, and Margaret’s big sister, Jeanne, was effectively the heiress to Hainault and Flanders.

When big sister Jeanne married Fernando of Portugal (a.k.a. Ferrand of Flanders) there were plans to marry Margaret to the Earl of Salisbury, but Margaret’s guardian, Bouchard de Avesnes, put a stop to this. Instead, in 1212 Bouchard married Margaret himself, this despite the bride being only ten, twenty years younger than Bouchard. At this point, things could have taken a turn for the HEA. By all accounts, Margaret was very fond of her husband—and he of her. But Bouchard was a bellicose person, who was constantly involved in one war or another. At times, he was fighting his brother, at others, he made common cause with the English against the French. Like at the Battle of Bouvines in 1214. Big mistake, seeing as the then French king Philippe Augustus emerged victorious and wasn’t exactly known for his clemency towards those he defeated.

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It was suggested to Philippe Augustus that the best way to get to Bouchard was to have the pope declare his marriage invalid. The pope did so in 1215, but Margaret and Bouchard refused to accept his ruling and fled to Luxemburg where they settled down to do some serious begetting—three sons in three years, even if their firstborn died after a year or so.

Things conspired against Bouchard who was captured and locked up in Ghent. Pressure was brought to bear on Margaret—big sister Jeanne seems to have detested Bouchard—and according to some sources she reluctantly agreed to having her marriage annulled so that Bouchard could regain his freedom. Bouchard, just as reluctantly, agreed to the separation. The idea, apparently, was for Bouchard to ride to Rome and plead their case before the pope. Sister Jeanne, however, took the opportunity to marry Margaret off to another man, a William de Dampierre.

To say things were complicated is putting it mildly: Margaret had two sons by her first marriage, and to make matters even worse, Bouchard was still very much alive and kicking, making this second marriage borderline bigamous. (How on earth did she tell him? “Hi honey, I know we have sworn to love each other for ever, no matter what popes and kings may think, but I think I may just have made a teensy-weensy mistake. I’ve married someone else. I hope you won’t mind.” )

One wonders just why William de Dampierre was willing to marry Margaret, and given the circumstances, I’m not about to put it down to passionate love. I rather think he was gambling on Margaret becoming the next Countess of Flanders, seeing as Joan’s husband was languishing in prison after the Battle of Bouvines, thereby hindered from siring any children with his wife.

For some odd reason, Margaret quickly decided her sons from her second marriage were much more dear to her than those from her first. Maybe she was just trying to forget she had once been married to Bouchard. Maybe she genuinely preferred both her second husband and her second brood of children. Maybe it was as simple as her being aware of the fact that in the eyes of the church, her Avesnes sons were illegitimate. Whatever the case, she and William had five children before William died in 1231. Margaret chose not to remarry. Perhaps because Bouchard was still alive…

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Margaret’s seal

In 1244, several things happened. Bouchard died – some say he was executed on Countess Jeanne’s orders. Margaret was now definitely a widow, both her husbands dead and buried. That same year, Jeanne died and Margaret became Countess of Flanders, making her eldest Dampierre son, William, her co-ruler.

This did not go down well with her Avesnes sons (Duh!) Soon enough, there was major strife in Flanders and Hainault. In 1246, the French king, Louis IX, ruled that Hainault was to go to the Avesnes sons, Flanders to the Dampierre sons. Margaret refused to turn over Hainault to her son John de Avesnes, war exploded. Things came to a head in 1251 when the Avesnes sons had William assassinated. And this dear peeps, is when Guy de Dampierre, Margaret’s second Dampierre son and grandfather of the future Swedish queen, Blanche of Namur, finally steps into the limelight.

Now Guy may have been a charming gentleman, but he wasn’t the most effective of men. Or maybe his Avesnes half-brother, John, was simply a better warrior. Whatever the case, in 1253 Guy was defeated by John in battle and taken prisoner. He kicked his heels for three years before he was ransomed in 1256. Yet again, Louis of France decided that Hainault should go to the Avesnes family, Flanders to the de Dampierres. Yet again, Margaret was reluctant, but when John de Avesnes died in 1257 she agreed to have her young grandson, also a John, named as Count of Hainault—with her as his regent.

I have no idea what Guy thought of all this. His domineering mother had no intention of relinquishing control anywhere, so for the coming two decades, he was co-ruler of Flanders, which probably meant he had little say in anything. Maybe he liked it that way. After all, the man sired sixteen legitimate children with two consecutive wives, so maybe he preferred spending time with his family.

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Guy himself

In 1278, Margaret decided it was time to step down. At last Guy came into his own. But in France, King Philippe IV wanted to make life difficult for the English, who traded extensively with Flanders. Obviously, the Flemish merchants—or Guy—did not share Philippe’s goal. Philippe decided to up the pressure. Did not go down well, but Guy couldn’t exactly challenge Philippe on his own. Which was why, in 1294, Guy came up with the brilliant idea of entering into an alliance with Edward I of England. How? By offering the hand of his daughter Philippa as a wife to Edward, Prince of Wales.

Philippe was having none of it. He was presently negotiating with the English king, attempting to take advantage of the difficult situation with Scotland. So he abducted Philippa and locked her up. The poor child would never regain her freedom, dying twelve years later, still a prisoner of the French king. Very sad, isn’t it? And as to Guy, Philippe decided some coercion was required to make the Count of Flanders realise just how dangerous it was to rile him. Which was why Guy and two of his sons also ended up as prisoners.

Once he’d promised never, ever to marry one of his daughters to an English prince, Guy and his sons were released. In 1297, Guy yet again allied himself with Edward I, which gave Philippe the excuse he needed to invade Flanders. And as to Edward, he made his own peace with Philippe in 1298, leaving poor Guy in the lurch. Once again, Guy was imprisoned, and this time, except for a brief period in 1302, he would not regain his freedom. In 1305, Guy died, still a prisoner of the French king.

I’m thinking many, many Flemish people heaved sighs of relief when Philippe died in 1314 – some say due to being cursed by Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Templars. (Different story: see more here) Too late for Guy, too late for Philippa, but Guy had many, many children, and his sixth son, Jean, was made Marquis of Namur.

At the advanced age of forty-three this Jean married the nineteen-year-old Marie d’Artois and over the coming twenty years she would give him eleven children—one of which was little Blanche, destined to be queen of Sweden. I’m thinking Margaret of Flanders would have liked that. Just as she would have liked that her great-great-granddaughter, Philippa of Hainault, would one day become Queen of England—even if Philippa was an Avesnes, not a Dampierre.

Unmourned and unloved – poor Johnny boy

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John, riding to the hounds

It’s not easy to be misunderstood. Or the youngest – and possibly unwanted – child. Ask John, a.k.a. John Lackland. He would know all about growing up in a dysfunctional family with an anything but warm and fuzzy relationship to his parents and siblings. Mind you, having a tough childhood is an explanation, not an excuse. But still…

Today marks the 800th anniversary of John’s death. Eight hundred years, and still the man is a household name. Not in the most complimentary of terms – John is the bad dude, the man who betrayed his older brother Richard and had his nephew murdered. John is the somewhat unbalanced individual who alienated his nobles by his outrageous and grasping behaviour, and then there’s the matter of the hostages he hanged in Nottingham. No, all in all, John was not the kind of person you’d want to hang out with. Assuming, of course, that the black legend that surrounds him is true. Some of it most definitely is. But is any man entirely black?

Let us start at the beginning. Henry FitzEmpress made the marriage of a generation the day he swept Eleanor of Aquitaine, recently divorced from King Louis of France, into his arms and married her. Two larger-than-life personalities, these two were well-suited, possessing drive and determination – and quite the dollop of ambition. Did they love each other? I think that if you’d asked them, they would have given you an amused look in return. When did love come into the equation of building a European powerhouse?

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Eleanor and Henry

The Henry-Eleanor match was just that: a powerhouse. Together, they controlled a massive empire, all the way from the foggy north of England to the sun-drenched lands of Aquitaine. As we all know, the previously not so fecund Eleanor (with “only” two daughters to her name after 15 years of marriage to Louis) presented her new, vigorous husband with several sons and daughters. These children inherited a lot of characteristics from their strong, driven and ambitious parents, making them – and especially the elder sons – just as strong, driven and ambitious. And hungry for power. Ultimately, this would lead to bloody conflict between the sons and the father, and when Eleanor sided with her sons, the Henry-Eleanor union sort of crashed and burned.

Eleanor was locked away in 1173. Okay, so now and then she emerged from her prison to participate in courtly life and assist her husband in managing certain issues, but she was always accompanied by a guard, a silent reminder that she was a prisoner.

At the time of his mother’s incarceration, John was seven. Until then, he hadn’t exactly seen much of either parent, having instead been raised in his own household. But the bitter feud between Henry II and his older sons had him turning to his younger son, with John accompanying his father as he rode to quell his upstart sons.

Over the coming years, John became his father’s favourite child. Not favourite enough to load with land, though. John’s oldest brother, also as Henry, was designated heir to England and Normany, his second eldest brother, Richard was already the Duke of Aquitaine, brother Geoffrey was lording it in Brittany, and in comparison, John had…Nada. Niente. Nothing.

The easy solution was to find John an heiress. After some scouting, Henry decided on Isabella, daughter of the dead Earl of Gloucester. To make the match even better, Henry disinherited Isabella’s two sisters, making her the sole heiress to her father’s lands. There was, however, a teeny, weensy problem: John and Isabella were third cousins, so the union required a papal dispensation. A matter to be handled later, Henry decided, settling for a betrothal in 1176 instead. John was all of ten, the bride-to-be around three.

A year or so later, Henry made John Lord of Ireland. John Lackland was no longer lacking in land, one could say, albeit that the territory the eleven-year-old was to rule was considered a savage place. Plus, Ireland already had a number of powerful local lords, both of Norman and Gaelic extraction.

In 1183, John’s eldest brother died of dysentery, this after a campaign against the joint forces of Henry II and brother Richard. With that, Richard took a giant step towards the throne of England, but showed no inclination of wanting to part with Aquitaine. Rather, Richard seems to have reasoned Aquitaine was his, full stop, and anything on top of that was also his, with no need to share with baby brother John – or Geoffrey.

In 1186, Geoffrey died from injuries incurred during a tournament. He left behind a young son, and as Richard had neither wife nor legitimate son, little Arthur was now second in line to the English throne. In John’s opinion, he should be second in line: given the choice between a puling child and a well-grown young man, only a fool would choose the child.

Not everyone agreed. By now, some of John’s more dislikeable traits were causing concern. While on the one side John was intelligent, well-educated, courageous and charming when he so wanted, there was that other side to him, the one that flew into tantrums, that was spiteful and petty, that had him taking what he wanted with little thought to the consequences.

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Henry II and his children

John comes across a spoiled brat, a young man who considers himself entitled, and who would have benefited from a good thrashing. Papa Henry, however, spent more times making excuses for his temperamental son than in lecturing him. Henry was paying the price of having led a life constantly on the move, always entangled in one conflict of the other. He was tired, somewhat careworn after losing two of his sons, and had no desire whatsoever to alienate his favourite.

In looks, John was very much his father’s son – short and powerfully built, with a fondness for opulent clothes and jewels. (In this, he does not seem to have taken after daddy, who comes across as relatively uninterested in fashion) An avid reader, John always travelled with an extensive library, and was extremely fond of hunting. He was a skilled horseman, was appreciative of good music (from his mother’s side, no doubt) and enjoyed board games. He was also capable and hard-working, traits that somehow get lost in the overall descriptions of him.

Anyway: in 1189, Richard allied himself with Philip Augustus and made war on his father. Why? Because he was worried Henry might be considering naming John as his heir. Henry was sick, he was old, and everything pointed at him losing – which was when John abandoned him, riding like the devil to join brother Richard and ingratiate himself with him. Henry died, alone. Richard was less than impressed by his brother’s behaviour – plus I imagine Richard suffered some pangs of guilt due to having indirectly caused his father’s death.

john-richardsaladinRichard was now king – a restless king, eager to ride off and heap himself with glory in the Third Crusade. Richard was savvy enough to realise John could very well become a problem during his absence, and so he set about buying John’s favour. John was made Count of Mortain, his marriage with Isabella of Gloucester was pushed through, and he was heaped with honours and riches, the king’s most beloved brother.

This didn’t help. No sooner was Richard off, but John began his scheming. Now, what is important to remember is that not everyone in England was all that thrilled by the idea of having a crusading king. Crusades were expensive things, and financing was acquired by increasing taxes, which did not exactly endear Richard to his English subjects. In difference to Richard, John had spent a lot of time in England, knew the people and the country. He could therefore play on their ambivalence, thereby securing quite some support. To further strengthen his position, he allied himself with Philip Augustus of France.

When Richard was captured on his way home from the Holy Land, John likely did a few capers of joy. Those in England remaining true to Richard must have been torn between their loyalties to the king and the need to curry favour with the heir – because in the eyes of the English, John was the heir, Arthur or no Arthur. This is when formidable mama Eleanor waded into the fray, ensuring everyone knew what was what – i.e. the English nobility were taxed with amassing the huge ransom required to buy Richard free. To do so, the taxed nobles taxed the people – not, I imagine, a popular move.

We all know Richard came back. Robin Hood and his Merry Men made even merrier, the Sheriff of Nottingham gnashed his teeth – even more so, one presumes, after Richard besieged and took the castle – and John fled to Normandy. Some months later, Richard found him, and although he forgave his brother, he stripped him of all his lands but Ireland. Humiliated and substantially poorer, John had no choice but to bend knee to paragon brother Richard. For the following years, John served his king loyally and capably – so capably that Richard restored his lands to him.

And then Richard died. A crossbow quarrel to the armpit, and England’s most famous warrior king (well, bar Henry V. And maybe Edward III) died. His mama cried. His brother, not so much. John had finally come into his own, the only potential fly in his ointment being nephew Arthur, no longer a baby but a handsome twelve-year-old, backed by his overlord Philip Augustus of France. (As an aside, Philip Augustus does not come across as the nicest of men, switching his support this way and that, depending on what suited him best. Probably needs his own post…)

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John – king at last

John was acclaimed by his nobles in England and Normandy, was crowned in Westminster, and crossed the Channel to address the issue of Arthur. He did so by signing a treaty with Philip, who promptly abandoned Arthur. Some years later, Arthur raised his banners in rebellion against his uncle. This time, John captured him. In 1203, Arthur disappeared into the bowels of the Castle of Rouen. He was never seen again…

Obviously, John was the party who most benefited from Arthur’s disappearance. Early on, accusations of murder were made, and much later in the reign, Maude de Braose was to publicly accuse John of having killed his own nephew. That didn’t end well for Maude, who by all accounts died in an oubliette, having first attempted to still her hunger by gnawing on her dead son’s body.

By 1204, John had acquired quite the lurid legend: a number of bastards with various women, some very high-born, the whole thing with Arthur, his repeated betrayal of his brother, his last-minute abandonment of his father, and the dismal treatment of the prisoners he took in the wake of Arthur’s rebellion, resulting in several deaths. And then there was the whole thing with his second wife, where he claimed the supposedly gorgeous Isabella of Angouleme, ignoring the fact that the girl was betrothed to Hugh de Lusignan. (Before this, he’d annulled his first marriage – but kept the lands)

Some say John was immediately besotted by little Isabella. Others say Isabella came with lands that would strengthen John’s position in France. Whatever the case, she was spoken for, but John convinced Isabella’s father to ignore his previous promises, and Isabella became a very young and pretty queen. Hugh de Lusignan became an angry rebel, and ultimately the marriage cost John huge chunks of his French lands. In the fullness of time, Isabella would return to France and the arms of a Hugh de Lusignan, in this case the eldest son of her former fiancé. In the in between, however, she was to present John with five children whom he seems to have doted on.

By 1204, John had also lost most of his French patrimony, with the exception of Aquitaine. This obliged him to concentrate his efforts in England. John was no sloth: he worked hard, with a special interest in reforming the legal system. Upsides of the new system was that free men were no longer at the mercy of the barons’ administration of justice. Through the introduction of legal experts, coroners and judges, John revamped the entire system, motivated no doubt by a desire to reform, but also by the financial rewards the system brought – legal fees increased, filling the king’s coffers.

The king’s coffers needed refilling. John was determined to retake Normandy, and to do so, he needed money – lots of money. So he increased taxes, charged his nobles huge amounts to allow them to succeed to properties and castles they had inherited. Widows wanting to remain widows were charged substantial fees to be allowed to do so, warships were sold as were appointments, fines were increased, fees were increased, and all in all, John made himself very unpopular – especially among the wealthy.

And then there was the matter with the pope. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, John wanted to replace him with his candidate. The pope instead ordained Stephen Langton, and John threw a hissy fit. After all, he was within his rights to have a say in who became archbishop. Nope, the pope retorted. Stephen was it, take it or leave it. John chose to leave it, closing his harbours to Stephen and seizing the lands of the archbishopric. What followed was a long period of spiritual war. In the end, John caved – an excommunicated king was in some ways a powerless king – but he did so with style and cunning, gaining a stalwart supporter in the pope.

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Bouvines – where the French whipped the English…

War, interdiction, taxes, fees, fines…John’s barons had had it. The final straw came when John lost to the French in the Battle of Bouvines, thereby permanently losing Normandy. Not that John’s northern barons gave a fig about Normandy, but they were sick and tired of levied scutage, of taxes and fees, that had left them all severely indebted to the king. The Barons’ revolt was therefore far more motivated by personal interests than any desire to better the cause of the Englishman in general. Truth be told, the barons probably didn’t give a fig about the ordinary Englishman either…

No matter all those personal interests, the Magna Charta went beyond these, and presented a new framework for government, with a council of barons to guide the king, rules regarding a free man’s right to justice, to protection from illegal imprisonment. Taxes were no longer to be a royal prerogative, but required approval from the barons. The Magna Charta defined and contained the rights and obligations of the king, a charter designed to curb the royal excesses by empowering the nobles. A first, if small, step towards representative government, if you will…

In 1215, John signed the Magna Charta – with his fingers crossed. The moment he could, he appealed to the pope for support, and the Holy Father responded by excommunicating the rebel barons. And just like that, England was plunged into civil war. The French invaded, invited by some of the rebel barons. This actually played into John’s hands – the English were no fans of the French. John was a skilled commander, and had the money on hand to pay for substantial mercenaries, but then his entire treasure was lost crossing the Wash close to King’s Lynn. Even worse, he’d contracted dysentery. A sick king, making his way towards the west. An impoverished king, what with all that treasure lost in the sea.

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John’s tomb in Worcester Cathedral

He arrived in Newark and took to bed. In the night between 18-19 of October, John died. He was all of fifty years old, leaving an embattled throne to his nine-year-old son, Henry. Some sources insinuate he was poisoned. Others that he splurged on peaches. I’m guessing it was the dysentery that killed him – just as it had once killed his older brother. Like his father, John died without the comfort of his family around him. Unlike his father, he has constantly been vilified since.

I remain ambivalent to John. Through the centuries he comes across as highly intelligent, sardonic and somewhat twisted. Was he rapacious? Oh, yes. Immoral? On various occasions. But he was also a hard-working king, a man who drove through reforms to the legal system, a caring father, and a man who counted among his friends the future saint, Hugh of Lincoln. He inspired the loyalty of people like Nicolaa de la Haye and her husband, Gerard de Camville. Surely, he wasn’t all bad. In fact, I’m quite sure he wasn’t. After all, no one is. I hope.

The archbishop-to-be and the Norwegian princess

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Fernando, Felipe’s father

It’s probably not an easy thing to be the son of a man on his way to sainthood. In this case, the man pursuing the halo was also a king – and a forceful, skilled king at that – which probably made it even more difficult to live up to parental expectations. Fortunately for today’s protagonist, he wasn’t the heir. Or maybe he would have disagreed about the adverb, maybe he resented not being the future king. We don’t know, and likely never will.

What we do know is that today’s man of the hour was born an Infante of Castilla. I rather like the word Infante/Infanta – a Child of Castilla. I suppose all royal children back then sort of belonged to the country in which they were born, destined to enter into alliances as it served their kingdom, not necessarily themselves. (We tend to forget that it wasn’t only the daughters that were bartered as marital prizes. The sons were just as much pawns in the intricate political games that resulted in future weddings)

Our Felipe was the fifth son of Fernando III of Castilla and León, a king remembered for his successful campaigns against the Moors in southern Spain. Like all Fernando’s children, little Felipe received an excellent education, and as he was promised to the church, he not only studied in Burgos but was also sent to Paris. Whether or not Felipe wanted to enter the church was neither here nor there: Fernando III was blessed with many sons, and as a matter of course his fifth and sixth son were promised to the service of the Holy Church. What Felipe thought of all this only becomes apparent after Fernando’s death: by then, he’d been handed benefices all over southern Spain and was the archbishop-elect of Sevilla – all of this at the impressive age of 21.

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King Alfonso

Anyway, no sooner was Fernando safely buried, but Felipe began to make noises along the lines that he wasn’t entirely comfortable as a prince of the church. The new king, Felipe’s older brother Alfonso X, frowned, displeased by this lack of piety in a man raised explicitly to serve the faith. (Easy for him to say, one would think) At the time, Alfonso was having problems with various of his brothers, notably with Enrique who instigated a rebellion against him, and Fadrique, only two years younger than Alfonso and somewhat peeved at having very little to his name while big brother was king of Castilla and León. What Alfonso definitely didn’t need was yet another disgruntled brother, which may be why he, most reluctantly, allowed Felipe to throw his ecclesiastic career overboard and instead embrace a future as a happy bachelor prince.

Alfonso, just like any other medieval king, was eager to make alliances with distant kingdoms. One such very, very distant kingdom was Norway, where the king, Håkon, was just as eager to make such alliances. Being a Norwegian king always came with the drawback of having his kingdom eyed covetously by both his Swedish and his Danish counterpart, and I suppose Håkon wanted an alliance with Castilla so as to keep his neighbours off his back. (At the time, Sweden was embroiled in a long-standing civil war between various pretenders to the throne, so it didn’t constitute a serious risk, but one never knows with those Swedes – or so Håkon would likely have reasoned) Mind you, had Denmark or Sweden gone after Norway, any help from Castilla would have been a long time coming…

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King Håkon and his son, Magnus

In the mid-13th century, Håkon, eager for an illustrous alliance, sent emissaries to Castilla, presenting Alfonso with prized Norwegian falcons, with gorgeous furs (difficult to use in the Castilian climate, one would think) and other precious items. Alfonso returned the favour and sent ambassadors all the way to Norway, where these Spanish men, accustomed to the sultry, dark beauty of their local ladies, got quite the eyeful of Scandinavian girls – tall, willowy and blonde. (And yes, before anyone else points it out, I am aware that many of the Spanish nobles had Visigoth genes, so being blond and blue-eyed was not unknown, but still…) One of these girls was Princess Kristina, Håkon’s daughter, and it was suggested that maybe an alliance between Norway and Spain should be cemented by a marriage.

Hmm, said Håkon, who was very fond of his daughter. The ambassadors assured him his girl would be very well received – they’d even line up Alfonso’s unwed brothers and have her choose her bridegroom. Hmm, Håkon repeated. The Norway to Spain journey was long and perilous, and once his Kristina rode away, chances were he’d never see her again. But an alliance with Castilla was a good thing, and Kristina deserved a life of splendour and comfort – something she’d likely get at the sophisticated Castilian court in Valladolid. Kristina, at the time well over twenty and borderline an old maid as per the standards of the day, seems to have been positive to the idea, which is why, in the summer of 1257, she and her huge entourage set off on the long, long journey to Spain. First they crossed the North Sea to Yarmouth. Then they rode through England and took ship to Normandy. Then they rode and rode, all the way to Barcelona, where King Alfonso’s father-in-law welcomed them and suggested Kristina marry him instead, so taken was he by her beauty.

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Jaime of Aragón

Kristina had not ridden across a continent to marry a man more than 25 years her senior – albeit that Jaime of Aragón was supposedly a good-looking man, even at the ripe age of fifty or so. Besides, Kristina’s father had no desire to enter into an alliance with Jaime – he wanted the real deal, which was to ally himself with the substantially bigger kingdom ruled by Alfonso. So, after a week or so of enjoying Jaime’s hospitality, Kristina rode on, arriving in Valladolid in early January of 1258.

She was warmly welcomed by her host and his nobles, including Felipe, who was quite taken by the notion of marrying a princess – and a pretty one at that. They were of an age, Felipe and Kristina, him only three years older than her. Fadrico – the other candidate – was ten years older than Kristina, and he also had the disadvantage of sporting a scar. Kristina comes across as somewhat shallow when this scar is cited as her main reason for choosing Felipe. I hope she saw beyond the exterior prior to making her final choice.

Some months after arriving in Valladolid, Kristina married Felipe. The former priest, abbot of several monasteries, presumptive archbishop of Sevilla, gladly embraced his bride, even more so as Alfonso showered the happy couple with land – mostly to appease Kristina’s father. Felipe was now a significant landowner, and I imagine he was eager to carry off his bride to Sevilla and start with the pleasant (one hopes) business of procreating.

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Kristina’s tomb (Creative Commons, photo by Ecelar)

Whether or not it was pleasant, we will never know. What we do know was that no matter what efforts the couple expended on making a baby, it didn’t work. Did they comfort each other, blame each other? No idea. But four years later, in 1262, Kristina of Norway passed away. She was 28 years old, and as per the examination of her remains conducted in the 1950’s, she was approximately 172 cm tall, with good teeth and strong bones. And childless.

I imagine Felipe was distressed. By now a man in his early thirties, he needed an heir, and so he quickly married again, this time to a second cousin named Inéz. Some years later, she too was dead – childless – and Felipe was obliged to marry for the third time. By now, he had a couple of illegitimate children, so it clearly wasn’t his fault if his wives didn’t conceive. Not much of a comfort I imagine, even less so when his third wife presented him with a son and namesake who promptly died.

A frustrated and edgy Felipe now turned his attention to politics. Alfonso may have been nicknamed “el sabio” (the wise), but his Castilian nobles were not overly impressed by his leadership – or his determined attempts to be appointed Holy Roman Emperor (a claim he could push due to his mother, born a Hohenzollern and sister to Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II) As always, there were skirmishes with the Moors and with Aragón and with Navarra and with Portugal, and Alfonso’s leading barons felt the king ignored these pressing issues in his quest to convince the pope he was the best candidate for the job as emperor. Besides, the nobles grumbled, Alfonso owed them several years of back-pay for their service in his army

The disgruntled nobles approached Felipe. His older brother Enrique had been exiled in 1260, Fadrico had made some sort of peace with Alfonso, and baby brother Sancho was busy being an archbishop, which sort of left Felipe as the only prince available. He listened, hemmed and hawed, but fundamentally agreed with the long list of demands the nobles had drawn up – principal among them that Alfonso revert to governing according to tradition, i.e. that he be counselled by his barons.

In 1272, Felipe was sent off to Navarra to organise a bolt hole for the conspirators. His job was to convince the king of Navarra to offer them asylum should things not go their way in Castilla. The king of Navarra was more than happy to do so – having Alfonso beset by his nobles was not a bad thing as per him.

Things came to a head when the king ordered all his nobles to attend on the heir to the throne, Infante Fernando, in Sevilla, there to do battle with the infidels. To a man, the rebellious barons refused to do so. Alfonso was incensed – but prepared to be conciliatory. The barons weren’t. Alfonso gnashed his teeth and promptly entered into an alliance with the king of Navarra, thereby placing the rebels in a precarious position: Aragón would not receive them – Jaime of Aragón’s daughter was married to Alfonso – and the Portuguese had little love for the haughty Castilians. However, down in the south, Mohammed of Granada welcomed them with open arms, and no matter how Alfonso pleaded with his stubborn nobles, they rode off to Granada and signed a treaty with Mohammed, promising each other mutual support until Alfonso agreed to their demands.

fernando-cantigas-de-santa-maria-mohammed_i_ibn_nasrAlfonso was no fool – as demonstrated by the fact that he comes down through the ages as “Alfonso el sabio“, which can be interpreted as Alfonso the Wise or  Alfonso the Learned, but never as Alfonso the Fool. If Mohammed’s loyalty could be bought by unspecified promises by the Castilian nobles, reasonably he was open to negotiating with Alfonso himself. He was. The nobles scurried off to Navarra and pledged their allegiance to King Enrique, remaining obdurate in their demands. Alfonso was by now in something of a pickle: how would anyone take his candidature to be the next Holy Roman Emperor seriously if he couldn’t manage his dratted barons?

By 1274, the nobles had won. Alfonso gave in to almost all of their demands, and the scions of the rebellious families Lara, Castro and Haro could return home in triumph – as could the king’s treacherous brother, Infante Felipe. In his case, however, the joy would be short-lived. In November of 1274, Felipe died, leaving behind an illegitimate daughter who would one day become a nun, and two bastard sons, one of whom was to serve his uncle Alfonso, far more loyally than Felipe had done. Felipe himself was interred beside his second wife, preferring to share eternity with her rather than his first, foreign wife, that blonde, tall and willowy Norwegian princess. Or maybe that wasn’t his choice – we will never know.

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.

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Fernando

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.

Fernando 800px-Batalla_del_Puig_por_Marzal_de_Sas_(1410-20)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.

Fernando MoorsinIberia Cantigas de Santa MariaBy 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.

Fernando CastilliaIn 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.

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Pradilla – Boabdil surrendering Granada to Isabel and Fernando of Aragón (much later than the events in this post, but the painting is so gorgeous…)

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.

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The prostration of San Fernando (Mattoni) I guess it’s his wife in the veil to the right

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.

Two kings and their ostentatious piety

EHFA HenryIIII’m going to come clean right at the start and say I am not a fan of Henry III. Through the centuries that separate us, he comes across as petty and ineffectual, and yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being stuck between the exciting (?) turmoil that defined the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but still, Henry was in many ways a most inept king – as demonstrated by the rebellion of men like Simon de Montfort.

To be fair to Henry, he did not have an easy start in life. Becoming king at the tender age of nine, with your kingdom invaded by French mercenaries, your barons at each other’s throat, and your father vilified by every man around, cannot have been easy. Things were probably not made better when his mother, the famously beautiful Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, decided she was not cut out to play the part of grieving widow. In 1217, a year after Henry had lost his father, Isabella chose to return to her native Angouleme where she subsequently married Hugh de Lusignan and went on to present Henry with nine half-siblings. It is testament to how much Henry desired to be loved that he would make his Lusignan half-brothers more than welcome in England, despite the protesting grumbling of his barons.

So: our little Henry must have been lonely. A dead father, a mother who abandoned him. Yes, he had a brother he loved dearly, and yes, he definitely had older men who acted as regents in his name, but ultimately he was still a child, however much a king he was expected to act. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising if Henry grew up to be reserved, turning inwards rather than outwards. Neither is it a surprise that he found solace in his faith – Henry is described as being a most pious king. And here, dear readers, lies the seed to the magnificent legacy Henry III did leave us: Westminster Abbey.

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Westminster abbey, photo Bede 735

Westminster Abbey qualifies as one of my favourite places. I don’t go there to gawk at the headstones and effigies of the famous, I go there to imbue the atmosphere, to sit in the Chapter House, peek at the cloister gardens. I go there to rest my head against the stone and listen to the sounds of all those who’ve walked here before me, a silent shuffling and rustling as shadowy monks, richly dressed magnates, the odd veiled woman pass by. Yes, yes: of course I know I’m imagining things – or am I?

Westminster Abbey is first and foremost a church, built in testimony of deep faith. Two English kings were to spend the equivalent of a major fortune on this their favourite church – one of whom is today’s protagonist, Henry III – but the origins are far older than that. In fact, we probably have the Romans to thank for the original settlement on what was then known as Thorn Ey (Island of the brambles), a small patch of solid land in the marsh that abutted the northern shore of the Thames. You see, the Romans had a logistic problem: somehow they wanted to join up Watling Street with Dover Street, and the self-evident intersection was round Thorn Ey, where the Thames was fordable at low tide.

As to the abbey, its roots are lost in antiquity. As per one legend, the Romans built a temple to Apollo on the present day site of the abbey. Out went the Romans, in came the barbarous Saxons, and the temple was razed to the ground, a forgotten ruin, no more, until King Sebert of Essex (a gentleman who lived in the 7th century) saw the light and decided to build a church on top of the Roman ruins to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.

Unfortunately, there is little proof of this ancient church. The Westminster monks went a bit wild and crazy in the 11th century, producing a number of skillful forgeries in their attempts to substantiate Westminster Abbey’s claim to be the oldest Christian abbey in England. In the event, Glastonbury won that particular fight after having produced their own legend, that of  Joseph of Arimathea, come to England in the aftermath of Jesus’ death with the Holy Grail and a staff that was to take root and become the Glastonbury thorn. Whether true or not, I leave to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.

The 11th century ushered in a Danish dynasty and Knut (Canute), son of Sven Tveskägg became king of all of England in 1016. He rather liked Westminster, despite having issues with the temperamental tides of the Thames, so he decided to build a royal palace next door to the monastery. In doing so, Knut indirectly forged the first of several links that would forever tie the future abbey to the English royals.

By then, Westminster had grown into one of the more important monasteries in England. Several years of royal patronage had resulted in a wealthy monastery, and an impressive collection of relics ensured a steady stream of eager pilgrims.

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Westminster Abbey as per the Bayeux Tapestry

The Danish dynasty was to be one of the more short-lived in England, and in 1043, Edward the Confessor (of Wessex royal blood) became king. He expended a fortune on Westminster Abbey, as per tradition because he’d promised to make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s grave in Rome should he ever regain his crown from the Danes. Once crowned, he was reluctant to leave his kingdom, and he instead promised to build  – or enlarge and restore – a monastery dedicated to St Peter. Somewhat coincidental, all this, seeing as just opposite the royal palace in Westminster was a monastery dedicated to…taa-daa…St Peter.

The church Edward built was,by all accounts, magnificent, and people gawked and exclaimed as stone by stone, the building rose towards the heavens, testament to Edward’s faith and unswerving determination to build one of the finest churches in Christendom. Unfortunately for Edward, he never got to enjoy his finished church. He sickened some days after Christmas of 1065, was incapable of attending the consecration and instead was buried in Westminster Abbey – in front of the altar in early January 1066. A not so auspicious start to that particular year, one could say…

Anyway: as we all know, William the Conqueror defeated Harold in October of 1066, had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and as of that day the kings of England were Norman. Henry III was the great-great-great-grandson of William but shared few characteristics with his bellicose and determined ancestor. Where William was more into world dominion, Henry was more into the arty stuff in life, which to some extent explains why he chose to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and dark Westminster Abbey church into what it is today. Plus, of course, Henry was determined not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.

The two young kings were of an age – Henry was born in 1207, Louis in 1214. They were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the Count of Provence. Both were pious – very pious. If Henry went to mass every day – so did Louis. Louis fed hundreds of orphans – so did Henry. One gave alms – so did the other. If Henry went on pilgrimages, chances are Louis would also go. When Louis washed the feet of lepers to show his humility, very soon after, Henry was also washing leprous feet. A competition in being the most Christian king, one could say, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood to proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.

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Sainte-Chapelle, photo Michael D Hill

Then, of course, Louis went ahead and started building Sainte-Chapelle – he needed an adequately beautiful church to store all those precious relics of his. Sainte-Chapelle was (is) a work of art and light. The upper part of the chapel was given fifteen huge stained glass windows, allowing light to stream in and illuminate the magnificently painted walls, the resplendent fabrics, the life-size statues of the apostles, and, of course, the huge silver chest in which Louis stored his precious relics.

What did Henry have that could match this? Nothing. Nada. Yes, Westminster Abbey was steeped in history, but did it have a lofty nave, did it invite the heavens to come within? Nope. So Henry rolled up his sleeves – figuratively speaking – and decided to rebuild, to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done. (Okay, so it wasn’t only because of Louis – after all, Henry had always had a major interest for art and architecture…)

Henry had a trump card: within the abbey was the shrine to St Edward the Confessor – Henry’s patron saint – and Sainte-Chapelle had no such shrine, no such saint. (Although, to be honest, I find it difficult to understand why Edward was ever canonised. Neither here nor there…)

The shrine was remodelled. It was decked out with paint and gold-leaf, it was so adorned it immediately drew the eyes of any visitor, rising huge beyond the altar. The nave was rebuilt, rising to new heights. Light streamed in – not, perhaps, as much as in Louis’ chapel, but substantially more than before. And then Henry turned to the decoration within.

We may be excused for believing medieval churches were austere, mostly whitewash and wood – modern man has a tendency to equate starkness with piety. In truth, entering a medieval church was an assault on the senses, and especially that of sight. The walls were painted with scenes from the bible, statues glowed in blues and reds and golds, pillars rose towards the ceiling decorated with stonework and colour. Candles cast further light on gold decorations, glimmered off priceless church silver. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, dappling the floor with coloured reflections. A bit, I imagine, like entering a full-size kaleidoscope, with so much to see, so much to gawk at.

This was the reaction Henry strived for. He wanted people to enter and stop, amazed at what they saw within. So not only did he lift the nave, order the walls to be painted and decorated, St Edward’s shrine to be adequately highlighted and gilded, he also added a magnificent floor just before the shrine, and to top it all off, the high altar was adorned with a magnificent retable.

Amazingly, the Westminster Retable is still with us. Close to eight centuries old, badly damaged and scuffed, it is still there, still retains sufficient traces of the images that must at one time have had people going ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’. To be frank, it is difficult not to do the ‘ooo’ and ‘aaa’ thing now as well – assuming you’ve taken the time to find the retable, which relatively few visitors to the abbey do, seeing as they never feel sufficiently motivated to visit the museum.

EHFA Westminster retableI, of course, have found my way to the museum – and will gladly admit that I’m somewhat in love with the retable. Specifically, I am intrigued by one image, that of Christ holding the whole world in his hand. Because you see, dear readers, the world Christ is holding is round. It’s a sphere. On a work of art from the 13th century. I shall leave you to mull that one over…

As an aside, it is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were stripped of what was considered as excessively popish decorations, wall paintings were hidden under whitewash, statues of saints and the Virgin destroyed. And then, during the English Civil War, the Puritans had a tendency to go wild and crazy when it came to what they perceived as idolatry. The retable was not destroyed. It was just bundled off into storage somewhere, and in the 18th century someone came up with the bright idea to use the ancient thing – newly painted – as a cask for William Pitt the elder’s wax effigy.

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St Louis and the pope, Bibliotheque Nacionale de France

It is, I suppose, an open question which king succeeded in best demonstrating his piety to the world. In their constant competition, they left the world two marvels, the pure gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle and the somewhat more grounded Westminster Abbey, its ancient roots still visible. And as to which one of them was the most devout, that too must remain an open question, although Louis would probably sniff and tell me not to be an idiot: after all, there is no St Henry while there most definitely is a St Louis – and by all accounts, deservedly so.

 

From humiliated divorcee to ruling queen

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Eleanor of Castile

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

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Berenguela – as depicted centuries after her death…

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

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

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Alfonso VIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alfonso IX of León

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

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

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

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

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Alfonso IX and Berenguela, while they were still married

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fernando accepting the keys of Seville

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

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

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

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

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

Love – not always pink and fluffy

Edward Gal_nations_edward_iEdward I comes down through history to us as a man not much given to romantic gestures. This after all, is the man who implemented being hung, drawn and quartered for treason, who expelled the Jews in 1290, and who spent a considerable part of his life hammering the Welsh and the Scots into submission (wasted effort when it came to the Scots). He also hung women in cages from the battlements of Berwick castle, and supposedly (as per one rather fanciful story) left instructions that his body be boiled until the flesh fell off his bones and for those bones to be carried along with the English army when yet again they went after the Scots. His son, understandably, preferred to bury daddy as he was…

Edward I was undoubtedly one of the more capable English kings.  A devoted and loyal son, a man who took his responsibilities seriously and who set about reforming government so as to include Montfort’s ideas about regular parliaments, he is also at times a controversial king – it suffices to read the first paragraph to understand why. But whatever people may think of him, I’d wager no one would accuse Edward I of being a softie. Nope, not for him hearts and flowers. Or?

When Edward was fifteen, he married Eleanor of Castile. She was thirteen at the time, and the wedding was essentially a political alliance to safeguard English interests in Gascony. Fortunately, the married couple took to each other like a house on fire. They would spend the coming thirty-odd years or so mostly together, with Eleanor accompanying Edward more or less wherever he went, despite giving birth to at least sixteen children.

Images-of-medieval-love-e1392230695284-560x500One gets the impression of a happy marriage – of two intellectual equals that took great pleasure in each other’s company. Eleanor was well-educated and no push-over. She was an active business woman, amassing considerable wealth during her life – something that did not exactly endear her to her subjects, who were somewhat intimidated by their determined queen. Edward, however, appreciated her hard-nosed qualities – but there was plenty of love and flirtation as well, as demonstrated by the fact that even after her death, Edward continued to pay her women Lent money, the “bribe” required to get him through the door to his waiting queen after the impossed celibacy of Lent.

And then Eleanor up and died. Okay, not unexpected, because she had been ailing for quite some time, but Edward was devastated. So much did he love his wife, that he ordered a magnificent stone cross to be built at every point in which her coffin rested on its way to London. These Eleanor crosses, in total 12, are mostly gone by now, but some remain standing, a silent reminder of a king and his great love for his wife. Sort of romantic, hey?

Edward I may have been griefstruck. Yes, he was probably for some time not quite himself. But Edward was a king, and his duties required him to pull himself together and get on with things – including sorting the matter of the rather precarious situation when it came to his heirs. No matter all those babies, Eleanor and Edward only had six children survive childhood. Of those, only one was a son – the future Edward II. So, just in case, Edward married again, by all accounts as devoted a husband to his new bride as he had been to his first.Edward I, it seems, was blessed in his marriages, finding love and companionship with both his wives.

Through history, however, there are various examples of royal spouses who never got over the loss of their dear one. For them, the love that had once been a blessing became an affliction, grief dragging them into the dark and never quite letting them back up into the light.

Juana-la-locaOne of the more classic examples is that of Juana of Castile – interestingly enough a distant relation to Edward’s Eleanor. Extraordinarily beautiful, this the second daughter to Isabel of Castile and Fernando of Aragón, was not only considered drop-dead, she was also highly intelligent and extremely well-educated. Unfortunately for Juana, both her parents belonged to the Trastámara family – Isabel and Fernando were second cousins – and mental instability popped up here and there in her family tree. Not that there were any indications that Juana was so afflicted – the girl was quite the catch on the marital market, despite being nowhere close to inheriting a crown, having both an elder son and an elder sister.

15th-century_unknown_painters_-_Portrait_of_Philip_the_Handsome_-_WGA23598Anyway, in 1496, Juana married Philip the Handsome. To judge from what portraits there are, he wasn’t that gorgeous, but maybe the paintings don’t do him justice. Whatever the case, Juana and Philip were sufficiently attracted to each other to produce a half a dozen of very attractive children. Juana was smitten with her handsome husband – and quite devastated when he strayed. Which, by all accounts, he did quite often. Despite his behaviour, Juana developed something of an obsession with her husband, an open adoration that had people snickering behind her back.

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Absolutely gorgeous, don’t you think? Philip and Juana, by Master Abtei from Afflighem

Through a series of unfortunate deaths, Juana ended up as the heir to both Castile and Aragón. And in 1504, when her mother died, Juana became Queen of Castile – her handsome hubby became King Philip I, something that by all accounts pleased him. Two years later, Philip died in a sudden fever, this as a consequence of over exertion on the tennis court followed by too much cold water. Or typhoid – take your pick.

At the time Juana was pregnant. Her husband’s unexpected death was a blow that literarily felled her, and days of weeping, of not eating or drinking in her despair, drove her over the edge. Juana became Juana la Loca (Juana the Mad) as the people around her watched with mounting concern how she sank deeper and deeper into the black sludge of her grief.

Philip was embalmed and placed in a  coffin. Juana wasn’t about to have him buried – not yet. She simply couldn’t bear to be parted from him. Some months after his death, Juana set out with the coffin, destined for Granada. Every day she had the coffin opened so that she could inspect the corpse and ensure no one had touched it. All women were forbidden from being anywhere close to the coffin, Juana’s jealousy spiraling into skrieking bouts of madness if she saw as much as a female servant.

In Torquemada, the journey ground to a temporary halt. Juana’s baby was about to be born, and she ordered Philip’s coffin to be placed in the chapel, surrounded by guards and so many candles the men doing guard duty emerged “as black as moors” due to all the soot.

The baby, a little girl, was born on a cold and icy January day. As if mirroring Juana’s despair, Castile was afflicted by famine and the plague – not that Juana noticed, immured in her own mental prison. Come spring, she set off again, refusing to travel by day. So instead Juana, the coffin, her baby and all their entourage travel by night, surrounded by torches.

Doña_Juana_-la_Loca-_(Pradilla)

Juana and the coffin, 19th century by Pradilla. He got some things wrong, what with all those women sitting about, but it’s so atmospheric…

One day, or so the story goes, Juana saw a group of building outlined against the lightening eastern sky. A place to stay, she hoped, but upon being informed it was a nunnery, she collapsed in yet another bout of jealousy. She ordered the coffin opened and stood for a long time staring down at the sorry remains of her once so handsome husband. The lid was replaced, and the procession swung into motion, with no idea of where they were headed. Granada no longer seemed to be the intended destination.

Finally, Juana’s father decided things had to stop. Concerned for her health – and the state of the government, he came upon her in the midst of the Castilian hinterland. Somehow, he convinced her to return to Burgos. Fernando rode with his men during the day, Juana and the coffin travelled by night. At this point, Juana no longer washed or changed her clothes.

In 1509, Fernando had Juana brought to the convent of Tordesillas. She was 28 years old, mother of six, and all she could think of was her husband – once so handsome, now slowly rotting in his as yet uninterred coffin. Fernando had her locked away – together with her youngest daughter. He did do her the kindness of placing Philip’s coffin so that she could see it from her window. The door closed. Juana was to remain within for 47 long years, released only by death.

Juana pradilla36

Juana in Tordesillas, late 19th century by Pradilla

In the meantime, her father was to die, deeply depressed. Juana became the titular ruler of both Castile and Aragón, but the actual ruling was done by her young and gifted son, who showed little inclination to have his mother released from her prison. Truth be told, maybe she preferred to remain within, sitting always by the window that allowed her to see what little remained of Philip the Handsome: his coffin.

After her death, Juana was reunited with her husband. They were buried in Granada, together. I suspect they were both beyond caring…

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