Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time

Archive for the tag “Alfonso X”

Is she Violent? No, she’s Violante

Violante img8418Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder what our dear ancestors might have been high on when naming their children. Take, for example, the royal custom in medieval Castile of naming their little princesses Urraca. Urraca is Spanish for magpie, and my main objection to the name is how harsh it sounds. Urraca is an onomatopoeic word, i.e. it’s supposed to resemble the sounds emitted by a magpie, and as most of us know, magpies don’t exactly sing, they croak, hence the rather ugly combo of sounds that make up their name. Not that you may care, but in Swedish, magpies are called skata which is not onomatopoeic. The word for crow, kråka, is though. Seems corvids inspire attempts at naming them for the sounds they make. Right: I digress…

I have written about one of these Urraca ladies. She was a ruling queen back in the 11th century and is still considered one of medieval Spain’s more capable rulers.  Today, I thought we’d spend time with another of those names I can’t quite get my head around, namely Violant (or Violante) To me, this name conjures up an image of a not-so-nice lady with a tendency to strike first, ask questions later. However, most of us cannot help our names, having been given them by our parents. In the case of medieval royal children, babies were usually named for their ancestors. Our first Violanta for the day is one such case.

Violante TumboAKing


In 1236, Jaime I, king of Aragón and his Hungarian wife Violant (or Yolande) welcomed their first child, a baby girl, to the world. In honour of her mother, the child was christened Violant. Thirteen years later, little Violant was married to Alfonso, heir to the throne of Castile and León. As with most royal unions, this was a marriage intended to strengthen the ties between the Castile and Aragón, with little consideration of the personal happiness of the groom and bride. At the time of their wedding, Alfonso was twenty-eight, an experienced military leader and an equally experienced lover, very much in love with his mistress Mayor Guillén de Guzmán. Violant was just Violant, too young to have much experience of anything.

No one expected a bride as young as Violant to consummate the wedding. She was given some years to grow into her role, and by all accounts the young lady was not a doormat, rather the reverse. Where Castilian ladies had cultivated the art of remaining cool and collected in all circumstances, with royal ladies in particular being taught from an early age to conduct themselves so as to avoid even as much as an insinuation of bad behaviour, little Violant seems to have been given somewhat freer reins (yay! Or maybe not…) In brief, Violant had something of a temper – or so we are told.

Alfonso wasn’t entirely happy with his opinionated wife. In fact, as the years passed and Violant showed no sign of popping out the desired heir, Alfonso toyed with the idea of annulling the marriage. In 1252, Alfonso’s father, San Fernando died and our Alfonso became king. A Castilian king needed strong male heirs to defend the crown, both against the rapacious Castilian nobility as represented by the families de Lara and de Haro, but also against the remaining Muslim kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula. A barren queen was therefore not an option.



However, in 1253, Violant gave birth to her first child. (And we should note that she was around seventeen at the time, so she wasn’t exactly long in the tooth…) Yes, it was a girl, not a boy, but at least Violant could expel a huge sigh of relief. She was not barren.  There is a little legend regarding Violant’s first pregnancy, whereby the court physicians had told her that she needed to relax and take it easy—conception would not happen otherwise. As Alfonso had recently reconquered Alicante from the Moors, he suggested he and his wife retire to an adjoining farm there to enjoy the peace and serenity of simple country life. (Alfonso was willing to do what it took to get that heir of his) Lo and behold, Violant became pregnant which just shows what some R&R in tranquil environments can do for you.

Over the years, Violant was to give her husband at least eleven children, of which five were boys. The eldest of these sons, Fernando de la Cerda, married Blanche of France, daughter of St Louis. He was not destined for a long life and died leaving behind two little boys. Now, according to traditional Castilian law, in such cases the closest surviving brother could claim the throne. According to Roman law—which Alfonso was trying to introduce—the sons of the deceased eldest brother had the stronger claim.

The tragedy of Fernando’s death tore his family apart. Younger brother Sancho did claim the throne and even wrested some sort of acquiescence from Alfonso after years of bloody civil war. Violant, however, was firmly of the opinion her grandsons should inherit and was wise enough to ensure the two little boys were transferred to Aragón, there to be kept safe by her brother. Actually, Alfonso agreed with Violant, so when he died in 1284 he left a will which excluded Sancho from the succession. Didn’t work: Sancho had the support of the nobles and had the added benefit of being a full-grown man, while his nephews were still boys and under Aragonese control.

Violant Sancho_IV_de_Castilla_02


Violant would live out the rest of her life in Aragón, a staunch supporter of her grandson’s right to the Castilian throne. Her son Sancho she vilified as an usurper (which, to some extent, he was) I imagine this left little room for happy mother-son conversations. It also meant that Violant supported one grandson against the other, especially as Sancho died young, in turn leaving a very young son as his successor. Had it not been for Violant’s impressive daughter-in-law, Maria de Molina, I imagine chaos would have reigned absolute.

Violant of Aragón died in 1301. By then at least nine of her children were dead but her bloodline would live on through her numerous grandchildren to her two distant descendants Fernando of Aragón and Isabel of Castile, two cousins who would marry, unite Spain and begin forging the foundations of the Spanish empire. That, I believe, would have pleased the outspoken Violant!

In difference to our first Violant, my second lady of that name is very much a footnote in history, more famous for the men she interacted with than anything she herself did. As far as I know, Violante Visconti never expressed an opinion in contradiction to what her father or brother or husband believed—at least not when it came to truly relevant things.

Other than her name, our second Violante has only one thing in common with our first lady of the day: she too was married at a very young age. But her husband was not a soon-to-be king, albeit he was a prince and by all accounts a handsome and a capable prince at that.

Violante Visconti was born in the 14th century, the only daughter of Galeazzo II, powerful ruler of Milan. She lived in a time when Italy was dominated by various city states, constantly at war with each other or the Papal states. Milan was no exception, hereditary enemy of Florence and more than delighted to hire English mercenaries to help in their various battles. One of the more famous English mercenaries who served under the Milanese Viscontis is John Hawkwood, a man whose life reads like a fairy tale rags-to-riches story.

I digress. Violante was born in 1354, the year in which her father, together with his two brothers, became rulers of the city-state of Milan. Galeazzo is one of those very complicated early Renaissance men (ok, ok, VERY early Renaissance man) who on the one hand showered the arts with money and support and actively promoted learning (like in the university he founded in Pavia), on the other is mostly remembered for introducing an innovative torture protocol (!) in Milan whereby the poor unfortunate marked for death due to treason was submitted to forty days of torture which, as per the protocol, ended with said unfortunate’s death. One day of torture was followed by one day of rest so as to extend the entertainment for the avid spectators… I imagine any would-be traitor thought twice about betraying Signore Galeazzo or his co-ruling brothers.

Violant Flemish_School_-_Lille_-_Margaret_of_Dampierre

Margaret de Male 

Anyway: In the 1360s, king Edward III of England was trying to strengthen his position in Europe. One way of doing this was by negotiating marriages between his sons and daughters and the sons and daughters of rulers he wanted to ally himself with. Edward wanted very much to ally himself with the Count of Flanders, Louis de Male who happily had an unwed daughter. Actually, he only had one child, making little Margaret quite the marital prize. Fortunately, Edward had an unwed son, Edmund of Langley. Unfortunately, there were others interested in marrying Margaret, principally Philip the Bold of France. Plus, the pope was being plain obstructive, refusing to grant the dispensation required for Edmund to marry Margaret.

Edward III was not about to give up. As the pope was being a pain in the nether parts, Edward decided it might make sense to up the pressure on dear Pope Urban V. The best way to do that was to start doing some sword-rattling in Italy, where the Holy See was in constant conflict with…ta-daa…Milan and the Viscontis. How extremely fortunate that Galeazzo II had a marriageable daughter. Even more fortuitous, Edward had another son to put forward as a royal groom (he was still holding out hope on the Edmund—Margaret union) Enter Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence,  the very tall and handsome second son of Edward III.

Violante LionelDukeOfClarenceAtWestminster


At the time, Lionel was pushing thirty. His first wife had died in 1363 and an Italian adventure didn’t sound too bad—rather the reverse. Besides, Galeazzo was so delighted at the thought of marrying his daughter to an English prince he offered a huge dowry. Edward III was always in need of money and it was therefore no hardship for the king and Signore Visconti to come to an agreement.

Accompanied by a huge entourage, Lionel set out for Italy in spring of 1368. In June of 1368 the thirteen-year-old Violante married the English giant (Lionel was over two metres tall) and the following wedding festivities were so magnificent people talked about the endless sequence of dishes, the extravagant gifts, for ages afterwards.

The Lionel—Violante union was to be short-lived. In October of 1368 Lionel died, some say due to overindulging in food, others (notably his most loyal and closest companion, Edward le Despenser) insisted he’d been poisoned. We will never know, but given the times, given the high stakes, it is not entirely unlikely a disgruntled pope or one of his supporters may have slipped something into Lionel’s wine. Le Despenser blamed Galeazzo II, but that seems far-fetched as Lionel’s death did not benefit Galeazzo.


Violante and her brother

The little widow was returned to her parents. One year passed, two years passed, many years passed. Not until 1377 was Violante married again, this time to Secondotto Palaeologus, originally betrothed to Violante’s older sister who died several years earlier. This Secondotto was no mean catch: as can be discerned from his second name, he had royal Greek blood and was, in fact, part of the family that ruled the Byzantine Empire.

Blood alone does not a man make, and by all accounts Secondotto was not all that impressive. According to Barbara Tuchman, the man was an insane sadist who enjoyed killing people with his own bare hands. Nice. One wonders how Galeazzo could entrust Violante to someone like that, but his daughter’s marriage was yet one more move in the power game Galeazzo played, always with an eye to the end game. Secondotto only married Violante because he needed her father’s support in his ongoing conflict with Amadeus of Savoy and his uncle, Otto. Galeazzo rose to the occasion (he generally did) and helped Secondotto retake Asti. Except, of course, that once Galeazzo had reconquered Asti, he saw no reason to turn it over to dear Secondotto. He probably felt Asti was an adequate compensation for his daughter’s hand. Upon Galeazzo’s death in August of 1378, Violante’s brother, Gian Galeazzo, was as obdurate: Asti was to remain under Visconti control

An enraged Secondotto assembled an army and challenged his in-laws. Poor Violante was caught in between, and I imagine there was an element of relief (for various reasons) when Secondotto died, albeit he was probably assassinated on dear brother’s orders.

Once again, Violante returned home, but this time it was not her father but her brother who called the shots. Her marriage with Secondotto had not resulted in any children and Violante was by now resigned to her role as marital pawn, a beautiful woman to use as best suited the Visconti family interests.

Her third marriage was to her cousin, Ludovico Visconti. This time, there was issue, a little boy called Giovanni. Not that Violante was destined for a happily ever after: her hubby died after some years (and it is suspected at the behest of Gian Galeazzo). In 1386, Violante herself died. Other than her son, she left little trace behind.

IMG_0201So, there you have it, peeps. Two ladies named Violant/Violante. One was mostly a footnote, the other comes across as determined to forge her own destiny. One evokes pity, the other admiration. I guess it just goes to prove that Shakespeare had it right: “What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

The Rule of a Woman – of Maria de Molina, the Wise Queen of Castile

It’s been ages since I dropped by medieval Spain for a visit. Long enough that I’ve missed all my Alfonsos and my Fernandos, no matter how confusing it may be to keep tabs on so many peeps with the same name. Today, I thought we’d focus on a Spanish lady, but before we get to her we must start off with…taa-daa…an Alfonso, in this case Alfonso X, King of Castile and León, son to San Fernando, half-brother to the Eleanor who was destined to marry Edward I of England.

Maria de Molina 800px-Retrato_de_Alfonso_X

Alfonso X (obv not by a contemporary artist)

Our Alfonso was born in 1221 and became king in 1252. He has gone down in history as Alfonso el Sabio which can be translated as either Alfonso the Wise or Alfonso the Learned – not synonyms, I must hasten to point out, and in Alfonso’s case I’d hazard he was more learned than wise, how else to explain how this well-educated man ended up fighting more or less constantly with his nobles, his brothers, and ultimately with his son?

As Alfonso X is not today’s protagonist allow me to leap forward to 1275. This is the year when Alfonso’s eldest son and heir, the twenty-year-old Fernando de la Cerda, died of the wounds he’d received at the Battle of Écija. This was one of the many battles against the Moors fought during Alfonso’s reign, all part of the Reconquista, the determined effort by the Christian kings of Spain to reclaim their land from the Muslims. Poor Alfonso, beset not only by enemies within but also without, one could say. How unfortunate, therefore, that Alfonso invested so much effort and money on trying to be elected the next Holy Roman Emperor instead of sorting out his own kingdom(s).

Anyway: despite his youth, this Fernando had two sons – very young boys, to be sure, but still. Fernando also had a very ambitious eighteen-year-old brother named Sancho, and no sooner was Fernando cooling in his grave but Sancho started campaigning for his right to inherit the throne, repeatedly reminding everyone within earshot that he was a full-grown man, while his nephews were as yet mere boys. Plus, of course, according to ancient Castilian laws and customs, the second brother should inherit if the eldest died without adult sons

Maria de Molina LibroDesJuegasAlfonXAndCourt

Alfonso dispensing justice

Alfonso X did not agree.  He had recently implemented Roman Law in Castile and as a firm believer in primogeniture he wanted his little grandson and namesake to inherit the throne. Sancho sought help among the nobles, and yet again Castile was torn apart by civil war. It did not help Alfonso that in 1277 he had his own brother, Fadrique, brutally executed for plotting to replace Alfonso with Sancho. (This is all very strange, as Sancho in this matter acted on behalf of the king, personally ensuring Fadrique’s son-in-law and purported co-conspirator, was burned at the stake) In general, Alfonso exhibited an increasingly choleric disposition as he grew older, probably due to a sequence of ailments.

The relationship between father and son soured further when Sancho fell utterly in love with a woman other than his betrothed. Passion gripped our young prince, and apparently the object of all this adoration felt the same, how else to explain that the highly born Doña Maria agreed to wed Sancho despite there being no papal dispensation and despite the fact that contractually he was bound to Guillerma Moncada, his betrothed.

Maria Sancho_IV_de_Castilla_02


Maria and Sancho were relatives – related well within the third degree. Maria and Sancho´s father Alfonso were first cousins, and the royal blood of the Castilian kings flowed as richly through Maria’s veins as it did through Sancho’s. For a woman of such lineage to marry, knowing full well that without a papal dispensation any children born of the union would be considered illegitimate, indicates strong feelings. At least in my opinion, but we all know I have a deep-seated belief in all that pink and fluffy stuff.

In marrying Maria, Sancho made the smartest decision of his life, no matter that they were excommunicated for wedding. In Maria he found the ideal partner, a woman who matched his obvious bellicose skills and battlefield courage with high-level diplomacy and pragmatism.  Just like her famous ancestresses, Queen Berenguela and Queen Urraca, Maria had an innate sense for politics, for sowing dissent among her enemies and fostering loyalty among her allies.

In 1282, Alfonso was obliged to recognise Sancho as his heir in a humiliating treaty. Not that Alfonso had any intention of honouring his promise, something Sancho probably knew as he suddenly proclaimed himself regent of Castile so as to strengthen his claim on his father’s crown. Alfonso retired to Seville, grumbling and cursing. In 1284 Alfonso died, and in his last will and testament he renounced the treaty of 1282 and named his grandson Alfonso de la Cerda his successor.

maria Cantigas_battleWar broke out. But Sancho was good at war, and his nephew was still too young to command any sort of presence on the battlefield. Plus, as a precaution Sancho did away with as many of his nephew’s supporters as he could find. One such supporter was Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, who together with Maria’s brother-in-law, Lope Díaz III de Haro, one day took things too far. When Sancho demanded that they return some of their castles to him, Lope Díaz went a bit wild and crazy, pulled a knife, and ended up very dead. Sancho was all for having Juan murdered as well, but María, who at the time was big with her fourth child, managed to calm him down. Instead, Juan was locked up for some years.  Maria gave birth to a deaf boy (some said this was because of the murder she’d witnessed) while Sancho continued to fight with the Moors and the Aragonese and the French and whoever else decided making common cause with Alfonso de la Cerda could be a lucrative venture.

In the early 1290s, Sancho sickened. A strange wasting disease that had him coughing his lungs out (tuberculosis, present day historians think). Where before he’d believed he’d have plenty of time to ensure a stable transition of his kingdom to his son, now time was running out—fast. Little Fernando was a child, and those dispossessed nephews of Sancho were now adults, determined to claim what should have been theirs to begin with.

Sancho realised his son would need a strong and capable regent to survive all this. Very strong, very capable, which was why, obviously, he chose his wife for the job. In 1295, Sancho breathed his last, with his loyal wife at his side.


Maria presenting her son to the Cortes at Valladolid

No sooner was Sancho dead but all kinds of enemies began popping up. Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, since some years free of his prison, wanted the throne for himself. Alfonso de la Cerda, backed by Aragón and France, insisted he had a right to the throne. The powerful Castilian nobles took the opportunity to further foment strife, always a favourite pastime of theirs. And then there was the Infante Enrique, brother to Alfonso X who after 23 years imprisoned in Italy had finally returned home to Spain, determined to rule the kingdom on behalf of his great-nephew. (Enrique was pushing seventy at the time, but this larger-than-life gent had a lot to make up for after all those years behind lock and key. More about Enrique in a future post, methinks)

In brief, it was a bloody mess. Things weren’t made any better by the fact that little Fernando—and all his siblings—were illegitimate in the eyes of the Church, as María and Sancho had never received that papal dispensation. In 1296, María was therefore fighting on all fronts, and for a while there it seemed she might very well lose. Alfonso de la Cerda had been crowned by his supporters and was paraded through Castile as the new king, Infante Juan had proclaimed himself king of León, and everyone was waiting for the King of Portugal to come over and join forces with Juan and Alfonso so as to totally crush Maria, at present in Valladolid.

Maria had previously entered into an agreement with King Denis of Portugal whereby her eldest son would marry a Portuguese princess, and one of her daughters marry the Portuguese prince. She now sent a message to the King of Portugal and told him that unless he retired behind his borders the alliances were off, and God help Portugal if they had no alliances in place with Castile once her son was an adult.

This worked. The Portuguese retreated, Infante Juan’s plan unravelled, and for now little Fernando was safe(ish) on his throne. Over the coming years, Maria would work constantly on negotiating agreements with their various enemies, resorting to bribes when necessary. Bit by bit, she strengthened her son’s position, crowning her successes in 1301 with a Papal Bull granting that very overdue dispensation. King Fernando IV was no longer illegitimate and Maria had not lived her married life in sin. Cause for major, major celebration.

In 1304, Alfonso de la Cerda was bought off. In return for renouncing his claims on the throne, he was given significant landholdings, but Maria had insisted they be spread out all over Castile as she feared Alfonso might otherwise create a kingdom within the kingdom. Alfonso was in his thirties by now, and I imagine he was sick of fighting which is why he relocated to France (as one does, hoping for great wines and cheese) and the welcoming court of his first cousin, Philippe IV.

Maria 800px-Fernando_IV_de_Castilla_(Ayuntamiento_de_León)

The young and impetuous Fernando

At last, Maria could relax. Or maybe not, because her son remained young and impetuous and very easy to influence. At times, those who captured the king’s ear took the opportunity to whisper poison about Maria, insinuating the king needed to break free of his lady mother’s leading reins. At times, Fernando behaved like quite the cad towards his mother, but then he doesn’t exactly come across as a great king, more of a spoiled one. Maria may have been good at ruling in his stead, but maybe she pampered him too much.

Whatever the case, after 1304, Maria retired from public life, leaving her son to do things as it suited him. Yes, she was always there, hovering in the background, and no matter that Fernando was an independent young man he wasn’t stupid, so he often came to mama for advice.

And then, in 1312, Fernando died. Just like that, Maria was forced out of retirement as the nobles of the realm insisted she take responsibility for the new young king, an infant just one year old. After all, she had experience when it came to holding together disintegrating kingdoms on behalf of minors… Mind you, things weren’t as bad this time round, and after a year or so Maria and her two surviving sons, Pedro and Felipe, had things pretty much under control.

For nine years, Maria acted the regent for her grandson, doing what she always did best, namely negotiate treaties and alliances. And then, in 1321, she fell gravely ill, dying in July of that same year. She was 57 years old, had been a widow for 26 of those years, and  had been fighting for her beloved Castile (and her men) for 39 years.

She died secure in the knowledge that her grandson had good men around him – she’d made sure of that. I imagine she also died hoping to be reunited with her beloved husband and the four children who predeceased her. She died believing that she’d safeguarded the thrones of Castile and Leon, of Sevilla, Toledo, Murcia, Jaén, Córdoba and Algarve for her descendants. She had—in a way. But things would get ugly and complicated some years down the line when her grandsons Pedro I and Enrique of Trastámara fought each other to death over the Castilian crown. (What can I say? Alfonso XI had a complicated love life) Fortunately, Maria de Molina didn’t know that.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: