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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.

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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

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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.

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Sancho

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.

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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.

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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.

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