ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “medieval women”

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.

Poor little rich girl – of a medieval heiress

thomas-lancasterI must admit from the start that I have little fondness for Thomas of Lancaster, one of the protagonists in today’s post. For those of you who do not immediately go “Aha! Dear old Thomas,” Lancaster was the nephew of Edward I, and eldest son of Edmund Crouchback. While I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Lancaster face to face (sort of impossible, seeing he’s been dead close to seven centuries) I get the impression this was a man who spent most of his life feeling entitled – to whatever took his fancy. Whatever the case, Thomas will probably end up having a post of his own here at my blog, but today he is relegated to being one of the many men who impacted the life of Alice de Lacy.

Alice de Lacy was born in 1281. Her mother was the Countess of Salisbury in her own right, her father was Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, and seeing as Alice was the only surviving child of this union, she was quite the catch on the marital market – a double countess, no less. We have no idea what Alice may have looked like, if she laughed easily, preferred cherries to pears or was great at chess. In fact, all we know is that she was rich and therefore desirable.

Such a grand prize did not go unnoticed by King Edward I, and when she was nine little Alice was betrothed to the king’s nephew, Entitled Thomas. He was four years or so older, not an insurmountable age difference in any way. He was also the heir to various titles and considerable wealth in his own right, so Alice was destined for a life in velvets and furs – or so one thought.

At the time of her betrothal, Alice’s father had given up on any other heirs, and so he made a rather odd arrangement with the king: the Earldom of Lincoln and Henry’s fortune was to pass to Thomas – not Alice – upon the present earl’s death, and from there to whatever issue Alice and Thomas might have. Should there be no children, the Earldom of Lincoln would revert to the crown.

medieval marriage a0004359Not quite thirteen, Alice married Thomas of Lancaster. Not, it would seem, a loving relationship – nor was it fruitful. While Thomas sired bastard children, Alice remained childless, and we don’t know if this was due to lack of trying or because she was barren. Whatever the case, Thomas and Alice quickly began living separate lives, having as little as possible to do with each other.

To be fair to Thomas, in his day and age a barren wife was a major, major inconvenience. In this case, the wife was so rich an attempt at annulling the marriage would cause quite a dent in Thomas’ fortune. I’m guessing he was hoping she’d die young enough for him to find another wife – but we don’t know, and however obnoxious Thomas seems to have been, this may be a totally unfair assumption.

Thomas had other things to concern himself with, primarily being a constant burr up the arse of his royal cousin, Edward II. Specifically, Thomas was of the opinion that if anyone should counsel the king it should be him, not some upstart Gascon type named Piers Gaveston. Edward II did not agree: he seems to have disliked Thomas, a sentiment returned in full by the haughty Lancaster.

Thomas led a rebellion which ended with Piers being summarily executed – not something Edward would ever forgive. He may have been an ineffectual king, but he was a man of strong passions and he had genuinely loved Piers.

Anyway, by the time Piers was dead, Thomas had five earldoms under his control: other than the three he’d inherited from his father, he was now also the Earl of Lincoln and Salisbury, this as Alice’s both parents had passed away. He celebrated by removing Alice to live in Pickering Castle while Thomas made himself comfortable in Pontrefact, Alice’s favourite abode.

By now, Alice was pushing thirty-six or so, and I’m assuming she’d resigned herself to never hearing the pitter-patter of little feet on the polished floors of her recently renovated solar, complete with plastered walls. Life was hundrum but safe – or so Alice thought.

medieval womenflowerLancaster collected enemies like present day filatelists collect stamps. One such enemy was John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. Yet another unhappily married man, Warenne had strived to divorce his estranged wife to marry his mistress instead, but Lancaster had thrown a gigantic monkey-wrench into Warenne’s plans and had even managed to have him excommunicated for adultery. Other than this, Warenne had been disgusted by the execution of Gaveston which had him firmly in the king’s camp, while Lancaster was heading the increasingly vociferous baronial opposition to Edward II.

Warenne decided to teach Lancaster a lesson. His motivations are sunk in the mire of time, but I’d hazard there were forces in the country – notably a certain Hugh Despenser (two Hugh Despenser, actually: father and son) – who wanted to ensure the king and his recalcitrant cousin remained at loggerheads. What better way to ensure this than by having Warenne abduct poor Alice, thereby humiliating Lancaster in front of the entire English nobility?

So Alice was abducted, whether willingly or not is a bit unclear. Among the men who were sent out to carry her away from the hunting lodge at which she was presently residing was a certain Richard St Martin, who stated he’d had carnal knowledge of Alice prior to her betrothal & marriage ergo some sort of pre-contract existed, making her marriage to Lancaster null and void. Hmm. Alice was NINE when she was betrothed. Nine. This Richard character was clearly lying through his nose, but just like that, poor Alice’s reputation was severely tarnished.

Lancaster seems to have made little effort to get Alice back. But he was beyond angry with the king and his cronies for this public humiliation, which served to drive him even further from the king’s peace. As some of you may know, Lancaster and Roger Mortimer, together with Humphrey de Bohun, led a rebellion in early 1321 which ended with the Despensers being exiled, the king to be counselled by men such as his beloved cousin. Didn’t last long, and for once in his life, Edward II acted with impressive determination, so that in January 1322 Mortimer was imprisoned, and in March of 1322 Lancaster and de Bohun were defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge. Some days later, Lancaster was executed – as summarily as Piers, all those years earlier.

ISOTS launch picOne would have thought all of this was good news for Alice. A widow at last – a rich widow. Nope. Edward and the rapacious Despensers were as bad as all other men in her life so far. She was imprisoned as a traitor’s widow, and only when she’d signed away the lion’s share of her fortune and lands was she released. Despenser ended up with most of her lands, but Alice was at last free to go – and to marry the man with whom she was to experience a decade of happiness. Seeing as she was old as the hills (well over forty) the king allowed the marriage, there being little risk of Alice producing an heir to claim the Earldom of Lincoln.

In 1324, Alice married Eubulus LeStrange (or Eble or Ebolo – the last seems most unfortunate). Now this gentleman had been known to Alice for years, seeing as he’d been a member of Lancaster’s household. Had they been lovers before? Personally, I hope so, as otherwise poor Alice had lived a most restricted life – but I don’t know. Whatever the case, Mr LeStrange seems to have been quite happy to leave Alice to do the “earling” in their relationship, and from what little we have it seems they were content together – despite all those lands stolen from Alice.

Come 1327, Edward II was history – as king, at any rate. One could have hoped Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer would have found it in them to restore some of Alice’s estates, but nope, Isabella appropiated some of it, Mortimer other parts. At the time, Alice was smart enough not to protest. Some years later, and Eubulus was party to the plot that unseated Mortimer from power, and Edward III seems to have been adequately grateful.

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In 1335, Eubulus died. Alicie hastily took a vow of chastity, but some months later she was brutally abducted and raped by a certain Hugh de Freyne – not because Alice was a marvellously attractive woman, but because she was rich. Canonical law compelled her to marry her rapist, and yet again her lands were under the control of a man who cared little for her. Fortunately, Freyne died a year or so later. Alice reiterated her vows of chastity and retired to live out the rest of her life in relative obscurity.

In 1337 Edward III made his good friend and loyal servant William Montagu Earl of Salisbury – despite Alice being very much alive. With the title came the lands – once again, despite Alice being alive. Yet another example of how defenceless a woman was in the face of male determination back then, but I suspect that Alice was beyond truly caring: she had no children for whom to fight, her beloved Eubulus was dead, and she was quickly approaching sixty and imminent death (well…)

Alice de Lacy died in 1348 and was buried beside her second husband, the only man who seems to have truly cared for her. Betrayed – however unwittingly – by her father, by her first husband, by her kings and their favourites, Alice de Lacy must have had plenty of days when she cursed her magnificent inheritance. All in all, it brought her little joy and plenty of sorrow. Poor little rich girl, hey?

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