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A king, a seductress and their illicit love

Today, I thought we’d spend time with a legendary Spanish seductress, the Jewess from Toledo. The fact that Raquel probably did not exist is not relevant – Raquel is a symbol, a female representation of the Jewish faith in an increasingly more intolerant religious environment.

As per the legend, Raquel was beautiful. And gentle, and mild, and passionate and wise, and…well, every man’s dream come true, was Raquel, and this gorgeous creature clad in floating veils and with almond-shaped come-hither eyes caught King Alfonso’s attention.


Today’s Alfonso

Right: minor pause to sort out the Alfonso issue. Today’s Alfonso was king of Castile and carries number VIII. He is one of Spain’s heroes after defeating the Moors at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa – which was his way of salvaging his reputation and getting back the lands he lost to the self-same Moors at the battle of Los Alarcos. He is also the Alfonso who married Eleonor of England, daughter of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. By all accounts, this was a highly successful marriage – but more of that later.

Anyway: Alfonso was only two when he became king, and throughout his minority his nobles fought each other for power while his uncle, king of León, discreetly annexed one little piece of Castile after the other. Fortunately, Alfonso grew up quickly, and at the age of fifteen, he took control over his kingdom. In some cases, this entailed wresting fortified cities by force from his disloyal nobles. One such city was Toledo, which the Lara family had decided to incorporate as part of their lands. Alfonso wasn’t having it – Toledo was the then capital of Castile – and through a mix of serendipity and subterfuge managed to retake the city.

At the time, our young hero was in his late teens. Toledo was a prize indeed, even more so as it was a city in which the Moorish, the Castilian, and the Jewish cultures lived in symbiosis. Toledo boasted magnificent multi-lingual libraries, its inhabitants worshiped God in churches, mosques and synagogues. Ancient streets, ancient walls, voices that rose in intellectual discussions while women of all faiths hastened by, adequately veiled. This was the city which the gorgeous Raquel Fermosa called home.

Fermosa is medieval Spanish for hermosa – beautiful. At the time, Castilian still retained a delicious labiodental fricative f in words like fermosa (now hermosa – beautiful), fabrar (now hablar – talk), fazer (now hacer – to do) soon to be replaced by a glottal fricative h which in turn would develop into being entirely mute as it is today. This is neither here nor there, I suppose, but the development of language is so fascinating, and I am now desperately fighting the urge to launch myself into some paragraphs re the Spanish lisped s-sound, “el ceceo”, versus non-lisped “el seseo” . But no. Not today. No. Nope.

Let us therefore return to our potential loving couple. I suppose it is fully possible that a victorious young king caught sight of the beautiful Jewess and indulged in some nights, weeks, even months, of passion. At the time, Alfonso was still a bachelor, but he was already betrothed to Eleonor of England. Already in 1170, he had sent an embassy to Henry II to request the hand of his daughter. Alfonso was only fifteen at the time and in desperate need of allies. Henry II and his impressive wife Eleanor of Aquitaine were the best allies a young man could have, and if such an alliance came with a bride, well, all the better.

Being betrothed did not mean living in celibacy, and the Castilian kings had a reputation as vigorous lovers, men who were rarely without a woman in their bed. The fact that Raquel was Jewish would in this context not matter all that much: she was one in a line of royal mistresses. So yes: should Alfonso have spied Raquel in Toledo in the early years of his reign, he may very well have indulged in bedsport with her. He may even have loved her deeply. We don’t know. We will never know.

Our legend, however, does not start with a carousing unwed king in Toledo. It starts several years later, with a married king who one day decided to take some time off from the tedious business of running his unruly realm. Leaving his English wife at home in Toledo, Alfonso and his companions rode out of the city, crossed the river Tajo, and indulged in some hunting.

At some point, the king raised his gaze upwards, and saw a dove desperately trying to evade a falcon. So impressed was the king by the dove’s determined attempts to flee that when the falcon struck the dove, the king lifted his bow and shot the falcon. (I know: a bit late in the day for the poor dove, but there you are) Pierced by an arrow, the falcon fell, landing behind a wall. A wall in the middle of the forest? The king was as intrigued as we are, dear peeps, and set off to explore.

raquel-waterhouse-my-sweet-roseThe wall rose out of mossy ground, old and massive it was garlanded with vines, some as thick as a man’s arm. At last, a gate, and after ordering his nervous squires to wait for him, the king set his hand to the wood and pushed. It grated and creaked as it swung open, and on the other side sunlight danced over ponds and bowers,over well tended rosebushes and narrow paths bordered by lavender. Alfonso had found a secret garden, a place of birdsong and murmuring waters, of air that smelled of sun and flowers. And in the garden, staring at the dead falcon, was the most beautiful woman the king had ever seen. She looked at him and inhaled. (Maybe she bit her lower lip. I have read somewhere that men go wild and crazy when women bite their lip) He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her. Somehow, they got over this embarrassing staring contest, he recovered the falcon and his arrow, mumbled some sort of goodbye, and left.


Over the coming days, Alfonso couldn’t stop thinking about the apparition in the bower. The apparition suffered from a similar affliction. Never had she seen such a handsome knight before, and whenever she closed her eyes, his image sprang forth, causing her unaccustomed heat in unaccustomed places. Ah, me! She fanned herself, loitered in the shade of her huge rose bushes and watched the pink petals drift to the ground, where their pristine beauty quickly became bruised. (A portent, okay? Perfection is ephemeral…)

raquel-florence-harrison-51c149cad1a87a1ff0b963a42f0a9279Finally, Alfonso couldn’t take this any longer. He returned to the secret garden, and over the coming months, he visited frequently. At first, all they did was look – like thirsting travellers at a well. Soon enough, they were sitting close enough to touch. One day, he caressed her hand. The next, her face. His touch ignited a fire, and the fair maid gladly gave herself to her handsome knight, endless afternoons spent in dappled shadows, on a bed of crushed herbs and silks.

Meanwhile, Eleonor (or Leonor as she is in Spanish) was starting to suspect something was amiss. Dear Alfonso was no longer quite as attentive, and there were times when she caught him staring out of the window, a rose in his hand. Hmm. Leonor was well acquainted with the fact that the men of her times – especially powerful men such as her husband and father – now and then took a lover on the side. But she was too much her mother’s daughter to like it – even less so when it became apparent Alfonso spent more and more of his time with this unknown rival.

Before we go on, it’s time for a reality check. Alfonso married Leonor in 1174. She was twelve, he was nineteen, and out of consideration for the bride, the marriage was probably not consummated immediately. But between 1180 and 1204, they would have eleven children, and their marriage is generally considered a happy one. So devastated was Leonor by Alfonso’s death in 1214 that she died a year later, her heart crushed by Alfonso’s demise. Keep that in mind as we move on with our story.

Back to our legend. Alfonso could not get enough of his mistress. (And in the early versions, the lady remains nameless, she is simply called The Jewess from Toledo or The Beautiful Jewess) By now, people were beginning to grumble: the king was spending too much time with his hands up his lover’s skirts, too little ruling his kingdom – or taking care of his wife.

The Alfonso of the legend must have been either a very stupid or a very deaf man, because he decided to move his mistress into the royal palace, and for the coming seven years he “abandoned himself to the pleasures of love”, rarely leaving the chamber in which he had installed his pearl among pearls. Well, now and then he sneaked off to make Leonor pregnant… The poor man must have walked about in a state of constant sexual exhaustion.

20160809_181149Obviously, things could not continue like this. Alfonso’s wife was desperate. His nobles were just as desperate – well, not all of them, as the king’s infatuation provided them with ample opportunity to feather their own nests at his expense, thereby increasing poor Leonor’s desperation. So Leonor concocted a plan. One day, she sent a messenger to the rooms in which the king spent his days and nights with the fair Raquel, begging him to hurry to her, she had grave news to share. Alfonso grumbled a bit, pulled on a robe and set off towards the queen’s rooms. No sooner was he out of the room, but various of his nobles burst in, and in a matter of minutes the royal favourite was dead, her throat slit open to stain the bed with her blood. White, white sheets – red, red blood.

The king realised he’d been duped the moment he saw the look on Leonor’s face. With a hoarse cry, he rushed back to his little love nest, but he was too late to do anything but weep at the sight that met him. He was overcome with rage, and exacted revenge on everyone involved. His nobles were exiled. Leonor was packed off to a convent for years and years (given the babies coming every 18 months or so, even then he managed to sneak in now and then to “seed her womb”).


Alfonso at Las Navas de Tolosa

Instead, Alfonso spent his days sighing over Raquel’s tomb. Until the day when an angel of God appeared before him (this, I suspect, is a late addition to the story) and reminded him of his duty to his people, his wife, and his faith, because as the angel pointed out, the Christians had been defeated by the infidel at Los Alarcos while Alfonso was frolicking among the bedsheets with pretty, pretty Raquel. Alfonso was immediately ashamed and promised to better himself. Which he did, trouncing the Moors at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. He reconciled with his wife, and went on to rule wisely for many more years, albeit that when he finally died he saw a dove fluttering heavenward and whispered a soft “Raquel”. *sniff*

In the early versions of the story, it is presented as a tragic love affair, where the king loses the (impossible) love of his life due to his manipulative and jealous wife and his treacherous nobles. This version quickly became very popular both in romances and in ballads, and while most would agree the king had failed in his duties, it was evident these two star-struck lovers had truly loved each other. Very sad, in truth, but that’s love for you – sometimes it is more thorns than roses.

Over the centuries, the legend becomes something else. The young woman innocent of any crime but that of loving her Alfonso too much transforms into a temptress who so enslaves her royal lover that he forgets his duties as a married and a Christian king, enthralled as he is by the dangerous Jewess. Occasionally, Raquel is even painted as a potential witch – how else to explain her powers over the king? This development goes hand in hand with an increasingly more intolerant approach to Jews in Spain, an approach that was to culminate in 1492 with the Edict of Alhambra, which exiled all Jews from the various Spanish kingdoms. Raquel becomes the embodiment of the dangers of fraternising with those not of the True Faith, a not so subtle reminder that he who sleeps with the infidel brings the wrath of God down on his head. (And hers. Mostly on hers)

raquel-aucassin-et-nicolette-marianne_stokes05So, is there any truth in the legend? Well, I’d say it is not improbable that Alfonso had an affair with a beautiful Jewish woman. But did he lock himself up with her for seven years, ignoring the demands of his people, his wife, his realm? No. Neither are there any indications of a serious breach between Alfonso and Leonor (all those babies tell another story). But despite this, the story of Alfonso and Raquel has universal appeal, thereby surviving down the centuries albeit that there is no Happily Ever After, there is only blood and death and loss. He saw her, she saw him, and from that moment she was doomed to die, he to live without her. Very sad. But, as dear Tennyson put it, it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Would Raquel Fermosa agree? I don’t know. I see only a shadow, a dark, lustrous eye and a tear that slides slowly down her cheek as she extends her hand to her handsome caballero, the man who entered her garden and stole her heart.

The king, his mistress, and his wife – A Castilian 14th century soap opera


Alfonso surrounded by his knights

Once upon a time, there was a king. A Castilian king, called Alfonso. By now, regular readers of my blog will know there are an uncountable number of Spanish kings called Alfonso – ok, not uncountable, but still, we’re talking far more than a dozen. This particular Alfonso was number XI and king of Castile from the age of one or so. During his minority, various greedy relatives did their best to amass as much land and wealth as they could, and accordingly Alfonso had his work cut out for him once he was declared capable of ruling in his own name.

A skilled and ruthless ruler, Alfonso quickly brought his kingdom back under control, albeit that at times the methods he employed were brutal and borderline illegal, with potential rebels dispatched without a trial. In 1325, at the age of 14, Alfonso married a certain Constanza, two years later he had the marriage annulled, and in 1328 he married Maria of Portugal, a good dynastic marriage that came with the benefit of strenthening relationships between Castile and Portugal. Maria was considered very beautiful, but unfortunately for her, Alfonso was to lose his heart to another woman, Leonor de Guzmán.

Leonor was a year or so older than Alfonso, and had been married young to a man called Juan Velasco. By all accounts a happy marriage, it all ended too soon when Juan died, leaving Leonor a devastated, if pretty, teenaged widow. Leonor lived in Seville, and it was there that she first met the king (some say before his marriage to Maria, some say after. Given various dates, I’d say after). Alfonso was beguiled by this pretty, vivacious woman, and she, in turn, must have found him attractive, how else to explain that a high-born lady initiated an adulterous relationship with  a married man?



Whatever the case, Alfonso made no secret of the fact that he much preferred Leonor to Maria. Where he hastened to spend as much time as he could with his mistress, his wife had to make do with the odd conjugal visit, moments in which the king closed his eyes and thought of Leonor while fulfilling his marital duties. Not much fun for poor Maria, one imagines. Even less fun when the king insisted Leonor be present at court, while Maria was shunted off to live in a convent – albeit in luxury.

Already in 1330, Leonor gave birth to the first of the ten children she would give Alfonso. He was estatic  and promptly showered both babe and mother with land. In 1331, yet another son was born, and I imagine this twisted the knife even deeper in Maria’s heart. However, the king continued to visit his wife, eager to sire a legitimate heir. Maybe this is a good time to stop for a moment and consider just how Maria would feel about all this, her husband’s interest in her reduced to her role as brood mare no more, his conjugal visits an obvious onerous duty that he discharged before hurrying off to love and adore Leonor. No wonder the woman became bitter and harsh.


Alfonso, about to mount

In 1333, Maria was delivered of a son. Unfortunately, little Fernando died a year later, just as Leonor gave birth to twin sons, thereby having given Alfonso four healthy sons in three years. By now, Leonor was a major landowner, the king’s largesse making her a power unto her own – which did not exactly endear her either to poor Maria or to the Spanish nobles, who were more than worried by Leonor’s influence over their king. Alfonso couldn’t care less what his nobles might think – or anyone else, for that matter. People who had the temerity of criticising the fact that the royal mistress spent her time at court, always side by side with the king, while the queen was nowhere in sight, ended up punished.

In 1334, Queen Maria gave birth to yet another son – this time a healthy and squalling lad that would grow up to become Pedro el Cruel (Pedro the Cruel) or Pedro el Justiciero (Pedro the Just) depending on what chronicle you choose to read. The king was satisfied with this lusty heir, and apparently he never saw any reason to return to his wife’s bed again. Poor Maria’s life narrowed even further. Leonor’s, on the other hand, did not. She and her children were always at court, while little Pedro spent his childhood with his isolated and increasingly vitriolic mother. Did not lead to the best father-son relationship, I imagine.

Leonor was not only pretty and fertile. She was also ambitious and politically astute, working always towards the goal of ensuring her children’s future. The king was more than happy to give her what she wanted, and so her sons were given lands aplenty, and raised to various important positions, despite their youth. One of their sons, Fadrique Alfonso, was made Master of the Order of Santiago at the tender age of eight. Being an intelligent woman, Leonor was also aware of the resentment she and her huge brood elicited – which had her redoubling her efforts to see her babies safe and secure.

Leonor’s position at court was recognised far beyond the borders of her lover’s kingdom. As an example, Edward III wrote to her when he was trying to arrange a marriage between his daughter Joan and Alfonso’s legitimate son, Pedro. She, apparently, was happy to help out, and the contracts were duly signed. (The marriage was not to be. Joan died on her way to Castile of the plague)

Alfonso was very happy with Leonor, and other than the initial excursions to do what he had to do with his wife, seems to have been faithful to his mistress. He was also constantly quelling various insurrections, and in 1340 he had a minor crisis on his hands when the pope, his father-in-law and several influential nobles banded together, insisting he lock Leonor up in a convent and bring back Maria to court, or else…


Alfonso fighting Moors

At the time, Alfonso was fighting on several fronts: against the Moors, against the Aragonese, against his unhappy nobles. Being a pragmatic man, he therefore sent Maria off to negotiate an agreement with her father, promising to treat her  as his queen going forward. Leonor was taken to a convent, but given future events, I imagine Alfonso had assured her the stay among the nuns would be short. After all, Alfonso had no intention of keeping his promise to Maria. No sooner were his enemies vanquished but he brought Leonor back to court, while Maria was yet again banished to live out her life alone with her son.

No one lives for ever, and in 1350, Alfonso was in Gibraltar when he contracted the plague. Some days later, he was dead, and all of Castile was in a turmoil. The new king was a sixteen-year-old who’d spent very little time at court, and soon enough various factions were vying for control over the new king.

Leonor, I imagine, was devastated by the death of her lover. For over twenty years, they’d shared a life, and further to this she was left with little protection against the enemies that now started to come out of the woodworks, principally among them Maria, the Queen Mother, who was determined to exact her revenge for all those years of humiliation.

Things see-sawed. An initial reconciliation proved short-lived when Leonor made one final bid to secure the future of her children. In 1350, she pushed through the marriage of her eldest surviving son, Enrique of Trastámara with a certain Juana Manuel. Now this young girl was a great-granddaughter of the great and saintly Fernando III, and as such a marriage to her gave Enrique a legitimate claim on the throne of Castile. Not good, as per Pedro and his protective mama. Leonor, who was fully aware of just how unpalatable this union was to the new king, went one step further: she had the newly-weds ushered into her bedchamber to consummate the marriage ASAP.

As a result of all this, Leonor was imprisoned.  Whether Maria was already toying with the idea of assasinating her, we don’t know. I’m guessing she was very, very tempted. But for now, Leonor was “just” a prisoner, and when the court moved south in early 1351, she was obliged to accompany them. The ambulating court paid a visit to the Master of the Order of Santiago at Llerena, and I imagine Leonor was delighted to see her son, Fadrique Alfonso. Did she know she’d never see him again? Probably not, but she may have suspected as much.


Antonio Amorós de Botella: The last farewell – Leonor bidding Fadrique Alfonos goodbye under Maria’s supervision. At the time, her son was seventeen, so he’d have been a tad taller, methinks.

A little while later, Leonor was put to death at a castle belonging to Maria, Talario de la Reina. Some say she was tied to a post under the punishing sun and left to die, a cord pulled tight around her neck…If so, I hope she had her eyes affixed on the endless blue of an Andalucian sky as she died, murdered for the sin of having been loved too much. Okay, okay: and for being somewhat avaricious and ambitious.

As per the chronicler Pedro Lopez de Ayala, Leonor died as a consequence of a direct order from Maria of Portugal. “..and much evil, and much war, would afflict Castile because of this,” he writes. Too right. Leonor’s sons did not like it when they heard their mother had been murdered. Suddenly, the new young king had a major civil war on his hands – a conflict that wouldn’t end until the day in 1369 when Enrique avenged his mother by murdering his half-brother, Pedro.


Enrique de Trastámera

One could say that ultimately, Leonor won. With her son, the House of Trastámara ascended the Castilian throne and would remain safely parked there until, in 1518, the very young Charles V of Hapsburg was acclaimed as joint ruler of Castile, together with the last Trastámara queen, his mother Juana. But that is another story – one you can read more about here!

The archbishop-to-be and the Norwegian princess


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.



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.

Fernando Las_postrimerías_de_Fernando_III,_el_Santo._Virgilio_Mattoni._1887

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.

From humiliated divorcee to ruling queen

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Eleanor of Castile

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


Berenguela – as depicted centuries after her death…

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

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

Berenguela Alfons8Kastilie

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.

Berengaria Adeffonsus,_king_of_Galicia_and_Leon_(detail)

Alfonso IX of León

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

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

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

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

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Alfonso IX and Berenguela, while they were still married

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 🙂

The unfortunate Stephanie

In Spanish, today’s protagonist is Estefanía la Desdichada, Stephanie the Unfortunate. If we’re going to be quite correct her name is Estefanía Alfonso and she was the illegitimate daughter of Alfonso VII of Castilla and León and his paramour, Urraca. (And no, this Urraca was not his mother, whom I wrote about here, she was just another lady of good birth burdened with an odd name)

Little Estefanía is mainly remembered because of her death. Always somewhat sad, IMO. I am assuming she had an okay childhood – her royal father seems to have been fond of his mistress and readily recognised his daughter, which if nothing else guaranteed a life of some comfort. We know nothing about her early years, but reasonably she was raised to be a good, pious lady – her father was a very pious king, despite his extra-marital relationships.

Estefania Alfonso_VIIAt the time, Alfonso VII was the most powerful of the Christian kings in Spain. Since the death of his step-father, Alfonso I of Aragón, there was no one to threaten our Alfonso’s position. The kingdom of Castilla and León thrived, the relationship with the Moors was, as always, fraught but not unbearably so. Alfonso VII could concentrate on giving his court the trappings of grandeur his title, Emperor of Spain, required. His co-kings did homage to him, and all in all, Alfonso was quite content: after the tumultuous years during his mother’s reign, he was now recognised as the supreme Christian power on the Iberian Peninsula.

All of this was neither here nor there for little Estefanía. Instead, she learnt to embroider and spin, to converse and sing. In 1157, when Estefanía was about seventeen, her father died, and instead her half-brothers, Fernando and Sancho took over, one as king of León, the other as king of Castilla. At the time, Estefanía was as yet unmarried. Yes, she was the daughter of a king, but she was the illegitimate daughter, which made her hand less sought after, especially as she didn’t come laden with dowry – Alfonso had many children to look out for.

In 1158, Sancho III died young, leaving a three-year-old son, Alfonso, as the new king of Castilla. A year or so later, and the kingdom of Castilla was torn asunder by civil war, on the one side the House of Lara, on the other the House of Castro. What they were fighting for? Control over the young king, of course. The House of Castro had the silent support of Fernando of León, who no doubt saw an opportunity to annect the kingdom of Castilla. Anyway, at the battle of Lobgregal in 1160,  the House of Lara hit the dust. Riding with the count of Lara was a man named Osorio Martínez. In the fighting he was killed, by none other than his own son-in-law Fernando Rodriguez de Castro. In the aftermath of the battle, Fernando repudiated his wife (he couldn’t very well have the daughter of a rebel as his wife, could he? Or maybe she couldn’t stand the sight of him, what with him having killed her father). Instead, he was given the hand of Estefanía Alfonso in marriage.

What Estefanía thought of all this is unknown. But Fernando was not a bad catch, and although older than her, he was still in his prime. Plus, of course, they were related, so it wasn’t as if she was marrying a stranger.

Estefanía’s brother, Fernando of León, had probably hoped that Fernando Rodriguez would hand over his little nephew Alfonso VIII on a silver platter. And maybe he would have, but the young king was whisked away by the surviving members of the House of Lara. Some years later, the Lara family was cornered, with Fernando Rodriguez having conquered a number of castilian cities, and they decided to turn over the boy-king, now about eight, into the tender care of his uncle. Didn’t happen, as an unknown gent smuggled the boy out of the castle where he was held. Alfonso VIII would go on to claim his lands, marry Eleanor of England (daughter to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine), have many babies, and in general lead his own exciting life, among which sticks out the victory over the Moors at the famous battle of Las Navas de Tolosa.

None of this had much effect on Estefanía. She presented her husband with at least one son and a daughter, and I’d assume her life would have included a lot of waiting about for her husband who was ususally off on some royal assignment or another.

Sex post illicit-sex-e1436561949425By 1180, Estefanía and Fernando had been married for twenty years. She was around forty, he in his mid-fifties. Were they content with each other? Maybe, maybe not. But when Fernando was informed that his wife had been seen sneaking off to secret assignations with a man, he had no problems believing what he was told, which indicates it wasn’t all sunsets and roses in the Fernando/Estefanía marriage. Or maybe he was feeling the weight of his years, worried that his wife was not getting what she needed at home.

Whatever the case, Fernando had her followed. On repeated occasions, she was seen hastening off, returning some hours later. At long last, Fernando couldn’t stand this any longer. His honour was being dragged through the gutters by his adulterous wife, and he was not having it! Nope. No more. So one night, when the veiled and cloaked lady of the house yet again disappeared down an alley, it was Fernando who followed, dagger in hand.

He waited in the shadows, gritting his teeth at the sounds of love-making that escaped the closed shutters. And once she was gone, as veiled and cloaked as when she’d arrived, Fernando entered the room and swiftly killed the lover – a man so young he qualified as a toy-boy, except that the term wasn’t invented yet.

Fernando rushed home, burst into the bedroom and found his wife in bed, sleeping. He attacked her, stabbing her repeatedly until she died in a spreading pool of her own blood. Which was when Fernando stopped to think. How could she be fast asleep in her bed when she had at most returned home some minutes before him? And where were the clothes she’d been wearing? He couldn’t find them anywhere. So he turned the room up and down, and this is when an icy weight started to collect in his guts, even more so when under the bed he found one of his wife’s maids, dressed in her mistress’ cloak and veil.

Turns out the maid had been using Estefanía’s clothes for months so as to hide her identity when she sneaked off to see her lover. After all, having sex outside of marriage was a sin, and the maid didn’t want to risk being fired for her low morals. Instead, her subterfuge had led to two people being murdered by a man who was by now a sickly white, staring down in shock at his bloodied hands. Fernando had killed his loyal wife, the sister of his king, and all because his pride had made it impossible for him to confront Estefanía and ask her if she was cheating on him…

Estefania PanteónSanIsidoroLeón

Estefanía’s final resting place: the royal pantheon, San Isidoro, León

Fernando draped a heavy noose round his neck and went directly to the king where he confessed his crime. The king chose to pardon him, moved no doubt by the genuine grief displayed by Fernando. Estefanía was buried side by side with her paternal grandmother, Queen Urraca, a simple inscription making no mention of how she died, only who she was, who was her father, who she was married to and who she gave birth to. And as to the maid, she was burned alive at Fernando’s orders.

Some centuries later, Lope de Vega (Spain’s equivalent to Shakespeare – well, together with Calderón de la Barca) would write a play based on Estefanía’s fate, La Desdichada Estefanía. Other than that, she remains a footnote in history, a woman who never quite steps out of the shadows – except for her gory death. And even that, dear people, we may have to take with a pinch of salt, as not all sources relate the same story. All we really know is that she died on July 1, 1180 and was survived by her husband and son.

Finally, Fernando Rodriguez “borrows” the words of  Ramon de Campoamor, 19th century Spanish poet:

Mi esposa Estefanía, que está en gloria,
fue del Séptimo Alfonso hija querida;
desde hoy sabréis, al escuchar su historia,
que hay desgracias sin fin en nuestra vida.
Yo la maté celoso; y si, remiso,
no me maté también la noche aquella,
fue por matar después, si era preciso,
a todo el que, cual yo, dudase de ella.

My wife Estefanía, who is in glory,
was of Alfonso VII a dear daughter;
As of today you will know, upon listening to this story,
that there are sorrows without end in our life.
Jealous, I killed her; and if, remiss,
I did not kill myself also that night,
it was to kill later, if it was necessary,
all who, like me, doubted her

A magpie with ambitions

urraca eggplantThe other day, I made a comment to a friend regarding Richard the Lionheart’s wife, Berengaria (or Berenguela) de Navarra. You see, I always confuse her name with berenjena, which is Spanish for eggplant, and so I keep on seeing a rather violet lady in my head. Berengaria is a bit of an odd name, I suppose, but nothing comes quite close to that royal Spanish name, Urraca.

Other than being a rather harsh name, (double rr in Spanish is not exactly a caressing sound) Urraca means magpie, and why one Spanish king after the other saw fit to load his daughter with a name representing a thieving bird is beyond me. Although to be fair, at the time magpies were often held as pets, and seeing as these handsome birds are very intelligent, I imagine they made quite an impression on their owners.

Today’s lady is one of these Urracas – perhaps the most famous of them. And so, with no further ado, let me sweep you several centuries back in time, to the very distant Spanish kingdom of Castile in the very early twelfth century.

Urraca a3260-batalla-guadalete-711-la-reconquistaAt the time, Spain did not exist. Instead, the Iberian Peninsula was home to various kingdoms, such as Aragón, Zaragoza, Castilla, Galicia, and, in the south, al-Andaluz, the most famous of the Moorish kingdoms on the peninsula. At one point in time it seemed as the Moors were about to conquer all of Iberia, but in a cave in the mountains of Asturias, the determined (and very few) Christians led by a certain Pelayo made a stand, and no matter what the Moors hurled at them, the Christians refused to give up. The cave of Covadonga represented a turning point: “here, but no further!” Don Pelayo yelled, and as per some of the more exaggerated chronicles, 31 Christian heroes wiped out 250 000 Moorish warriors. Not likely, but Covadonga was a victory, and Pelayo was elected king of Asturias and went on to spend the rest of his life being a burr up the Moors’ backside.

Urraca BAC09690While the “faithful & righteous” of Europe had to gallop off all the way to the distant Holy Land to battle the infidel, in Spain, they were the next-door neighbour. Truces, skirmishes, more truces, war, more war. The Christian kingdoms were determined to reclaim their lands from the Moors, a holy war waged over generations (it took 800 years to re-conquer the lost territories). Accordingly, the various kings of the various kingdoms were first and foremost military leaders, men who donned armour as a matter of course and spent their lives expanding their borders – preferably at the expense of the Moors, but now and then at the expense of their Christian neighbours.

Such kings needed male heirs. In medieval Europe, the idea of women riding into battle was preposterous. Men wanted to be led by men, not by a frail creature in skirts. So when Alfonso VI of Castilla and León, despite several marriages, found himself with only three legitimate daughters, he had a major problem on his hands.

Urraca AlfonsoVI_of_Castile

Alfonso VI (?)

Alfonso was something of a complex characters: born the second son of three to Fernando the Great, he was given the kingdom of León when his father passed away. Not enough for our ambitious Alfonso, and after a decade or so of manoeuvring he had claimed Galicia from baby brother García (whom he kept locked up) and Castilla from big brother Sancho (who was serendipitously assassinated). After this, Alfonso proclaimed himself “Emperor of Spain” and continued with his efforts to dislodge the tenacious Moors.

As per the various cantares about Alfonso, he was honourable and brave, a man who treated his foes with respect. Hmm. Not so sure García or Sancho would agree, but his sister Urraca most definitely would, seeing as Alfonso had defended her and her lands against Sancho’s grasping hands.

In difference to his predecessors, Alfonso went beyond the Iberian Peninsula for a bride, which is how he married Constance of Burgundy as his second wife. Alfonso was pushing forty, his first wife had died childless, and his French wife – granddaughter to Robert II of France – had high expectations to live up to. She didn’t. After producing a healthy girl child who was named Urraca after her paternal aunt, Constance went on to have several more pregnancies, but none resulted in a living child. She died in 1093, leaving Alfonso plus fifty – and still without a male heir. Unless…

You see, Alfonso did have a son. A strapping lad called Sancho who was the result of Alfonso’s affair with the fair Muslim princess & refugee Zaida of Seville. This lady seems to have had quite the grip on Alfonso’s heart, and some speculate that she converted to Christianity, took the name Isabel, and as such is the same Isabel Alfonso took as his fourth wife. Whatever the case, baby Sancho was born prior to any such marriage, making him illegitimate. But he was a boy, and so Alfonso designated Sancho as his heir. I imagine this did not please his daughter Urraca – or her French husband, Raymond of Burgundy.

Urraca RaymondofBurgundy


Urraca was only eight when she wed Raymond, at the time made Count of Galicia. The marriage was not consummated until later, but by the time she was 13 or 14, Urraca suffered a stillbirth before going on to live through nine pregnancies that resulted in a surviving daughter, Sancha, and, after ten years or so of trying, a healthy son, also an Alfonso. Very confusing, with all these very similar names…

In the meantime, her bastard brother Sancho had upped and died, as had Raymond. Alfonso saw no other option but to proclaim Urraca his heir – but just to make sure things would go well, he also insisted she marry again. Her new husband was Alfonso I of Aragón. Urraca was vocally opposed to this union, and hoped to get out of it when her father died, but her nobles insisted, and so, in 1109, Urraca and Alfonso were wed.

It was not a happy marriage. Some say Alfonso I was homosexual, and found the idea of sleeping with his wife repugnant. Obviously, this may just be slander, and Alfonso must have done his duty in the marital bed, as he loudly complained about the lack of little heirs. The marriage agreement stated that should there be a child born of this union, that child would inherit it all: León, Castilla and Aragón. If there was no child, the respective kingdoms would go to the respective heirs. Urraca had a son she loved and wanted to see as king, so maybe she did what she could to avoid conception.

Whatever the case, the marriage quickly fell apart. Urraca refused to play the role of submissive wife – she was the ruling queen of Castilla and León, he was but her husband – and this drove Alfonso nuts. In his opinion, women should stay well in the background and leave the ruling to men of worth such as himself. Their quarrels became increasingly heated and Alfonso reputedly abused Urraca physically – repeatedly and brutally. In fear of her life she fled for the security of a nearby convent.

Urraca Alfonso_I_de_Aragón_por_Pradilla_(1879)

El Batallador as per Pradilla, late 19th C. Just love Pradilla…

Domestic hostility exploded into civil war. Alfonso was known as “El Batallador”, the warrior, and this was a well-earned sobriquet, him being an astute general, veteran of close to thirty pitched battles. He’d learnt the art of warfare from El Cid himself, and years of fighting the Moors had left him an experienced campaigner. There was not a chance in hell Urraca could beat him, but fortunately for Urraca, Alfonso managed to antagonise the powerful church, and by 1110 the marriage had been annulled by the pope.

Alfonso chose to ignore this at first, and even managed to lure Urraca into believing their marriage could be salvaged – only to imprison her in Aragón. Urraca fled, returned to Castilla and insisted the marriage was over. Only in 1114 did he relinquish his claims on Urraca – by then, he’d realised the men of Castilla and León might not be happy with a female ruler, but they were even less happy with the idea of an Aragonese king. Plus, of course, a little bird had whispered that Urraca was not beyond assassinating him if she had to.

Urraca’s problems were far from over. Her treacherous sister and her husband, the count of Portugal, had taken the opportunity to claim Extremadura. Large parts of Castilla remained in Alfonso of Aragón’s hands. And then there were the Moors, eager to take the opportunity offered by the spectacular fall-out among the Christians to forward their own interests. On top of this, her nobles remained disgruntled at having a queen, and in Galicia things were fast spinning out of control.



In an effort to keep some of her lands out of Alfonso I’s grasping hands while they were married, Urraca had approved the coronation of her little son, Alfonso VII, as the king of Galicia. Now Urraca wanted to retake the reins of government (her son was ten or so), but this was violently opposed by the Galician nobles who quite enjoyed doing their own thing, their boy-king an easily managed regent. To show their independence, they even chased the bishop of Santiago de Compostela out of the city.

Urraca opted for a show of force. She had Santiago de Compostela besieged, and soon enough the nobles were suing for peace. Urraca, triumphant, entered the city to receive their submission with the ousted Bishop Gelmírez at her side. No sooner were they ensconced in the bishop’s palace but the people of Santiago de Compostela rose in revolt. A howling, angry mob surrounded the bishop’s palace, the central tower was set alight, the mob demanding the death of the bishop, who was seen as too loyal to the Castilian cause. Death was imminent. The doors creaked under the weight of the angry men attempting to break through, the crowds bayed for blood. The bishop heard the confessions of his few companions, including that of the queen. They prepared to die. The wood splintered, someone cheered. Urraca ordered that they stop this nonsense. I guess she was met with derisive laughter and a mocking suggestion that she come outside to talk to them if she wanted to save her precious bishop. Seeing as Urraca did not lack balls, whatever her gender, she did just that. The mob surrounded her. She was beaten, her clothes were torn off and she was thrown into the mud, where her naked body was subjected to stones, whips, feet, whatnot. Somehow, she got away – as did the bishop, disguised as a mendicant.

Once reunited with her troops, Urraca unleashed her revenge: the besieging army entered Santiago de Compostela, looting and killing at will. Pay-back for her recent humiliation, with the further benefit of making it very clear to the Galician people that they might have a boy-king, but it was the mother, Urraca, Empress of Spain, who held the true power. At last, Urraca had come into her own, respected as a ruler throughout her various kingdoms.

Other than being queen, Urraca was also a woman of passions. Once her marriage had been annulled, she lived openly with Pedro Gonzales, count of Lara, and gave birth to at least two more children. By late 1125, she had re-established some sort of control over her extensive lands, ensuring her young son’s inheritance was safe. She’d reclaimed most of Castilla from Alfonso, had thwarted her sister’s ambitions to expand at Urraca’s expense, and had brought the Moors to a halt. All in all, our king in skirts had proved she too could lead an army, as determined as any man to safeguard her dominions.

Urraca died on March 8, 1126, giving birth to yet another child. A propitious date, IMO: a strong woman dying on the day that would one day become the International Women’s Day.

Urraca Alfonso-Privilegium

Alfonso VII

Alfonso VII would go on to become a strong ruler. In 1128 he married Berenguela, daughter to Ramon Berenguer III, Count of Barcelona. And there, somehow, this post comes full circle: yet another Berenguela (although this Berenguela is the grandmother of Richard the Lionheart’s wife) . And as to Urraca, there would be very many more such little magpies in the royal nurseries of Castilla. But none would ever become as famous as this Urraca, Queen of León and Castilla, Empress of Spain.

Ba, ba, black sheep

wool 50px-PipeandbelldavidI seem to be on a woolly streak of late. First a post about tartan some days back, and today a post about sheep. Well: it’s not about sheep, it’s about wool, and seeing as no sheep equals no wool, that per definition means you cannot talk about one without mentioning the other.

Sheep have a reputation for being incredibly stupid. Not that I can boast of any in-depth relationship with a sheep, but what interaction I’ve had rather indicates that they couldn’t care less about us humans, they’re more into grazing and staring unstintingly at us if we get too close. I can also tell you they weigh a lot. With or without their fleece, lifting a sheep requires serious arm muscle.

Sheep are one of those animals that were domesticated very early on. Originally, mainly as meals-on-hooves, but over time as a source of wool, our forebears having discovered that wool is quite the thing if you want clothing that retains warmth even if it is damp. I imagine those nomads from whom we all descend quite often found themselves at the mercy of the weather, ergo damp clothes were probably a recurring event in their lives.

Wild sheep tend to be brownish. Domesticated sheep quickly went white, seeing as it is far easier to dye white wool brown than brown wool white, if you see what I mean. It was something of a lucky coincidence that white is a dominant trait – at least for our forebears who were doing their first forays into genetics – and so sheep are mostly depicted as being white. Except for the black sheep, that is. The scapegoat, if you will, the one who does not conform. (Incidentally, in Sweden the nursery song is Bä,bä vita lamm – Ba,ba, white lamb. Obviously, us Swedes don’t rate black sheep all that much…)

wool British LibraryAnyway: man ambled about with his sheep, his goats. At some point, man domesticated cows and pigs, and pigs aren’t that much for ambling really. I mean, they like a good day out in the forest eating acorns, but walking long, long distances to graze isn’t quite a piggy thing. Besides, man had discovered how to sow crops, and wheat and stuff does not go walk-about, which is why man eschewed the nomadic existence to instead become a farmer. Well, not all men. Some preferred to hunt and trade their meat for whatever the farmer produced.

Over time, man began amassing wealth. Lots of land was wealth. Lots of sheep, cows, goats were wealth. Lots of wives…yes, also a sign of wealth, but hopefully even that ancient male distinguished between his sheep and his women. And I guess most men weren’t rich enough to have more than one wife, which probably markedly upped the potential for domestic bliss. Women are somewhat possessive when it comes to their men.

1899-43305Civilisation picked up speed, and we’re going to whizz by huge chunks of it, and suddenly we are in medieval England. At the time, sheep were everywhere, one could say. Sheep were the mainstay of English wealth, the English sheep having quite the reputation for their high quality wool. Monasteries financed their human flock by keeping huge flocks of sheep, the man of the manor did the same, the income generated by the wool adding that little extra to a life mostly dominated by a lot of pea-soup and porridge. Wool was used to pay the ransom for Richard Lionheart (50 000 sacks of high-quality wool were put forward to contribute. To put into perspective, approximately 40 000 sacks of wool were exported during the peak years of the wool trade in the 14th century).

Effectively, England was a raw material producer. English sheep were sheared, the fleeces were washed, skirted, picked and bundled and transported abroad where others carded and spun after which the wool thread was woven into high quality cloth by Flemish or Italian weavers. Eventually, some of all this high quality stuff found its way back to England where it was bought by the well-to-do. The added value in this financial operation remained in other than English hands, with Flemish and Italian cloth merchants growing very fat and happy.

wool El_Buen_Pastor

El buen pastor, Murillo (and that’s a Merino)

BUT. No wool, no cloth, no income. Obviously, there was more than English wool around – specifically a lot of Spanish wool. Truth be told, Spain was the leading supplier of high quality wool, even more so since they cross-bred English sheep with their own native breeds in the 12th and 13th century, thereby creating that jewel among sheep, the Merino. Merino wool was of superior quality to anything else on the woolly planet, and prior to the 18th century attempting to smuggle a Merino out of the country was punishable by death. Before Spain “discovered” all that gold in the New World, their primary source of wealth, just as for England, were their sheep.

So imagine you were the purchaser for a Tuscan mill. Off you went to scour the various markets for high quality fleece, and in this case you decided to skip the expensive Spanish stuff and look for a bargain elsewhere. England was full of sheep – and other merchants swooping down to buy up what they could. Chances were you might end up with no wool unless you got there early or offered a premium price. Alternatively, a new approach was needed to ensure constant supply.

The Italians, being a savvy people with an innate aptitude for trade, had already in the early 13th century developed some sort of rudimentary financial market. Initially, it was more a question of advancing money to a farmer with the future crop as collateral, but soon enough these agrarian “futures” spread to other things. Like wool. That monastery out in the wilds really, really needed a new church, but at the rate of their annual income it would take them twenty years to finance it. Enter the creative wool-buyer:
“I tell you what: I’ll advance you the amount you need, and instead you sell me your wool for the coming twenty years at a fixed price.”
“What, all my wool?” the abbot said, and then they’d haggle for a while, before agreeing on fixed quantities and fixed prices.

As a financial professional, I must admit to being quite fascinated by these very early “futures” – goes to show that trade in medieval times was, in its own way, far more innovative than we generally give it credit for. The transactions were documented – several hundreds of these contracts survive, detailing the seller, the buyer, the price and delivery schedules. Advances have been recorded, there are contractual consequences should the seller not deliver, and all in all, these are quite sophisticated financial instruments. I would imagine that in some instances these contracts were sold on, but in general the purpose was not to speculate on the price in wool, but rather safeguard its supply.

Now the English kings were fully aware of how important the wool trade was for their economy. At times, desperate times required desperate measures, which was why in the 1290s Edward I confiscated all the wool from foreign merchants in England. He then sold it again and lined his coffers with the money required to continue his bellicose efforts. Wool was also taxed, creating a nice steady revenue – soft, fluffy stuff financing hauberks and swords, war-steeds and crossbows.

wool Edward_III_of_England_(Order_of_the_Garter)

Edward III, early 15th c depiction

Edward I’s high-handedness was quite the blow to the advance contracts on wool. And in 1337, his grandson, Edward III, attempted to create a wool monopoly, the Wool Company, with designated buyers purchasing all English wool and selling it on as it benefited the crown. Not only did Edward “borrow” the income generated by all this wool to finance his armies, he also took the opportunity of starving the Low Country textile mills of wool, thereby causing substantial unrest and poverty among the former textile workers. This was Edward’s way of punishing the Flemish rulers for their support of the French King in what was soon to escalate to the Hundred Years’ War.

Ultimately, the Wool Company was not successful, but it was definitely the death-knell to the innovative structure of the wool future, seeing as the number of new advance contracts declined sharply afterwards.

wool 07-5376373England’s wool export, however, continued to thrive, and throughout the 14th century wool remained the single most important source of wealth for England, which is why Edward III ordered that his Lord Chancellor should sit on a bale of wool, the “Woolsack”, a constant reminder to all those present that without those little critters that went ba-ba, England would plunge into obscurity and poverty.

These days, Australia is the world’s biggest wool producer, followed by the US, China and New Zealand. Together, they produce 60% of the total world production, while the UK, once such a dominant player, delivers 2% or so. And Spain is no longer on the top-ten list, although indirectly it is, seeing as the Merino remains one of the most important sheep breeds around.

P.S. Should you want to know more about the wool trade and those advance contracts, I recommend “Advance Contracts for the sale of wool in medieval England: an undeveloped and inefficient market?” by Bell, Brooks & Dryburgh (University of Reading)

My dearest cousin and husband – of a Spanish queen

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) The Bowes Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation (Margaret of Austria)

It strikes me, sometimes, just how short the lives of some historical people were. Take, for example, Margaret of Austria. Who? Exactly: who? Well, for one thing she was the mother of Philip IV of Spain. She was also her son’s third cousin – on multiple sides. When her son went on to marry his own niece some years later – Margaret’s granddaughter, Mariana – all those incestuous marriages came home to roost. Which is why Margaret of Austria has the dubious honour of being the paternal grandmother to the last of the Spanish Hapsburg kings, Carlos II, El Hechizado (the bewitched. The poor man was a borderline idiot, handicapped both mentally and physically. It is somewhat fortunate he was never capable of producing any children, no matter that he enthusiastically tried.)

We can’t blame poor Margaret for all this mess. She was a victim of the Hapsburgs’ idiotic ambition to keep their blood lines pure. One wonders where the pope was in all this – after all, marriages between people so closely related required dispensations. Oh, right: the pope was safely tucked into the pocket of the Hapsburgs, not about to risk the ire of the Spanish or Austrian Emperor.

It’s all very complicated, this Hapsburg intermarrying: Charles V (or I of Spain) started by marrying his cousin, then went on to marry his daughter, Maria, to his nephew, Maximillian II, Holy Roman Emperor. A first cousin marriage – the first of many.

Maximillian and Maria had a daughter, Anna, who was married to Charles Vs son, Philip II (yet another product of Charles Vs cosy marriage with his first cousin). Philip II’s bride was therefore not only his niece but also his second cousin. They had a son, the future Philip III.


Philip III

Maximillian had a brother, Charles. This gentleman was also, per definition, a cousin of Philip II and Maria. Charles had a daughter. This was Margaret, the heroine of today’s post. At the age of fifteen, she was married to Philip III, her second cousin, whose DNA was already a somewhat lethal cocktail given the borderline incestuous marriages that had engendered him.

But before we leap into Margaret’s married life, let us give her some more context. Margaret had a brother, Ferdinand, who was to become the Holy Roman Emperor in 1618 as Ferdinand II. If one wants to be nasty, one could blame the Thirty Years’ War on Ferdinand – his intolerant approach to his future Protestant subjects sparked the so called Bohemian Revolt, seen as the starting point of this European tragedy. Ferdinand, of course, would probably blame it all on the Bohemians – and on that rapacious Count Palatinate, Frederick, who made a grab for the Bohemian crown. (see here)

Margaret also has an indirect connection to Sweden in that two of her sisters were married to Sigismund, King of Poland and (for a while) Sweden. Apparently, Sigismund was so happy with his first Hapsburg bride that when Anna died in 1598 (she haemorrhaged while giving birth), she decided to replace his beloved wife with her much younger sister, 22 years his junior.



Like all her numerous siblings, well, like most of her relatives, Margaret was very pious. Too pious, many thought, and there were mutterings here and there that Margaret was far too much under the thumb of various representatives of the Holy Roman Church. A devout Catholic, Margaret considered all Protestants heretics, an opinion she shared with her extensive family. It did cause a number of uncomfortable moments, this implacable view on Protestants – like when Margaret’s older sister, Anna, was crowned queen of Sweden and more or less refused to show herself or interact with her disgustingly Protestant Swedish subjects…neither here nor there, at least not in this post.

Felipe IV and Maria Anna

Two of Margaret’s children, Maria Anna and Philip IV

Despite all this religion and consanguinity – or maybe because of it – Margaret was happy in her marriage to Philip III, only some six years her senior and quite smitten with his wife. Even better, within six years of their marriage, Margaret proudly presented her husband with the first of three sons, the future Philip IV. All was well in the Spanish Empire – the succession guaranteed, and the True Faith adequately defended by the queen and king.

Well, if you were to ask Margaret, all was not so well. Margaret exerted substantial influence over her king, as she should, being his wife. Another source of influence was her husband’s paternal aunt, the widowed Empress Maria (see further up: the lady who married Maximilian II and was sister to Philip II) who had returned to Spain upon her husband’s death to breathe in the invigorating, heretically unpolluted air of her homeland. Despite these formidable ladies, the real mover and shaker was Philip III’s favourite, Francisco Gómez Sandoval y Rojas – or the duke of Lerma for short.

This rather flamboyant character resented the queen’s influence over the king. Or rather, he smirked at her attempts to play a political role in her new country. After all, Lerma had been in control of Philip’s kingdom since the moment the king took over back in 1598. At the time, Philip was 20, Lerma a seasoned 45 or so.


Rubens – The Duke of Lerma

To this day, opinions as to Lerma remain divided. Was he only out to feather his own nest, or was he devoted to the young king? Seeing as Philip III preferred to spend his time on religious rituals and festivals, maybe his favourite did him a favour by relieving him of the tedious business of ruling. And Lerma wasn’t a total catastrophe, although he did bring the country to the brink of bankruptcy. After all, it was Lerma who negotiated the twelve year truce with those pesky Dutch insurgents in 1609. It was Lerma who brokered the various Austria and France marriages, it was Lerma who approved of Felipe’s support of Ferdinand’s bellicose efforts against the Protestants (and here Lerma and Margaret were in total agreement) thereby indirectly bringing Spain into the Thirty Years’ War. Not so sure this was a good thing, though.

It was also Lerma who expelled the Moriscos  from Spain in 1607, a human tragedy of enormous consequences. 300 000 Moriscos, i.e. former Moors, since generations converted to Catholicism, were forced to leave the land of their birth. This earned Lerma uncountable brownie points with the Spanish clergy – it also helped fill the very empty royal coffers, as what the Moriscos couldn’t carry with them automatically became the property of the king.

Anyway: Margaret didn’t like Lerma (although she applauded his actions vis-à-vis the Moriscos. Very much in line with her family’s intolerant approach to all but those of the Catholic faith…) The king, however, had no intention of burdening himself with the actual ruling part of his position, and at some point Margaret gave up. Lerma was simply too powerful, and besides, she was kept busy birthing baby after baby.

Bartolomé González y Serrano (1564–1627), Alfonso, the son of Philip III of Spain

Bartolomé González y Serrano – Infante Alfonso

And this is where I come back to my original comment, namely that about how brief some life spans were. Our Margaret died in 1611, not yet 27 years old. She died in the aftermath of childbirth – a fourth son, Alfonso, who would die within a year. Over ten years, she’d given the king eight children, of which six survived infancy. The king was devastated. Crushed. He never re-married, holding himself to the memory of his beloved wife.

As a little codicil, it might be interesting to know that some years after Margaret’s death, Lerma finally hit the dust. Lerma’s own son manoeuvred his father’s fall from grace – and this Machiavellian plotting probably deserves a post (or a book) of its own. Had it not been for the fact that Lerma had recently succeeded in having the pope make him a cardinal (a very effective form of life insurance), God alone knows how things would have ended for Lerma. But in all this furore, someone had to hang, pay for the sins of the former favourite, and the beady eye of Lerma’s son stuck on Lerma’s private secretary, Rodrigo Calderón.


Rubens – Rodrigo Calderón

Suddenly, people started muttering that Queen Margaret had not died in childbirth – no, she’d died because Calderón had used witchcraft on her. A ridiculous accusation, but Calderón was a haughty, unpopular man who most definitely had grown very rich during the years he served Lerma. Calderón was arrested, tortured, and somewhere along the line, his tormentors found a real murder they could pin on Calderón, that of a soldier in 1614. He confessed – after hours of torture. In 1621, Calderón was beheaded, a gesture to appease all those who bayed for Lerma’s blood but couldn’t get it, what with all that scarlet the new, very devout, cardinal wore.

Retrato_de_Felipe_IV,_by_Diego_Velázquez (1)

Philip IV by Velázquez

By then, Philip III was also dead (he never remarried after his beloved wife’s death), and Spain was now ruled by a boy of sixteen, Philip IV. Once again, the reins of government would be placed in the hands of a favourite, the Duke of Olivares. Once again, the Spanish king would wed a close Austrian relative, Queen Mariana (see post here). But this queen would not succeed in giving her husband the healthy heir he so desired – their DNA was too damaged by generations of in-breeding. Somehow, I suspect those oh, so devout Hapsburgs chose to blame God instead. Or the Protestants.

Niece, cousin and wife rolled into one – meet Mariana

BC on horse 800px-Diego_Velázquez_055

Baltasar Carlos, Velázquez

After far too many posts outside of my favourite era, I feel an urge to return ”home”. The 17th century beckons, and I long for men in breeches and coats, lace collars and cuffs, for women with covering skirts, with their hair tucked out of sight. I long for the swaggering of young musketeers, for the determination of the people who crossed the seas to better themselves. So, dear 17th century, here I come!

I thought I’d begin this little 17th century frenzy with a post about a Spanish queen. Now, as many of you know, the 17th century is Spain’s Golden Age. El Siglo Dorado, as the Spanish themselves say, some of them with a somewhat crooked smile, as it is also the century that effectually bankrupted Spain, leaving it weak and economically unstable for centuries to come. How? Why? I hear you asking, and to keep this very brief and simplistic, the Golden Age is an explosion of art and culture, of exquisite paintings, of fantastic literature, of a court dripping with jewels – all of it paid for by the riches that came from overseas, from Spanish America.

Problem was, the Spanish imported the gold and silver, sent it on to (mostly) present day Netherlands to be converted into objects of beauty, and paid through their noses for the artisan’s added value. So, in actual fact, it was the goldsmiths of the Netherlands that amassed wealth. Plus, of course, it didn’t help that Spain was constantly at war, its huge sprawling empire attacked on all fronts by the greedy French, the belligerent Italians, the rebellious Flemish, the sneaky English and the back-stabbing Portuguese. Wherever Spain looked, it saw an enemy – well, more or less. More, as per the Spanish…

In actual fact, El Siglo de Oro is a gilded veneer on a society that was anything but golden, with rampant poverty in various parts of Spain, with the excessive wealth offered by the colonies controlled by a relatively small upper class. For the common man, there was nothing golden about 17th century Spain. It was as dark, dirty and dreary as the preceding centuries had been. For us modern people, the outpouring of cultural activity in El Siglo de Oro is a treasure trove. Probably because we don’t have to sleep with rats running over our faces, or live off bread and watery bean soup.

Maria Anna Frans_Luycx_001

Mariana and her brother, F Luyc

Anyway, before I get all carried away and turn this into a deep dive into the dark underbelly of the 17th century in general – being poor is never a good thing to be, no matter in what age, and the number of poor in Europe was substantially higher back then than now – allow me to introduce my leading lady – Mariana of Austria.

Mariana's mother Diego_Velázquez_-_Maria_Anna_of_Spain_-_Prado

Mariana’s mother, Felipe IVs sister, Maria Anna, Velázquez

Born in 1634 as Maria Anna, this young woman was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III and Maria Anna of Spain (to avoid confusion, she was therefore called Mariana). In keeping with Hapsburg tradition, Ferdinand and Maria Anna were closely related – they were first cousins, which meant that Mariana’s maternal grandmother also was her paternal great-aunt. Intermarriage, however, had been going on for ages, and this was a tradition the Hapsburgs saw no reason to break, which is why Mariana early on was selected as the future bride of her first cousin, Baltasar Carlos of Spain.

Baltasar Carlos Diego_Velázquez_070

Baltasar Carlos – Velázquez

Baltasar Carlos was the only son of Felipe IV of Spain. Despite several childbirths, Felipe IVs wife, Elizabeth of France, had failed in giving her husband more than the one precious son and one surviving daughter. The male heir was frequently portrayed – the equestrian painting by Velazquez that graces the top of this post is especially famous – and by all accounts Baltasar Carlos had it in him to be a good future king and a handsome husband. Except, of course, that he died of smallpox at the tender age of sixteen.


Felipe IV, Velázquez

Oh dear, oh dear. Spain was left without an heir, Mariana was left without an intended. Being of a pragmatic nature, Felipe IV came up with an elegant solution, very much egged on by his sister: he could marry his little niece, thereby ensuring Mariana ended up Queen of Spain as promised. Everyone thought this was a splendid idea, and all that consanguinity further up the family tree was waved away as being irrelevant – after all, there were papal dispensations for each and every one of them.

What Mariana might have thought is unknown. From being promised to a young boy five years her senior, she was now to marry her uncle, almost thirty years older than her. Being a princess back then was not exactly a bed of roses – but Mariana had been raised to do her duty by her family, and in any case there was little she could do. So in October of 1649, not yet fifteen, she married Felipe IV. In July of 1651, she presented her husband with the first of their children, a little girl called Margarita Teresa. This little princess is the central figure in Velazquez’ masterpiece Las Meninas.


Margarita Teresa, Velázquez

A girl, however, was not good enough. Felipe IV already had a daughter, Maria Teresa, who at the time was 13 or so, a mere four years Mariana’s junior. There was a growing opinion that Felipe should name his eldest daughter his heir – Spain had no Salic law, which meant a woman could inherit as well as a man – but Felipe was not about to give up hope of a son. The pressure was on, and as months became years with no sign of a royal pregnancy, one imagines Mariana grew increasingly nervous. After all, her husband had fathered multiple children – some of them on the wrong side of the blanket.

Mariana de Austria 640px-Diego_Velázquez_032

Mariana at 19, Velázquez

Other than failing at her duty to deliver a male heir, Mariana was isolated at court, too young to be a valuable companion to her husband, too naïve to be included in any political discussions. She took solace in religion, becoming so devout it raised brows even in the extremely religious Spain. I imagine her praying and praying for that elusive son, weeping every time her period came – a symbol of her failure to deliver.

It took four years before the next royal baby entered the world in December of 1655. A girl. A sickly girl who died within 15 days. Felipe may have looked grim. Mariana may have been despondent. Did they comfort each other as well as they could? Who knows, but two years later, Mariana was delivered of a boy – a prince named Felipe after his father.


Little Felipe Próspero, Velázquez

Little Felipe Próspero’s arrival allowed Felipe IV to conclude his negotiations of marriage for his eldest daughter. Maria Theresa was dispatched across the Pyrenees to marry Louis XIV (and here bride and groom were first cousins on BOTH sides) something Felipe IV could safely do now that he had a male heir. But Felipe Próspero was frail, and he also developed epilepsy. It seems both his parents were resigned to the fact that their little son’s hold on life was anything but robust.(And IMO, this portrait is among the best ever)

There was another pregnancy, another son – but Fernando Thomas died the same day he was born, in late 1658. Mariana and Felipe, so aware of their son’s failing health, were frantic for another son. In 1661, Mariana conceived again. At the same time, Felipe Próspero’s health took a turn for the worse. In a sad little drama, Mariana was to lose one child on November 1 of 1661, only to welcome a new son into the world on November 6. But this time, there was no denying there was something seriously wrong with the baby boy. Prince Carlos was to be the recipient of all the drawbacks of recurring incest, starting with the infamous Hapsburg jaw, mandibular prognathism so severe he couldn’t chew – or talk all that much.


Carlos II – note the jaw

In 1665, Felipe IV died. The new king of Spain, Carlos II, was physically and mentally disabled (he couldn’t talk until the age of four, nor walk until he was ten) and was generally known as Carlos el Hechizado (Carlos the bewitched). Mariana assumed the role of regent, and one of the first things she oversaw was the send off of her daughter Margarita Teresa, who was destined to Vienna to marry Leopold, Mariana’s younger brother and future Hapsburg emperor. Yet another incestuous marriage, with Leopold being Margarita Teresa’s first cousin on her father’s side and maternal uncle. It’s no wonder that of four children only one daughter survived to bear a sickly son who died…


Valenzuela by Coello

Mariana was not a competent regent. She was too unschooled in the political aspects of things, too unfamiliar with how the Spanish court worked. She relied heavily on favourites, first on a German Jesuit, later on the dashing Fernando de Valenzuela, rumoured to also be her lover. It didn’t help that her son was utterly dependent on her for everything, incapable of such simple things as keeping himself moderately clean.

In 1673, Mariana received the sad news that her daughter had died. It left her devastated – of all her pregnancies, all she had left was the son who was nothing but a huge disappointment. In 1675, her son reached his majority, and immediately a political struggle began between Mariana and her husband’s illegitimate son, Juan de Austria. Capable and robust, Juan had always been his father’s loyal servant until Mariana succeeded in discrediting him, hating that her husband should allow his bastard access to his royal person. Plus, Juan’s obvious vitality must have been a chafing thorn, a constant reminder that a mere actress had succeeded in giving Felipe IV what Mariana herself could not: a healthy son. During the last few years of Felipe’s life, he had therefore been estranged from his son, something Juan was very bitter about, having loved his father dearly. Now, Juan saw the opportunity to get his own back…

Juan’s first attempt to wrest power from Mariana failed, but in 1677 he succeeded, and Valenzuela was stripped of all his power and exiled to the Philippines. Mariana fled to Toledo, and over the coming three years Juan managed to restore some sort of capable government. Then, unfortunately, he died, and Mariana came into her own again. She was to remain in control for the rest of her life.


Marie Louise, miniature by J Petitot

Seeing as Carlos II was a major disaster, the only hope left to Spain was to find him a wife and hope he would impregnate her with a healthy child. The girl chosen was Marie Louise de Orleans, niece to Charles II of England and Louis XIV. By all accounts a bright and intelligent young girl, she was sent off like a sacrificial lamb to marry the young man everyone in Europe considered a royal idiot. (For more on that, see here).

Carlos II adored his young wife. But no matter his efforts, there was no baby. All that inbreeding had affected his fertility as well. In 1689, Marie Louise died. There were rumours of poison, of Mariana wanting to rid herself of her barren daughter-in-law. Seems far-fetched, given how fond Mariana was of Marie Louise. A new bride was procured, one with whom Mariana had an anything but loving relationship. Maria Anna (they weren’t great on variation when it came to names back then) of Neuburg was a grasping German princess, who stole paintings from the royal collection and sent them to her family, who used her monumental temper to control her weak husband, and who in general made herself extremely unloved.


Mariana in her old age

Mariana’s last few years were fraught. Constant conflicts with her overbearing daughter-in-law, constant shortage of funds, and then her son, so inept, so vulnerable. In 1696, Mariana succumbed to breast cancer. Her son would survive her another four years, and when he died in 1700, the Spanish branch of the Hapsburg family became extinct. Instead, Philippe, Duq d’Anjou, grandson to Louis XIV and Felipe IV’s daughter Maria Teresa, would ascend the Spanish throne as the first Bourbon king.

In many ways, Mariana’s life was a tragedy. Of all her children, only “the idiot” was left alive. She, whose duty it was to provide Spain with healthy heirs, had failed dismally, thereby allowing those rapacious French to claim the Spanish crown. But the little princess who was ordered to marry her uncle instead of her dead cousin did try – over and over again.

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