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.
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.
The 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…)
Finally, 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.
Obviously, 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”).
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)
So, 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.