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.
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…
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.
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.
According to 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.
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!