In 1311, a very young Castilian princess was betrothed to Jaime, heir to the Aragonese throne. Jaime did not want a wife. His father, however, was adamant. Aragon would benefit from a Castilian marriage. I guess Jaime would have sneered at that, reminding his father of his Castilian bride, little Isabel, whom he returned to sender, very much untouched after four years of marriage.
“Bygones,” Jaime senior likely replied. (And yes, Jaime is a much recurring name among the Aragonese. This Jaime Sr was Jaime II.) “Besides, this time we really need an alliance with Castile. The Moors are regrouping and if we don’t unite we’re…” At which point Jaime Sr theatrically drew his index finger over his throat.
The princess in question was called Leonor. She was the niece of the Isabel so humiliated by Jaime Sr, and one could have thought Maria de Molina would have been a bit hesitant to yet again enter into an alliance with Aragon. (María was Leonor´s paternal grandmother, and while her son, Fernando IV, was the king, this wise lady did a lot of the work behind the scenes)
Leonor was four when she was betrothed to the fifteen-year-old Jaime. The intended groom was a confused soul, a devout young man who by various historians (and some contemporaries) has been labelled as either depraved, homosexual or mentally unstable. Or maybe all three. In brief, Jaime was a complicated young man, and I suspect his father was less than pleased that his heir should be such a difficult person.
Due to Leonor’s age, the actual wedding was postponed for several years. In the meantime, Jaime was constantly afflicted by doubts—and a desire to take holy orders.
“What?” Jaime Sr exclaimed, holding up the monk’s habit he’d found hidden in his son’s room. “You can’t do that! You’re my heir—and contracted to marry a Castilian princess.”
Jaime Jr refused to back down, so his father roped in the pope who told the young man to forget about being a monk—he had obligations to fulfil, principally those of honouring the betrothal with Leonor.
More arguments followed. Jaime was convinced to go through with the wedding but refused to consummate the marriage—the act was repugnant to him. Jaime Sr scratched his head and groaned, but the wording of the contract did not specifically call for consummation, so maybe the Aragon-Castile relationship would not be too damaged by Jaime Jr remaining chaste.
In the event, things did not go quite as planned. As the wedding day approached, Jaime got more and more upset, increasingly uncomfortable with entering the married state. This was not what he wanted – he wanted to live a religious life. Jaime Sr turned a deaf ear to all this nonsense. The wedding went ahead in October of 1319. At the time, Leonor was twelve, her groom twenty-three. There was no exchange of kisses, no holding hands at the high table, because after a heated discussion with his father, Jaime abandoned his bride during the wedding festivities and rode off into the night, declaring he would happily renounce his rights to both throne and wife so as to be able to pursue his religious vocation.
Very embarrassing all this, both for the little bride and her father-in-law. Some months later, Jaime formally renounced his rights to the throne and joined a convent. This left Leonor in something of a limbo. Was she married or wasn’t she? Contractually she was, but a marriage without consummation was usually not considered valid. After a bit of back and forth, during which Jaime II apologised profusely for his son’s behaviour, Leonor was returned to Castile—unmarried—where she took up residence in the Abbey of Santa María la Real de las Huelgas. In the abbey she was surrounded by the tombs of her ancestors, but while Leonor chose to retire from the world, she never took the veil. I guess she just needed some peace and quiet to get over the humiliating experience…
In 1325, Leonor was jolted out of her comfortable existence in the convent when Edward II of England sent envoys to Castile, hoping to contract his young son (the future Edward III) to Leonor. For a while there, hopes of an English marriage buzzed about, but by 1326 those plans fell through as Prince Edward was betrothed to Philippa of Hainault instead (this at the behest of his mother and contrary to his father’s wishes)
In late 1327 Jaime II of Aragon died and the throne passed to Alfonso IV, our Jaime’s younger brother. (Some years previously, our Jaime had second thoughts about renouncing his throne and all that, but by now his father and his brother had had enough of him so they nipped that particular plan in the bud) In difference to his big brother, Alfonso had married several years earlier and had a full nursery when he became king, despite being only twenty-eight. Unfortunately, he was also a widower, his wife having died shortly before Jaime II. Clearly, Alfonso was in need of a new wife to help him raise his children. Being of a pragmatic disposition—and also rather eager to keep Castile happy—Alfonso therefore suggested he marry Leonor, thereby making her his queen.
So in February of 1329, Leonor yet again travelled to Aragon as a bride-to-be. This time, the groom was anything but reluctant and little Fernando saw the light of the day in December of 1329. One would have thought Leonor would have cradled her newborn son and exclaimed “my cup runneth over” while gazing lovingly at her husband. Not so much. Instead, Leonor held her baby boy and resented the fact that her hubby had older sons. Where Alfonso’s eldest, Pedro, was destined to inherit the Aragonese crown, Leonor’s little son was entirely at the mercy of his father’s generosity. Leonor made it her mission in life to ensure her children (she would give Alfonso one more son) were adequately set up. She was ruthless and manipulative in her efforts and her eldest stepson was less than thrilled when King Alfonso signed over lands and castles that traditionally belonged to the Aragonese crown to Leonor’s sons. Soon enough, the nobles of Aragon were taking sides: those that held to their king and those who supported Pedro when he protested at having his patrimony frittered away.
In 1336 Alfonso IV of Aragon sickened. It soon became apparent that he would not recover, and Leonor decided to prepare the castles she controlled along the Castilian/Aragonese border so as to maintain an open route for her brother to come to her aid against her stepson. She was under no illusions when it came to Pedro’s feelings for her—to a large extent she had herself and her rapaciousness to blame.
Pedro might be young (he was still in his teens) but he was no fool, sending his own men racing towards the castles in question to take control of them. Pedro won that particular race. So when Alfonso died, Leonor found it wise to flee Aragon. With Leonor went not only her boys but also as much gold and silver she could lay hands on, which didn’t exactly endear her to Pedro. He retaliated by seizing land settled on Leonor and his half-brothers by his father. For a couple of years, things were a bit tense but in the long run Pedro had no choice but to confirm Leonor’s and her sons’ lands –he needed peace with Castile.
Leonor chose to remain in Castile with her sons. I guess she felt safer there. In 1350 her brother, Alfonso XI, died and the crown of Castile passed to his legitimate son, also (just to keep things nice and simple) called Pedro. Things were a bit messy: Pedro had a bevy of illegitimate half-brothers and not everyone in Castile felt Pedro was the best choice as king. Obviously, Pedro disagreed, but he had a tendency to act rashly and when he abandoned his young French wife, Blanche, three days after the wedding to hurry back to his beloved mistress, Maria de Padilla, this did not go down well with his nobles. Even less so when he incarcerated poor Blanche.
Pedro’s mother, María of Portugal was seriously displeased by her son’s treatment of his wife. So was Leonor, and these two formidable ladies took it upon themselves to lure Pedro to visit, after which they tried to browbeat the young and temperamental king into returning to his wife. At the bottom of all this was not only a concern for Blanche, but also for the increasing influence of María’s relatives. The hoity-toity of Castile weren’t about to let the Padilla family hog all the good offices and benefices plus Leonor had her sons to look out for.
Pedro did not like being admonished. He was also madly in love with María and would rather amputate a leg than let her go. Besides, he had his suspicions regarding his dear Aunt Leonor’s motivations—her two sons could, through her, claim the Castilian throne. And as to all the other nobles who’d joined the chorus requesting Pedro return to his wife, they made Pedro see red. (He was a rather unstable character) In Pedro’s mind, the solution was easy: get rid of those who could potentially harm him and his woman.
Pedro was not without cunning. He bided his time, all the while using the various factions to destabilise each other. Leonor’s son, Juan, was one of the people he used, arranging a grand marriage for his cousin that put him in very close proximity to Tello of Castile, one of Pedro’s hated half-brothers. The idea was for Juan to instigate a revolt and kill Tello, but that didn’t work out too well. Tello escaped, Juan did not, which is why in 1358 Juan was beaten to death in the royal bedroom in Bilbao, his battered body thrown out of the window. (Pedro was a strong—and very tall—man)
By then, Leonor was already locked up as was Juan’s young wife and Juan’s sister-in-law (who was Tello’s wife). In Leonor’s case, Pedro was further provoked by the fact that her eldest son, Fernando, had suddenly changed his allegiances. From having made it his vocation to be a burr up his half-brother’s arse—he led several serious rebellions against Pedro IV of Aragon—Fernando suddenly saw the light and joined forced with his Aragonese half-brother against his cousin Pedro of Castile. Fernando probably did this in reaction to the surprising hike in assassinations, including that of his brother—and because he too disliked the influence of the Padilla family.
I imagine Leonor was devastated by Juan’s death. And furious. Didn’t help her much. As the months went by, Leonor likely came to understand that she’d never leave the castle of Castrojeriz alive. Her nephew was systematically murdering those he considered potential rivals and in 1359 the bell tolled for Leonor—as it did for her daughter-in-law.
To this day we don’t know where Leonor ended up buried. Some say her mortal remains lie with those of her husband and eldest son in Lérida. Others say she was buried among her ancestors in the convent of Las Huelgas. Others yet point at the grave discovered in 1970 in a church in Castrojeriz, a beautiful grave decorated with a female effigy. I’m not entirely sure it matters where she lies—not for us, and definitely not for her.
With his mother dead, Fernando decided to go one step further and threw his lot in with Enrique of Trastámara, Pedro’s half-brother. So did many others of the Castilian nobles, and soon enough the kingdom succumbed to civil war, with Pedro being supported by the English while the French and Aragonese supported Enrique. In one of those many skirmishes, Fernando fell into the hands of his half-brother. Turns out Pedro IV of Aragon was not quite as forgiving as he’d made out to be, and soon enough Fernando too was dead. So ended Leonor’s dynastic hopes, both her sons dead before they had sired a male heir.
And as to our two Pedros, well Pedro of Aragon was a successful king who passed on an expanded kingdom to his son, while Pedro of Castile was murdered by his half-brother Enrique who then became king of Castile. Pedro had no sons, but in the fullness of time his granddaughter, Catalina of Lancaster, was to marry Enrique’s grandson. But that, dear peeps, is a story for another day.