Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder what our dear ancestors might have been high on when naming their children. Take, for example, the royal custom in medieval Castile of naming their little princesses Urraca. Urraca is Spanish for magpie, and my main objection to the name is how harsh it sounds. Urraca is an onomatopoeic word, i.e. it’s supposed to resemble the sounds emitted by a magpie, and as most of us know, magpies don’t exactly sing, they croak, hence the rather ugly combo of sounds that make up their name. Not that you may care, but in Swedish, magpies are called skata which is not onomatopoeic. The word for crow, kråka, is though. Seems corvids inspire attempts at naming them for the sounds they make. Right: I digress…
I have written about one of these Urraca ladies. She was a ruling queen back in the 11th century and is still considered one of medieval Spain’s more capable rulers. Today, I thought we’d spend time with another of those names I can’t quite get my head around, namely Violant (or Violante) To me, this name conjures up an image of a not-so-nice lady with a tendency to strike first, ask questions later. However, most of us cannot help our names, having been given them by our parents. In the case of medieval royal children, babies were usually named for their ancestors. Our first Violanta for the day is one such case.
In 1236, Jaime I, king of Aragón and his Hungarian wife Violant (or Yolande) welcomed their first child, a baby girl, to the world. In honour of her mother, the child was christened Violant. Thirteen years later, little Violant was married to Alfonso, heir to the throne of Castile and León. As with most royal unions, this was a marriage intended to strengthen the ties between the Castile and Aragón, with little consideration of the personal happiness of the groom and bride. At the time of their wedding, Alfonso was twenty-eight, an experienced military leader and an equally experienced lover, very much in love with his mistress Mayor Guillén de Guzmán. Violant was just Violant, too young to have much experience of anything.
No one expected a bride as young as Violant to consummate the wedding. She was given some years to grow into her role, and by all accounts the young lady was not a doormat, rather the reverse. Where Castilian ladies had cultivated the art of remaining cool and collected in all circumstances, with royal ladies in particular being taught from an early age to conduct themselves so as to avoid even as much as an insinuation of bad behaviour, little Violant seems to have been given somewhat freer reins (yay! Or maybe not…) In brief, Violant had something of a temper – or so we are told.
Alfonso wasn’t entirely happy with his opinionated wife. In fact, as the years passed and Violant showed no sign of popping out the desired heir, Alfonso toyed with the idea of annulling the marriage. In 1252, Alfonso’s father, San Fernando died and our Alfonso became king. A Castilian king needed strong male heirs to defend the crown, both against the rapacious Castilian nobility as represented by the families de Lara and de Haro, but also against the remaining Muslim kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula. A barren queen was therefore not an option.
However, in 1253, Violant gave birth to her first child. (And we should note that she was around seventeen at the time, so she wasn’t exactly long in the tooth…) Yes, it was a girl, not a boy, but at least Violant could expel a huge sigh of relief. She was not barren. There is a little legend regarding Violant’s first pregnancy, whereby the court physicians had told her that she needed to relax and take it easy—conception would not happen otherwise. As Alfonso had recently reconquered Alicante from the Moors, he suggested he and his wife retire to an adjoining farm there to enjoy the peace and serenity of simple country life. (Alfonso was willing to do what it took to get that heir of his) Lo and behold, Violant became pregnant which just shows what some R&R in tranquil environments can do for you.
Over the years, Violant was to give her husband at least eleven children, of which five were boys. The eldest of these sons, Fernando de la Cerda, married Blanche of France, daughter of St Louis. He was not destined for a long life and died leaving behind two little boys. Now, according to traditional Castilian law, in such cases the closest surviving brother could claim the throne. According to Roman law—which Alfonso was trying to introduce—the sons of the deceased eldest brother had the stronger claim.
The tragedy of Fernando’s death tore his family apart. Younger brother Sancho did claim the throne and even wrested some sort of acquiescence from Alfonso after years of bloody civil war. Violant, however, was firmly of the opinion her grandsons should inherit and was wise enough to ensure the two little boys were transferred to Aragón, there to be kept safe by her brother. Actually, Alfonso agreed with Violant, so when he died in 1284 he left a will which excluded Sancho from the succession. Didn’t work: Sancho had the support of the nobles and had the added benefit of being a full-grown man, while his nephews were still boys and under Aragonese control.
Violant would live out the rest of her life in Aragón, a staunch supporter of her grandson’s right to the Castilian throne. Her son Sancho she vilified as an usurper (which, to some extent, he was) I imagine this left little room for happy mother-son conversations. It also meant that Violant supported one grandson against the other, especially as Sancho died young, in turn leaving a very young son as his successor. Had it not been for Violant’s impressive daughter-in-law, Maria de Molina, I imagine chaos would have reigned absolute.
Violant of Aragón died in 1301. By then at least nine of her children were dead but her bloodline would live on through her numerous grandchildren to her two distant descendants Fernando of Aragón and Isabel of Castile, two cousins who would marry, unite Spain and begin forging the foundations of the Spanish empire. That, I believe, would have pleased the outspoken Violant!
In difference to our first Violant, my second lady of that name is very much a footnote in history, more famous for the men she interacted with than anything she herself did. As far as I know, Violante Visconti never expressed an opinion in contradiction to what her father or brother or husband believed—at least not when it came to truly relevant things.
Other than her name, our second Violante has only one thing in common with our first lady of the day: she too was married at a very young age. But her husband was not a soon-to-be king, albeit he was a prince and by all accounts a handsome and a capable prince at that.
Violante Visconti was born in the 14th century, the only daughter of Galeazzo II, powerful ruler of Milan. She lived in a time when Italy was dominated by various city states, constantly at war with each other or the Papal states. Milan was no exception, hereditary enemy of Florence and more than delighted to hire English mercenaries to help in their various battles. One of the more famous English mercenaries who served under the Milanese Viscontis is John Hawkwood, a man whose life reads like a fairy tale rags-to-riches story.
I digress. Violante was born in 1354, the year in which her father, together with his two brothers, became rulers of the city-state of Milan. Galeazzo is one of those very complicated early Renaissance men (ok, ok, VERY early Renaissance man) who on the one hand showered the arts with money and support and actively promoted learning (like in the university he founded in Pavia), on the other is mostly remembered for introducing an innovative torture protocol (!) in Milan whereby the poor unfortunate marked for death due to treason was submitted to forty days of torture which, as per the protocol, ended with said unfortunate’s death. One day of torture was followed by one day of rest so as to extend the entertainment for the avid spectators… I imagine any would-be traitor thought twice about betraying Signore Galeazzo or his co-ruling brothers.
Anyway: In the 1360s, king Edward III of England was trying to strengthen his position in Europe. One way of doing this was by negotiating marriages between his sons and daughters and the sons and daughters of rulers he wanted to ally himself with. Edward wanted very much to ally himself with the Count of Flanders, Louis de Male who happily had an unwed daughter. Actually, he only had one child, making little Margaret quite the marital prize. Fortunately, Edward had an unwed son, Edmund of Langley. Unfortunately, there were others interested in marrying Margaret, principally Philip the Bold of France. Plus, the pope was being plain obstructive, refusing to grant the dispensation required for Edmund to marry Margaret.
Edward III was not about to give up. As the pope was being a pain in the nether parts, Edward decided it might make sense to up the pressure on dear Pope Urban V. The best way to do that was to start doing some sword-rattling in Italy, where the Holy See was in constant conflict with…ta-daa…Milan and the Viscontis. How extremely fortunate that Galeazzo II had a marriageable daughter. Even more fortuitous, Edward had another son to put forward as a royal groom (he was still holding out hope on the Edmund—Margaret union) Enter Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence, the very tall and handsome second son of Edward III.
At the time, Lionel was pushing thirty. His first wife had died in 1363 and an Italian adventure didn’t sound too bad—rather the reverse. Besides, Galeazzo was so delighted at the thought of marrying his daughter to an English prince he offered a huge dowry. Edward III was always in need of money and it was therefore no hardship for the king and Signore Visconti to come to an agreement.
Accompanied by a huge entourage, Lionel set out for Italy in spring of 1368. In June of 1368 the thirteen-year-old Violante married the English giant (Lionel was over two metres tall) and the following wedding festivities were so magnificent people talked about the endless sequence of dishes, the extravagant gifts, for ages afterwards.
The Lionel—Violante union was to be short-lived. In October of 1368 Lionel died, some say due to overindulging in food, others (notably his most loyal and closest companion, Edward le Despenser) insisted he’d been poisoned. We will never know, but given the times, given the high stakes, it is not entirely unlikely a disgruntled pope or one of his supporters may have slipped something into Lionel’s wine. Le Despenser blamed Galeazzo II, but that seems far-fetched as Lionel’s death did not benefit Galeazzo.
The little widow was returned to her parents. One year passed, two years passed, many years passed. Not until 1377 was Violante married again, this time to Secondotto Palaeologus, originally betrothed to Violante’s older sister who died several years earlier. This Secondotto was no mean catch: as can be discerned from his second name, he had royal Greek blood and was, in fact, part of the family that ruled the Byzantine Empire.
Blood alone does not a man make, and by all accounts Secondotto was not all that impressive. According to Barbara Tuchman, the man was an insane sadist who enjoyed killing people with his own bare hands. Nice. One wonders how Galeazzo could entrust Violante to someone like that, but his daughter’s marriage was yet one more move in the power game Galeazzo played, always with an eye to the end game. Secondotto only married Violante because he needed her father’s support in his ongoing conflict with Amadeus of Savoy and his uncle, Otto. Galeazzo rose to the occasion (he generally did) and helped Secondotto retake Asti. Except, of course, that once Galeazzo had reconquered Asti, he saw no reason to turn it over to dear Secondotto. He probably felt Asti was an adequate compensation for his daughter’s hand. Upon Galeazzo’s death in August of 1378, Violante’s brother, Gian Galeazzo, was as obdurate: Asti was to remain under Visconti control
An enraged Secondotto assembled an army and challenged his in-laws. Poor Violante was caught in between, and I imagine there was an element of relief (for various reasons) when Secondotto died, albeit he was probably assassinated on dear brother’s orders.
Once again, Violante returned home, but this time it was not her father but her brother who called the shots. Her marriage with Secondotto had not resulted in any children and Violante was by now resigned to her role as marital pawn, a beautiful woman to use as best suited the Visconti family interests.
Her third marriage was to her cousin, Ludovico Visconti. This time, there was issue, a little boy called Giovanni. Not that Violante was destined for a happily ever after: her hubby died after some years (and it is suspected at the behest of Gian Galeazzo). In 1386, Violante herself died. Other than her son, she left little trace behind.
So, there you have it, peeps. Two ladies named Violant/Violante. One was mostly a footnote, the other comes across as determined to forge her own destiny. One evokes pity, the other admiration. I guess it just goes to prove that Shakespeare had it right: “What is in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
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Royal families were so interesting back then!