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For the love of his queen – how a medieval king set his wife first

Sometimes, those medieval kings surprise you. Take, for example Sancho IV of Castile. Now, he has a few black marks against him, principally the fact that he usurped the throne, thereby stealing the crown from his young nephew, Alfonso de la Cerda. Sancho, of course, did not feel he had a choice: Castile needed an experienced king, not an untried youth.

On Sancho’s plus side is how he treated his wife, Maria de Molina. They wed hastely in 1282, against the will of Sancho’s father, Alfonso X. Sancho was obviously much taken with his Maria—so taken, in fact, that he immediately made her one of his closest counsellors—and couldn’t wait to make her his. Aww…

Alfonso X died, Sancho claimed the throne, first in Avila then in Toledo. By his side throughout the extensive crowning ceremonies was Maria, and the new king made it very clear that he and his wife would rule jointly. Very unusual for the times, but then Maria was an unusually intelligent lady and Sancho was smart enough to realise that.

Holding on to a throne is not easy—especially when the youngster with a rightful claim to the throne refused to back down. Alfonso de la Cerda had support from his cousin, Alfonso III of Aragon, as well as from the various discontented Castilian noblemen who were unhappy under Sancho’s efficient rule.

To make matters worse, Sancho and his wife had been a tad hasty when getting married. They’d skipped the “get-the-papal-dispensation” part, and as they were second cousins plus there was some sort of precontract issue related to Sancho (“My father’s idea,” Sancho would have growled, insisting he’s been forced to precontract with Guillerma de Moncado), that dispensation was required to make their marriage legal in the eyes of the church. As it was, Maria and Sancho were living in sin—at least according to the pope. Their children were therefore illegitimate. While Sancho scoffed at all this—as did the many men of cloth who served Sancho and Maria—it was a major problem and had to be addressed.

Sancho needed allies. One such potential ally was Philippe IV of France who not only could put pressure on the French-born pope, but who also has his own personal reasons to want to rub Alfonso III’s nose in the dirt. Why? Well, dear peeps, in 1285 the French set out on a catastrophic endeavour they called the Aragonese Crusade, determined to oust the then king of Aragon, Pedro III, and replace him with a French king. This was all done at the instigation of the pope, who could not forgive Pedro for having conquered Sicily. Pedro considered his actions justified: he was merely taking back the land that should have come to his wife. The pope disagreed: Sicily was a valuable papal fief.

Anyway: Philippe III of France marched into Aragon. He came, he saw, he lost. The French king was obliged to flee, leaving most of his host stranded in Aragon as he was carried to Perpignan where he died of dysentery. Along on the ride was Philippe’s eldest son, also Philippe, who became king of France with the numeral IV, but who is better remembered for having been very handsome, hence Philippe le Bel, plus, of course there’s the whole matter with Philippe’s destruction of the Templars. (And yes, I have written about that too—here)

Alfonso III

Sancho had promised aid to Aragon during the French invasion. For some reason, he never delivered on his promise. Maybe he believed the French would win. Maybe he hoped to take advantage of the situation and annex some of Aragon’s outlying regions to Castile. Or maybe he felt Pedro had things under control and did not need his help. Whatever the case, the Castilians did not show. Pedro died late in 1285, still a relatively young man, and Alfonso III never forgave Sancho for not coming to Aragon’s aid, which is why he went from his father’s policy of passively supporting Alfonso de la Cerda’s claim on the Castilian throne to actively contributing men to the cause. Not good for Sancho. He had his plate full with Moors and rebellious noblemen and whatnot.

Now Philippe of France, Sancho of Castile and Alfonso of Aragon were cousins, all of them grandchildren of Jaime I of Aragon. Obviously, this wasn’t a close or particularly cuddly group of cousins—rather the reverse. And when Sancho in 1286  reached out to his dear French cousin asking for help, Philippe was more than happy to oblige.

Sancho sent his privado – his most trusted counsellor—to discuss with Philippe of France. Sancho’s man was Gómez García, abbot of Valladolid. He was determined to reach an agreement with France so as to protect Sancho. Now, one of the things Sancho wanted Philippe to help him with was to acquire a (belated) dispensation for his marriage to Maria.
“Of course, of course,” said Philippe, but contrary to what he said to the Castilian envoys, he suggested to the pope that he not grant a dispensation, citing his concern for his cousin, Alfonso de la Cerda and his legitimate rights to the throne. (Complicated stuff, all these relationships: Alfonso de la Cerda’s mother was Philippe IV’s aunt. Alfonso de la Cerda’s father was Philippe’s cousin, seeing as his mother was the sister of Philippe’s mother)

Philippe IV

Philippe IV was nothing if not a realist. He probably found it doubtful that his dear cousin would ever win the throne of Castile. After all, Sancho was vigorous and capable and had the support of most of his nobles. So instead Philippe decided to attempt another approach. In a meeting with Gómez García, he suggested that a treaty between France and Castile be dependent on a marriage.
“A marriage?” Gómez García said, swallowing heavily. “But Fernando is but a baby.”
“Fernando?” Philippe snorted. “Why would I want to arrange a marriage with an illegitimate whelp? No, a marriage between your king and a French princess.”
“My king is married.”
“Not in the eyes of the Church,” Philippe said. I imagine him stretching lazily for a grape and popping it in his mouth, chewing industriously while studying Sancho’s privado. “She may be a fine lady, but she is essentially nothing but his mistress.”
“My liege!” Gómez spluttered. “Doña Maria is…”
“Yes, yes, I know: a paragon of female virtues, beautiful and wise. But…” Here he popped another grape in his mouth. “Unwed. At least according to the pope.” He shook his head. “And as to her children…bastards.”
“Infante Fernando has been recognised as King Sancho’s heir,” Gómez García protested.
“Not by everyone. Anyway: if Castile want an alliance with France, it comes at the cost of Sancho setting his woman aside and wedding a French princess.”
Gómez gulped. Castile needed this alliance. He, as an abbot, was fully aware of just how questionable Sancho’s marriage to Maria was. But Maria was kind and calm. She was a pillar of strength. And, most importantly, Sancho loved her. Still: he, as the king’s privado, had to do what was best for Castile, and a treaty with France would effectively squash Alfonso de la Cerda’s pretensions on the crown. So he took a deep breath. He took two. “I shall discuss your suggestion with my king,” he said.

A treaty was drafted and Gómez García scurried back to Castile. Sancho was delighted, congratulating his privado on his excellent work. “Gracias Don Sancho,” Gómez said, gulping somewhat. You see, he had as yet not revealed to the king that a prerequisite for this treaty was that he renounce his beloved Maria and wed a French princess.

One wonders how Gómez Garcia was hoping this would play out. Did he think that Sancho, once presented with a fair princess, would agree? Or did he hope that Philippe, once closeted with Sancho, would drop his requirement? Whatever the case, our poor abbot must have developed quite some stomach ulcers as he travelled north with Sancho. The two kings were to meet close to Bayonne. In San Sebastian, Gómez García came clean and Sancho exploded.
“Never!” he roared. “I will never abandon my Maria. And do not try to tell me you did not know that.”
“Err…” Gómez said.
Sancho paced the room, his long robes swirling round his legs “You have betrayed me.” He came to a halt and called for one of his squires. “Saddle my horse,” he said. “I ride south within the hour.” He scowled at Gómez García. “I shall consult with my one true advisor: my lady queen. And as to that French manipulative bastard, you can tell him there is no treaty, not when it is contingent on a royal wedding. I love my wife. He should know what that means, seeing how besotted he is with his Jeanne.”
“But the kingdom…” Gómez tried.
“The kingdom needs me! And her.” With that, Sancho left.

Evidently, things did not end well for Gómez García. He was accused of appropriating money from the royal treasury and was dismissed as the king’s privado. For some odd reason, Sancho chose a certain Lope Díaz de Haro as his next right-hand man. Strange, because Lope Díaz de Haro was a firm supporter of Sancho going through with his contracted marriage to Guillerma. I am guessing this Castilian hidalgo had problems with Maria’s influence—not only over her husband, but also over the kingdom as such.

Whatever the case, Díaz de Haro set about feathering his own nest with a vengeance – very much in line with his coat of arms which depicts two ferocious wolves carrying off helpless lambs. He also created an alliance with Sancho’s younger (and disgruntled) brother, Infante Juan. As an aside, I am no fan of Infante Juan. I guess I have a problem with men who happily murder young boys, rebel against their brother, do everything they can to destabilise the rule of their nephew and, in general, set themselves first throughout life. Neither here nor there.

In 1287, Juan married Díaz de Haro’s daughter. Like two peas in a pod were Juan and Díaz de Haro, but one year later things came to a head. The king could no longer ignore the swelling tide of complaints regarding his privado’s (and brother’s) rapaciousness. He decided to take back castles and lands and ordered Díaz de Haro to be taken prisoner. His privado lost his temper, pulled a knife and attacked the king. Infante Juan joined the fray, but the king’s men soon had things under control. The king, incensed, almost killed his own brother, but Maria managed to calm him down sufficiently to instead have Juan imprisoned. Díaz de Haro, however, did not survive.

In time, Maria would likely come to regret the efforts she expended on saving Juan’s life. After all, Juan would go on to be a constant source of problems, first for Sancho then, after his death, for Maria. But in 1288, neither Sancho nor Maria knew what lay in store for them. They were young, they were strong, and together they could face anything life could throw at them. Such, dear peeps, is the power of love—even for a medieval king!

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