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Siblings, sieges and assassinations – nothing unusual in medieval Spain

Today, we are going to be spending some time with Sancho II of Castile. Not that his time will be all that long—at times, life (or in this case, siblings) conspire against you. Mind you, Sancho had himself to blame.

Sancho’s story starts in Zamora, a fortified town on the river Duero that has been around since Roman times if not earlier. He was born there in 1036, the eldest of his father’s three sons. Sancho’s father was Fernando I of León, third son of Sancho II of Navarra who through determination, prowess and a tendency to ignore familial ties (he defeated his own father-in-law in battle and rapidly annexed his lands) had more or less united all of Christian Spain under him. Officially, he was king of León and Count of Castile, with Navarra being reduced to a vassal state. Unofficially, he was hailed as Emperor of Spain.

In 1065, Fernando died. In his will, he stipulated that the lands he had fought so assiduously to bring under his control be split between his three sons. Sancho as the eldest got Castile, second son Alfonso became king of León and baby brother Garcia was given Galicia. Further to this, the old king granted his two daughters one city each: to the fair Elvira went Toro and to Urraca went Zamora. (Before we go any further, I must just take a moment to sigh happily over the name Urraca. Urrrrrrrrrraca. Mmmm. The fact that it also means “magpie” has me utterly intrigued as to why so many royal ladies in medieval spain were thus baptised. Just love it!)

Sancho, preparing for more war, one assumes

Sancho was not happy with all this dividing. He aspired to be as great a king as his father—or at least to hold control over as much land.
“Be happy with what you have,” his dear Mamá, Queen Sancha, told him, and whether out of filial love or out of a genuine attempt to follow her advice, at first Sancho concentrated his efforts on bringing the taifa state of Zaragoza to heel, ably helped by his alferéz (a combo between royal champion and head of the armed forces), Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a.k.a. El Cid.

A taifa state was an independent Muslim principality, many of whom paid tribute to a Christian state in return for being left alone. Zaragoza owed Castile tribute, Toledo paid tribute to León and Sevilla and Badajóz were to pay their monies to García—all this according to Fernando’s will.

While sorting out the Zaragoza issue, Sancho took out some of his frustrations on his two cousins, also named Sancho. One of these Sanchos was the ruler of Navarra, the other of Aragon, and our Sancho decided they had lands that belonged to him. He declared war and emerged victorious, adding numerous borderland regions to his Castile.

Late in 1067, Queen Sancha died. Sancho immediately turned on Alfonso. Now, Alfonso wasn’t exactly unambitious and was likely as eager to annex Castile as Sancho was to annex León. Things came to a head at the battle of Llantada in 1068 where both brothers swore that whoever emerged victorious was to be king of both kingdoms, placing it all in the hands of God. Well, in Sancho’s case he also had El Cid rooting for him, which may be why he won. Did Alfonso come and kneel at his feet? Nope. Alfonso fled, refusing to cede his crown.

One would have thought relations between Sancho and Alfonso were permanently soured by all this, but in 1069 Alfonso was present when Sancho married a supposedly English lady called Alberta. In some of the later chronicles, Alberta is presented as being one of William the Conqueror’s daughters, but there is no record of a daughter called Alberta. There is a daughter called Agatha who was betrothed to Alfonso but died young, so maybe the ladies got confused. After all one foreign lady is pretty much like another foreign lady…

Anyway: Alfonso wasn’t present just to drink to the happy couple. No, Sancho and Alfonso had plans—plans involving the lands of their youngest brother, García. Alfonso gave Sancho a safe conduct to ride through León with his men and attack García in Galicia. Meanwhile, Alfonso moved in on García’s taifa lands of Badajoz. Soon enough, García was ousted. After some months of captivity, García was exiled to Seville while Alfonso and Sancho divided up his lands between them.

Was Sancho satisfied with this? Ha! In 1072, he moved against Alfonso, defeating him yet again at the battle of Golpejera. This time, Alfonso did not get away. He was hauled back to Burgos and from there to a monastery where, according to some sources, he was forcibly shaved and pressurised into becoming a monk. I imagine we are talking heavy pressure… Fortunately for Alfonso, big sister Urraca intervened. Somehow, she managed to hammer out a solution that did not involve Alfonso becoming a most reluctant monk. Instead, Alfonso was also sent into exile and Sancho could now add the crown of León to his head adornments.

Just because their king was gone, this did not mean Alfonso’s noble subjects were all that eager to bend knee before Sancho. Rather the reverse in fact, and as the months went by it became evident that Sancho would have to conquer León, foot by bloody foot. And there, in the south of León was Zamora, the city Fernando the Emperor had given to Urraca. Disenchanted noblemen fled to hide behind Zamora’s thick walls and when Urraca adamantly refused to exchange her city for other lands, other castles, Sancho saw no option but to besiege Zamora.

Zamora. SO on my bucket list….

The exact details of what transpired in Zamora are lost in time. What we have are various fictionalised accounts, so called cantares de gesta, which retell important events in an adequately memorable fashion. Most of these cantares were written long after the events in Zamora, but there are remnants of the original cantares. I suppose one should see these epic poems as a medieval version of Hello! or InTouch, i.e. more interested in titillating the reader than in sticking to the boring facts, but peeps, they’re what we have.

Urraca

Now in none of the surviving depictions does Urraca play a major part beyond opening her city gates to those fleeing from Sancho. No spirited lady prancing about on the battlements, no Valkyrie banging her sword against her shield. This doesn’t mean she wasn’t an active participant. Her father clearly thought her capable of managing a city like Zamora, and those Spanish ladies of old seem to have been quite good at holding their own against their bellicose, strutting men. But whatever Urraca did, she did behind the scenes. Meanwhile, Sancho was in the forefront of events. He had to be. As king, he had to show all those bellicose, strutting men that he was at least as bellicose and strutting as them, if not more.

But no matter how willing to fight, the besieging Castilians found Zamora an extremely hard nut to crack. The walls were too thick, the defences unscalable and with the river Duero flowing right at its walls, it was difficult to starve the inhabitants into submission. Which is when, suspiciously auspiciously, a certain Vellido Dolfos enters the scene. (Sometimes, Vellido is spelled Bellido, but as the V is a “b” sound in Spanish, it doesn’t make much difference.)
“My liege, my liege!” Vellido Dolfos exclaimed, falling to his knees at Sancho’s feet. “I am come from Zamora because I cannot abide it there anymore—not when our rightful king is denied entrance into our fair city.”
Sancho likely studied him with some misgivings. Beside the king, I imagine El Cid crossing his well-muscled arms over his chests and frowning down at the newcomer.
“A traitor?” El Cid barked. “You know what they say: once a traitor, always a traitor.”
“A deserter, rather,” Dolfos corrected, giving El Cid the evil eye from where he was still prostrate before Sancho.
“Deserter, traitor—same, same,” El Cid said.
“Why are you here?” Sancho asked.
“I hope to be of service,” Dolfos replied. “Maybe I can help you gain entry into Zamora. After all, I know most of its weak points.”
Hmm… Turns out that if Vellido Dolfos knew those weaknesses, it took him a very long time to identify them. Instead, he spent several weeks ingratiating himself with Sancho until one day he came rushing into the royal tent. “I have it!” he gasped. “I know how to gain entry!”
“Show us,” Sancho demanded, with El Cid immediately falling in behind him.
“Three is too many,” Vellido Dolfos said. “We have to sneak in there and back.”
“I will go,” El Cid said.
Dolfos mouth set in a mulish line. “It is the king I serve. It is the king I will show.”
They rode out together, a small troop of men until they reached a point where Dolfos begged them hold, saying from there onwards it would have to be him and the king. To reassure El Cid, Dolfos left his weapons behind, but the king had hold of his lance, reluctant to venture too far unarmed. Off they went.

Cross commemorating where Sancho was stabbed to death

At some point, Dolfos surprised the king, wrested his lance from him and stabbed him in the gut. The king yelled. Dolfos fled, breaking into a run as he made for the walls of Zamora and the little postern gate through which he intended to reenter the city. After came El Cid, but it was too late, and the assassin managed to escape into Zamora while Sancho bled out on the ground, dying in front of the city where he’d been born thirty-six years earlier.

So: dead as a rock was Sancho, and Alfonso came galloping back from exile to claim all Sancho’s lands as his own—a simple matter, as the mysterious Alberta had not given Sancho any children. Just to make sure, Alfonso lured baby brother García back by promising him all sorts of favours only to imprison him the moment he saw him. With one brother dead, the other locked up, Alfonso would go on to rule as Alfonso VI for well over thirty years, with his favourite sister, Urraca, as one of his most trusted advisors.

Alfonso swearing on the Bible – by Marcos Hiraldez Acosta

Things, however, do not end here—at least not according to the Cantar de mio Cid. You see, El Cid—who had plenty of brains to go with all his brawn—suspected that Sancho’s siblings had colluded in getting him killed. He was further convinced that the nefarious Dolfos had been paid for his murderous services – the man was nothing but a paid assassin. Now, to spout such an allegation could be dangerous—even for a man of such renown as our medieval hero. So, instead, El Cid demanded that Alfonso should place his hand on the Holy Writ and before God (i.e. in a church) swear that he had had nothing to do with Sancho’s death. This Alfonso did, but apparently he was so irate with El Cid for tarnishing his honour (?) that this, the most famous and respected of Castilian warriors was forced into exile.

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar would gallop off to do his thing—some of which is described here—and Alfonso was to spend the rest of his life attempting to sire a male heir. For a little while, he had a son, but by the time he was breathing his last, the old king had but one surviving legitimate child: a daughter, named Urraca after her paternal aunt. This lady would prove repeatedly that just because you wear skirts, that does not make you an extremely competent and ruthless ruler.  Which is why she has her very own post!

4 thoughts on “Siblings, sieges and assassinations – nothing unusual in medieval Spain”

  1. Sophia Alexander

    Anna, I wish you’d written my history textbooks in school. Just LOVE your biographical sketches! Thank you so much for posting this!

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