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Historical Note – The Castilian Pomegranate

Spain in the late 13th century was a complicated place: to the north, the Crown of Aragon controlled most of the land marching south of the Pyrenees—except for Navarra, which was under French control. In the centre of the peninsula, the kingdom of Castile had been in expansion mode for over a century. To the south lay the last surviving Moorish kingdom, Al-Andaluz. Where the Muslim kingdoms had controlled most of the Iberian peninsula well into the eleventh century, slowly but safely the Christian “Reconquista” had been chipping away at them—helped along by the fact that once the Cordoba Califate splintered, most of the Muslim states were more interested in safeguarding their own narrow interests than in collaborating.

In the first half of the thirteenth century, both Aragon and Castile had powerful kings. In Castile, Fernando III would conquer Cordoba in 1236 and Sevilla in 1248, annexing these lands to his kingdom. In Aragon, Jaime I set his sights on Valencia and brought it to its knees in 1238. Inevitably, Castilian and Aragonese interests clashed. Just as inevitably, the sons of Castile married daughters of Aragon and vice versa, which is how Violante, Jaime I’s daughter, ended up as the wife of Fernando III’s eldest son, Alfonso X.

Violante and Alfonso’s marriage had its challenges. Still, despite not always loving each other to bits (I fear that was a rare emotion in their marriage) Violante gave Alfonso many children—and many sons. Not always a blessing, as Alfonso well knew, having had to handle his fair share of rebellious and over-ambitious brothers. And yet, until their eldest son died, there seems to have been relative harmony between the brothers, but once Fernando de la Cerda lay dead, his younger brother Sancho claimed the right to be recognised as Alfonso’s heir, effectively displacing Fernando’s young sons. Alfonso dithered, saying first “Si,” then “No”. Accordingly, his last years were spent in a bitter struggle with his own son, while Violante  escaped over the border to Aragon with her two grandsons.

Sancho IV was a strong and efficient ruler. He was also extremely fortunate in his wife, Maria de Molina, who would repeatedly prove her worth as a regent. You see, Sancho was not destined for a long life, and once he was dead, those supporting Alfonso de la Cerda saw their opportunity. Castile was to face many years of unrest, with Sancho’s younger brother, Infante Juan, being one of the principal movers and shakers in attempting to permanently oust Sancho’s son and replace him with his nephew. I am guessing there were many, many moments when Maria de Molina would come to deeply regret having stopped Sancho from murdering Juan in 1288. The king had the right on his side—Juan had been complicit in a plot against the king’s life’s—but Maria managed to convince Sancho to imprison Juan instead. Unfortunate that, and especially unfortunate to one of the men who plays a central role in The Castilian Pomegranate, Alonso Pérez de Guzmán.

Guzmán is one of Castile’s true heroes. He and his Malena would found the House of Medina and Sidonia, Spanish dukes that would serve their king in generation after generation. One such Duke of Sidonia was the admiral in charge of the Armada—a venture that did not exactly end well for him.

Where our Guzmán comes from has been up for debate. His race-conscious descendants in the 17th century made huge efforts to suppress the rumours that Guzmán had Moorish roots, but at the time of this story, many were the men of Castile who had a Moorish ancestor up their family tree. While he originally denounced Sancho’s usurpation, he would over time become one of Sancho’s and Maria’s most trusted men, a role which would pit him against Infante Juan on several occasions. Where England has the story of William Marshal, who as a child was paraded before the castle his father held against king Stephen with threats that he would be killed if John Marshal did not submit, in Spain it is Guzmán’s son who is dragged before the castle of Tarifa—by Infante Juan. In a desperate attempt to force Guzmán to surrender, Juan threatened to kill his son. Guzmán refused—as did John Marshal. The difference is that infante Juan did not hesitate to kill the boy before his father’s eyes, while we all know King Stephen spared William’s life.

All of that, fortunately, is still in the future when we meet Guzmán. For now, he can enjoy his wife and children—as can Sancho. For full transparency, I should probably add that Alonso is believed to have spent most of the 1280s in Morocco where he served Sultan of Fez and became very, very rich. But I have decided to have him back home for a while.

The pope really did call for a crusade against Aragon—or more specifically its excommunicated king, Pedro. And yes, the reason for this was Pedro’s successful invasion of Sicily. Pedro, of course, claimed Sicily was his—by rights of his wife, Manfred of Hohenstaufen’s surviving child. The pope supported the French Charles d’Anjou. Obviously, Philippe III of France was also somewhat miffed at having his uncle ousted from the Sicilian throne, hence his campaign into Aragon.

As described, the French first had to ride through Roussillon, where they encountered determined resistance headed by “the bastard of Roussillon”. We do not know this man’s name—but we do know his father was Nuño Sanchez, a distant cousin to the king of Aragon. We also know that he was forced to watch as all the inhabitants of Elne were herded into the cathedral and then burned to death. Supposedly, he was found among other captives after the battle of Col de Panissars, but then he sort of disappears. It has been an honour to give this anonymous hero a name—and a future.

Robert FitzStephan and Eleanor d’Outremer never existed. Neither did their various companions, even if I now and then hope that somehow a little boy of the House of Aberffraw was smuggled into safety and away from Edward I’s vindictive grasp. And no, as far as I know there has never been a jewel called the Castilian Pomegranate. Unfortunately!

Should you want more details about this fascinating period in Spanish history, I recommend a visit to my blog where you will find various posts about Maria de Molina, Alonso de Guzmán, the anonymous hero of Roussillon, the Aragonese Crusade, Sancho of Castile, Violante of Aragon, Jaime I, Fernando III and the invasion of Sicily.

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