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From princess to queen to countess – meet Richeza

Today, dear peeps, we are going back to medieval times and to one of my favourite locations, Castile. Now, Castile in medieval times was a pretty harsh place, a country constantly at war against the Moors in a  determined effort to oust the infidel from the Iberian peninsula.

The kings of Castile were mostly out and about with a sword in hand, while their queens had to handle the more practical aspects of ruling—primarily, I imagine, ensuring their hubby and his men were armed, horsed and fed so that they could carry on their fight.

Agnes, in a much later document

Today’s protagonist is one Richeza of Poland, and this young lady had important dynastic ties to the Dukes of Swabia and the Hohenstaufens. Her mother, Agnes of Babenberg, comes across as an ambitious and determined woman, having encouraged her husband, Wladislaw, to ignore his father’s wishes and deprive his younger brothers of the dukedoms granted them in their fathers’ will. According to Agnes, Wladislaw as the eldest son was entitled to rule all of Poland on his own. Turns out the Polish people did not agree, especially not after Wladislaw condemned one of the higher ranking Polish nobles to be blinded, muted and sent into exile—all for supporting Wladislaw’s younger brothers.

Richeza was born in Poland, but once the Polish had had enough of her parents, the family was forced to flee, ending up at the court of Agnes’ half-brother, Conrad III. Conrad III was a major power in 12th century Europe, and Agnes managed to persuade Conrad III to attack Poland to reinstate Wladislaw. The campaign failed, Conrad was dissuaded by others to pursue further attempts, and while Agnes never stopped hoping, neither she nor her husband would ever return to Poland.

At the time of her parent’s deposition, Richeza was about six. And despite being very busy attempting to find a way to regain their lands, her parents took the time to arrange an adequate marriage for their baby girl. Little Richeza was betrothed to Alfonso VII of Castile, a.k.a. the Emperor. This was a title he effectively gave himself, based on all the lands left to him by his powerhouse of a mother, Urraca.

Alfonso VII

Alfonso was king of Galicia, León and Castile—initially, the latter title was not worth much as another Alfonso, Alfonso the Battler of Aragón, had more or less swept into Castile and taken over. But our Alfonso was determined and managed to push his older namesake out of his hereditary lands. He was also the ruler of Toledo, a Muslim taifa state. By all accounts, Alfonso was well-educated and had a genuine interest in culture. Most of his time and energy was focussed on the political and military challenges facing him, and his choice of first wife, Berenguela of Barcelona, gave him an important ally in Ramón Berenger III, Count of Barcelona and Provence (through his wife). Berenguela gave Alfonso seven children and died around 1149, when our Richeza was nine or so.

While Alfonso didn’t need more children—he had two healthy sons from his first marriage, and one of the daughters of this marriage was destined to become queen of France after Louis VII annulled his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine—he saw obvious benefits in marrying into the Hohenstaufen family. And so, at the age of twelve or so, Richeza was sent to Castile.

I always wonder how it felt for these young high-born women who were dispatched all over the place to honour the various alliances entered into by their fathers. Danish girls ended up in France—and the story of Ingeborg and Philippe Augustus is very depressing—Byzantine princesses were carried off all over the place, French girls ended up Sweden, etc etc. Most of them were very young when they were sent off to make a new life with a man they had often never met before.

Obviously, they’d been prepared for this. Since birth, they’d been made aware of their role in the family—to help strengthen it through alliances. But still: at the moment of send off, it must have been hard.

In 1152, the twelve-year-old bride (assuming her recorded birth year is correct. Not always the case) wed Alfonso, who was at least three decades older. A year later, she gave birth to a son, Fernando. Interesting, that, how the king chose to name this baby Fernando when he already had a much older son named Fernando. Can’t have been entirely popular. . . Also interesting is that Richeza would have been thirteen when she gave birth to the boy. This seems very young—while marriages were contracted with young girls, usually the recommendation was to hold off from consummation until they were old enough to cope. Once again, I am prone to suspect Richeza may have been born before 1140. There is also a substantial age gap between her and her closest older brother—nine years—which may indicate this is the case. Alternatively, Agnes suffered miscarriages, which was not unusual.

We will, of course, never know how old Richeza really was, but I am crossing my fingers and hoping she was at least fifteen.

In 1155, Richeza was delivered of a girl named Sancha. Yet again, Alfonso gave a child by his second wife the same name as one of his daughters by his first wife. Must have been a tad confusing! However, by the time Sancha Jr was born, Sancha Sr was already married to Sancho of Navarra (Yes, I know: Alfonso, Sancho, Sancha, Fernando—those long-ago peeps were distinctly uncreative when naming their children) In the fullness of time, Sancha Sr’s daughter, Berengaria, would marry Richard Lionheart of England.

(As an aside, another of Alfonso VII’s grandchildren, Alfonso VIII, would marry Richard’s sister, Eleanor. Neither here nor there in this post, but still . . .)

Back to Richeza, now the happy (?) mother of two. Not for long though, as her little Fernando seems to have died before 1157 when Alfonso VII himself died fighting the Moors. Suddenly, Richeza was a young widow, several years younger than her step-sons, Sancho and Fernando. Alfonso had chosen to split his lands between his two surviving sons: Fernando got León while the eldest, Sancho, got Castile.

Richeza’s relationship with her step-sons became somewhat fraught when Sancho declared war on Ramón Berenguer IV Count of Barcelona, his first cousin on his mother’s side. More importantly—from Richeza’s perspective—was that Ramón was the father of the future Alfonso II of Aragon, to whom her little daughter, Sancha, was betrothed. Things became even more tense when Fernando sided with the pope against Richeza’s cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick Barbarossa.

One of the movers and shakers in Richeza’s life: Barbarossa

In 1158, Richeza therefore chose to leave Castile and go to Barcelona with her daughter. There she met Ramón Berenguer II, Count of Provence. He was the nephew of his namesake the Count of Barcelona and was just some years older than Richeza. Now, I would have loved to share a romantic little story in which Ramón and Richeza saw each other, made cow’s eyes at each other, wandered around carving their initials on trees before enclosing them with a heart, but nope, there was no romance. What there was, was practicality. If Ramón married Richeza he could count on Fredrick Barbarossa’s support in his own conflicts, while Fredrick would—or so he hoped—separate the Berenguer dynasty from France’s influence. Barbarossa and Louis VII were not exactly best buddies.

Richeza married Ramón in 1161. She was in her twenties, still young and evidently fertile, as proven by the birth of a daughter, Douce, in 1162. But in 1166, Ramón died, and our young widow yet again became a potential pawn in the complicated alliance game played by Barbarossa and his contemporaries.

Before he died, Ramón had arranged for his little daughter to wed Raymond, future count of Toulouse and son of . . . yup, you’ve guessed it. . . another Raymond. The moment Ramón expired, Raymond V,  Count of Toulouse, rushed to Provence, determined to ensure the marriage would be honoured. If it was, Raymond Jr’s lands would increase significantly, but on the other side of the Pyrenees, the young Alfonso of Aragon said “no way”! Provence belonged to the Berenguer family—had done so since times immemorial. Well, no: only since Alfonso’s paternal grandmother, Douce of Provence, had married his grandfather, but still.

To strengthen his position, Raymond of Toulouse proposed a marriage between himself and Richeza. Thereby, they could together raise the future happy couple Douce and Raymond Jr. What Richeza thought of all this we do not know, but in the event, there was no marriage. Instead, there was war between Alfonso and Raymond V, and the outcome was that Alfonso had no problems with baby Douce marrying young Raymond Jr, but Provence would remain under his control. Full stop.

Instead, Barbarossa arranged a wedding between Richeza and the Count of Eberstein, one of his more loyal allies in his conflicts with the Guelphs. (Simply put: Guelphs supported the Pope, Ghibellines supported the Holy Roman Emperor in constant conflicts in Italy) And so  Richeza was dispatched to Germany, her baby daughter was sent to live with her paternal grandmother, and just like that, Richeza drops off the central stage. The young girl sent off to become a queen had done her part: through the alliance between Richeza and Alfonso VII, and perhaps more particularly through the marriage of her daughter Sancha to Alfonso II of Aragon, permanent ties had been wrought between the Hohenstaufen dynasty and the Iberian kingdom—especially Aragon.

In the fullness of time, those ties would lead to an Aragonese king, Pedro III, wedding a Hohenstaufen wife, Constanza of Sicily, which in turn would lead to the Sicilian Vespers and the Aragonese Crusade. But all that lay way, way in the future that day when Richeza waved goodbye to her daughters and set off for Germany, there to make a new life with Albert of Eberstein.

Was it a good life? We do not know. What we do know is that she had a least two more sons and that she lived approximately twenty years more before dying well before her fiftieth birthday. By then, little Douce had been dead for over a decade—she never made it to a wedding—and her older daughter, Sancha was Queen of Aragon since years back. I fear Richeza had by then faded to be a shadowy memory, no more, for her daughter. They may have corresponded, but Sancha had been a child when last she saw her mother and other women had played a far more important role in shaping her into the woman she became.

A Polish princess was once dispatched to wed a king. He died, she was dispatched to wed a count, He died, and she was wed yet again, to a somewhat more obscure count. All those weddings were arranged by others. I can’t say I envy her–but then I rarely envy medieval peeps, fully aware of how lucky I am to be living in the here and now!

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