Handbag Mystery Hour – The Death of Garcia Sanchez, Count of Castile

Hofdame Note: We have a series of mysteries for the rest of this week while things are quiet. Tomorrow we have a fashion mystery, and Friday, we have a little jewel mystery. Today, however, we have a genuine murder mystery, courtesy of our Baguette Iselen. Enjoy!

Since it’s summer and our royals are quiet, let’s play a game. Hofdames and Hofdudes will be the judges, and Baguettes will be members of the jury. I’ll play the prosecutor’s role, but remember that most evidence will be circumstantial since this crime was committed almost a thousand years ago. And yet, I think I’ll be able to build a good case against the main accused!

Two Questions

Your Honours, ladies, and gentlemen of the jury, these are the two questions I’ll ask you to answer at the end of the trial:

  • Who killed the young Count of Castile, Garcia Sanchez, on the morning of his wedding, May the 13th, the year of our Lord, 1029?
  • Was his Great-Aunt Urraca murdered too?

The Lay of the Land

By the middle of the 10th century, the Spanish peninsula was divided in two halves by the river Duero. The Caliphate of Cordoba in the south was ruled by the King’s chancellor, Almanzor, a very smart and powerful leader who became the nightmare of the Christian army.

North of the river was the old kingdom of Asturias and Leon. It grew bigger with the conquest of Galicia, Portugal and Castile. It grew so large new kingdoms were founded on the northeast corner: Navarra, Ribagorza (which will become Aragon), and the County of Barcelona (a vassal of France).

Castile was in the middle of this messy map. It was not a good position since the Calipha had a handful of mighty castles watching the border constantly, and their army attacked Castile every summer.

Wikimedia Commons

The House of Lara said, “We’ll take the job of running Castile,” The King of Leon was happy to grant them the privilege. The Lara family was old and powerful, full of smart women and talented warriors, and three of the most respected heroes of Spain were born in Burgos, the capital of Castile. They were Fernan Gonzalez (910-970), his son Garcia Fernandez (938-995), and his grandson Sancho Garcia (965-1017), And they couldn’t be more different.

Family Tree

There are lots of duplicate and similar names in this story. Here is a family tree to refer to if it gets confusing! Our major players – the victims and the suspect – are in red.

The Counts of Castile

Fernan Gonzalez was named Count of Castile when he was 18 years old. He was the main character in every epic battle of his time and in every court machination. He was Machiavellian centuries before Machiavelli was born! He got married to two Navarra princesses, arranged marriages for his daughters with princes and nobles of Leon, made deals with the Calipha, and ended up in jail twice for treason. However, he rose again and led his county to victory. He established Castile as an autonomous state, allowing his family to inherit the country’s leadership.

Garcia Fernandez, his son, was totally different. An idealist hero, very religious, and devoted to the fight against the Caliphate till the last consequences. A warrior’s honour is measured by the way his enemies treat him: when Garcia died in battle, Almanzor himself wrapped his body up in a gold cloth and cried, put him in a fancy coffin, and commanded his own guards to escort the body back to Castile. Count Garcia also made the ultimate sacrifice a medieval father can make: he gave his daughter Urraca to God, so the girl could spend her life praying for Castile and his parents’ souls.

Urraca was 10 years old when she became a nun. Her father created the Infantazgo of Covarrubias for her, a feudal state that kings or counts established for their daughters as a dowry. Urraca’s Infantazgo was the biggest, wealthiest, most amazing state: it contained churches, monasteries, farmland, forests, little villages, servants, markets, gold vases, and fancy fabrics. Urraca became the most powerful abbess in Europe. Not even the king or her father could tell her what to do, only the Pope, but Rome – conveniently – was too far away to interfere. For many years, Urraca will be a power to be reckoned with in Spain. She’ll be our second victim.

Count Sancho Garcia was a pragmatist, a perfect mix of his grandfather and father’s personalities. He made deals with his enemies, bringing peace to Castile so the economic situation improved and people thrived. He is not an epic hero like his father but also loved and respected. He had a son, García Sanchez, our first victim.

Garcia Sanchez became the new Count of Castile after his father’s death. He was still a child and his great-aunt Urraca became the regent. She loved the little boy and wanted the best for him, so she arranged a good marriage. The king of Leon, Bermudo III, had no children and his heiress was his sister, Infanta Sancha. Garcia and Sancha knew each other well. Both were young, frequently visited each other, and had friends and cousins in common. They were happy with this deal. But something went terribly wrong because there was one person who wasn’t happy! He was the King of Navarra.

Sancha of Leon

The Ambitious King of Navarra

King Sancho Garces III of Navarra had a problem. His kingdom, Navarra, was small and tucked in the corner of Spain. It couldn’t grow to the south because there was Castile, or to the east, because there was Ribagorza, or north because there was France. King Sancho of Navarra understood that he couldn’t become more powerful through war and decided that treason and machinations were the best way.

The King of Navarra was married to Queen Muniadona, the older sister of the young Garcia Sanchez. She had a very strong claim on Castile herself. Even with the family connection, King Sancho had no qualms about getting rid of Garcia Sanchez. This 20-year-old boy was the only thing that stood between his son, Prince Fernando of Navarra, and the County of Castile.

Death of Garcia Sanchez, Count of Castile

It’s morning, 13 May 1029. It’s a sunny spring day in Leon; the old Roman walls and some fancy buildings like the baths still stood and had become the royal palace and the main church. Red and gold banners with lions rampant flutter in the wind; Leonese Hofdames, Hofdudes, and Baguettes are waiting excitedly in their balconies, embellished with colorful flowers and fabrics.

Roman wall in Leon

It’s a big party! There are thousands of people on the streets, cheering noble lords and ladies that ride their horses wearing their fanciest clothes towards the church. Baguettes are talking about the bride standing on top of the stairs, in front of the door. She’s visible to all because people used to get married outside so the entire city could be witnesses. The bride wears an embroidered linen shirt, a one-shoulder tunic made of gold thread from Cordoba, and a cloak lined with fur, and tooled leather boots.

The groom gets closer to the city gate, escorted by his uncle, King Sancho of Navarre, and other Castile nobles. As they draw near, King Sancho drops back and indicates his nephew should go on alone. The young count flicks the reins and waves at the Baguettes cheering him. They are talking about his silk tunic, a garment suitable to ride a horse but fancier, embroidered in gold that matches the horse harness. He’s a handsome guy, and the bride smiles happily when he reaches the stairs and jumps to the ground.

San Isidoro of Leon church, where Sancha was supposed to get married to Garcia. Years later she founded the pantheon with her husband Fernando and almost all medieval Leon and Castile kings are buried here. The Romanesque paintings are considered the Sistine Chapel of the Middle Ages

Suddenly, three men appear and stab the young count to death, running away and vanishing in Leon’s winding streets before Castilian nobles can even react. Count Garcia dies in the arms of princess Sancha, bleeding on her golden clothes while Baguettes watch them horrified, and the House of Lara dies with him.

“It must’ve been the Vela family,” King Sancho says. “They hate the Counts of Castile because of an old feud.”

Everybody looks at him confused and shakes their heads. “No, we’ve all seen the men responsible for this murder, they were Muño Gustioz, Gonzalo Muñoz, and Muño Rodríguez, and they happen to be your servants.”

“I’m in shock,” the King pretends to be surprised. “I knew nothing about this, but I’ll catch them and throw them in jail.”

The Aftermath

He never did. The three killers escaped to the Kingdom of Zaragoza, an ally of Navarra. The King of Navarra claimed to be too busy to chase them because his son Fernando was the new Count of Castile. Machiavellian King Sancho forced Bermudo to arrange a new marriage between Princess Sancha and his son, Fernando.

Yes, the young lady married the son of the man who probably murdered the other boy she loved! It’s a bittersweet story because they were a great couple, actually respectful to each other and very productive. They had five children and ruled over Castile and Leon justly. They were both intelligent and educated, and the kingdom was respected all over Europe thanks to them.

Fernando and Sancha made this amazing Romanesque ivory cross too.

As for the murderers, they were safe in Zaragoza until they came back years later. King Sancho gave them important positions in his court, and Gonzalo Muñoz became a rich man.

Death of Infante Urraca of Castile

King Sancho Garces III of Navarra was happy with the situation, but Aunt Urraca was not. She was around 70 years old but still powerful and incredibly wealthy. She wrote letters to the Pope, asking him to excommunicate everyone involved in the death of her nephew. She demanded King Sancho send the perpetrators to her monastery so she could punish them. She blocked trade relations between her massive state and Navarra.

For almost 10 years, she was a pest and got on Sancho’s nerves till he couldn’t bear it anymore and sent his wife, Urraca’s grand-niece, to talk some sense in the old lady’s head. But Muniadona wasn’t welcome at her aunt’s house, and Urraca accused her of betraying her family to help her ambitious husband.

A few days later, Infanta Urraca of Castile became suddenly ill. Modern doctors say that her symptoms match an appendicitis attack, but they also match belladonna poisoning. She died, and her fabulous wealth was inherited by her niece, Muniadona, the Queen of Navarra. The Infantazgo of Covarrubias was dissolved, and Fernando became the undisputed Count of Castile.

I know this is very circumstantial evidence because Urraca was an old lady, but there is no denying that all the problems of King Sancho of Navarra were solved when she died.

Was this murder?

Your Honours and ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it’s time to answer the questions.

  • Did King Sancho Garces III of Navarra kill his wife’s nephew? He refused to escort him on his wedding day, protected the murderers, and even rewarded them generously. He tried to shift suspicion away from them accusing Vela family.
  • Did he kill the annoying old lady who was seeking revenge for her family?

What is your verdict?


Let us know what led you to your conclusion!