Hofdame Note: Thank you to our Spanish Baguette Iselen for this fascinating Pocket Profile. Hang on for a tale of an extraordinary woman who overcame endless obstacles to become (and stay!) Queen of Castile. Bonus – learn about the “Curse of the Castile Kings.”
María Alfonso Téllez of Meneses was born in a noble family: her father, the Lord of Molina, was Infante of Castile. María’s grandparents were King Alfonso IX of León and Queen Berengaria of Castile. She was the great-granddaughter of Queen Eleanor of England and great-great-granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine. María was beautiful, educated, smart, and had a strong personality. She grew up to become an extraordinary lady because it ran in the family!
She was the most eligible bachelorette of the kingdom when she caught the eye of her first cousin-once-removed, Infante Sancho, the second son of King Alfonso X of Castile. They were married in 1282, when she was 17, although the matrimonial dispensation for kinship was not previously granted. That was a problem, of course, because their children wouldn’t be considered legitimate. Sancho persevered because he was in love and admired his wife’s intelligence and character. Maria never felt intimidated by other nobles and churchmen and stood firm despite criticism.
This marriage did not please Sancho’s father, King Alfonso X, known as “Alfonso the Wise.” Although he was wise in matters of state, family issues were entirely different. Alfonso was a prolific author, writing poetry and treatises on music, chess, and astrology. He sponsored the work of historians, was open-minded, and developed a cosmopolitan court where Jews, Muslims, and Christians worked together to encourage learning. As a lawmaker, he introduced the first vernacular law code in Castile. He sounds like a great king! However, he was a mess as a father and an unfaithful husband. His offspring embroiled the country in civil war; fighting between them continued nonstop, and their feud continued for generations.
The heir of the throne, Fernando, died in 1275. His younger brother Sancho claimed to be the new heir because that was the old Castilian custom. But Alfonso X preferred Fernando’s little sons and tried to change the law to proclaim them his heirs. Sancho had the support of the nobility because he was a grown man and a soldier. Alfonso X was getting old, and they didn’t want an underage future king or regency since it always leads to fights among ambitious nobles. Little did they know that it was about to happen… twice.
Alfonso X accepted Sancho as his heir under the pressure from the aristocracy. The old King died in 1284, leaving a country at war. María of Molina became queen and had to rule the kingdom while her husband was fighting his other brothers and nobles who supported his little nephews. They had seven children, including Isabel, who will be Duchess of Bretagne; Beatriz, the queen of Portugal; Fernando IV, who will be king of Castile; and Pedro and Felipe, who will be great lords in the realm. Unfortunately, Sancho died in 1295, and María became regent for her son Fernando, who was 10 years old.
The queen mother was challenged by a coalition that included her son’s uncles and cousins, nobles and kings of Portugal and Aragón. Everybody wanted a piece of the pie and control over the little boy. Through marriage alliances, gifts of territories, and shrewd politics, María was able to protect the crown: she built her own coalition, relying on the Castilian Parliament to confirm her authority while the civil war continued for several years. María’s victory for her son seemed sealed in 1301, when she finally received a papal bull from Pope Boniface VIII, legitimizing her marriage and her children. Fernando was proclaimed king that year. He married Princess Constance of Portugal. They had three children, one of whom will be Alfonso XI, King of Castile.
María decided that it was about time to retire and spend the rest of her life in a nunnery. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. King Fernando IV died on a battlefield in 1312. He was only 27 years old, and his baby Alfonso was only one year old. The now grandmother queen was regent again. Civil war broke out because the great-uncles, brothers of Sancho IV, wanted to rule the country in baby Alfonso’s name. But there were new players in this story. Pedro and Felipe, Maria’s younger sons, also wanted to control their little nephew’s education and were not always on their mother’s side.
The queen was supported by the bourgeoisie, who were free men living in cities that thrived under the leadership of a strong monarch. In fact, baby Alfonso was in one of these cities, Avila, when a nobleman tried to kidnap him! The citizens stopped him and refused to let the uncles of the baby set foot in the city till they reached an agreement concerning the regency.
In the end, they made a deal forced by the parliament: the uncles and great-uncles of the king would be in charge of the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom within their domains, and Queen María would be in charge of raising Alfonso. It was not perfect, and they still fought sometimes, but it worked because the chancellery and the seal of the king were wherever Alfonso was. That means the very clever María had the last word in the affairs since she had the ultimate seal of approval. The bourgeoisie was still monitoring the royal’s movements closely.
Things changed again in 1320. Two of the regents died, and the others tried to take advantage of it, fighting again. This was a real war, not only nobles yelling at each other at court. María was 56 years old, tired, and sick. She asked for the Pope’s help and restored a fragile peace. Alfonso was already 10 years old, and the queen took him to the city of Valladolid, where she begged the municipal council to protect his grandson from the greedy nobles.
María of Molina died on 1 July 1321. The cities of Castile tried to honor the queen’s last wish. They protected Alfonso’s interests the best they could for four years till he was declared of age in 1325. Yes, he was only 14 years old but had learned from the wisest woman. He became a young man committed to justice who strengthened the power of the crown and controlled the rebellious nobles.
Shades of his great-grandfather, Alfonso “the Wise,” this Alfonso was also a mess of a father and husband. His offspring fought a civil war again! That’s the curse of most Castile kings, I’m afraid.