Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Urraca of Castile and León: Empress of All the Spains

Urraca of Castile and León (succeeds to the throne, 1 July 1109)


Probably born about the year 1079, Urraca was the daughter of Alfonso VI of Castile and León. Alfonso's marital career was every bit as long and complicated as Henry VIII's--he had five wives (and three mistresses), but, thankfully, he didn't behead any of them.

Despite all his sexual liaisons, married or otherwise, he managed to have only one son, Sancho Alfónsez--though his eldest child was a daughter, Urraca. Unlike Henry, however, Alfonso didn't think women were incapable of rule.

Queen Urraca presiding at court
Sancho Alfónsez's mother was the king's mistress, Zaida of Seville; although the child was illegitimate, he was not the result of an adulterous relationship. (The king was between wives when he was involved with Zaida, so, according to religious definitions, he was a fornicator, not an adulterer. Just so you know.)

But when it came to an heir, clearly an illegitimate son trumped a legitimate daughter . . . The king formally recognized his son in 1102 and declared him to be his heir in 1107.

Even so, there was no question about Urraca's status. She was the daughter of Alfonso and his second wife, Constance of Burgundy. (Alfonso's first queen, Agnes of Aquitaine, died without giving birth to any children, but with the mistress who had followed her, Jimena Muñoz, Alfonso had two daughters--unlike Sancho Alfónsez, neither Elvira nor Theresa were named as heir to their father's throne). Before her death in 1093, Constance of Burgundy gave birth to five more children, but only Urraca survived infancy.

Urraca was married very young--as biographer Bernard Reilly notes, the "cumulative documentary evidence" suggests that she was "at most" eight years old at the time of her marriage. Given her significance in the succession, as her father's only legitimate child, she was married in 1086 to Count Raymond of Burgundy, her mother's great-nephew. (The date of the marriage isn't known, but in 1086 Raymond appears in documents as Alfonso's son-in-law.) While Reilly notes that canon law "sets the minimum age for marriage at twelve for women," he also adds that "the breach of canon law in the face of dire political necessity was hardly unknown"--and since Alfonso was busy in the Reconquista (Toledo fell in 1085, Zaragoza was under siege in 1086), Alfonso had a great "need" for the foreign assistance offered by strengthening his alliance with "a powerful southern French nexus."

The marriage was probably not consummated right away--or at least Reilly believes it was not, since Urraca was under the guardianship of a "powerful and trusted Leonese magnate" rather than her husband. The marriage may have been consummated in 1090, when the king's younger brother died, leaving him without a male heir, and certainly by the time Urraca was fifteen, because in 1095 she had given birth to her first child, a daughter named Sancha. A son, Alfonso, was born in 1105. Her husband Raymond died in 1107.

When Alfonso's son and heir, Sancho Alfónsez, died in 1108, the king turned to his eldest daughter, Urraca, as his successor. As the widow of Count Raymond of Burgundy, she had already succeeded her husband as ruler of his territories. In order to secure his daughter's succession in Castile and León as well, Alfonso VI arranged a second marriage for her, to Alfonso I of Aragon. 

Instead of a peaceful and profitable union, however, husband and wife went to war. After the death of her father in 1109, Urraca returned to Castile, where she ruled in her own right. In 1112, her marriage to Alfonso of Aragon was annulled. In 1116, she recognized her eleven-year-old son by her first marriage as her co-ruler and heir. Throughout the rest of her life, Urraca fought to maintain control of her kingdom. Only after her death in 1126, when her son became Alfonso VII, did Alfonso of Aragon end his fight for Castile and León. 

In assessing both Urraca and her reign, Bernard Reilly notes the "prevailing tendency" not only of the queen's contemporaries but also of modern historians to overlook the years of her rule "as a kind of interregnum to be discussed and dismissed as quickly as possible." But he notes the singular achievement of the woman he calls an "indomitable queen": "she was both a woman and the crowned head of a major western kingdom who ruled in her own right."

While ruling as queen, Urraca had two children with Pedro González de Lara. She died in childbirth in 1126.

The most complete account of Urraca, queen of Castile and León is Bernard F. Reilly's The Kingdom of León-Castilla under Queen Urraca, 1109-1129, from which I have quoted here.

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By the way, while Alfonso VI preferred an illegitimate son to Urraca, he was not unfamiliar with female rule--his daughter was named after his sister, Urraca, who had proven herself as a ruler. When Alfonso VI's father, Ferdinand I, died, he divided his kingdom among his children: he left  Castile to his older son, Sancho II, and León to Alfonso, but he also left  Urraca absolute sovereignty over the city of Zamora and the title of "queen," which she used all her life. Urraca ruled Zamora peacefully until war broke out between her brothers. After Sancho turned on Alfonso, defeating and exiling him, Urraca of Zamora went to war against Sancho, who died while besieging her. As a result, Alfonso not only regained León but gained Castile, becoming Alfonso VI, king of a once-more united Castile and León.

And don't worry about our Urraca's sisters, either. She had two "legitimate" sisters, daughters of Isabel of France (Alfonso's fourth wife). The elder, Sancha, married a Castilian nobleman, Rodrigo González de Lara, the younger, Elvira, married Richard II, king of Sicily. Two other half-sisters,  Jimena Muñoz's children, were also well married. Elvira married the count of Toulouse and then, after his death, a Castilian nobleman, Count Fernando Fernández de Carrión. The younger, Theresa, was a bit of a problem for Urraca--Theresa married the count of Portugal--she ultimately went to war with Urraca and invaded León. Sisters!!! But Theresa also went to war with her son . . .