Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Leonor Teles, "the Treacherous"

Leonor Teles, queen and regent of Portugal (married 5 May 1372)


History has not been kind to Leonor Teles. The nineteenth-century novelist Alexandre Herculano described her as "the Portuguese Lucretia Borgia," "a species of diabolic phantom, which appears wherever there is a deed of treachery, of blood, or of atrocity."

Leonor Teles, queen and regent,
from a family tree
of the kings of Portugal
(Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal)
The date of Leonor Teles's birth is not certain, but she was probably born about the year 1350, the daughter of Martim Afonso Telo de Meneses, a Portuguese nobleman, and Aldonça Anes de Vasconcelos, the daughter of João Mendes de Vasconcelos, alcalde (mayor) of Estremoz. 

By 1365, Leonor Teles had married João Lourenço da Cunha, lord of Pombeiro, with whom she had two children. But in 1371, while visiting her sister, Maria, at the Portuguese court, Leonor was introduced to the king, Fernando I--who promptly decided to marry her. 

That Leonor already had a husband proved to be no problem to the "weak, fickle" Fernando, "completely blinded by his folly." The husband was "easily convinced" to give up his wife and retire from the scene. Nor did Fernando let his own entanglements stop him--he had just signed a peace treaty with the king of Castile, promising to marry the king's daughter. 

Instead, ignoring the terms of the treaty of Alcoutim, Fernando married Leonor on 5 May 1372. Early in February of the next year, the new queen gave birth to a daughter, Beatriz. (Fernando would later attempt to ensure his daughter's legitimacy--and her ability to inherit his throne--by having Leonor's first marriage annulled.) In 1376, the Portuguese Cortes affirmed Beatriz as her father's heir. Two years later, in his will, Fernando disinherited his half-siblings, removing them from the line of succession. Leonor would give birth to a son in 1382 and another daughter in 1383, but neither survived.

After the marriage of her sister, Maria Teles, to João of Portugal, King Fernando's illegitimate half-brother, Leonor grew fearful of the couple. Despite the terms of Fernando's will, the popular João might claim the Portuguese throne in the case of Fernando's death. Conspiring with her brother, Leonor convinced João that Maria was unfaithful to him--the enraged and suspicious João stabbed Maria and fled the court. (While Leonor could never be forgiven for her perfidy, João was--he was soon reconciled with his half-brother, returned to court, and sought to amend his hopes to succeed to the Portuguese throne by marrying Beatriz . . . Eventually he realized his precarious position and retired to Castile.)

In addition to providing her husband with an heir--and securing her daughter's rights--Leonor assumed a role in government--a role that generated a great deal of discontent among the people. At the time of her marriage, Ferdinand granted her a large quantity of land, over which she exerted "supreme power," and with her husband, she played an influential role in politics and diplomacy, including the marriage of their daughter, Beatriz, to Juan I, king of Castile, on 17 May 1383. (Beatriz was ten, Juan was twenty-five years old, recently widowed, and the father of three children.)

The young Beatriz's marriage to the king of Castile would forestall any hope that João of Portugal might have of assuming the throne of Portugal. According to the terms of the marriage contract between Portugal and Castile, Leonor Teles was to assume the regency in the case of Fernando's death, maintaining the kingdom for her daughter. And so, when the Portuguese king died just months after his daughter's marriage, Leonor Teles became regent of Portugal, governing in the name of her daughter.

Immediately following Leonor's assumption of the regency, turmoil erupted. Among the many factions, one, fearing the power of Castile, pressured her to marry João of Aviz, the illegitimate son of Pedro I (and thus Ferdinand's half brother), who would assume the regency in her place, while another, principally the nobility supported the "pretensions" of the king of Castile. (Their opposition to Leonor seemed to be rooted in their view that a man widely believed to be her lover would become too powerful.) The peasants and merchants, meanwhile, fearful of the power of the Portuguese nobility and of the king of Castile, rose up in revolt.

Facing the prospect of losing control of Portugal and after the brutal assassination of her suspected lover, Leonor appealed to her son-in-law, the king of Castile, to come to her aid. According to a contemporary chronicler,
at the beginning of 1384, [the king of Castile] received a message from Leonor. . . . She asked him to come and so he did. . . . She gave him the fortresses of the town and renounced her rule in favor of the king, which according to the terms of his marriage contract, she had to hold until the king of Castile had a son with Beatri[z].
About Leonor's decision, the nineteenth-century historian Edward McMurdo makes this judgment:
But the desire of revenge dimmed her intelligence, otherwise so bright and penetrative, and she actually supposed that the King of Castille [sic] would undertake to avenge her injuries and return placidly to his own kingdom, leaving her in possession of the royal power. It was a line of thought perfectly inexcusable in a woman who on other occasions had manifested herself such a profound politician, but her whole dreams were now those of revenge. It was principally against Lisbon, whose inhabitants had so often affronted her, that she directed all her vials of bitter wrath.
The decision made, Leonor found that her son-in-law's assistance did not come without a cost: he asked that Leonor Teles renounce her regency, which she agreed to do. Juan of Castile immediately began referring to himself as João, por graça de deus, Rei de Castela, Leão, Portugal, Toledo e Galiza (John, by the grace of God, king of Castile, Leon, Portugal, Toledo, and Galicia)--no reference to the rights of his wife, Beatriz.

Although Leonor agreed to resign her regency, she soon regretted her decision and involved herself in a number of conspiracies, including one to assassinate Juan of Castile. Her plots did not succeed. Instead of regaining her throne, Leonor Telles was exiled from Portugal, sent to Tordesillas, and placed in the convent there. (Many royal women were imprisoned in the fortress of Tordesillas, with its "royal convent," useful for keeping "inconvenient" queens out of sight--Maria of Portugal, queen of Castile; Blanche of Bourbon, queen of Castile, and, most famously, Juana, queen of Castile and Léon, known forever as "la loca.")

Leonor never returned to Portugal. Her son-in-law could not force her to become a nun, but she remained in the Real Monasterio de Santa Clara de Tordesillas until his  death in 1390. 

Although she seems to have left the convent after King Juan's death, the last years of Leonor Telles's life are unclear--the year of her death is uncertain, and the place of her burial is unknown. She does not seem to have reconciled with her daughter.

Leonor's daughter Beatriz, titular queen of Portugal, died in 1420. Beatriz's legitimacy and right to the crown of Portugal seem to have been shadowed by the circumstances of her parents' marriage.

The funeral monument of Beatriz,
titular queen of Portugal,
 convento de Sancti Spiritus de Toro,
Zamora, Spain
Despite the pretensions of Juan of Castile, João of Aviz is regarded as the successor of Fernando, his reign as king of Portugal dated from 1385 until his death in 1433. (João of Aviz was another one of Fernando's illegitimate half brothers.)

There are many resources on the life and political role of Leonor Teles, but most of them are in Portuguese. A good place to start is with Isabel M. Garcia de Pina's Leonor Teles, uma mulher de poder? (There is a good introductory section in English.)

Dated but still useful (and in English!) is Edward McMurdo's History of Portugal from the Commencement of the Monarchy to the Reign of Alfonso III, which includes references to contemporary chronicle accounts of Leonor. 

For good measure, there's an extensive work on Beatriz that's also available online--César Olivera Serrano's Beatriz de Portugal, la pugna dinástica Avís-Trastámara






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