Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, September 14, 2020

María of Castile, the Queen-Lieutenant

 María of Castile, queen and regent of Aragon (born 14 September 1401)


The kneeling figure of María of Castile,
Queen and lieutenant-governor of Aragón,
from a fifteenth-century illustration of
the queen at worship
The first-born child of Enrique III of Castile and Catherine of Lancaster, María of Castile was born on 14 September 1401 in Segovia.*

At the time of her birth, she was named princesa de Asturias, the title given to the Castilian king's eldest child--on 6 January 1402, the Cortes of Toledo recognized María as the primogénita al trono, the legitimate heir to the throne of Castile. Although her brother, Juan, would replace her as heir presumptive when he was born in 1405, she was nevertheless educated to rule--her mother, Catherine of Lancaster--or Catalina--had served her first regency in Castile from 1390 to 1393.**

After the death of the Enrique III in 1406, Catherine of Lancaster again assumed the regency, this time for her son, Juan. As Theresa Earenfight notes, "During Catalina's second regency María was able to observe firsthand a queen regent whose actions in the political realm influenced the young princess's own notions of the duties, responsibilities, rights, and prerogatives of a queen."

On 12 June 1415, a complicated series of marriages took place in Valencia--María of Castile was married to Alfonso of Aragón (her first cousin--Alfonso's father, Fernando I of Aragón, was Maria's uncle, her father's brother); her brother Juan, king of Castile, married Alfonso's sister, María of Aragón; and her sister, Catalina, married Alfonso's brother, Enrique of Aragón. As a result of this triple alliance,  as Earenfight observes, "f]amily squabbles, and there were many," would become "international incidents."

Less than a year after María was married, King Fernando died, and Alfonso became king of Aragón. Newly arrived a the court of Aragón, María had not had a long apprenticeship in Aragonese queenship, and she seems to have been overshadowed by the king's mother, Leonor of Albuquerque. Further complicating matters, María had not yet reached puberty at the time of her marriage, which was not consummated until she was sixteen, two years after the elaborate ceremonies of the triple alliance. She would bear her husband no heirs--whether because of her own chronic ill health or his lengthy absences from the kingdom, engaged in endless warfare. (Alfonso would father three children by two of his many mistresses.)

In 1420, when he left Aragón to pursue the crown of Sicily, Alfonso put the kingdom into María's hands. She was named not as queen-regent but as lieutenant-governor: 
In the privilegios that named María lieutenant, Alfonso clearly stated that her powers as lieutenant should be equivalent to his own as king, referring to her as his alter nos. . . . She held the highest political office in . . . Alfonso's Iberian realms and, in political terms, was second only to the king himself.
Although she may have been "weak in body and constantly attacked by illness," María of Castile, queen of Aragón  (and eventually queen consort of Sicily), was a woman remarkable for "the energy and constancy with which she pursued her goals."

María of Castile governed Aragón from 1420 until 1423, when her husband returned from his military campaign in Italy. The king of Aragón managed to spend nearly ten years in his kingdom, but in 1432 he left once again, intent on conquering Naples.*** On this occasion, he intended to leave behind Juan of Navarre as his lieutenant-governor--it was the Cortes that requested María of Castile resume her previous role. 

Alfonso of Aragón never returned to his Spanish kingdom--in 1453, he finally succeeded in gaining the crown of Naples. He remained in Italy until his death on 27 June 1458. (Evidently he was planning to conquer Genoa at the time of his death.)

In the mean time, after governing the kingdom of Aragón for more than twenty years, María of Castile had returned to Castile in 1454, after the death of her brother, Juan, to negotiate with his successor, her nephew, Enrique IV, on behalf of her husband. 

There she stayed in the royal household of Arevelo--a literal "city of ladies," where she joined her niece, Isabella of Castile, and Isabella's mother, the Isabel of Portugal, dowager queen of Castile. 

María of Castile, queen and lieutenant-governor of Aragón, died at Arevelo on 7 September 1458. 

For the most extended study of the biography and politics of María of Castile, see Theresa Earenfight's The King's Other Body: María of Castile and the Crown of Aragon, quoted above. 

*This post has been adapted and expanded from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).

**Catherine--or Catalina--of Lancaster had her own claim to the throne of Castile--she was the daughter of the English duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt, and of Cosntanza of Castile, daughter and heir of Pedro of Castile and León. When Catherine of Lancaster was married to Enrique in 1388, she was sixteen and he was just nine--when Juan I of Castile died in 1390, the eighteen-year-old Catherine, now queen, became regent for Enrique, who was just eleven. According to Theresa Earefight, "it proved to be a difficult minority and eventful regency, punctuated by struggles within the regency council itself and opposition from the powerful Castilian nobility and clergy." No doubt!

***Alfonso was just one of the many powerful men hoping to gain the favor of Joanna II of Naples and succeed to the crown of her kingdom.

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