Christine de Pizan

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Friday, September 17, 2021

Catherine of Lancaster, Queen and Regent of Castile and León

Catherine of Lancaster, queen and regent of Castile and León (married 17 September 1388)

Catherine of Lancaster, born on 31 March 1373, was the daughter of one of the great English princes, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster. (The son of Edward III, Gaunt was also the father of Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV of England.) 

Catherine of Lancaster
queen of Castile

Gaunt married three times--Catherine was the only surviving child by his second wife, Constanza, or Constance, of Castile, whom he married in 1371. (The couple's second child, a son, was born in 1374 and died in 1375.) 

Constance was a claimant to the throne of Castile, the daughter of Pedro, king of Castile and León from 1350 to 1369, and Maria of Padilla (Pedro's mistress). After Constance's marriage to Gaunt, he claimed the title of king of Castile and León in right of his wife. Catherine was reared as the future heir to her mother's kingdom--in a document from 1381, she was referred to as "Catherine of Spain."

Despite his aspirations and claims, however, Gaunt was never successful in achieving the throne of Castile and León. After his marriage, he set up a kind of government-in-exile (he was in England at this point), and he planned several military expeditions to make good his claims. He was finally able to launch an invasion in 1387 with the assistance of João I of Portugal. (In order to consolidate their alliance, the Portuguese king married Philippa of Lancaster, John of Gaunt's daughter by his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster.)

But after the failure of his military venture, Gaunt negotiated a treaty with Juan I, king of Castile, sealing their agreement with the another marriage: Enrique, heir to his father's throne, was to marry Catherine of Lancaster, daughter of Constance of Castile and Gaunt. As part of the terms of the agreement, Catherine's mother renounced any claim to the throne of Castile and León, receiving a sizable financial compensation, while Catherine was to receive, as her dower, a number of cities, including Guadalajara, Olmeda, and Medino del Campo. 

The fifteen-year-old Catherine agreed to the terms of the contract in August of 1388 and married the nine-year-old Enrique a month later, on 17 September, at the cathedral of San Antolin in Palencia. The couple were given the titles of prince and princess of Asturias.

Little is known of Catherine's life immediately after her marriage, which was not yet consummated because of Enrique's age. The couple experienced a sudden change in their lives when King Juan I died just two years later, in 1390--Enrique, still a minor, suddenly became king. The regency period was a difficult one, with various factions and families struggling for power and control. As Isabel Pastor Bodmer notes in her biographical essay about Catherine of Lancaster, the young and powerless queen of Castile and León was only a spectator to all the conflict--but, in Bodmer's view, the dissension "undoubtedly" influenced Catherine's actions much later, after the death of Enrique, when she would act on behalf of her son, Juan II, who would, like his father, become king when he was still a boy. But that was some years in the future. 

The troubled regency did not last as long as might have been expected. In 1393, when he was just fourteen years old, Enrique was declared of legal age, and he began his personal rule. At the same time, his marriage with Catherine was consummated. During the years that followed, Catherine dutifully performed her role as queen, traveling with her husband through his kingdom and on official business, working to strengthen ties and loyalties with members of her husband's family and her own, and supporting numerous religious establishments and institutions. One queenly duty she did not accomplish, however, was producing a son and heir.

Contemporary chroniclers attributed this failure to Catherine--her lack of temperance (and love of food) was obviously the cause of "her" failure to conceive. Her husband's physical weakness--the result of his persistent illness, most likely tuberculosis, which began when he was about seventeen--was never to blame.

Queen Catherine, King Enrique,
and their two eldest children,
Maria and Catherine,
from the sixteenth-century
Liber genealogiae regum Hispanie
At last, in 1401, Catherine gave birth to a child, a daughter, named María. She was followed by a second daughter, Catalina (c. 1403), and, at long last, a son, Juan, on 6 March 1405. On Christmas Day the following year, 25 December 1406, Enrique III died, just twenty-seven years old.

Before his death, King Enrique had acted to ensure the succession of his son, arranging a co-regency for Juan, not quite two years old. Enrique's brother, Ferdinand of Aragon (who had been Enrique's heir before the birth of María), was to share the regency with Queen Catherine. Although Ferdinand was expected to be the more powerful, Catherine negotiated for her son to remain in her control, eventually succeeding in her fight for custody.

Despite the efforts of Enrique to avoid problems, the first period of Catherine's regency was filled with conflict and struggle. Catherine was accused of paying too much heed to the advice of her female favorites, who were quickly removed from her court by a regency council. Meanwhile Ferdinand, anxious to establish himself, went to war against the Muslims in Grenada. (Both Catherine and Ferdinand were anxious to suppress the Moors and the Jews living in Christian Spain.)

Catherine of Lancaster,
as queen, detail from 
Liber genealogiae regum Hispanie
Tensions between the two regents and their supporters eventually resulted in the regency council splitting the kingdom, with Catherine controlling the northern parts of Castile and León and Ferdinand the south. When Ferdinand succeeded to the throne of Aragon in 1412, many hoped he would resign his role as regent for his nephew, but that did not happen. 

But with Ferdinand's death in 1416 (he was just thirty-five years old), Catherine began a second regency, this one strengthened by her own supporters. 

She did not live to see her son reach his majority, however--she died of a stroke at the age of forty-five in Vallodolid on 2 June 1418. She is buried in the Capilla de los reyes nuovos, la catedral de Toledo (Chapel of the New Kings, Cathedral of Toledo).

Catherine of Lancaster's tomb,
Cathedral of Toledo

There is no biography of Catherine of Lancaster in English, but if you read Spanish, there is Ana Echevarria's Catalina of Lancaster: Reina Regente De Castilla 1372-1418 (unfortunately, it is very expensive). In her biographical essay, Bodmer provides an ample bibliography, including one work on Ferdinand's regency, but most of the details about Catherine's life are gleaned from general histories. 

In addition to Bodmer's essay, Anthony Goodman's "Katherine of Lancaster" is in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, if you have access. Ana Echevarria's "Catalina of Lancaster, the Castilian Monarchy and Coexistence" is in Roger Collins and Anthony Goodman's Medieval Spain: Culture, Conflict and Coexistence.