The Mechanics of Monarchy: Knighting Castile's King, 1332

By Linehan, Peter | History Today, March 1993 | Go to article overview

The Mechanics of Monarchy: Knighting Castile's King, 1332


Linehan, Peter, History Today


Kings knight knights, but who knights kings? Peter Linehan looks at how Alfonso XI got round the problem and in the process strengthened his hold on his kingdom.

At the Cortes of Valladolid in August 1325, the fifteen-year-old Alfonso XI of Castile dismissed his tutors and assumed control of his kingdom's affairs. The act of self-assertion of one of medieval Spain's arguably more remarkable and certainly least well-known monarchs iniated a twenty-five-year period within which scholars have recently been intent on locating the beginnings of the Modern State. The first seven years of Alfonso XI's personal rule culminated in a ceremonial event which was without precedent in peninsular history and without parallel in contemporary Europe.

Fifty years earlier the kingdom of Castile had stood poised to assume a commanding role in the Christian West. In 1275 el rey Sabio Alfonso X, the founding father of Spanish historiography and the real wonder of the thirteenth-century world, had travelled to meet Pope Gregory X at Beaucaire in the expectation of returning in triumph as Western emperor. Instead, having been rebuffed there, he came back to Castile crestfallen, and at that point his control of his own kingdom's affairs began to disintegrate and his reign to unravel: a process hastened by the death of his son and heir, Fernando de la Cerda in that same year, the dynastic crisis that followed, and the Infante Sancho's rebellion in 1282. Two years later the learned (rather than the wise) king himself died, a pathetic abandoned figure, but not before disinheriting and cursing the rebel Infante.

The reign of Sancho IV was overshadowed by the circumstances of its beginning. During his last days in 1295 the thirty-seven year-old king told his cousin D. Juan Manuel that he could not bless him because he had no blessing to give. All he had to convey was the curse that he had from his father, the curse that between then and 1325 seemed to have doomed Castile to a succession of royal minorities. Sancho's son, Fernando IV, was just nine when he succeeded; Alfonso XI in 1312, barely one. Anarchy prevailed. In the graphic phrase of a contemporary writer, |hares rule the roads'.

It was from this low point that between 1325 and 1350, when he succumbed to the Black Death, Alfonso XI restored his kingdom to the heights from which it had plunged in the previous half-century. How was this achieved? Remarkable thogh it was, the course of the teenage Alfonso's re-appropriation of the political initiative still awaits investigation. No modern history of the reign of the victor of the Battle of the Salado in 1340, Christian Spain's last significant victory over its Muslim enemy before the fall of Granada in 1492, has been written; which is extraordinary, the more so because the contemporary chronicle of the reign is fuller and more circumstantial than any other account since the 670s.

The Cronica de Alfonso XI was written in the 1340s, almost certainly by the king's confidant and keeper of the privy seal (canciller del sello de la Poridat). Fernan Sanchez de Valladoid. In particular, it was written in the aftermath of his master's victory at El Salado, on account of which Alfonso XI was lionised at the papal court of Avignon. These circumstances need to be considered as we follow the chronicle's account of the events of the late 1320s. For in these years - the period immortalised in the Archpriest of Hita's Libro de buen amor - the adulterous young king of Castile was not held in such high regard, least of all at the papal court at Avignon.

According to the contemporary Libro del consejo e de los consejeros, a ruler's |nobility' was to be measured in terms of his achievements in three spheres of activity: legislation, conquest, and colonisation. These constituted the acid test that the rulers of Castile had singularly failed in the half-century prior to- 1325, and more or less represented the agenda which the young king declared at the Cortes of Valladolid in that year. …

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