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The lioness mother
14 November 2020 @ 05:00

King Sancho IV died of tuberculosis in April 1295 leaving a widow and seven children. Thanks to his father, King Alfonso X, Sancho had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church. This meant that his children were considered illegitimate and ineligible for the crown. There were two other eligible contenders.

The first was Sancho’s nephew, Ferdinand de la Cerda, who had been chosen by King Alfonso X to succeed him instead of Sancho. He was living with Sancho’s mother in Aragon. The alternative was John, the Traitor of Tarifa. Both of these had a substantial number of followers amongst the nobles of Castile and León, making the potential for another civil war enormous.

Maria de Molina, Sancho’s widow, sent for Guzmán El Bueno (King Sancho gave Guzmán the agnomen “El Bueno” after Tarifa) to come to Alcala de Heneres to help her rule. Sancho had designated Maria as regent in the event of his death. Her first priority was the Church. She began petitioning the bishops and archbishops to ask the pope for an annulment of the excommunication order against her children. Guzmán, she sent out to rally the noble families around her cause.

John of Tarifa had moved quickly and already established himself as King of León, which had split from Castile as a separate kingdom. Maria’s oldest son, Ferdinand, was ten when his father died, and if she could have the excommunication lifted then he had a good chance of becoming king. The two biggest and most powerful families, Haro and Lara, were clawing for a bigger share of the power, but clever, patient Maria held them all at bay.


Maria de Molina presenting her son Fernando at the Cortez. Painting by Antonio Gisbert.

Maria was trying to keep John at arm’s length; she knew how dangerous he could be. He had brought her kingdom to the brink of war with Asturias shortly after she became regent of Castile.  Apart from the brotherhoods or hermanadades that the nobles had created to protect themselves from rogue kings and coups, there were other orders that were often operating outside the control of the king.The Order of the Temple of Solomon, or the Templers, reached a level of freedom from accountability that is only matched in modern times by the likes of Amazon or Facebook. All of them were given special powers by the Vatican, and a mere kingdom had little power to influence them. However, all the orders were led by men, and they could be influenced.

Rue Perez Ponce de León was Grand Master of the Templers until his death in 1291 when the order elected his nephew, Pedro Ponce de León to succeed him. Pedro became one of the richest of the noblese after the death of his father. Together with his brother, Fernando, who was chancellor to Maria and Prince Fernando, they had control over vast areas and huge amounts of money.  In 1292 they collected 75,720 Maravadís as tribute payments, as well as the right to collect taxes for parts of Extremadura controlled by León. At the same time, Pedro was collecting taxes from his father’s estates in Asturias and Galicia, rents from salinas along the coast and rents from the Jewish ghettos of Córdoba. He was also majordomo to the prince, and a rising star in the kingdoms. He had not gone unnoticed by John.

John involved Pedro in a secret deal with the King of Asturias to gain political favour in the court of Maria de Molina. For this he would receive a bribe of land and the rent from two towns. Before long, Pedro realised that he was becoming involved in something treasonable and told John that he wanted nothing more to do with the deal. John immediately changed tack and told Pedro that unless he complied he would tell Maria of Pedro´s attempt to involve him in the treasonous deals he had been committing.

For a week Pedro suffered in anguish before confessing all to Maria and Fernando. Fernando was furious and ordered John arrested and executed. Worse was to follow. The King of Asturias demanded the return of the land titles that he had used as a bribe or he would invade Castile. Fernando was like his father and would have gone to war, but his mother managed to dissuade him. This is when John´s 80 year-old mother arrived at court with the title deeds which she offered to give to Maria in exchange for pardoning her son. Evil John walked free.

At long last, the pope lifted the excommunication of Sancho, and in 1301, Sancho’s son was crowned King Ferdinand IV of Castile and a reunited León. All the others, including John of Rate, had to acknowledge him as king and abandon their claim to the kingdom. The next biggest prize in the kingdom was Lord of Biscay, and with the crown settled, greedy eyes focused here. Diego López V de Haro, “the intrusive” still held the title, but John of Rate considered that he had a greater claim. He petitioned Maria de Molina and the king to have him reinstated. Diego López V de Haro became so worried by John’s obvious attempt to undermine him that when John appeared uninvited at one of the king’s meetings in Guadalajara, Diego López arrived with an army to surrounded the town and demanded to see the king and his regent. An angry King Ferdinand would not allow him into the town and he ordered John to leave, too. Finally, in 1307, by petitioning the pope, John was able to go above the king’s head and have legal claim to the title, but only on Diego’s death. Even then, wily Maria managed to prevent John becoming Lord of Biscay, and it was his wife who took the title of Lady of Biscay and became head of the House of Haro.

Within the kingdoms, the only standing armies were those of the religious Orders. If a king wanted to fight a war against another kingdom he must ask his loyal nobles to provide troops and the provisions to feed them during a campaign. If he was lucky, there might be enough booty to pay everybody. (Booty was usually captured land and the taxes from towns. Added to this would be all of the livestock of these poor people. The land and taxes could then be divided up amongst the victors.) As the kingdoms grew and amalgamated this kind of funding for an army became impracticable.

Through the Cortez, Maria de Molina and her son lobbied to tax the rich landowners to pay a tax for a trained and equipped standing army. King Alfonso X had done the same in 1270 by creating the Order of Santa Maria, which was the nearest thing to a royal navy. Funded and controlled by a mix of clerics and nobles, they were specialists in naval warfare and instrumental in several major battles to control the straits between Africa and Iberia. The order had ships stationed in San Sebastián, La Coruña, and El Puerto de Santa María, but the main port and command centre was at Cartagena.

Maria and King Ferdinand also had to deal with The Order of Calatrava. The order took its name from the Arabic name for a castle in al-Andaluz which was captured from the Moors in 1147.  The Templars were the original custodians, but were unable to hold the castle. Abbot Ramond of the nearby Cistercian monastery of Fitero offered to take on its defence. Shortly after, Father Diego Velázquez, a simple monk in the monastery, but who had once been a knight, had the bright idea of employing the lay brothers of the abbey to defend Calatrava. Lay brothers were the labourers of the monastery who were not in Holy orders and were employed for manual trades such as those of tending herds, construction, farm labour or husbandry. Diego recommended that they become soldiers of the Cross. Thus a new order was created in 1157. I am sure that the lay brothers were eternally grateful to Father Diego.

Over the intervening 40 years, the order of Calatrava had developed into a potent force in the Cortez and had developed abundant resources of men and wealth, with lands and castles scattered along the borders of Castile. It exercised feudal lordship over thousands of peasants and vassals and could field 1200 to 2000 knights; a considerable force in the Middle Ages. Moreover, it enjoyed autonomy and acknowledged only clerical superiors, with the pope as final arbiter. The order gained a big slice of its revenue from an annual fishing event on the west coast, and Maria decided to tap into this income, but she needed somebody she could trust who had the strength and courage to take on the powerful order. She turned to the man who had stood by her and her husband for decades, and whose loyalty was beyond question. Alonso Pérez de Guzmán. 


Like 2


Liz Magunnigal said:
21 November 2020 @ 09:57

I love these history posts, although as I do not speak a lot of Spanish, I sometimes have a little difficulty following everything without having to stop and google certain words.
I am 70 and currently studying for an history degree.
Keep up the good work
Thank you

animate said:
21 November 2020 @ 10:03

Hi, Liz. Thank you for your comment. I am also in my 70's and this has been one good outcome of the pandemic. Spain has a fascinating history and it has been a pleasure to learn it and share it with others. Good luck with your degree!

marelison said:
21 November 2020 @ 18:55

I like this history and look always forward to next chapters !

Mar Elison
Orihuela Costa / from Iceland

marelison said:
21 November 2020 @ 18:55

I like this history and look always forward to next chapters !

Mar Elison
Orihuela Costa / from Iceland

animate said:
22 November 2020 @ 17:24

Thank you Mar, Much appreciated.

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