Maria of Montpellier (1181–1213)

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Maria of Montpellier (1181–1213)

Queen of Aragon who devoted her short life to protecting her inheritance, the town of Montpellier, from greedy husbands and rebellious city nobles, to preserve it for her son who became James I, king of Aragon. Name variations: Marie of Montpellier or Montpelier; Mary of Montpellier or Montpelier. Born in 1181 (some sources cite 1182); died in 1213 (some sources cite 1219); daughter of Guillaume or Guillem or William VIII, lord of Montpellier, and Eudocia of Byzantium (niece of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus); married Barral, viscount of Marseilles, in 1192 (died 1192); married Bernard IV, count of Comminges, in 1197 (Maria was repudiated and sent home in 1201); married Pedro or Peter II, king of Aragon (r. 1196–1213), in 1204; children: daughter Sancia; Jaime or James I the Great of Catalonia (1208–1276), king of Aragon (r. 1213–1276); two other daughters (names unknown).

Maria of Montpellier was the daughter of William VIII, lord of Montpellier, and Eudocia of Byzantium , niece of the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus (r. 1143–1180). Born in 1181, Maria lost her birthright at the age of six when her father repudiated her mother in order to marry Agnes of Castile . Agnes quickly satisfied William's need for heirs, bearing a son who became William IX and seven more children for backup.

Maria's prospects as the daughter of a repudiated mother were poor. Although Eudocia was the niece of the emperor of Constantinople, she did not command any clout. Eudocia consented to sending Maria away from Constantinople at the tender age of 11 (1192), and, following her daughter's departure, Eudocia disappeared from history. Maria was supposed to marry King Alphonso II of Aragon, but when it turned out that Alphonso had married somebody else, she had to settle for Barral, viscount of Marseilles. This cut her off from succession to Montpellier. However, the viscount was old and ill, and he died before the year was out.

Next, in 1197, Maria was married to Bernard IV, count of Comminges, as his second wife (or third—sources differ). In return for her dowry, Maria was forced to renounce all claims to her paternal inheritance. After bearing two daughters, she was repudiated by her husband and sent home in 1201.

In 1202, her father died, naming William IX as heir. But in 1204, the city of Montpellier expressed itself: the ruling elite rebelled and expelled its new ruler. Either because they expected Maria to be a weak ruler or because they welcomed her soon-to-be new husband, the city of Montpellier declared itself loyal to Maria.

On June 15, 1204, Maria was married to Peter II, king of Aragon, known in his day as Pere II or En Pere II. He was the most powerful political figure in the region, and he no doubt had had his eye on Montpellier for some time. After swearing his marital oath of fidelity in the presence of the local bishop and agreeing to honor the city's custom, Peter promptly mortgaged the castle of Lattes, which was the port of Montpellier. In the next year (1205), he mortgaged the city itself. By September 1205, he persuaded Maria to surrender all her rights to Montpellier, which radically altered the terms of the marriage contract. Although in October Maria gave birth to a daughter (christened Sancia ), Peter immediately betrothed her to the newly born son of Raymond of Toulouse. Not only did he do this without her mother's consent, but he bequeathed the city of Montpellier as the little girl's dowry. The next year(1206), Peter initiated divorce proceedings against Maria. In two years, then, Maria had again lost her seignorial rights to Montpellier along with her new daughter's future and her own third husband.

In sum, by the time she was 25, Maria of Montpellier was widowed, divorced, and separated from three husbands, respectively. At this point, she launched her campaign to fight back. She resorted to two time-honored strategies available to victimized women: 1) pregnancy and 2) litigation, the particular remedy available to Biblically certified "women and orphans" in Medieval Christianity.

I, Maria, Queen of Aragon and Lady of Montpellier, ill in body but of healthy mind, not wishing to die intestate, make my testament in which I institute James, the son of the King of Aragon and myself, as my heir in all my goods both real and personal.

—Codicil of Maria's will dictated before her death

In 1208, at the advanced age of 27, Maria gave birth to James (I). According to the romantic version of the story, Maria had lured Peter to bed in the middle of the night by pretending to be his currently favored mistress, and a few weeks later triumphantly announced that she was pregnant. James offered a more discreet account written decades later in his Book of Deeds:

Now I will relate in what wise I was begotten, and how my birth was. Firstly, in what manner I was begotten. Our father would not see our mother, and it chanced that once the King, our father was in Lattes, and the Queen, our mother, in Miravals. A nobleman named En Guillen Dalcala came to the King and besought him till he made him go to Miravals where the Queen, my mother, was. And that night both were together it was the will of our Lord, that I should be begotten. And when the Queen, my mother, perceived that she was with child, she and my father went to Montpellier…. Whenthey took me back to my mother's house … she made twelve candles all of one weight and one size, and had them lighted all together, and gave each of them the name of an Apostle, and vowed to our Lord that I should be christened by the name of that which lasted the longest. And so it happened that the candle that went by the name of Saint James lasted a good three fingers' breadth more than all the others. And owing that circumstance and to the grace of God, I was christened "En Jaume."

When James was duly born, all Montpellier cheered for their sovereign-to-be, and Maria seemed to have cemented her hold on Montpellier. But she had not cemented her hold on Peter. From 1210 to 1213, he continued to press for the divorce from Maria and the subsequent acquisition of Montpellier. And he did not play by the rules.

Against the backdrop of the bloody Albigensian crusade (in which Innocent III, the most medieval pope, enlisted Philip II Augustus, the most powerful medieval king of France, to pit northern Frenchmen against the alleged heretics of southern France), Peter betrothed Maria's only son to a daughter of Simon IV de Montfort, the leader of northern crusaders who were hammering at the border of his southern kingdom. Seizing the infant heir from his mother, Peter sent him more or less as a hostage to live in the Montfort household.

Next, backed by a papal decree in 1212, Peter tried to take Montpellier, intending to give it back to Maria's half-brother William IX. At this point, Maria's popularity in Montpellier evidently saved her possession. The city fathers refused to accede peacefully to the transfer, and the whole town arose in insurrection. Unfortunately, this provoked mobs who destroyed the castle, filled the moat, and pillaged goods belonging to Catalan merchants. All this was to no avail, for Maria still lost her city. By the beginning of 1213, then, her fortunes were at their lowest ebb. She had lost her son, and she had lost Montpellier.

She resorted next to the legal system, moving to Rome to litigate at the highest court. The issue on which the case hinged was consanguinity. Peter's lawyers argued that even though Peter and Maria did not have a common ancestry within the prohibited range of kinship, their marriage was nullified by two other facts: 1) he had fornicated with one of Maria's kinswomen and was thereby rendered ineligible to marry Maria; and 2) Maria had committed adultery by marrying him because she had never divorced Bernard IV, count of Comminges, even though he had cast her out. Maria's lawyers were countering the second point by denying the validity of her earlier marriage on the grounds of consanguinity when they discovered that this errant count had sandwiched in another marriage without a divorce. This made him even more ineligible to marry her. As for the first point about fornicating with Maria's kinswoman, even male chauvinist medieval Christians drew the line at this kind of legal argument to excuse male philandering. It is interesting to note that neither parent considered custody of the child to be legally pertinent. Consanguinity, not custody, was the issue.

Luckily for Maria, there was at the same time an even more notorious case taking place. King Philip II of France had married and rejected Ingeborg (c. 1176–1237/38), princess of Denmark, and he had compounded his repudiation by refusing to return her. After years of litigation, Ingeborg's appeal finally reached the pope, and the pope was about to vindicate her.

So it was that on January 19, 1213, that Pope Innocent III decided in favor of Maria of Montpellier. The politically most powerful pope in history decreed that Peter's attempt to divorce Maria was invalid. He ruled as follows:

Having diligently heard and subtlely examined all those things which the parties prudently and faithfully presented to the judges delegate and to us, since it appears to us evident that the Count Comminges is related to you in the third and fourth degree, and the Count had earlier married the noble woman Beatrice before the Church, and it is not proved that they had been separated by ecclesiastical judgment, and since nothing legitimate has been proved against you on the matter of kinship…. [Be it enjoined uponhim, King Peter] to take the Queen back with kindness into the fullness of His grace and treat with marital affection; especially since you have had a son by her, and she is a Godfearing woman possessed of many virtues.

Moreover, on April 8, in a second decree, the pope ordered the archbishop of Narbonne to compel the rulers of Montpellier to return the seignorial rights and revenues to their rightful lord, Maria of Montpellier:

Those goods [which were mortgaged by her husband the illustrious King of Aragon, although the law does not assent to the mortgaging of dowry property, … plus] money which has been collected for so long from these revenues … ought to be paid back to her…. We, who owe the debt of justice to allpersons, wish to stand with her in her rights. We therefore order you by apostolic writing that you summon the parties and hear what they have to propose, and decide what is just, without appeal, and enforce your decision by ecclesiastical penalties. You should force the men of Montpellier by ecclesiastical censure, and without right of appeal to pay the Queen her expenses in this matter.

The papal documents presume that the pope did indeed have jurisdiction over secular holdings. More significantly, however, the decrees of Pope Innocent III revealed that women were not powerless. While not in a commanding position legally, their legal status did not reflect their low theological estate. At the very least, women were not pawns in male power struggles. Rather, they had rights of their own. To be sure, these rights had to be articulated in court by male lawyers; but then, so did the rights of kings, princes, nobles, merchants, etc., have to be defended in court by male lawyers. For latter-day despisers of the Middle Ages who subscribe to the liberal theory of historical progress, it is ironic that Maria of Montpellier, as queen of Aragon in the early 13th century, fared better than her descendant, Catherine of Aragon , Henry VIII's queen of England, who three centuries later became history's most famous spurned queen.

On April 20, 1213, Maria dictated her last will and testament and died soon afterwards. In July of the same year, her husband Peter died on the battlefield of Muret fighting against Simon de Montfort, the guardian of their son. James, aged five, inherited his parents' possessions: Peter's kingdom and Maria's city.

Maria of Montpellier had been politically orphaned at 6; married at 11 to be widowed at 12; married at 16 to be repudiated at 20; married again to the most powerful king at 23 to be separated at 25. At 27, she was the mother of three daughters and of a son who became the most powerful king in the history of the region. Finally, vindicated at 32 by the most powerful medieval pope, she died only four months later. At each marital repudiation, she had her children and her possessions stripped from her. Obviously, Maria of Montpellier's struggle over her city, her inherited and acquired properties, and her three husbands raise many questions about women's rights and power in the 12th century which cast shadows down to the present day. She was a miracle worker for her age. Reported her son James the Conqueror, "Many sick to this day are cured by drinking in water, or in wine, the dust scraped from her tombstone."


There are no biographies of Maria of Montpellier in English. There is one in Spanish by Rafael Dalmau i Ferreres entitled "Maria de Montpellier," Barcelona, 1962. It is in the series Episodis de la Historia, edited by Rafael Dalmau, Bonavista 26, Barcelona, Spain.

Cheyette, Frederic I. Resource Book for the Teaching of Medieval Civilization. Amherst, MA: Five Colleges, 1984, pp. 113–140.

James I. Book of Deeds. Translated by John Forster from Libre dels fevts, or Llibre dels Feits del rei en Jacme. London, 1883.

suggested reading:

Duby, Georges. Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth Century France. Translated by E. Forster. London, 1978.

David Stevenson , former Associate Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Nebraska

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Maria of Montpellier (1181–1213)

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Maria of Montpellier (1181–1213)