Urraca (c. 1079–1126)

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Urraca (c. 1079–1126)

Queen of Castile and Aragon who governed the Iberian kingdoms of Galicia, Leon and Castile, and through her marriage to Alphonso I of Aragon briefly united almost all of medieval Christian Spain. Recognized as queen of Leon-Castile in 1109. Born around 1079 (some sources cite 1081); died on March 8, 1126, in Saldaña; was the first surviving child of Queen Constance of Burgundy (c. 1046–c. 1093) and Alphonso VI (c. 1030–1109), king of Leon (r. 1065–1109), king of Castile (r. 1072–1109); married Raymond of Burgundy, in 1087 (died 1107); married Alphonso I the Battler (1073–1134), king of Aragon (r. 1104–1134), in 1109 (annulled in 1114); children: (first marriage) Princess Sancha (born by 1095–1159); Alphonso VII Raimúndez (1105–1157), king of Castile and Leon (r. 1126–1157); illegitimate children with Count Pedro González de Lara.

In 1079, Queen Constance of Burgundy , the second wife of Alphonso VI (he had been married to Agnes of Poitou ), gave birth to a daughter christened Urraca. She was the first surviving child of the king of Leon and Castile. Medieval records and chronicles contain virtually nothing about the events of Urraca's childhood, her upbringing, or her physical appearance. She might have lived and died in relative anonymity had fate not denied her father a male heir to succeed him. As it turned out, however, Urraca not only acceded to her father's throne but ruled in her own right. She reigned longer than any other queen of a major Western European kingdom during the High Middle Ages.

Urraca's youth coincided with a tumultuous and momentous period in Iberian history. The great Caliphate of Cordoba, established after the Islamic invasion of the peninsula in 711, had splintered into petty kingdoms in 1035. With Moorish power thus weakened, the Christian kingdoms in the northern part of the peninsula began to expand south. In 1085, for example, Urraca's father Alphonso VI captured Toledo. Almoravid (Murabit) reinforcements from North Africa strengthened Islamic resistance but failed to reverse the Christian advance. Meanwhile, political power in the Christian kingdoms was also fragmented. Nobles resisted rulers' attempts to extend their authority. Christians battled among themselves nearly as much as they fought the Muslims. The period's most famous figure was not a monarch but Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (El Cid), whose military exploits against Christians and Moors won undying fame.

Even a vigorous king such as Alphonso VI found it necessary to buy the support of powerful nobles through bequests and royal favors and to create alliances through strategic marriages. Urraca figured in one of the latter. Alphonso betrothed her to Count Raymond of Burgundy, probably in 1087, and the two may have been married shortly thereafter despite Urraca being younger than 12, the minimum age set by the Church. By 1090, Alphonso named Urraca and her husband the countess and count of Galicia and Portugal. Later, Raymond's cousin Henry, count of Burgundy, married Urraca's illegitimate half-sister Teresa of Castile , further strengthening Alphonso's French alliance. Urraca's mother Constance died in 1093, and Alphonso still lacked a son to succeed him. His subsequent wives (including Bertha of Burgundy [d. 1097]) likewise failed to produce the desired male heir, although his Moorish mistress Zaida gave birth to an illegitimate son, Sancho, around 1093.

For her first three decades, Urraca's life held little to distinguish her from other medieval royal women. In fact, some sources assert that she had not displayed "prudence and steadiness," though gender made her an easy target for critics. Then, between 1107 and 1109, the deaths of Count Raymond, Sancho, and Alphonso propelled her to the throne of Leon and Castile. First to perish was her husband, in 1107, leaving Urraca with two children. The elder was Princess Sancha , born by 1095, followed by Alphonso (VII) Raimúndez, born in 1105. In 1107, Alphonso VI apparently recognized Sancho as his heir, despite his illegitimate birth. Nonetheless, he did not live to succeed the old king. Sancho died at the battle of Uclés in 1108, leaving Urraca as Alphonso's only viable heir. Almost immediately Alphonso sought a new husband for his daughter. She reportedly preferred Gómez González, the count of Candespina. But her father selected instead Alphonso I the Battler of neighboring Aragon. His fame as a warrior seemed to ensure that he could defend Urraca's authority, from both external threats and internal dissension. The marriage would also unite all the Christian realms of the peninsula except Catalonia. Before the wedding was celebrated, however, Alphonso VI died on June 30, 1109, at Toledo.

Castilian nobles swore fealty to Urraca as monarch, but her ability to retain power depended on their continued willingness to support a woman as ruler. Some of her vassals, especially in Galicia, preferred Urraca's young son, Alphonso Raimúndez. That he was too young to rule meant a period of weak royal power, attractive to many aristocrats who resisted royal pretensions. Urraca's half-sister Teresa and her husband, Count Henry, also presented a challenge. Before Raymond's death, Count Henry had agreed to recognize his cousin's claim to the throne of Leon-Castile. In return, Urraca's husband allegedly promised, if he became king, to give Henry either the realm of Galicia or Toledo. But as Raymond had predeceased Alphonso VI, Henry found his ambitions frustrated. He and Teresa were willing to press their claims against Urraca through diplomatic or military means. Of course, Urraca also faced the Moorish threat from the south.

Pressed by her aristocratic allies, Urraca agreed to marry Alphonso the Battler, as her father had intended. The Almoravides were laying waste to the region around Toledo, and Alphonso seemed the only ruler capable of defending Christian Spain. The wedding occurred in October 1109 at Monzón. Urraca was about 30, her groom 36. Terms of the marriage determined the powers that each possessed in the other's realms and established the rules of succession. If either died, the other would rule in the deceased's kingdoms. Their son, should one be born, would inherit the united kingdoms. If no son were born and Alphonso died first, Urraca and Alphonso Raimúndez would inherit the Battler's realms. Should Alphonso outlive Urraca, Alphonso Raimúndez would rule his mother's kingdoms upon the death of his stepfather.

Constance of Burgundy (1046–c. 1093)

Queen of Castile and Leon. Name variations: Constance Capet. Born in 1046; died in 1093 (some sources cite 1092); daughter of Robert I (b. 1011), duke of Burgundy, and Helia de Semur ; married Hugh II, count of Chalon-sur-Saone; became second wife of Alphonso VI, king of Leon (r. 1065–1109), king of Castile (r. 1072–1109), on May 8, 1081; children: Urraca (c. 1079–1126), queen of Castile and Leon; Elvira (died young).

The union shortly ran into trouble. Neither found much attraction in the other. According to Alphonso's biographer, José María Lacarra, "Urraca had a true obsession to impose her will and a great fear that he might supplant her power, relegating her to the background. If the king was a man of energy, a decisive and good warrior, he in turn lacked the most elemental qualities to temporize with his wife." In fact, Alphonso had little inclination toward matrimony. Never married previously despite the pressing need to beget an heir, Alphonso was a warrior, crusader, and religious zealot. Urged by a comrade to secretly take a Moorish concubine from among his captives, Alphonso responded: "A true soldier must live with men and not with women." Possibly his sense of religious obligation caused him to marry Urraca: to defend the Christian kingdoms against the Almoravid onslaught and perhaps, through their marriage, to produce an heir capable of uniting Spanish Christianity against the infidel. Still, Alphonso seemed better suited to the role of knight Templar, a monkish warrior. Urraca later claimed that she had opposed the marriage all along and accused Alphonso of beating her.

It was the only time during the Spanish medieval period that a woman ruled in her own right for some seventeen years. That unprecedented event opened the possibility of the union of León-Castilla and Aragón by a marriage.

—Bernard F. Reilly

Key to the success of their marriage was the birth of an heir. Yet Urraca did not become pregnant. Meanwhile, the union had its foes, especially aristocrats who opposed a strong monarchy or the Aragonese alliance. Partisans of Alphonso Raimúndez feared the marriage might deprive him of his divinely ordained right to rule. The latter appealed to the papacy, asking that the marriage be invalidated on grounds of consanguinity because Urraca and Alphonso were both great-grandchildren of Sancho the Great of Navarre. By mid-1110, Pope Paschal II condemned the marriage, and open opposition flared against Urraca and Alphonso. In fact, led by Count Pedro Froilaz and the bishop of Santiago, Diego Gelmírez, Galicia had risen against the royal couple shortly after the wedding. Dissidents there feared a powerful Aragonese ruler might curb their rights and privileges. Galicia also rallied to the cause of Alphonso Raimúndez, Urraca's son with Count Raymond. Froilaz was the boy's guardian. The rebels found willing allies in nearby Portugal, where a rebellious Henry and Teresa took offense at Urraca's failure to surrender Toledo or Galicia.

Urraca and Alphonso moved quickly to deal with Galicia. Nonetheless, the latter proved so brutal in his punishment, summarily executing several of the rebel leaders, that Urraca turned away from him. Perhaps she recognized that Alphonso could not permanently subdue by force of arms all of Galicia, Leon, and Castile. His cruelty antagonized the nobility and turned popular sentiment against the monarchs. Meanwhile, personal antipathy between the royal couple caused the separation in late 1110, with the queen staying on in Galicia. While Urraca reconciled with Froilaz and Gelmírez, her husband allied himself with Henry and Teresa against Urraca. In 1111, Alphonso captured Toledo, whereupon Henry, who desired it for himself, broke with the Aragonese king and temporarily supported Urraca.

The costly and destructive civil war continued, with alliances shifting whenever a faction became too strong. Urraca and her advisers managed to separate Alphonso and the Portuguese by promising Henry part of Castile. Then, the queen negotiated an alliance with Alphonso with the aim of expelling Henry from Castile. This ignited anti-Alphonso sentiment among the partisans of Alphonso Raimúndez, and Bishop Gelmírez crowned him king of Galicia on September 17, 1111. The boy's supporters proved no match for the army of Alphonso the Battler, however, and Alphonso Raimúndez took refuge with his mother. Under her immediate protection and control, Alphonso Raimúndez posed a less serious political threat to Urraca. She also perceived that she could placate her son and his supporters by acknowledging his rights as heir.

From 1112 to 1114, Alphonso the Battler held sizeable portions of Castile, but Urraca skillfully maneuvered to protect her crown and realms. Brief periods of marital reconciliation always gave way to personal dislike and papal pressure. In 1114, Alphonso publicly declared that he would not live with her any longer. Any pretense of marriage had ended, and neither showed an interest in resurrecting it. This left Urraca to rule personally over her kingdoms. Writes biographer Bernard F. Reilly, Urraca "seems always to have been more astute at diplomacy and politics than were her adversaries." Archbishop Bernardo of Toledo and Count Pedro González de Lara furnished loyal and shrewd guidance throughout nearly all her reign, but Urraca made the final decisions as an independent ruler. She benefited also from the decadence of Almoravid power to the south, which no longer challenged Castile as seriously as it had a few years earlier.

Having abandoned the marriage, Alphonso withdrew to Aragon and began the actions that culminated in his great conquest of Zaragoza (Saragossa). Meanwhile, Urraca tried to retake the parts of Castile held by her foes. She strengthened her authority in Galicia by working out a political settlement with her son. To curb the power and influence of Bishop Gelmírez, she divested him of the government of Santiago de Compostela in 1116 and turned it over to a commune of burghers. The following year, however, she changed her mind and restored Gelmírez's power. This caused a riot in Santiago. The bishop and queen took refuge in the cathedral's bell tower, which the rioters set afire. Historian Joseph F. O'Callaghan quotes a medieval Latin manuscript about the riot:

the queen, urged by the bishop, accepted their guarantees, and came out of the tower; but when the rest of the mob saw her coming out, they made a rush upon her and seized her and knocked her to the ground in a muddy wallow; like wolves they attacked her and ripped off her clothes, leaving her body naked from her breasts on down; for a long time she lay shamefully on the ground in the presence of all. Many wanted to bury her under stones and one old lady of Compostela struck her harshly on the cheek with a stone.

Other townspeople finally saved her, however, and Alphonso Raimúndez's army intimidated the rebels into submission. At that point the queen apparently turned Galicia over to her son, appointing him to rule there and in Toledo while she governed Leon and Castile.

Turmoil still beset Urraca's reign, although relations with Alphonso the Battler calmed. He focused on breaking Moorish power in Zaragoza. With his forces occupied to the east, by 1117 Urraca reoccupied much of the Castilian territory previously held by the Aragonese. On December 18, 1118, Alphonso's armies captured the city of Zaragoza and doubled the size of his realm. More troublesome was Urraca's half-sister Teresa. Despite Count Henry's death in 1114, Teresa's ambition and her hatred for Urraca continued unabated. Having apparently given up hope of gaining the throne of Leon-Castile, Teresa began calling herself queen of Portugal. Effective establishment of the kingdom of Portugal would have to wait, however, until the reign of Teresa and Henry's son, Alphonso I Henriques.

Internal opposition also bedeviled Urraca. In early 1119, a palace coup at Leon nearly toppled her. It apparently resulted from aristocratic resentment of her favoritism showered on Pedro González de Lara. He was her lover, and she gave birth to their children. In Galicia, Bishop Gelmírez sometimes supported Urraca and other times defied her. She in turn made several attempts to confiscate parts of his vast holdings and even to seize his person. Her intermittent feud with Gelmírez failed to curb the prelate's power. To counter Urraca's pressure, Gelmírez urged Pope Calixtus II to impose Urraca's abdication and the accession of Alphonso Raimúndez. This was no idle threat, as the pope was Count Raymond's brother and thus Alphonso's uncle. Urraca foiled these attempts but could not prevent Gelmírez's rise in power. In 1124, he secured the titles of archbishop and metropolitan, placing his stature and prestige beyond Urraca's reach.

By that time, however, Urraca's own position was more secure. She and Alphonso the Battler concentrated on their own realms, although he still claimed to be king of Castile. Alphonso Raimúndez ruled Galicia and Toledo, content to inherit the remainder of Urraca's kingdoms. Gradually the most powerful and ambitious courtiers began to leave Urraca's service and join her son. On May 25, 1124, in Santiago, 19-year-old Alphonso Raimúndez armed himself as a knight, a formal declaration that he was of age to rule. The queen's half-sister Teresa still held a few cities in Leon, but was no longer a grave threat to Urraca. Castilian and Leonese aristocrats sometimes grumbled and plotted, to little avail.

Queen Urraca died on March 8, 1126, in Saldaña. Her remains were buried in the church of San Isidoro at Leon. Contemporary chronicles said nothing about the nature of her death, but later reports alleged that she died in childbirth, apparently having continued her liaison with the count of Lara. The count reportedly hoped to marry Urraca. But strong-willed as ever, she refused to wed again and risk losing her power and freedom of action.

Over the centuries, Urraca has been a controversial figure in Spanish history. Aragonese writers have often criticized her while lauding Alphonso. Castilian scholars sometimes exaggerate her achievements. Historian Bernard Reilly has studied her reign closely and writes: "What is surprising, given the magnitude of the dynastic crisis that she inherited and the novelty of her own position as reigning queen, is the great extent to which she succeeded in these endeavors." She wisely perceived the need to make her son and his partisans active participants in her government. Although her marriage to Alphonso theoretically promised the unification of Christian Spain, Alphonso's inability, through impotence or sterility, to father an heir fore-closed that possibility. Furthermore, the northern kingdoms lacked centralized institutions on which to build that unity. While Urraca did not reconquer Portugal, neither did her male successor. Perhaps as Urraca's most important achievement, she bequeathed to her son Alphonso VII a stable and peaceful realm.


Lacarra, José María. Alfonso el Batallador. Zaragoza: Guara Editorial, 1978.

Martín, José Luis. La Península en la Edad Media. 2 ed. Barcelona: Teide, 1980.

Miron, E.L. The Queens of Aragon: Their Lives and Times. NY: Brentano's, 1913.

O'Callaghan, Joseph F. A History of Medieval Spain. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Reilly, Bernard F. The Kingdom of León-Castilla under Queen Urraca, 1109–1126. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

——. The Medieval Spains. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

suggested reading:

Florez de Setien, Enrique. Memorias de las reinas católicas de España. 2 vols. Madrid: M. Aguilar, 1945.

Historia Compostellana. Trans. and ed. by Emma Falque Rey. Corpus Christianorum LXX. Turnhout: Brepols, 1988.

MacKay, Angus. Spain in the Middle Ages: From Frontier to Empire, 1000–1500. London: Macmillan, 1977.

Kendall W. Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah