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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 32625

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Women in Early Political Life

After the time of the good Queen Constance and with the growth of the Spanish monarchies, which in spite of all their internal turmoil and confusion were fast becoming more powerful and more of a menace to the Moslem rule, the wheels of fate seem to bring women into greater political prominence than ever before. Constance, it is true, had been no mean figure in that epoch, and had exerted a most powerful influence in shaping the destinies of Spain for her own time and for the future, but this was done by an exercise of indirect rather than direct authority. Constance had been queen, but there had been a king to rule as well, and with him remained the real power. As Constance influenced him, she may have been said to use this royal power, it is true, but the fact remains that it was the woman Constance who was using her powers of feminine persuasion to bring about the results which were so dear to her heart. No political responsibilities rested upon her shoulders, there were no cares of state to weary and make uneasy her crowned head, and she was free to follow her own penchants unimpeded by this larger task. But now a wider field for the activities of women seems to come; in Spain, chance gives them full control in their own name in certain instances, and they bear the full responsibility. The measure of their success may not be greater than the measure of their failure in these new lines of endeavor, but, good or bad as their methods of administration may have been, it does not appear that they fall below the level of masculine achievement at the same time. And this is a curious thing. Since the birth of time men have been regarding women as weaklings, both mentally and physically. Tennyson has it that "woman is the lesser man," and such has been the commonly expressed opinion. Everything in the social life of the world has conspired to give truth to this statement; women are still the real slaves of their husbands in many countries, and the virtual slaves in almost all the world; education has been granted to them grudgingly, the scope of their intellect has been limited in the narrowest way; and in spite of all these facts, in spite of this suppression and repression from time immemorial, women have been able by some power or some cunning to exert a most powerful influence in the world, and when called upon to take up a man's work they have left a record for judgment and skill and wisdom which needs no apologies and which is generally above the average. To those who are content with generalities it may be sufficient to say that women are not the equals of men, but to anyone who attempts to study, step by step, the history of human development it becomes apparent that the French admonition Cherchez la femme contains the truth, unalloyed. In America it has become the custom to say that in every great national emergency there is always a man ready to meet the situation and meet it nobly and with understanding; and what can be said here can be said with equal truth perhaps in other countries of the world, but to this statement it may be well to add that women also may be found to do nobly the tasks which may fall to their lot.

In every day and generation, however, it will rarely be found that the women are better than the men. The interests of men and women are so identical from so many points of view, society is in so many ways but a composite of their common interests, that their moral level must of necessity be the same. By intuition, then, by inherent capacity, by woman's wit, by that something feminine which is at once the power and the charm of a woman, the members of this so-called weaker sex have been able to take their place worthily beside their brothers in the open field of the world's activities whenever circumstance has called them forth, without the inheritance, the education, or the experience which the men possess, but morally they can but be as society makes them. There are exceptions to all rules, however; some women as well as some men may be better or worse than the majority of their fellows, and these are the ones who are signalled out by the historian for special attention. The people who are always good and always happy have no history, as there is nothing noteworthy to tell of them, life has no tragedies, all is plain sailing, and the whole story can be told in a few words. In a measure the same thing is true of the ordinary man, be he good or bad, for what can be said of him can be said of a whole class, and so the history of the class may be told, but the individual will always remain in the background.

In the special epoch of Spanish history with which the present chapter is concerned, the twelfth century and the first part of the thirteenth, there is little to say of women in general which cannot be said of the medi?val women of other parts of Europe. Oriental ideas had been introduced to some extent, it is true, by the Moors, but otherwise the general ignorance and dependence of the women of the time call for no special comment. Above this commonplace level there are to be seen, nevertheless, two women who occupied a commanding position in the world, which was quite unusual. They were both queens of Castile, and as one was bad, vain, reckless, and frivolous, so was the other good, unselfish, wise, and dignified. Within the extremes of character which their lives present is traced the measure of a woman's possibilities at that time.

Urraca of Castile, daughter of Constance and King Alfonso VII., inherited little of her mother's devout nature; the world rather than the Church had attracted her, and she began to show at an early age a taste for gallantry and intrigue which became but more pronounced with her maturer years. She was dark rather than fair, with an imperious bearing, she had compelling eyes, and there was a grace in her movements which it was difficult to see without admiring, but she was vain, intent upon conquest, and without an atom of moral firmness, if all accounts be true. Her mother was sorely tried by her waywardness, but did not live long enough to appreciate her real lack of moral instinct; and her father, in spite of his several marriages, which were almost as numerous as those of Henry VIII. of England, was chagrined to find Urraca as his sole heir, no other children having survived. In the hope that France might again furnish material for a dignified alliance as it had done before in sending Constance herself, Alfonso arranged for the marriage of Urraca with Raymond of Burgundy. Urraca was soon left a widow, with one son, Alfonso; and while she apparently felt some affection for this child, she was in no way weaned from her love of excitement, and was soon again the soul and centre of the court's gay revels. One among the throng of courtiers attracted her, the tall Count Gomez of Candespina, and she made no secret of her love for him. As often seen together, they formed a striking pair, and it was not strange that the Castilian nobles should have wished to see them married, in spite of the fact that the prospective bridegroom was not her equal by birth. No one dared to give Alfonso this advice, however, as his refusal was a foregone conclusion, all things being taken into consideration. Finally, the Jewish physician of the court, Don Cidelio, allowing his interest in the affair to get the better of his discretion, ventured to speak to the king about Urraca and her lover. Alfonso, indignant, was so displeased, that Don Cidelio was banished from the court at once, while he arranged forthwith a political marriage which was full of possibilities for Spain's future welfare. Alfonso, in his long reign, which had lasted for forty-three years, had given such a great impetus to the movement of reconquest directed against the Moors, that a strong and capable successor could have completed his work and hastened the final Christian victory by some four hundred years. Alfonso was far-seeing enough to know the possibilities ahead, and it is easy to understand and sympathize with his rage at the mere thought of the dapper, silken Candespina. So the rebellious Urraca, with her heart full of love for Count Gomez, was married, and just before her father's death in 1109, to King Alfonso I., called el batallador [the battler], and known as the Emperor of Aragon. This union of Castile, Leon, and Aragon would have promised much for the future, if the rulers of this united kingdom could have lived in peace and harmony together. They were so unlike in every way, however, that it was easy to predict trouble. The Battler was a youth of great military skill and great ambition, but he was not a courtier in any sense of the word and could not be compared in Urraca's eyes with her carpet knight, Don Gomez. So she was loath to change her mode of life, and he was in a state of constant irritation at her worldliness; and as a natural consequence of it all, after a year of turmoil and confusion, the two separated.

Content to lose his wife, Alfonso was quite unwilling to lose her broad domain, and consequently Aragonese garrisons were installed in some of the principal Castilian fortresses, while Urraca, a prisoner, was confined in the fortress of Castelar. This was too much for the Castilians to endure; so they at once took up arms in their queen's defence and, furthermore, demanded a divorce on the ground that Urraca and Alfonso were within the proscribed limits of consanguinity, as they were both descended from Sancho the Great, of Navarre. While there was much in the queen's character which the Castilian people could not admire, they had never approved of her marriage with the batallador, and were only too happy to have this excuse for severing the ties which bound the two countries together. Urraca was rescued from her captivity, and proceeded without delay to annoy her husband in every manner possible. Her honored father's prime minister was deposed and his estates confiscated, Don Gomez was given this high post and treated as an acknowledged favorite, and most shamelessly, and the whole country was shocked. But matters of self-defence were now of first importance to the Castilians, and so they were compelled to overlook her misconduct for the moment and prepare to withstand the irate Alfonso's threatened invasion. He invited Henry, Count of Portugal, the brother of Urraca's first husband,-and her son's guardian,-to aid him in this attack, and together they invaded Castile and inflicted a complete defeat upon Urraca's army at the battle of Sepulveda in the year 1111. The pope, Pascal II., sent a legate, who granted the divorce for which the Castilians had clamored; and Urraca, again a free woman, was now the centre of her own little court, where she soon gathered about her a small company of nobles who were vying with each other to obtain her royal favor. Two among them, Count Gomez of Candespina, and Pedro, a member of the great and powerful Lara family, hoped to marry her, but she coquetted with them all to such good purpose that she succeeded in keeping their good will by leaving them all in uncertainty as to her serious intentions.

At this moment a new element appeared in the settlement of public affairs. For the first time in the history of Spain, the privileged towns and cities, which had been granted special charters by the late Alfonso, Urraca's father, rose in their might and declared that Urraca should be deposed and that her youthful son, Alfonso Ramon, should be crowned in her stead. Seeing this turn of affairs, Henry of Portugal, the young Alfonso's guardian, decided that he might best serve his own interests by siding with the Castilians against the Battler, and he lost no time in making this transfer of his allegiance. Castile and Leon were still harried by the divorced husband, who now had no legal claim upon them, and there was a general consolidation of national interests for the national defence, while the conflicting interests with regard to the succession within the country were at the same time pressing for settlement and producing a state of strife and contention which was little short of civil war. In the midst of it all, Urraca continued to play the wanton, and soon so disgusted the Count of Portugal that he deserted her standard. This he did on the eve of the great battle of Espina, in the year 1112. Urraca still counted upon the devotion of her nobles, but Lara fled from the field, the prime favorite Candespina was killed, and the revengeful husband gained another victory. It was soon evident, however, that Alfonso of Aragon could never meet with complete success in his attempt to subdue Castile, and he wisely gave up the struggle after a few more years of desultory fighting. Urraca was now in a tight place, and in spite of all her arts and wiles she was unable to gather about her again a party strong enough to command respect. Candespina and Lara were no longer by her side, the other nobles had lost patience with her constant intriguing, and the popular party, backed by the towns, soon gained the ascendency, and Urraca was compelled to resign in favor of her son. From this moment she sinks into obscurity, and little more is known of her unhappy and profligate career besides the fact that she came to her end, unregretted, in 1126. According to the ancient Laws of Manu, "it is in the nature of the feminine sex to seek here below, to corrupt men," and Menander has said, sententiously, "where women are, are all kinds of mischief." While no one at the present time, unless he be some confirmed woman-hater, will be so ungallant as to attempt to maintain the truth of these sweeping statements, there must have been, at various times and places in the world, women of the kind indicated, as Queen Urraca of Castile, for example, or these things would never have been said.

The great-grandson of Urraca, Alfonso III. of Castile, received as his heritage the usual complement of strife and warfare which belonged to almost all of the little Spanish monarchies throughout the greater part of the twelfth century; but in the year 1170, arriving at his majority, he entered into a friendly treaty of peace with Aragon, and in that same fortunate year he married the Princess Eleanor, daughter of the English king, Henry II. Apropos of this marriage and its general effect upon the fortunes of Castile, Burke has written the following interesting sentences: "Up to the time of this happy union, the reign of Alfonso III. in Spain had been nothing but a succession of intrigues and civil wars of the accustomed character; but from the day of his marriage in 1170 to the day of his death in 1214, after a reign of no less than fifty-six years, he exercised the sovereign power without hindrance, if not entirely without opposition, within his dominions. If the domestic tranquillity of Castile during four-and-forty years may not be attributed exclusively to the influence of the English queen, yet the marriage bore fruits in a second generation, of which it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance; for it was the blood of the Plantagenets, that flowed in the veins of Berenguela, their daughter, one of the true heroines of Spain."

In this instance, as in the case of the good Constance of Burgundy, we see that Spain has been sobered and steadied by an infusion of foreign blood. Constance, it is true, was a fanatic who cared little for the national desires, and thought little of adapting herself to the national conditions of life, so long as she could further her own ends, which were those of the pope at Rome; and so stern and strict was her view of life, and so rigid was her discipline, that it was impossible for her to reconcile the lighter-minded Spaniards to her mode of thinking. For a short time, by drastic methods, she subdued to some extent the frivolous temper of her people; but she was so unlovable in her ways, and so unloved by the people at large, that the sum total of her influence upon Spanish life, apart from the somewhat questionable advantage which she gave to Rome as the result of her activity, amounted to very little. Even her own daughter, Urraca, in spite of the fact that she undoubtedly inherited more from her f

ather than she did from her mother, was, beyond peradventure, rendered more wayward and more reckless by the mother's narrow view of life. The gracious Eleanor, on the other hand, was more liberal-minded, did everything in her power to get into touch with her subjects, and by her kindliness and strength of character was able to aid her husband in no mean degree in quieting civil discord and in consolidating the interests of the country.

Her daughter Berenguela, brought up in the midst of these influences, developed a strong and self-reliant character which early in her career gave proof of its existence. In accord with that policy which has so often obtained in the monarchies of Europe, it was decided that a foreign alliance with some strong ruling house would redound to advantage; and so great was the prestige of Castile at this time, that Alfonso found no difficulty in arranging a marriage with Conrad, Count of Suabia, the son of the great Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. As might have been expected, this marriage was nothing but a political arrangement which was to benefit Castile, and in which the will of Berenguela, the person most interested, had not been consulted in any manner whatever. It is not on record that Eleanor was opposed to this arrangement for her daughter, not from any lack of independent spirit,-for she came of a self-willed race, as the erratic life of her brother, Richard C?ur de Lion, will show,-but because such marriages were the common lot of the royal maidens of her time and were accepted as matters of necessity. It must be remembered that the ideals of marriage were yet much undeveloped and that "husband" and "lover" were rarely, if ever, synonymous terms. It appears that the emperor not only consented to this marriage between his son and Eleanor's daughter, but was much in favor of the project and more than anxious to see the consummation of it all, as Eleanor had brought Gascony to her husband as a marriage portion, and the prospective inheritance of Berenguela was a goodly one.

Fortunately for Berenguela, the marriage was postponed until she had attained her majority; and when that day of partial freedom came, she boldly declared that she would not marry the German prince, that she did not know him and did not love him, and that nothing could force her to such a bargain of herself. Great was the consternation in her father's court, and great was the dismay in the North when Frederick Barbarossa was told of this haughty Spanish maiden who refused the honor of an alliance with his imperial house. The case was well-nigh unique; the medi?val world was startled in its traditional routine, and Berenguela's audacity became the talk of every court in Europe. Prayers and entreaties were in vain, so firmly did she stand her ground in spite of the countless specious arguments which were used to bend her will, and, finally, the matter was dropped and considered a closed incident. "Woman sees deep; man sees far. To the man the world is his heart; to the woman the heart is her world;" so says Christian Grabbe, and this epigram may well be applied to Berenguela's case. Her heart was her world, and she fought for it, and in her victory she won, not only for herself, but for Spain as well. And it came about in this way. Berenguela was married, and with her own consent, to Alfonso IX., King of Leon, who had of late made war upon her father, and with this marriage and the peace which followed between the two countries, Spain prospered for a time.

This Alfonso of Leon had already made one marriage venture which had come to grief, for he had previously wedded the Princess Teresa of Portugal, and his marriage had been forcibly dissolved by Pope Innocent III., who was then, as Hume puts it, "riding rough-shod over the nations of Christendom." This divorce had been pronounced on the ground that the young couple were too closely related to each other; and as they ventured to resist, they were for a time excommunicated. So Alfonso and Teresa were finally separated, though not until several children had been born to them, and then the young king led Berenguela to the altar. This marriage, in its immediate result, was but a repetition of what had gone before. The pope annulled it promptly on the same grounds of consanguinity, and turned a deaf ear to every plea for reconsideration. The case was not an unusual one; many marriages which were far less regular in form had been sanctioned by this new Roman C?sar; and the result of the marriage could be but for the benefit of Rome, as domestic peace in Spain gave assurance of more successful opposition to the Moslem rule. But the pope was firm, his holy permission had not been obtained before the marriage had been celebrated, and, piqued at this unintended slight which had been put upon his august authority, he revealed his littleness by this show of spite.

Rebellious under this harsh decree because of its manifest injustice, Alfonso and Berenguela endeavored to hold out against the pontiff, and for seven years they lived together as man and wife, making their home in Leon. Their life was to some degree a happy one together, children were born to them, but ever about their path was the shadow of doubt that was cast by the pope's decree. As a sad and pitiful end to it all, Berenguela, a mother though not a wife, was forced to return to her father's court in Castile, leaving the eldest son, Fernando, with the father. In but one thing had the pope shown any mercy for this wedded pair, and that was when he had consented to recognize the legitimacy of their children; so Fernando could now be considered, without any doubt, as the rightful heir to Leon. Meanwhile, Alfonso III. of Castile, Berenguela's father, had won new laurels at the great battle known as the Navas de Tolosa, where the Moors had suffered a crushing defeat, and Castile was more than ever the leading Spanish power. But soon after Berenguela's arrival, her father went to his long rest, and the crown descended to his oldest son, Enrico, who was but a boy of ten. Queen Eleanor was first intrusted with the administration of affairs, but she soon followed her husband, dying within a month after this power had been conferred upon her, and the regency passed by common consent to the prudent care of Berenguela, who was, according to Hume, "the fittest ruler in all Spain, the most prudent princess in all Christendom." This regency, however, was not a time of peace and quiet, for the death of the old king had given opportunity for the turbulent Lords of Lara to break forth again in open revolt, and after a year of ineffectual resistance Berenguela was compelled, in the interests of domestic harmony, to surrender the person of her young brother into the control of Alvaro Nu?ez, the leader of the opposition, who at once began to rule the kingdom with a heavy hand. What Berenguela's fate would have been and what Castile's if this usurper had been allowed to remain for a long time in power is a matter for conjecture, but Alvaro's dreams of success were soon shattered. Through some whim of fate it happened that the young king was accidentally killed one morning as he was at play in the courtyard of the palace, and Berenguela, as the only lawful heir, became the Queen of Castile in her own right. In this trying moment, clear-headed as usual, she gave further proof of her astuteness. She realized that her husband might in some way try to make political capital out of the situation and might try to work in his own interests rather than in those of their son. For the young Fernando, recognized as heir to Leon, would now, as the prospective ruler of Castile, be heir to a larger estate than that of his father, and Alfonso was not a man big enough to rejoice in this fact, as Berenguela well knew. Accordingly, she sent speedy messengers to Alfonso before the news of the death of the young King Enrico had reached him, and asked that her son might come to her for a visit. The invitation was innocent enough, to all appearances, and the request was granted, but no sooner was the young prince safe within the boundaries of Castile than Berenguela called a meeting of the States-General of her kingdom, and there, after having received the homage of her nobles, in the midst of a most brilliant gathering, she announced her intention of abdicating in favor of her son, the heir to Leon. There was some objection to this move, as Berenguela was so universally beloved that all were loath to lose her from the sovereign's chair. She took great pains to point out to them the advantage which would undoubtedly accrue to the country as the result of this prospective union with Leon, assured them that her interests would ever be theirs, and that she would at all times counsel her son and help him in every way within her power; and finally, her will prevailed and the abdication was approved.

Alfonso of Leon was more than irate when he learned of young Enrico's death and realized the meaning of his son's visit to Castile, and he immediately collected a large army and declared war upon his son. Berenguela had foreseen this as the probable result of her course of action and was not entirely unprepared in the emergency. The ultimate peace and prosperity which might come to Spain with the definite union of Castile and Leon were matters of such importance in her eyes that she did not now hesitate to give of her personal wealth, even her jewels, as Isabella did in a later day, to further the interests of the cause for which she was contending. The goodness and sweetness of character possessed by this great queen made such an impression upon all those who came within the circle of her influence, and her cause was so manifestly just, that her troops were filled with the zeal which knows no defeat, and the conflict was a short one. Through Berenguela's diplomatic action the war was brought to an end, harmony was restored between Castile and Leon, and the united armies of the two countries were sent into southern Spain to make further attack upon the Moorish strongholds.

Now comes an interesting moment in the queen's career, the moment when she was planning with all her wisdom for her son's marriage and his future success. The interminable commotion and discord, the vexatious factional quarrels, and the undying hatreds which had been engendered by a long series of Spanish intermarriages, had so filled her with disgust that she determined, now that the union of Castile and Leon was practically complete, to go outside of this narrow circle in her search for a suitable mate for the young King Fernando. Her choice fell upon the Princess Beatrice of Suabia, cousin of the emperor and member of the same house which she had scorned in her younger days. But the Princess Beatrice was fair and good, the young people were eager for the marriage, and there was no good reason why the thing should not be done. Before this wedding, Berenguela decided that her son must be received into the order of knighthood. There was the customary period of courtly ceremony, with games and gay festivals and much feasting, which lasted for several days, and then came the sacred, final rites, which ended with the accolade. The youthful king and would-be knight was taken, all clothed in white, by two "grave and ancient" chevaliers to the chapel of the monastery of Las Huelgas, near the old city of Burgos, and there, having placed his arms piously upon the altar, he passed the night alone, "bestowing himself in orisons and prayers." When the daybreak came, he confessed to a priest, heard matins, and then went to rest and prepare himself for the final scene. When he was at length brought back to the chapel, there was a most imposing company awaiting him, composed of all the knights of Castile and many others from far distant countries who had come to wage war against the Moors; and in the presence of them all, from the sanctified hands of his noble mother, came the magic touch which made a man of him. The next day, in the great cathedral at Burgos, the wedding was celebrated, for the German princess had come to Spain for the function, and there was much pomp and much show of silks and brocades and the glitter of gold and silver was backed by the glitter of steel.

Soon King Fernando was in the saddle again, riding away toward the south, leading a great host of knights, and one Moorish town after another fell into their hands. While besieging Jaen, Fernando learned of his father's death, which had occurred suddenly. Berenguela summoned her son to return with all possible speed, but without waiting for his arrival she set out at once for Leon, thinking that there might be work to do. Nor was she wrong. Alfonso of Leon, jealous of his wife's great renown and his son's growing success, and knowing that the union of Castile and Leon was her most cherished project, deliberately left Leon to his two daughters, Sancha and Dulce, children of his first marriage, with Teresa of Portugal, perfectly sure that their claims could not find adequate legal support, as these children had never been legitimized after the pope's annulment of this marriage, but contented at the thought that he had probably left an inheritance of dispute and possible warfare which might be sufficient to make Bereuguela's plans miscarry. But in this he reckoned without his host. Berenguela conducted her affairs with the utmost discretion, conciliated the Leonese nobility, caused her son to be proclaimed king, and brought about a permanent union of the two countries without the loss of a single drop of blood. Having accomplished this task, her next care was to provide in some suitable way for Alfonso's two daughters. This she was under no obligation to do, but her sense of justice left no other course of conduct open to her. She arranged a meeting with their mother Teresa, who had long since retired to a convent, and, journeying to the Portuguese frontier, at Valencia de Alcantara in Galicia, these two women, each the unwedded wife of the same man, came together to settle the claims of their children to their dead husband's throne. The whole matter was discussed in the most friendly way, and Berenguela was able to carry her point that there should be no attempt to unseat Fernando from the throne of Leon, and at the same time she made a proposition, by way of indemnity, which Teresa, speaking for her daughters, was quite ready to accept. The infantas were given by Fernando a pension of fifteen thousand gold doubloons, in return for which they formally agreed to abandon all claim to Leon, and this pension, under Berenguela's direction, was paid in all faith and honor. In November of the year 1246 this great queen died, and, according to her own direction, she was buried at Burgos "in plain and humble fashion."

No better eulogy of her life and labors can ever be written than that which is found in Burke's history of Spain, and no excuse is needed for giving it in its entirety: Berenguela was one of those rare beings who seems to have been born to do right and to have done it. From her earliest youth she was a leading figure, a happy and noble influence in one of the most contemptible and detestable societies of medi?val Christendom. Married of her own free will to a stranger and an enemy, that she might bring peace to two kingdoms, she was ever a true and loyal wife; unwedded by ecclesiastical tyranny in the very flower of her young womanhood, she was ever a faithful daughter of the Church; inheriting a crown when she had proved her own capacity for royal dominion, she bestowed it on a strange and absent son, with no thought but for the good of her country and of Christendom; and finally, as queen-mother and ever faithful counsellor, she accepted all the difficulties of government, while the glory of royalty was reserved for the king whom she had created. Berenguela was ever present in the right place, and at the proper time, and her name is associated only with what is good and worthy and noble in an age of violence and wrong and robbery; when good faith was well-nigh unknown, when bad men were all-powerful, when murder was but an incident in family life, and treason the chief feature in politics.

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