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Women of the Romance Countries By John R. Effinger Characters: 31254

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries

In the early days of the thirteenth century, Pedro II. of Aragon had married the somewhat frivolous, yet devout, Maria of Montpellier, whose mother had been a Greek princess of Constantinople; and when a son was born of this marriage, Maria, who foresaw a great future for her child, was most desirous that he should have an Apostolic patron. There was the embarrassment of the choice, however, as Maria did not wish to neglect or cast a slight upon eleven saints while giving preference to one, and, finally, the queen's father confessor, Bishop Boyl, devised the following plan. Twelve tapers, each consecrated to an Apostle, were to be lighted, and the child was to be named in honor of the candle which burned the longest. Southey, in somewhat prolix and doggerel verse, has given the following account of the ceremony:

"The tapers were short and slender too,

Yet to the expectant throng,

Before they to the socket burnt,

The time, I trow, seemed long.

"The first that went out was St. Peter,

The second was St. John,

And now St. Mattias is going,

And now St. Mathew is gone.

"Next there went St. Andrew,

Then goes St. Philip too;

And see, there is an end

Of St. Bartholomew.

"St. Simon is in the snuff,

But it is a matter of doubt,

Whether he or St. Thomas could be said,

Soonest to have gone out.

"There are only three remaining,

St. Jude and the two Saints James,

And great was then Queen Mary's hope,

For the best of all good names.

"Great was then Queen Mary's hope,

But greater her fear, I guess,

When one of the three went out,

And that one was St. James the less.

"They are now within less than quarter inch,

The only remaining two.

When there came a thief in St James,

And it made a gutter too.

"Up started Queen Mary,

Up she sate in her bed,

'I can never call him Judas,'

She clasped her hands and said.

'I never can call him Judas!'

Again did she exclaim.

'Holy Mother, preserve us!

It is not a Christian name.'

"She opened her hands and clasped them again,

And the infant in the cradle

Set up a cry, a lusty cry,

As loud as he was able.

"'Holy Mother, preserve us!'

The Queen her prayer renewed,

When in came a moth at the window,

And fluttered about St. Jude.

"St. James had fallen in the socket,

But as yet the flame is not out,

And St. Jude hath singed the silly moth,

That flutters so idly about.

"And before the flame and the molten wax,

That silly moth could kill,

It hath beat out St. Jude with its wings,

But St. James is burning still.

"Oh, that was a joy for Queen Mary's heart,

The babe is christened James,

The Prince of Aragon hath got,

The best of all good names.

"Glory to Santiago,

The mighty one in war,

James he is called, and he shall be

King James the Conqueror.

"Now shall the Crescent wane,

The Cross be set on high,

In triumph upon many a mosque,

Woe, woe to Mawmetry!"

So Jayme the youth was named, Jayme being the popularly accepted Aragonese form for James, and early in life he entered upon an active career which soon showed him to possess a strong and crafty nature, though he was at the same time brutal, rough, and dissolute. In his various schemes for conquest and national expansion, he stopped at nothing which might ensure the success of his undertakings, and in particular did he attempt by matrimonial ventures of various kinds to increase his already large domain. This rather unusual disregard of the sacredness of the marriage relation, even for that time, may have been induced to some extent by the atmosphere in which he passed his youthful days; for his mother, the devout Queen Maria, in spite of all her pious zeal for the Church, was pleasure-loving, and in the excitement of court life it was whispered that she had looked with favor more than once upon some gallant troubadour from Provence who had written verses in her honor. Jayme's first marriage was with Eleanor of Castile, Berenguela's sister, but when he discovered that the young Castilian king, Fernando, was strong and capable and that there was no possibility whatever of an ultimate union of Aragon and Castile, at least within his own time, he promptly divorced Eleanor, and then wedded Yolande, the daughter of King Andrew of Hungary. Yolande's eldest son, Pedro, was married to Constance, daughter of King Manfred of Sicily, for purely political reasons; and when the King of France opposed this alliance as one detrimental to the best interests of the pope, who was being much aided at this time by Gallican support, Jayme cleverly silenced this complaint by marrying his daughter Isabel to Philip, the French dauphin. This daring King of Aragon had dreams of a great Romance Empire which might extend all over the southern part of Europe, with Aragon as its centre, and it was to this end that he bent all his energies. While he was not able to realize this fond hope, he was remarkably successful; and not a little of his success must be attributed to his lack of sentiment and his practical view of the matrimonial question.

With his conquests and the corresponding prosperity which is to be seen in Castile at the same general period, Christian Spain slowly became the most civilized and enlightened country in all Europe. Spain was rich, there was much culture and refinement, and her artistic manufactures excited the wonder of the world. With the knights who were coming in ever increasing numbers to do battle against the Moors, now that the time of the Crusades had passed, there came a goodly number of the troubadours and minstrels who had recently been driven from Provence by the cruel Simon de Montfort at the time of the Albigensian massacres, and the whole condition of Spanish society was such that the stern simplicity of the early Spaniards quickly disappeared. So great was the craze for poetry and for glittering entertainments and a lavish display of wealth, that Don Jayme felt called upon to take some restraining measures. Aragon, as well as Castile, was filled with the wealth of captured Moorish cities, there was a new sense of national security with each successive Christian victory, luxuries of all kinds were being brought within the reach of the people as the result of a newly aroused spirit of commercialism, and, all in all, to a warlike king, the situation was fraught with danger. Accordingly, Jayme determined to take matters into his own hands, and he proceeded to issue a number of sumptuary laws which were far from mild. Food was regulated, minstrels were not allowed to sit at the same table with ladies and gentlemen, most rigid rules were formulated against the abuse of gold, silver, and tinsel trimmings on the dresses of the women, and of the men as well, and the use of ermine and of all fine and Costly furs was carefully restricted. In Castile the same movement was taking place, and Alfonso X., who followed Fernando, issued similar laws, wherein women were forbidden to wear any bright colors, to adorn their girdles with pearls, or to border their skirts with either gold or silver thread. As in Italy at about the same time, and notably in Florence, extravagant wedding feasts were condemned, no presents of garments were permitted, and the whole cost of a bride's trousseau could not exceed sixty maravedis, a maravedi being a gold coin containing about sixty grains of the yellow metal.

It was in the midst of this brilliant period of national well-being that Spain was called upon to celebrate a wedding festival which far surpassed in magnificence anything that had ever before been seen among the Christians of the peninsula. The sister of King Alfonso X. of Castile, Eleanor, was given in marriage to Edward Plantagenet, the attractive young heir to the English throne, and it was in honor of this event that all Burgos was in gala dress in the month of October, 1254. All were on tiptoe with excitement, crowds thronged into the old cathedral city, and the windows and housetops were black with people, on that eventful day when the stalwart prince rode in through the great gate, with a glittering train of nobles at his back, to claim his bride. Prince Edward was a magnificent specimen of physical manhood, towering almost head and shoulders above his fellows, and the gorgeous entertainments which were prepared for him and his followers gave good opportunity for all to witness his courtly grace and his distinguished bearing. The chronicles of the time are full of the most superlative descriptions of this whole affair, and often they seem lost in wonderment, lacking words with which to describe the scene properly. Before the wedding, in accord with medi?val custom, Edward received knighthood at the hands of King Alfonso. In that same old monastery at Las Huelgas where the youth Fernando had kept his lonely vigil before he had been knighted by his noble mother, Queen Berenguela, the English prince now kept his watch; and when the morning came and he stood, tall and fair, clothed in a robe of white, ready to receive the accolade, before a company of chosen knights and ladies, the scene must have been wonderfully impressive. The bride, Eleanor, had been a great favorite with all her people, of both high and low degree, and all were glad to see that the future seemed to smile upon her.

A worthy companion to the wise Berenguela is found in the person of Maria de Molina, the wife of Sancho IV., called the Ferocious, King of Castile. His reign, which had extended over a period of eleven years, came to a close with his death in the year 1295, and in all that time there had been nothing but discord and confusion, warfare and assassination, as Sancho's claim to the throne had been disputed by several pretenders, and they lost no occasion to harass him by plot and revolution. It may well be imagined, then, that when he died, leaving his throne to his son Fernando, a child of nine, the situation was most perplexing for the queen-mother, who had been made regent, by the terms of her husband's will, until Fernando should become of age. A further matter which tended to complicate the situation was the fact that the marriage between Sancho and Maria had never been sanctioned by the pope, as the two were within the forbidden limits of consanguinity, and he had refused to grant his special dispensation. With this doubt as to her son's legitimacy, Maria was placed in a position which was doubly hard, and if she had not been a woman of keen diplomacy and great wisdom, she would never have been able to steer her ship of state in safety amid so many threatening dangers. Her first care was to induce the pope to grant, after much persuasion, the long-deferred dispensation which legalized her marriage; and this matter settled, she was ready to enter the conflict and endeavor to maintain her rights. The first to attempt her overthrow was the Infante Juan, the young king's uncle, who made an alliance with the Moorish king of Granada and assumed a threatening attitude. Maria sent against him her greatest nobles, Haro, and the Lords of Lara; but she had been deceived in the loyalty of these followers, as they promptly deserted the regent's cause and, with all their men, went over to the insurgents and helped to make more powerful the coalition which was forming against the infant king. For a brief moment Maria was in despair and felt almost ready to yield in the face of the opposition, as the hostile combination now included Portugal, Aragon, Navarre, France, and Granada, and it was their intent to separate the kingdoms of Leon and Castile if possible and undo all that Berenguela had labored so hard and with such success to accomplish. Inasmuch as this was, above all else, a quarrel which concerned the nobility, a contention which had its rise in the jealousy and mutual distrust of several powerful houses, Maria, with a keen knowledge of the situation, and with a sagacity which was rather surprising in a woman untrained in politics or government, decided to win to her side the great mass of the common people, with whom she had always lived in peace and harmony. Her first act was to call a meeting of the Cortes in Valladolid, which was the only city upon which she could depend in this crisis. The Cortes speedily acknowledged Fernando IV. as king, and with this encouragement Maria de Molina set bravely about her arduous task of organization and defence. Few of the nobles rallied to her support, but she soon won over the chartered towns by the liberal treatment she accorded them in matters of taxation and by her protection of the various civic brotherhoods which had been organized by the people that they might defend themselves from the injustice of the nobility, which was now showing itself in countless tyrannical and petty acts. She labored early and late, conducted her government in a most businesslike manner, convoked the Cortes in regular session every year, and by the sheer force of her integrity and her moral strength she finally quelled all internal disturbances and brought back the government to its former strength and solidity. In the year 1300 Fernando was declared king in his own right, at the age of fourteen, and then, for a short time, it looked as if all that the regent had sought to accomplish might suddenly be nullified. The king, inclined to be arrogant, and with his head somewhat turned as the result of his sudden accession to power, was prevailed upon to listen to evil counsellors, who tried in every way to make him believe that Maria had administered her regency with an eye to her own interests, and that much of the revenue which legally belonged to him had been diverted to her own private uses. Fernando, in spite of all his mother's goodness, was simple enough to believe these idle tales, and, in most unfilial and suspecting fashion, he sternly ordered Maria to render up a detailed account of her stewardship during his minority. Maria was much affected by this thoughtless and inconsiderate act, but before she had had time to reply or attempt her own defence in any way, a storm of indignation broke forth from the free towns, and Fernando was informed that he would not be allowed to enter the town of Medina del Campo, where the Leonese Cortes was to be held, unless he restored his mother to favor and brought her with him to the assembly. Fernando knew enough to fear the veiled threat which this communication contained, and the queen-regent appeared with him at the opening of the session. The scene which followed is pathetic in the extreme, and shows the magnanimity and unselfishness of Maria in a most striking manner. She spoke to the members of the Cortes, recalled their former struggles against the encroachments of the nobles, and urged them to prudent action, that there might be no further occasion for domestic strife. Loyalty to country and to king were the keynotes of her speech, and before she had finished, those who had assembled in anger, ready to renounce their allegiance on account of Fernando's shameful treatment of his mother, were now willing to forgive and pardon for that same mother's sake. This point once established and a loyal following secured, Maria proceeded to give in detail that account of her stewardship which had been called for, and she had no trouble in showing that her administration had been above reproach. Then it was that Fernando made public acknowledgment of the fact that he had been led astray by evil-minded advisers; a

nd the Cortes adjourned, faithful to the king and more than ever devoted to his mother. At Fernando's death in 1312, Maria de Molina was again called to the regency, so great was her reputation for wisdom and fair play; and when she ended her public career, in 1324, all hastened to do honor to her memory, and she was called Maria the Great, a title which has never been bestowed upon any other queen-regent in Spain. Her reputation for goodness was unchanged by the lapse of time, her goodness stands approved to-day, and two dramatists, Tirso de Molina and Roca de Togores, have depicted her as a heroine in their plays.

Under the reign of Alfonso XI., Castile was rent by two factions, one in support of the king's wife, Maria of Portugal, and the other friendly to his beautiful mistress, Leonora de Guzman. When a youth of seventeen, Alfonso had fallen captive to the charms of the fair Leonora; but his grandmother, Maria de Molina, actuated by political motives, had forced him to marry the Infanta Maria of Portugal. What might have been expected came to pass: Maria was the queen in name, but Leonora was the queen in fact. After three years had passed and no heir to the throne had been born, Alfonso threatened to plead his kinship as a reason and get a divorce; but Leonora, anticipating the trouble into which this might plunge the country, as Alfonso was eager to marry her as soon as the divorce should have been granted, urged him not to bring about this separation and did all in her power to make him abide by the arrangement which had been made for him. Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that two sons were finally born to Maria and the succession was assured, Leonora was by far the most influential woman in the kingdom, and was in every way better fitted to rule as queen than the neglected Maria. Leonora had her court and her courtiers, and had not only the love but the respect and confidence of the king, and exercised a considerable interest in affairs of state for a space of twenty years. So established was her position at the court, that she was allowed unhindered to found an order of merit, whose members wore a red ribbon and were called Caballeros de la Banda. This order was for the promotion of courtesy and knightly behavior, as it seems that there was still much crudity of manner in Castile; and according to Miss Yonge, the ceremonious Arabs complained that the Castilians were brave men, but that they had no manners, and entered each other's houses freely without asking permission. Finally, after the battle of Salado in 1340, which was a great triumph for Alfonso and the Christians, the king was induced to part definitely with his mistress. Maria, the true wife, had long been jealous of her power and had lost no opportunity to bring about her downfall. In the course of their long relationship Leonora had borne ten children to the king, and her beauty, if accounts be true, was in no way impaired; but, as he grew older, Alfonso could see more clearly the complications which might ensue if he persisted in this double course; and so, with a heavy heart, he consented to the separation, but not without having given to Leonora the well-fortified city of Medina-Sidonia, while her children were so well provided for that the royal revenues were sadly depleted. With the death of Alfonso in 1350 came the opportunity which Queen Maria had long since sought in vain, an opportunity for revenge. Leonora was summoned to Seville, that Maria might consult with her with regard to the interests of her children; and when the one-time mistress showed some disinclination to accept this invitation and gave evident signs of distrust, two noblemen of Maria's following pledged their honor for her safety. Assured by this show of good faith, Leonora went to Seville as she had been summoned, but no sooner had she entered the walls of the city than she was made a prisoner at Maria's order, dragged about in chains after the court, which was travelling to Burgos, and finally she was sent to Talavera, where she met an ignominious death at the hands of a servant, who cruelly strangled her. Strange to say, this act caused no special comment at the time, for, in spite of Leonora's general popularity, her influence had been of such incalculable harm to Maria and her followers in more ways than one, that their revenge was taken somewhat as a matter of course. Maria, however, in this display of savagery, had done more than she had anticipated; for, although she had continually tried to excite her son to this revenge upon her rival, her desire for bloody satisfaction had been satisfied at Leonora's death, and she now tried to have Pedro treat Leonora's sons as his own brothers, but all to no purpose. Young Pedro was cruel by nature; the early training which he had received from her hands had in no way softened him, and as a natural result, when he came to the throne and became his own master, he soon made himself known and feared by his many terrible and wicked deeds; and so marked did this fierce trait of character appear, that he was ever known as Pedro the Cruel, much to his mother's shame.

"If you ever feel disposed, Samivel, to go a-marryin' anybody,-no matter who,-just you shut yourself up in your own room, if you've got one, and pison yourself off-hand,"-such was the sententious advice of the elder Weller, as recorded by Charles Dickens in the immortal pages of the Pickwick Papers; and investigation will show that in all literatures, from the earliest times, similar warnings have been uttered to men who contemplated matrimony. A Tuscan proverb says: "in buying horses and in taking a wife, shut your eyes tight and commend yourself to God;" and a sage of Araby has remarked: "Before going to war, say a prayer; before going to sea, say two prayers; before marrying, say three prayers;" but the majority of men since the world began have been content to close their eyes tightly or utter their three prayers and take the goods the gods provide. Pedro the Cruel was no exception to this rule, and his capricious ventures in search of married bliss would fill many pages. According to Burke, "he was lawfully married in 1352 to the lady who passed during her entire life as his mistress, Maria de Padilla; he was certainly married to Blanche of Bourbon in 1353; and his seduction, or rather his violation, of Juana de Castro was accomplished by a third profanation of the sacrament, when the Bishops of Salamanca and Avila, both accessories to the king's scandalous bigamy, pronounced the blessing of the Church upon his brutal dishonor of a noble lady." Whether Pedro was ever married to Maria de Padilla is still an open question, but, if not his wife, she was his mistress for many years and had great power over him. The details of all this life of intrigue are somewhat confused, but enough is known to make it clear that Pedro was as cruel in love as in war and politics.

The queen-mother, ignorant of her son's marriage to Maria de Padilla, or deciding to ignore it, prevailed upon Pedro to ask for the hand of Blanche, the daughter of the Duke of Bourbon, and sister to Jeanne, wife to Charles, the heir of France. His request was granted, and the king sent his half-brother, the Master of Santiago, one of Leonora's sons, to fetch the bride to Spain. While this journey was being made, Pedro fell in love with one of the noble ladies in waiting of Do?a Isabel of Albuquerque, and so great was his passion for this dark-eyed damsel that it was with difficulty that he could be prevailed upon to leave her and go to greet the French princess when she finally arrived in Valladolid. But he tore himself away, went to Blanche, and was married with great pomp and ceremony. Some had said before the marriage that Maria de Padilla must have bewitched Pedro, so great was his infatuation; and three days after the wedding a strange thing happened, which caused people to shake their heads again and suggest the interference of the powers of sorcery. For, after this short time, Pedro rode away from Valladolid and his new queen and went to Montalvao, where Maria de Padilla was waiting to receive him. Just what had happened, it is somewhat difficult to discover, and the story is told that the king, listening to scandalous talk, was made to believe that his royal messenger and half-brother, Fadrique, had played the r?le of Sir Tristram as he brought the lady back, and that she had been a somewhat willing Isolde. There were others who said that Blanche, knowing the king's volatile disposition and of his relations with the notorious Maria, had endeavored upon the eve of her marriage to seek aid from the arts of magic in her effort to win the love of her husband, and had obtained from a Jewish sorcerer a belt which she was told would make Pedro faithful, kind, and true. But the story goes on to say that this wizard had been bribed by Maria de Padilla; and when the king tried on the girdle which his wife presented, it forthwith was changed into a hideous serpent, which filled him with such disgust that he could no longer bear the sight of her. Don Alfonso of Albuquerque, who had first introduced Pedro to Maria de Padilla, now tried to take her away from him, in the hope that he might be prevailed upon to return to his wife, the unfortunate Blanche. This so angered the king that he resolved upon Don Alfonso's death, and if it had not been for the timely warning given by Maria, this gentleman would certainly have been assassinated. This action on Maria's part, however, was the occasion for a fresh outburst of anger; and Pedro left, wooed Do?a Juana de Castro in stormy fashion, and induced her to marry him, on the statement that he had made a secret protest against Blanche and that the pope would soon annul this marriage. Thomas Hardy has said that the most delicate women get used to strange moral situations, and there must have been something of this in Juana's makeup, or she would never have been forced into so shameful a position; but, however that may be, she was made to rue the day, as the king left her the next morning for Maria, his Venus Victrix, and never went to see her again, although he gave her the town of Duefias and allowed her to be addressed as "queen." The chronicles of the time tell of the remarkable beauty of Maria and of the adulation she enjoyed in the heyday of her prosperity. As an instance of the extreme gallantry of the courtiers, we are informed that, with King Pedro, it was their custom to attend the lovely favorite at her bath and, upon her leaving it, to drink of its water.

The fate of Blanche was still hanging in the balance. Pedro, on leaving her so abruptly, had left orders that she be taken to his palace at Toledo, but Blanche, fearing to trust herself to his power, tried to slip from his grasp and finally succeeded in doing so. Arrived in Toledo, she asked permission, before entering the palace, to go to the cathedral, for mass; and once within the walls of the sanctuary, she refused to go back to her guards, demanded the right of protection which the churches had always possessed in the Middle Ages, and, finally, told her story with such dramatic effect, that the clergy crowded about her, the nobles unsheathed their swords and swore to uphold her cause, and a revolution was begun which soon assumed great proportions and so frightened Pedro that he consented to take back his wife and send away the baleful Maria. For four years his nobles kept stern watch over him, and he was never allowed to ride out of his palace without a guard of a thousand men at his heels, so fearful were they that he might break away from them, surround himself again with evil counsellors, and recommence his career of wantonness and crime. Their efforts were at last of no avail, as he eluded his followers one day upon a hunting expedition, through the kindly intervention of a heavy fog, rode off to Segovia, ordered his mother, who had been exercising a practical regency during this period, to send him the great seal of state, and then he proceeded to wreak vengeance upon all those who had been instrumental in his humiliation. Blanche was sent to prison at Medina-Sidonia on a trumped-up charge, was shamefully treated during the time of her captivity, and died in 1359, in the same year that Maria de Padilla, discredited and cast aside, also found rest in death. Pitiful as these stories are, they serve to show that women, even at this time, when Spain was the seat of learning and refinement for all Europe, were but the servants of their lords and masters, and that passion still ran riot, while justice sat upon a tottering seat.

In Aragon, near the close of this fourteenth century, similar scenes of cruelty were enacted, although the king, Juan I., cannot be compared for cruelty with the infamous Pedro. Burke has said that if Pedro was not absolutely the most cruel of men, he was undoubtedly the greatest blackguard who ever sat upon a throne, and King Juan was far from meriting similar condemnation. Sibyl de Foix, his stepmother, had exercised so strange and wonderful a power over his father, that when Juan came to the throne he was more than eager to turn upon this enchantress and make her render up the wide estates which the late king had been prevailed upon to leave to her. It is actually asserted that Juan charged Sibyl with witchcraft and insisted that she had bewitched his father and that she had all sorts of mysterious dealings with Satan and his evil spirits. Whatever the truth may have been, the unhappy queen only escaped torture and death by surrendering all of the property which had been given her. Juan was by no means a misogynist, however, for he was noted for his gallantry, and his beautiful queen, Violante, was surrounded by a bevy of court beauties who were famed throughout all Christendom at this time. Juan's capital at Saragossa was the talk of all Europe. It became famed for its elegance, was a veritable school of good manners and courtly grace, and to it flocked poets and countless gentlemen who were knightly soldiers of fortune, only too willing to serve a noble patron who knew how to appreciate the value of their chivalry. Violante was the acknowledged leader of this gay and brilliant world; at her instigation courts of love are said to have been established, and in every way did she try to reproduce the brilliant social life which had been the wonder and admiration of the world before Simon de Montfort had blighted the fair life of Provence. More than ever before in Spain, women were put into positions of prominence in this court; and so great was the poetic and literary atmosphere which surrounded them, that they were known more than once to try their hands at verse making. Their attempts were modest, however, and no one has ever been tempted to quote against them Alphonse Karr's well-known epigram: "A woman who writes, commits two sins: she increases the number of books, and she decreases the number of women;" for they were content, for the most part, to be the source of inspiration for their minstrel knights. Violante's gay court was looked upon with questioning eye, however, by the majority of her rude subjects, and, finally, when the sum demanded from the Cortes each year for the maintenance of this brilliant establishment continued to increase in a most unreasonable manner, the Cortes called a halt, Violante was obliged to change her mode of life, and the number of her ladies in waiting was reduced by half, while other unnecessary expenses were cut in proportion.

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