Excerpt from Pharaohs, Emperors, and Other Women who Ruled.
Urraca: León and Castile, 1109-1126
If we were to write about royal women who had to marry men they didn’t want to, we would need several more books. But Urraca of León and Castile went to war to be free of her husband.
Urraca was the oldest legitimate daughter of Alfonso VI of León and Castile, in northern Spain. Despite marrying five times, Alfonso VI hadn’t managed to have a legitimate son who survived to adulthood. As a result, Urraca was the presumed heir to the throne; this meant her marriage was a matter of considerable political importance. Her upbringing was probably typical of royal brides at the time: she would have been trained to be wife and mother, consort and eventually mother of kings. At the age of about 8 she was formally married to Raymond of Burgundy, a French mercenary nobleman. Now, at first a mercenary soldier and younger son might seem like an odd choice for a royal heiress. However, Alfonso VI had become king of a large part of northern Spain through war and deceit, so Raymond must have looked like a good potential king to him. Urraca and Raymond would have begun living together when she was about thirteen. They had two children, Sancha and Alfonso Raimundez, and were set up as rulers of the province of Galicia, which Alfonso VI had given to Raymond – not Urraca – when the two married.
But in May 1107 Urraca’s life changed radically. First her father, realising that a legitimate son just wasn’t in the cards, made her illegitimate brother Sancho his heir. Raymond of Burgundy must have been annoyed – as the husband of the legitimate daughter and father of a legitimate royal grandson, many would have felt his claim to be stronger than Sancho’s. But by the end of the month Raymond was dead, and Urraca was left single, a princess but not an heiress. She did continue to rule in Galicia, as royal daughter, widow, and mother.
A year later, and it was succession upheaval all over again. Her half-brother Sancho had been killed fighting against the Muslim kingdoms of southern Spain. Left with no sons, Alfonso VI went back to Urraca, declaring her his heir in 1108 and looking for a new husband for her. Neither Urraca nor the court seemed particularly taken with his choice, Alfonso I of Aragon, but his nickname “the Battler” suggests that once again Alfonso VI was looking for a warrior to succeed him. Despite their lack of enthusiasm, in view of no other handy choice, Urraca and her advisors went ahead with the match even after Alfonso VI’s death in 1109.
To say the marriage was not a success is an understatement. There was an immediate rebellion in Galicia, where Urraca’s son with her first husband, and current heir to her throne, was in the care of the archbishop of Santiago de Compostela. Her illegitimate half sister and her husband, Countess Teresa and Count Henry of Portugal (not yet an independent kingdom) began seeking to extend their own power. And in León and Castile there was resentment against the Aragonese officials appointed by Alfonso I. But the final blow to the marriage was Urraca’s own disenchantment with her husband: a short six months after marrying, she split from Alfonso I and began to issue charters and other documents in her own name.
Why was the marriage such a disaster? There are so many possibilities: Urraca claimed that Alfonso I was physically abusive, but in the twelfth century this might not have been enough to get Urraca a divorce. One scholar has suggested that it was Alfonso I’s failure to get Urraca pregnant that was the root problem, but six months is an awfully short time to try before giving up – unless someone wasn’t even trying. There were rumours that Alfonso I, who was a bachelor when he married and never remarried, and wasn’t known to have any mistresses, just wasn’t interested in women. And while Alfonso I may not have wanted any woman, it seems another part of the marriage breakdown was that Urraca may not have wanted any husband; after Raymund’s death, she had been an independent woman, ruling her own domain, and she already had an heir from that marriage. Her father got it wrong – what Urraca needed wasn’t a tough, take charge warrior, but a man who would be content to either stay in the background, or to be her general, not her king. She doesn’t seem to have objected to men so much as husbands: later chronicles list her lovers, although they almost certainly overestimate.
Whatever the reasons for the difficulties, by 1111, marital discord had escalated into civil war. Things started badly for Urraca, who was defeated by a joint force of her husband and her brother-in-law, Henry of Portugal. But Henry of Portugal soon switched sides, tempted by a better division of the spoils offered by Urraca’s faction. And back and forth it went for a year, with various battles, alliances, betrayals, etc. One particularly important change was when Urraca got physical custody of her son Alfonso Raimundez; she now could command the support of those who were loyal to her late husband and young son, and Alfonso Raimundez had a better claim than Alfonso I (yes, there are too many Alfonsos here – no doubt Urraca thought so too). Eventually, in 1112, it was over: the marriage was annulled, the division of lands agreed, and Urraca could get on with the daily work of ruling and trying to win back as many lands as possible. She did pretty well, driving out Alfonso I in 1113, and settling into peace in 1116.
But having gotten rid of her ex, she now had trouble with her half-sister. Although Teresa was an illegitimate daughter of Alfonso VI, her father’s decision to name his illegitimate son his heir had opened the door of Teresa to advance her claims, and those of her son (yet another Alfonso). Teresa, now a widow, had been quite content to sit and rule her own domains while Urraca dealt with her ex-husband. But by 1117, Teresa began to call herself Queen of Portugal, and Urraca wasn’t having that. With ex-husband, son, and rebellious vassals, Urraca was able to use a combination of diplomacy, double-dealing and war to maintain her own position. But Teresa was not interested in any compromise. Battle erupted on at least three occasions, before Teresa was finally captured in 1121, and only allowed her freedom in exchange for submitting. (Teresa would eventually be removed from power in Portugal following a civil war with her own son.)
Not only did Urraca retain her throne and her single status, but the kingdom that she left to her son was unified and largely peaceful – the mark of any successful medieval sovereign.