Alfonso X the Wise. The keys to a decisive reign

Fundación Disenso

Rafael Sánchez Saus / Professor of Medieval History (University of Cadiz) / Director of the Chair of Alfonso X the Wise

Statue of Alfonso X of Castile at the National Library. José Alcoverro 1892.

Don Alfonso, King of Castile, was a person of great wit, but not very demure: his ears were superb, his tongue unbridled, more suited to letters than to the government of his vassals. He gazed at the sky and looked at the stars, but in the meantime he lost the earth and the kingdom”. This judgement, as acerbic as it was unjust, made in 1601 by the Jesuit and great historian Juan de Mariana in his Historia General de España, has marked the image of the Wise King and his reign for centuries due to its influence on much of the historiography with the greatest capacity to reach the general public. And yet, for some decades now, clearly since the 7th centenary of his death was commemorated in 1984 with a great institutional and scientific display – which today is lacking in the 8th centenary of his birth – the greater knowledge of the true nature of the King’s personality, his reign and his legacy, allows us to state that Alfonso X of Castile and León was one of the great figures of a century, the 13th, which was overflowing in them all over Europe. Alfonso X did not lose out to his father Fernando III, or to his father-in-law Jaime I of Aragon. Not even before the very powerful uncles Frederick II, Emperor of Germany and King of Sicily, known in his time as Stupor Mundi, the wonder of the world, or Louis IX of France, Saint Louis. Moreover, he was undoubtedly, within this gallery of giants, the greatest of his generation, the one that occupied the second half of the century.

Alfonso X was born in Toledo on 23 November 1221 and died in Seville on 4 April 1284. He inherited the throne in 1252, on the death of his father, at more than thirty years of age and with extensive experience of government. As heir to the throne of Castile, he had received a select education, which was combined with a first-rate political and military training as an assistant to his own father, the King. At the same time, he was instructed in the great legal novelty of his time, the reception of Roman law, carried out in Italy with the addition of elements of canon or ecclesiastical law, the most advanced of his time, and from his youth he felt a marked fondness for the highest tasks of study and patronage: he protected poets, scientists and jurists, both Moors and Christians or Jews, and to his encouragement and dedication we owe most of the great tasks that enamelled his reign in these fields. Thus, on his initiative, legal works of extraordinary importance were composed (Fuero Real, Espéculo, Partidas and Setenario), poetic works that are at the pinnacle of Hispanic poetry of his time (Cantigas de Santa María and Cantigas profanas), historical works of broad vision (General Estoria and Estoria de España), scientific works (Lapidario, Libro complido en los judizios de las estrellas, Libro de las cruzes, Libro de las Tablas alfonsíes and Libros del saber de astrología, among others), and even mere entertainment (Libro de acedrex, dados e tablas). Many of them, moreover, were richly and artistically illuminated. He was interested in all these subjects and excelled in all of them. In this respect, there has been no one like him in the history of Spain and, we doubt, in any other kingdom of Latin Christendom. Moreover, a by-product of this cultural activity was the consecration of Castilian as the language of the chancellery, administration and culture of the time, although he himself wrote his poetic works in Galician-Portuguese and Latin remained the language of choice for philosophical and scientific works for a long time yet. The direct contribution of Alfonso X and his cultural works to the standardisation of Castilian, to the growth of its lexicon and its expressive capacity was of the utmost importance.

Book of the Games, Alfonso X and his court.

All this is well known, although it is worth recalling it once again, but perhaps it is necessary now to emphasise the great political, military and administrative achievements of his long rule, and also the many difficulties, which became greater as the years went by. Between 1252 and 1264 were the best years of his reign, during which Don Alfonso was able to launch a series of legislative and institutional initiatives aimed at strengthening royal power (introduction of the Royal Charter in many towns and cities, frequent meetings of the Cortes, organisation of justice and territorial administration with the creation of the Adelantados Mayores, reform of taxation in a centralising fashion to provide the Crown with greater resources, etc.). Some of these measures aroused resistance, especially in sectors of the nobility and the clergy, who saw their power undermined, and in many councils who feared the infringement of their old rights, but the King’s provisions led to the emergence of new knightly elites who were fundamental to the consolidation of the municipal regime in the following centuries. Although in those years opposition remained more or less latent, these royal actions were at the root of the unrest that would erupt from 1272 onwards with the revolt of a large section of the high nobility.

Alfonso X the Wise (City Council of León). José María Rodríguez de Losada

Another fundamental aspect of his domestic policy was aimed at improving the economy of his kingdoms. Thus, he developed communications, promoted freedom of trade, opposing the establishment of internal customs barriers, tried with little success to unify the system of weights and measures to facilitate transactions, created dozens of new market fairs, multiplying the existing ones and helping to consolidate trade routes and regional trade, protected the production of his kingdoms and regulated foreign trade to prevent impoverishing exports and extract tax benefits. This customs regulation had the added effect of fixing the borders of the territory more clearly, establishing common internal ties vis-à-vis other monarchies or foreign powers.

During those years he also engaged in military campaigns to consolidate his father’s conquests and try to project them even into North Africa, following the crusader impulse that was then one of the great ideological levers of Christianity. When he acceded to the throne in 1252, Alfonso X already had extensive experience in these matters. In 1243 he was the author of the pact that made the kingdom of Murcia a Castilian protectorate and prepared its annexation a few years later; in 1246 he assisted his father in the siege of Jaén and was present at the constitution of the agreement with Muhammad I, the first Nasrid king of Granada, which made him a vassal of Castile; in 1248 he was present at the conquest of Seville, and to the organisation of the city and its kingdom he devoted his first efforts once he had reached the throne. From the military point of view, and given that all the remaining Muslim powers on the Peninsula were vassals of Castile (the kingdom of Niebla and the Guadalete region with the Bay of Cadiz, as well as Granada), Alfonso X planned the great feat of going beyond, the attempt to take the conquests to the other side of the Straits, for which he created large shipyards in Seville to provide the essential fleet and created the Almirantazgo Mayor of Castile as supreme commander of the squads. The first expeditions, launched as early as 1260, made him realise that he needed a firmer foothold on the Atlantic coast for this project, and so in 1262 he repopulated Cadiz and El Puerto with Castilian people, and carried out the conquest of the kingdom of Niebla, which occupied a large part of what is now the province of Huelva. These actions violated the pacts made by Fernando III with the Mudejar population and led, with the support of Muhammad I of Granada, to a large and dangerous revolt between 1264 and 1266, which was brought under control. This was followed by the almost total expulsion of the Muslims from these areas, which were then fully integrated into Castile. The break with Granada had serious consequences when, from 1275, the Benimerines of Fez were in a position to intervene in Spain and launched major expeditions in Andalusia until 1285. Alfonso X’s reaction ended in a naval defeat at Algeciras in 1279 when he tried to block the Strait of Gibraltar. The consequence of this chain of events was not only the end of the “fecho de allende”, which became unfeasible, but also the displacement of the conflict towards the Strait until the conquest of Algeciras in 1344 by Alfonso XI, and the formation of the border between Castile and Granada, a geohistorical phenomenon that would mark the history of Andalusia and Murcia until the end of the 15th century.

Stamp of Alfonso X of Castile

But the circumstances of war, although they conditioned the effort to repopulate and organise the territory, did not make it impossible. During the reign, either on the initiative of Don Alfonso himself or through the Military Orders, a gigantic colonisation effort took place, affecting immense territories south of the River Tajo, from the borders of Portugal to those of Aragon and from the gates of Toledo to Cadiz. Hundreds of towns and cities were granted charters and land was distributed to thousands and thousands of settlers. In some places the Castilian presence was consolidated, in others it was established: Seville, Jerez, Cadiz, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Niebla, Murcia, Lorca, Cartagena, Ciudad Real and the great lordships of the Military Orders in Extremadura and La Mancha were the great beneficiaries of the repopulating action.

This action to organise the territory, in which the King’s work was outstanding and which is rarely mentioned among the great achievements of his reign, also extended to the Cantabrian coast, where numerous villas were created or towns were granted privileges to facilitate their development: Pontedeume, Gijón, Ribadesella, Villaviciosa and dozens more in all these regions from Galicia to Guipúzcoa. As the great medievalist Miguel Ángel Ladero has pointed out, colonisation “is like background music that animates the reign of Alfonso X, especially until 1275, with diverse results, but always founding a new historical era in the lands of the Crown of Castile”.

Statue of Alfonso X the Wise next to the Castle of San Marcos (El Puerto de Santa María, Cádiz). Emilio J. Rodríguez Posada

All this immense task was combined with Alfonso X’s growing involvement from 1256 onwards in European politics in pursuit of his election as Holy Roman Emperor, the famous “fecho del Imperio” that was to be criticised so much in those years and in the future. However, the Alphonsine claim was not the product of a whim or unsupported ambition, but rather the logical consequence of his dynastic position in the Staufen lineage after the death of Frederick II and his son Conrad. On the other hand, it is possible that other undisputed facets of his cultural and political project would have remained in the air or unjustified if they had not all been seen as part of a whole with the imperial designation as the ultimate goal and key element. This had two moments: the election as king of the Romans by the prince electors of the Empire and the subsequent coronation by the Pope, which conferred the imperial title. In April 1257 Alfonso X was elected King of Romans by a majority of electors, but others chose Richard of Cornwall, and Pope Alexander IV, like his successors, in the face of this disputed election, found a pretext for not handing over the Empire to a member of the Staufen lineage who had his main supporters among the Ghibelline party, traditionally opposed to papal power. For many years the dispute remained open, and in 1272, when Richard of Cornwall died, it seemed more favourable than ever. However, Gregory X then preferred Rudolf of Habsburg. Alfonso X made a last attempt and in 1275 travelled to Beaucaire, near Avignon, to meet the Pope. All to no avail: “Alfonso returned to Castile empty-handed, after eighteen years of projects and efforts, to face the stormy panorama of his kingdom, where the heir Fernando had just died and whose southern lands were facing the first devastating attack by the North African Marinids” (Miguel Ángel Ladero).

Alfonso X the Wise. Joaquín Domínguez Bécquer

The death of Fernando de la Cerda, his first-born son, on his way to Andalusia to confront the Benimerines, sparked a new great conflict that embittered the King’s last years. Alfonso X was already at an advanced age for the time – his father had died in his early fifties and was ill, so the death of the heir to the throne raised the question of succession at a time of grave difficulty for the Crown and with Don Alfonso weakened by his imperial failure. It is not possible to summarise here the legal arguments that supported the two opposing solutions: the one in favour of Sancho, the King’s second son, which corresponded to the traditional law of Castile, and the one that handed the succession to Fernando’s children, who were very young at the time, which was the one contemplated in Las Partidas and which, it seems, had been committed when the marriage between the infant heir and Blanche of Anjou, daughter of Louis IX of France, took place.

Imaginary portrait of Alfonso X of Castile, preserved in the Alcázar of Segovia.

Although Alfonso supported Sancho’s rights, pressure from Philip III of France on behalf of his nephews, which almost provoked a war between the kingdoms, inclined him to a pact that would have entailed heavy compensation for his grandsons. Sancho’s refusal of any compromise soured the relationship between father and son and led, from 1281, to a breakdown in relations between them that culminated in the so-called Assembly of Valladolid on 20 April 1282: Alfonso X was stripped of all his powers and revenues, which were transferred to Sancho. He was not deposed, but he was disqualified and, to all intents and purposes, deprived of the government of his kingdoms. At the beginning of that summer his authority was only recognised in the kingdom of Seville and in certain areas of Murcia with its capital. His international isolation was almost total and only Abu Yusuf, the Benimerin sultan, was willing to help him, thus taking advantage of the opportunity offered to weaken Castile by intervening in its civil war. It was in this state of complete prostration that he wrote his famous will of 8 November 1282, in which he recounts in detail his tribulations, curses Sancho and names the de la Cerda infantes as his heirs.

On 4 April 1284, Alfonso X the Wise died in the Alcázar in Seville. His son Sancho was immediately recognised as his successor. As the greatest scholar of the King, Manuel González Jiménez, has summed up, “thus ended an exciting reign, full of achievements and failures…. His death brought a bitter end to the reign of the wisest and most universal of the medieval Hispanic kings, and also the least understood in his time and the most unfortunate”. He was truly ahead of his time, and this quality brought him both glory and reproach.

Sources

This post was translated from:

(2021) ‘Alfonso X el sabio. Las claves de un reinado decisivo’, 23 November. Available at: https://fundaciondisenso.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Alfono-X-El-Sabio-20211115.pdf (Accessed: 23 November 2021).

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