For the Honor of Her Lineage and Body: The Dowers and Dowries of Some Late Medieval Queens of Portugal

For the Honor of Her Lineage and Body: The Dowers and Dowries of Some Late Medieval Queens of Portugal

By Ana Maria S. A. Rodrigues

E-Journal of Portuguese History, Vol.5:1 (2007)

Abstract: In this article, we analyse the royal matrimonial contracts of the 15th century in order to evaluate their contribution to the autonomy, influence, power, and affluence of the queens of Portugal. The huge amounts of money promised in them as dowries and dowers remained in the hands of the kings and were paid to their spouses only in case of widowhood. But the queens were also entrusted with regular revenue that allowed them to have a consistent household and to be patrons of the arts and of the Church. And they received a certain number of towns where they could collect taxes, recruit troops, judge by appeal and appoint the local officials and priests.

Introduction: It has already been stressed that, among noble, princely and royal families, marriage was essential to avoid biological extinction, ensure dynastic continuity, overtake or maintain power, increase patrimony and wealth, and make useful alliances. To fulfill the first of these purposes, royal wives had to be able to bring forth healthy and preferentially male children, but as, in medieval times, there was no way to verify and assure the fertility of brides – except if they had had children from a previous marriage – youthfulness and vigor were used as a proxy. Physical beauty was also important as a means of winning and keeping the husband’s affection, and of having distinguished offspring. Good lineage would contribute toward attaining this goal as well. Yet moral beauty was even more appreciated as it would guarantee – or so the Castilian king Alfonso X presumed – the legitimacy of the progeny and therefore the honor of the monarch and the continuity of the dynasty.

The royal matchmakers only worried about the personal qualities and virtues of the future queens at a second stage, however. Before anything else, they chose a bride from within a princely or royal family because of the political and/or economic benefits that such an alliance would bring to the monarchy. Sometimes, brides would bring as a dowry huge domains, principalities or even kingdoms that would enlarge their husband’s realms, improve their finances, extend their diplomatic influence and strengthen their military power. At the very foundation of the kingdom of Portugal, such a situation is to be found: when Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile married off his bastard daughter Teresa to Henri of Bourgogne he granted her as a dowry the portucalensem terram, whose autonomy they both reinforced and which became totally independent in the hands of their son, Afonso Henriques.

Royal brides could also be transmitters of dynastic claims that had to be pleaded in the courts of justice or fought for on the battlefields, with unforeseeable results. Afonso V of Portugal took, as his second wife, his niece Juana in 1475 in order to defend her right to the Castilian throne and the honor of his sister, the former queen of Castile,1 but, more than anything, in order to unite the two kingdoms under his rule. Yet he was defeated in an important battle at Toro and failed to muster the international support he needed to continue the war against Isabel I of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon. Eventually, he accepted a peace treaty that forced Juana to marry the heir to the Castilian throne – who was then aged one – or to enter a convent. This treaty further arranged the marriage of Afonso V’s grandson – also named Afonso – to Isabel, the elder daughter of the Catholic king and queen.

Because of their dynastic, military, political and diplomatic consequences, it is not surprising that royal matrimonial projects and contracts have been edited and scrutinized by many scholars since an early date. However, the historians of genealogy, central power or international relations have not paid much attention to other important aspects of these documents. Indeed, matrimonial contracts also regulated the conditions under which the future queens, most of whom were foreigners, would live and perform their official role in their new country; therefore, they are central to the study of queenship. In this article, we will thus analyze the royal matrimonial contracts of the 15th century in order to evaluate their contribution to the autonomy, influence, power and affluence of the medieval queens of Portugal.

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