By Therese Martin
Speculum, Vol. 80 (2005)
Introduction: Recent studies of queenship have allowed us to look closely at various aspects of the life of a ruler’s consort, from patronage to reputation to commemoration, with a focus on the queens who were wives or mothers of kings. This study, however, will focus on Urraca of Leon-Castile (reigned 1109-26) to examine the unusual role of a reigning queen, that is, the king’s daughter and heir to his throne, whose position carried a greater dynastic weight than did a queen consort’s. The latter, although far from powerless, wielded authority only because she was married to a king or, in the case of regents and widows, was the mother of a king. These women married into the royal line, whereas reigning queens were of the royal line. In the central Middle Ages, reigning queens were a brief anomaly of the twelfth century, a not-altogether-successful experiment from the point of view of their courts and their heirs. Matilda of England (d. 1167), Melisende of Jerusalem (d. 1161), and Urraca of Leon-Castile (d. 1126) inherited their kingdoms from their fathers. All had turbulent reigns, brought on by parallel situations: the kings, lacking legitimate sons, named daughters as heirs to the throne, but powerful opposition to the new queens arose after their fathers’ deaths. Of the three, Urraca is the least well known today, but the one who ruled her kingdom the longest, seventeen years. She was the daughter of the powerful king Alfonso VI (reigned 1065-1109), who, despite his six wives, left no son to follow him as king. Today, if Queen Urraca is remembered at all, it is for the “turbulence” of her reign, the word of choice among those who have discussed her. Bernard Reilly rightly criticized “the prevailing tendency . . . to consider Urraca’s reign as a kind of interregnum to be discussed and dismissed as quickly as possible.” Despite Reilly’s efforts to counteract that tendency, it is still all too evident in the 1998 volume of the generally excellent Menendez Pidal History of Spain series. The chapter dealing with Urraca’s father is entitled “The Spain of Alfonso VI,” and that covering her son’s rule is “The Empire of Alfonso VII”; Urraca’s seventeenyear reign disappears under the chapter heading “From Alfonso VI to Alfonso VII.” Her reign deserves to be reexamined. Urraca carried out a series of strategies that secured her place on the throne and solidified her unique position as queen regnant, including, as I argue, architectural patronage. Also among those strategies were the public acknowledgment of her favorite from the upper nobility and her command of the military, actions proper to a monarch, though surprising in a medieval queen. In short, Urraca lived as a king rather than a queen. However, her political triumphs during her lifetime brought a backlash after her death. From the thirteenth century on, chroniclers and historians excoriated Urraca and blamed her immorality for destroying peace in her day. Clearly, Urraca did not conform to the standards of behavior developed for queen consorts and applied retroactively to this twelfth-century reigning queen.