By Jessica Minieri (Twitter: @jessica_minieri)
Cover Photo: Blanca’s initial on the ceiling of the Cathedral de Santa María la Real in Pamplona, Spain (Wikimedia Commons).
In 1402, Navarrese princess, Blanca (c.1387-1441), arrived in Palermo to marry the king of Sicily, Martí “El Joven” (r. 1390-1409), in an effort to secure his throne following the death of his first wife and co-ruler, Maria of Sicily (r. 1377-1401). The circumstances of this union began in the fourteenth century as the Aragonese royal house worked to unite its monarchy with Sicily in the decades following the War of the Sicilian Vespers (1282-1302). Since 1302, Sicily was ruled by a semi-autonomous cadet branch of the Aragonese House of Barcelona that maintained its own monarchy, parliament, and political institutions. While Maria’s death in 1401 temporarily stalled hopes in Barcelona for a dynastic merge with Sicily, Martí’s place as king of Sicily and heir of his father in Aragon, Martín “El Humano” (r. 1396-1410), left that possibility open.
After months of searching for a new wife, Blanca, princess of the Iberian Kingdom of Navarre, travelled to Palermo to become the new queen of Sicily and give new life to Aragonese hopes of a dynastic union.
While Blanca’s and Martí’s future may have seemed bright in the early years of their marriage, by 1409, things in Sicily had turned sour quickly as Martí died of battle wounds sustained in Sardinia. At his death, Blanca assumed the title of lieutenant general (vicaria generalis) and Martín of Aragon, Blanca’s father-in-law and Martí’s father, inherited the throne of Sicily. This arrangement, however, only lasted until May 1410 when King Martín died and left both the kingdoms of Aragon and Sicily without formal heirs. As the resulting political and dynastic situation worsened in Barcelona, Blanca remained as lieutenant until a replacement could be named at the ascension of a new king. This position, similar to a regent, allowed her to rule Sicily with the authority of a king. As the tension over the Arago-Sicilian succession grew violent in Iberia, a faction of Sicilian nobles led by Bernardo Cabrera, count of Modica (1350-1423), plotted to reshape Sicily at Blanca’s expense.
According to the minutes of the Catalan Parliament (Corts) in March 1412, Cabrera attempted to abduct Blanca and force her into marriage with Nichola Peralta, a descendant of Maria of Sicily. Cabrera’s representative to the Corts, Antonio Rigau, argued that a marriage between Nichola and Blanca would restore Sicily’s monarchy to its pre-1409 status and prevent it from falling under Aragon’s direct control via a dynastic merge with Barcelona. This arrangement, however, would stall Blanca’s ability to return to Navarre and prevent her from inheriting her father’s throne since, after the death of her sister, Juana, in 1413, Blanca became the heir.
Luckily for Blanca, this scheme foundered, and she was able to combat Cabrera’s ambitions until a new king, Ferdinand de Antequera (r. 1412-1416), was elected in Aragon in June 1412. Meanwhile, Blanca travelled around the island as Cabrera sieged the castles and municipalities that she visited. In her published letters from 1412, Blanca refers to Cabrera as a “rebel to this house” (rebelli di la casa) and an “occupier and destroyer of the kingdom” (occupaturi et distrudituri di quistu Regnu). Blanca’s fight to protect her throne characterized her lieutenancy since this fight with Cabrera dragged on for years.
Once news arrived in Sicily of the election of Ferdinand de Antequera, Blanca received the support she needed from Barcelona to repel further challenges to her position. By the end of 1412, Blanca banished Cabrera from Sicily and arranged for a marriage between Peralta and Isabella de Luna, a member of a high-ranking Catalan noble family. With the threat to herself and, by extension, the monarchy, extinguished, Blanca herself needed to arrange her journey home to Navarre.
The logistics of this journey had been in motion in Navarre for years as Blanca’s parents, Carlos III (r. 1387-1425), and Leanor of Castile (r. 1387-1416), petitioned the Catalan Parliament and the schismatic Avignon Pope, Benedict XIII (disputed reign 1394-1403/1423), in 1410 and 1411 to negotiate the terms of Blanca’s return. Both attempts, however, were unsuccessful since Blanca could not leave Sicily without a replacement. Ferdinand de Antequera’s ascension following years of failed negotiations and uncertainty brought new hope of Blanca’s return for Carlos and Leanor. Unfortunately, this process was not settled until late 1414 when Juan of Aragon, son of Ferdinand and Blanca’s eventual second husband, became of age to succeed her as lieutenant. Once Juan embarked for Palermo, Blanca traveled to Pamplona to become her father’s formal heir in 1415. By her death in 1441, Blanca had ruled Navarre as regnant queen with Juan for sixteen years.
While she may be most known in the Anglophone world for her reign in Navarre, Blanca’s lieutenancy in Sicily is still revered in popular celebrations of the island’s medieval past. From her namesake village of Biancavilla in the Province of Catania to commemoration of the legend of her failed abduction at Donnafugata Castle in Ragusa, Bianca di Navarra remains an ever-present figure in the landscape of the Sicilian medieval past.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading
De Bofarull y Mascaro, Prospero Coleccion de documentos ineditos del Archivo General de la Corona de Aragon. Barcelona: Archivo General de la Corona de Aragon, 1847
Fodale, Salvatore, “Blanca de Navarra y el gobierno de Sicilia,” Principe de Viana 60, no.217 (1999), 311-322.
Lo Forte Scirpo, Maria Rita. C’era una volta una regina: due donne per un regno: Maria d’Aragona e Bianca di Navarra. Napoli: Liguori, 2003.
Ramirez Vaquero, Eloisa. Carlos III rey de Navarra, Principe de sangre Valois (1387-1425). Gijón: Ediciones Trea, 2007.
_____. “El Retorno a Navarra de la reina de Sicilia in 1415,” Principe de Viana 70, no. 246 (2009), 121-144.
Sciascia, Laura, “Bianca di Navarra, l’ultima regina. Storia femminile della monarchia siciliana,” Principe de Viana 60, no. 217 (1999), 293-310.
Starrabba, Raffaele. Lettere e documenti della regina Bianca, vicaria del Regno di Sicilia (1411-1412). Palermo: Amenta, 1887.
Woodacre, Elena, ed. Queenship in the Mediterranean: Negotiating the Role of the Queen in the Medieval and Early Modern Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
_____. The Queens Regnant of Navarre: Succession, Politics, and Partnership, 1274-1512. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.