Illegitimate daughters exercising power in the twelfth century: The case of Urraca the Asturian

By Lucía Gomez

In the medieval era, the twelfth century appears as one of special importance for the analysis of female power. In Castile, the effective exercise of power by women of the royal family was facilitated, strengthening their position as queens, consorts, sisters, daughters, mediators, advisors, and even intercessors before the king. This is evidenced in the figure of Urraca the Asturian (c. 1133-1164/1180), who, despite being an illegitimate daughter, enjoyed a position from which it was possible for her to participate in courtly life.

Her birth dates to 1133, as the result of the relationship between Alfonso VII and Gontrodo Petri. She may have been conceived either not long after the King’s marriage to Doña Berenguela during the first uprisings of Gonzalo Peláez in Asturias the previous year[1] or after the 1132 quarrel between the parents of Gontrodo and the abbot of the monastery of San Pedro de Eslonza over the property of the monastery of Verbio, which was gathered in Oviedo under the authority of Alfonso, his sister the Infanta Sancha, and the Queen Berenguela.[2]

The Castle or Tower of Soto. Where Urraca might have been conceived, lived some summers once she has grown up and used the place to organise the uprising. Image Credit: Author’s own image.

Urraca’s childhood passed uneventfully in the circle of her aunt the Infanta Sancha, who guided her in the consolidation of the feminine virtues of that epoch and educated her according to her rank. Her mother lived in the company of her siblings, taking care of her other children from her marriage to Gutierre Sebastiániz, Sebastián, Diego and Aldonza, and trying to increase her inheritance with new acquisitions.[3]

Gontrodo Petri’s tomb. Located in the Archaeological Museum of Asturias, Oviedo. Image Credit: Author’s own image.

Urraca came to special prominence when her father promised her to King García Ramírez in 1144 after the unstable relationship with Navarre caused by the expansionist policy of the Kingdom of Castile-Leon, and Alfonso VII’s claim to occupy the throne of Navarre and Aragon after the death of his stepfather, Alfonso the Battler, in 1134. In the peace treaty, they established that García Ramírez was to become the vassal of the Emperor, who “would serve him without deceit during all the days of their lives”, while Alfonso confirmed him as his son-in-law, establishing June 24 as the appropriate day for the celebration of the nuptials in the city of Leon.[4]

Miniature of King García Ramírez of Pamplona. Compendio de crónicas de reyes (c. XIV). Image Credit: Wiki Commons.

The celebration of the royal wedding was an important event for the realm, since, in part, it marked the elevation of Urraca as Queen, and it contributed to the creation of a memorable moment, in which the King showed all his splendour.[5] In the Chronicle of Emperor Alfonso VII, the detailed and vivid descriptions of the preparations and the celebration of the wedding ceremony are astonishing, especially since details regarding the marriage of any of Alfonso’s legitimate daughters —Sancha with Sancho VI of Navarre and Constance with Louis VII of France— are unknown, despite their marriages also sealing important alliances for the Kingdom of Castile-Leon. Here, an extraordinary festive and diplomatic scene unfolded, with a display of power accompanied by music and popular tradition, where Urraca’s father and her aunt honoured her with numerous gifts of great symbolic power.[6]

All the nobles and clerical hierarchy of the Kingdom were summoned, as well as great numbers of Leonese and Castilians, people from the Extremadura Soriana and Salmantina, from the recently conquered Transierra Cauriense, others from the border of Toledo, knights of Navarre, and abundant Asturians —especially those from Tineo—.[7] This gave Urraca’s marriage the value of a public regal act, reinforcing the need to provide the celebrations with mechanisms that involved the Kingdom as a whole and its representatives according to the place that they occupied in the social organization of the time.[8] Urraca entered the ceremony accompanied by the Infanta Doña Sancha, who had arranged Urraca’s marriage bed in the royal palace in San Pelayo of Leon, and quite a crowd of noble knights, clergy, women and maids. The festivities continued in Pamplona, ​​principal city of Navarre, where another banquet was held for several days, “in honour of the Castilians who were with King García Ramírez and all the knights and advisers of his Kingdom”.[9]

Marrying the King of Navarre gave Urraca the opportunity to effectively join the monarchical institution, sharing her personal existence with her husband and representing together the politic body, protected by their marital union.[10] She remained in Pamplona for six years as queen consort, giving birth to a daughter named Sancha, possibly in honour of her aunt, who would later marry Gaston de Bearne.

With the death of her husband in a hunting accident in 1150, the young widow decided to leave the Court of Pamplona and the lands of the Kingdom of Navarre to once again occupy a place within Castilian-Leonese royalty. In 1153, her father entrusted her with the government of Oviedo, Asturias, and she shared the Infantazgo of that region with her aunt Sancha. There, she inaugurated the second period of her public life, more active and with more significance than the six years of sovereignty in Navarre. This political task was carried out while maintaining the title of regina and as co-regent or regnante, but always recognizing the superior royal authority of the monarch.[11]

In 1163, she entered into her second marriage with the nobleman don Álvaro Rodríguez, from the Castro family, with whom she had a son named Sancho Álvarez.[12] The following year, they provoked a failed uprising, interpreted as a separatist rebellion against Fernando II, the King of Leon.[13] Avoiding prosecution, Urraca died in Palencia, where she was buried in the cathedral dedicated to San Antonio. The date of her death was initially estimated to be in 1164 due to the lack of contemporary documentation, but later examination of her embalmed remains placed her death around 1180.[14]

Urraca’s sepulchre in the cathedral dedicated to San Antonio, Palencia. Image Credit: Author’s own image.

Recommended Reading

Inés Calderón Medina, “Las concubinas regias en las crónicas y las genealogías hispanas. Entre el elogio, el desprecio y el silencio (ss. XII-XIV)”, Edad Media. Revista de Historia, nº 23, 2022, pp. 67-95.

Inés Calderón Medina, “Las hijas ilegítimas del rey en los reinos hispánicos occidentales (XI-XIII): Sus primeros años de vida”, in María Isabel del Val Valdivieso, Juan Carlos Martín Cea y David Carvajal de la Vega (edit.) Expresiones del poder en la Edad Media: Homenaje al profesor Juan Antonio Bonachía Hernando, Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, 2019, pp. 43-52.

Inés Calderón Medina, “Reinas e infantas. El poder femenino en los Reinos Ibéricos occidentales: S. XI – XIII”, in Maria Magdalena Cerdà Garriga, Antònia Juan Vicens y Sebastiana María Sabater Rebassa (coord.) La condició femenina a l’edat mitjana: entre protagonisme i marginalitat, Illes balears: Universitat de les Illes Balears, 2017, pp.

María Concepción Casado Lobato, “¿Un intento de secesión asturiana en el siglo XII?”, Asturiensia Medievalia, nº 3, 1979, pp. 163-171.

Francisco Javier Fernández Conde, “Influencias foráneas y transformaciones de la sociedad asturiana a lo largo del siglo XII”, Asturiensia medievalia,nº 5, 1985, pp. 111-133.

Francisco Javier Fernández Conde, “La regencia de Urraca la Asturiana. ¿Un primer capítulo de regionalismo secesionista en Asturias?”, in Eloy Benito Ruano y Francisco Javier Fernández Conde (dir.), Historia de Asturias. Alta Edad Media,Salinas, Ayalga,1979, pp. 240-243.

Francisco Javier Fernández Conde, “La reina Urraca, la Asturiana”, Asturiensia medievalia, nº2, 1975, pp. 65-94.

Antonio C. Floriano Cumbreño, “Doña Urraca la Asturiana”, Estudios de Historia de Asturias. El territorio y la monarquía en la Alta Edad Media asturiana, Oviedo: Secretariado de publicaciones de la Universidad de Oviedo, 1962, pp. 182-201.

Georges Martin, “Valoración de la mujer en la Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris”, e-Spania,nº 15,2013,DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/e-spania.22311.

Javier Martínez de Aguirre, “Margarita de L’Aigle y Urraca, la Asturiana”, en Julia Pavón (dir.) Reinas de Navarra, Madrid: Silex, 2014, pp. 267-297.

Diana Pelaz Flores, Reinas consortes: Las reinas de Castilla entre los siglos XI-XV, Madrid: Silex, 2018.

Maurilio Pérez González, Crónica del Emperador Alfonso VII, León: Universidad de León, 2015.

Ana Rodríguez López, “Los viajes de las mujeres”, La estirpe de Leonor de Aquitania: Mujeres y poder en los siglos XII y XIII, Barcelona: Crítica, 2014, pp. 91-99.


[1] Maurilio Pérez González, Crónica del Emperador Alfonso VII, Libro I XXXII, León: Universidad de León, 2015, p. 101

[2] Antonio C. Floriano Cumbreño, “Doña Urraca la Asturiana”, Estudios de Historia de Asturias. El territorio y la monarquía en la Alta Edad Media asturiana, Oviedo: Secretariado de publicaciones de la Universidad de Oviedo, 1962, pp. 184-186

[3] Francisco Javier Fernández Conde, “La reina Urraca, la Asturiana”, Asturiensia medievalia, nº2, 1975, p. 72.

[4] Maurilio Pérez González, Crónica del Emperador Alfonso VII, Libro I XCI, León: Universidad de León, 2015, p. 123.

[5] Diana Pelaz Flores, Reinas consortes: Las reinas de Castilla entre los siglos XI-XV, Madrid: Silex, 2018, p. 91.

[6] Ana Rodríguez López, “Los viajes de las mujeres”, La estirpe de Leonor de Aquitania: Mujeres y poder en los siglos XII y XIII, Barcelona: Crítica, 2014, p. 95.

[7] Antonio C. Floriano Cumbreño, “Doña Urraca la Asturiana”, Estudios de Historia de Asturias. El territorio y la monarquía en la Alta Edad Media asturiana, Oviedo: Secretariado de publicaciones de la Universidad de Oviedo, 1962, p. 190.

[8] Diana Pelaz Flores, Reinas consortes: Las reinas de Castilla entre los siglos XI-XV, Madrid: Silex, 2018, p. 94.

[9] Maurilio Pérez González, Crónica del Emperador Alfonso VII, Libro I XCIV, León: Universidad de León, 2015, p. 125

[10] Diana Pelaz Flores, Reinas consortes: Las reinas de Castilla entre los siglos XI-XV, Madrid: Silex, 2018, p. 31.

[11] Francisco Javier Fernández Conde, “La reina Urraca, la Asturiana”, Asturiensia medievalia, nº2, 1975, pp. 75-76.

[12] María Concepción Casado Lobato, “¿Un intento de secesión asturiana en el siglo XII?”, Asturiensia Medievalia, nº 3, 1979, pp. 164-166.

[13] Francisco Javier Fernández Conde, “Influencias foráneas y transformaciones de la sociedad asturiana a lo largo del siglo XII”, Asturiensia medievalia,nº 5, 1985, p. 128.

[14] Javier Martínez de Aguirre, “Margarita de L’Aigle y Urraca, la Asturiana”, in Julia Pavón (dir.) Reinas de Navarra, Madrid: Silex, 2014, p. 285.

One thought on “Illegitimate daughters exercising power in the twelfth century: The case of Urraca the Asturian

  1. I really loved this post, it is always awesome seeing women disregard norms and do what they want! Thanks for sharing! I really love how she ends up running things for her father and had a lot of freedom of choice when she became a widow.

    Like

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