Urraca of Leon
Queen of Leon and Castile, 1109-1126
"A battling queen"
She was one of only two medieval Spanish queens regnant—queens in their own right, not by marriage. Though eclipsed in history and legend by her distant descendant Isabella of Castile, who reigned three centuries later, Urraca dominated most of the Iberian Peninsula for 17 years. Powerful and power-hungry, she called herself Empress of All the Spains.
She'd been schooled for this role. From birth, she was heiress presumptive of her father, Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile, who had no legitimate son. Alfonso didn't hesitate to use her as a tool in his diplomatic maneuvers. At nine, Urraca was married to Count Raymond of Burgundy, a union arranged by her father to strengthen his ties to potential allies in France. The marriage was probably consummated when she was thirteen; she suffered a stillbirth at fourteen. Shortly thereafter she bore a daughter and in 1105 produced the requisite son, another Alfonso.
Despite multiple pregnancies, stillbirths and infant deaths, these two were her only surviving children from this marriage. When Raymond died in 1107, she inherited his lands, including Galicia.
Was it a happy marriage? Were they at least compatible? We don't know. But from the evidence, the teen-age queen was dutifully doing her best to insure the dynastic succession in the Kingdoms of Leon and Castile. That's what queens were for.
She wasn't a widow long. Her next marriage, again engineered by her ambitious father, was to Alfonso I, King of Aragon and Navarre. This would unite the kingdoms of Leon, Castile, Aragon, Navarre and Galicia. Perhaps it was well for King Alfonso of Leon and Castile that he died before he could witness the resultant strife that consumed almost the entire Iberian Peninsula.
By now, aged thirty, Urraca was interested in being more than a mother of kings. She had learned a great deal about governance, political maneuvering, and how to manipulate men-whether by diplomacy, scheming, or womanly wiles. Almost at once she needed all these skills.
It was a time of unrest throughout the land. All the Christian kingdoms were united in one thing though in little else: the ongoing Reconquista—the struggle to overcome the Muslim invaders, entrenched in the south, who for three centuries had sought to control Spain. Uracca's new husband was a belligerent leader in the Reconquista and became known as Alfonso el Batallador or Alfonso the Warrior. At first Urraca cooperated with him in defeating the Muslim forces that were trying to take Aragon. Then everything fell apart.
Spain was convulsed by warfare not only between Christians and Muslims, but also between Urraca's supporters and Alfonso's. Not to mention battles between Portugal and Castile and rebellions in Galicia.
Things were no better at home. Alfonso proved to be demanding, overbearing and possibly abusive. He accused his queen of infidelity, perhaps with reason. (After his death she openly took lovers and to one of them she bore two children. But she chose her partners for the support they could give to her cause, not to dictate how she governed.)
In the second year of the marriage, Urraca and Alfonso separated. She sought an annulment and finally by 1012 it was granted on the grounds of consanguinity. (They were second cousins.)
So the battles between Castile and Aragon went on. Alfonso seized Castile. But when Urraca's son by her first marriage, yet another Alfonso, was old enough, she named him co-ruler and they won their kingdom back. Finally a truce was declared and approved by the church. For the rest of her life Urraca devoted herself to recovering lands occupied by the Muslims, even leading troops into battle herself.
Her legacy? At her death in 1126 the kingdom her son, Alfonso VII of Leon and Castile, inherited was at peace and intact. This was due less to the strategic marriages her father had imposed on her than to the aggressive way she rose to the challenges those marriages presented.
Perhaps she should have been called Urraca la Batalladora.
Learn more about Queen Urraca:
The Kingdom of Leon-Castile under Queen Urraca, 1109-1126., by Bernard F. Reilly. Princeton University Press, 1982.
The Medieval Spains., by Bernard F. Reilly. Cambridge University Press, 1993.