Alfonso X (1221-1284) was king of Castile and León from 1252 to 1284. Also known as Alfonso the Wise, he was one of the greatest royal patrons of learning of the Middle Ages.
The eldest son of Ferdinand III and Beatrice of Swabia, Alfonso was born in Toledo on Nov. 23, 1221. As a youth, he was tutored in the arts of war and governance. In 1247 he drove the Arabs from Murcia, and in 1248 he played an important role in his father's capture of Seville. The following year he married Violante, daughter of James I of Aragon, who bore him 10 children.
Alfonso became king in 1252 and immediately embarked upon bellicose adventures. He fought Alfonso III of Portugal over some frontier posts in the Algarve. In 1254 he invaded Gascony and soon after laid claim to the throne of Navarre, a move which earned him the hostility of his father-in-law, the King of Aragon, with whom he finally made peace in the Treaty of Soria (1256). Alfonso spent much of the next 20 years in a vain attempt to gain the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which he claimed by right of his German mother. Opposed in this strategy by three successive popes, he was at last obliged to back down under the threat of excommunication.
Alfonso's frequent absences from the country, moreover, proved an encouragement to rebellion. His Moslem subjects in Andalusia and Murcia revolted in 1262 with the help of Alfonso's tributary, the King of Granada, and the Merinid ruler of Morocco. A series of fresh disturbances followed during which Alfonso's eldest son, Ferdinand de la Cerda, carried the prime burden of military leadership. Ferdinand's death in 1275 precipitated a lengthy struggle over the succession to the throne.
The King's last years were clouded by the contest between the backers of his second son, Sancho, and those of his grandson Alfonso, the son of Ferdinand de la Cerda. In 1282 Sancho declared his father deposed. Alfonso the Wise, deserted even by the Queen, fled to Seville, disinherited Sancho, and called on Abu Yusuf of Morocco for help. Sancho, however, was able to meet this threat and contain the old king within Seville. There Alfonso X died, a tragic figure, cursing his son on his deathbed, on April 4, 1284.
Patron of Learning
Alfonso's greatest legacy was the Siete partidas (Seven Divisions of the Law). This work is not so much a legal codex as a learned essay on various kinds of law, covering all aspects of social life. As such, it is a repository of medieval Spanish custom. It had enormous influence on the future course of Spanish law and on the law of Spain's overseas possessions.
The scientific treatises compiled under Alfonso's patronage were the work of the "School of Translators" of Toledo, an informal grouping of Christian, Moslem, and Jewish scholars who made available the findings of Arab science to Europeans in Latin and Spanish translations. The King's main scientific interests were astronomy and astrology, as indicated by the Tablas Alfonsies (Alfonsine Tables), containing diagrams and figures on planetary movements, and the Libros del saber de astronomia (Books of Astronomical Lore), describing astronomical instruments.
Alfonso also patronized two ambitious historical compilations, the Primera crónica general (First General Chronicle) and the General estoria (General History), designed to present a complete history of the world. These writings mixed fact and fiction, especially when describing the ancient world, but they constitute a faithful representation of medieval man's attitudes toward his past.
Of Alfonso's poems, the most significant are the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Canticles of Holy Mary), written in Galician-Portuguese between 1257 and 1279. The canticles are written in troubadour style (the King called himself "the Virgin's troubadour") and contain a wealth of descriptive detail about medieval life. Alfonso also wrote satirical and love poems.
Further Reading on Alfonso X
The definitive biography of Alfonso X is in Spanish. A concise historical study in English stressing Alfonso's humanistic pursuits is Evelyn S. Procter, Alfonso X of Castile, Patron of Literature and Learning (1951). A useful study of the Alfonsine literary corpus is John Esten Keller, Alfonso X, el Sabio (1967). Américo Castro, The Structure of Spanish History (trans. 1954), contains numerous insights into the interethnic background of the King's cultural pursuits; the scientific background is treated in Charles Homer Haskins, Studies in the History of Medieval Science (1924; 2d ed. 1927).
Additional Biography Sources
Emperor of culture: Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and his thirteenth-century Renaissance, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
O'Callaghan, Joseph F., The learned king: the reign of Alfonso X of Castile, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
Procter, Evelyn Stefanos, Alfonso X of Castile, patron of literature and learning, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1961.