Queen Urraca (c. 1078-1126), who ruled the Kingdom of Leon-Castilla (also known as Castille-Leon) in northern Spain from 1109 to 1126, was the only woman during the Spanish medieval era to rule in her own right. The failure of her political marriage, which had been designed to unite the kingdoms of Leon-Castilla and Aragon, ultimately led to a civil war.
Between 985 and 1002, the armies of the Muslim Caliphate of Cordoba repeatedly defeated the Christian armies of northern Spain. But with the death of the Muslim dictator's son and successor in 1008, the Cordoban caliphate began to collapse. With the fall of the caliphate, the dynasties of northern Spain began to rebuild themselves.
But fighting ensued between the Spanish provinces of Leon, Castilla, and Navarra. The Navarrese king eventually took control of both Castilla and Leon—the largest of the northern Christian states—giving rise to a new kingdom under the rule of the king of Navarra. When King Fernando I died in 1065, he divided his empire between his three sons. Fratricidal fighting followed, with Fernando's eldest son, Alfonso VI, becoming king.
Urraca was the daughter of King Alfonso VI and Queen Constance of Burgundy. Constance was the second of the king's wives, both of them French, a reflection of the monarch's wish to strengthen his territorial claims.
Urraca's first husband, Count Raymond of Burgundy, came to Spain around 1086. Evidence suggests that he was almost immediately betrothed, and possibly married, to Urraca, who was then no more than eight years of age. Although canon law set a minimum age for marriage at twelve years for women, exceptions occurred. Records indicate that the marriage of Raymond and Urraca was formalized by 1090, when Alfonso VI issued a charter to the church of Palencia in their name.
In late September 1107, following Count Raymond's death, Urraca succeeded her husband as ruler of Galicia, the Zamora district, and lands to the southeast. As the wife of Raymond, Urraca was familiar with the politics of the royal court. She was about 27 years old, with two children. Her first child, Sancha, was born sometime before 1095. Her son, Alfonso Raimundez, who would later become Alfonso VII, was born on March 1, 1105. There may have been as many as seven other conceptions that ended in miscarriages, stillbirths, or childhood deaths during the marriage of Urraca and Raymond.
Before Alfonso VI died, he arranged to have Urraca marry her relative, Alfonso I of Aragon. When the king died on June 30, 1109, Urraca ascended to the throne and, in accord with her father's wishes, married Alfonso I around October 1109. The alliance meant that Leon-Castilla would be governed by a male warrior who was related to Urraca by blood but who stood above local divisions within the kingdom. Alfonso I was about 36 at the time of the marriage, Urraca about 29. For Alfonso the match held political advantage and promise, while for Urraca it meant a loss of the power she had held since 1107.
The marriage agreement between Urraca and Alfonso I stipulated that if either party left the other against the other person's will, he or she would forfeit the loyalty of his or her followers. Alfonso had to promise not to leave Urraca for reasons of blood relationship or excommunication. If Alfonso were to have a son by Urraca, the child would inherit his territories in Aragon jointly with Urraca following Alfonso's death. If no child was conceived, Urraca and her heirs would be the inheritors. If Urraca died first, Alfonso would be entitled to the profits from her lands until he died; following his death the lands would fall to her son by her first marriage, Alfonso Raimundez.
Although Alfonso I would become the greatest warrior of his time—in 1118, he would defeat the great taifa of Zaragoza—he proved too weak to compel acceptance of the alliance with Leon-Castilla. He also failed to father a child with Urraca as quickly as expected. Urraca accused him of physical abuse. Finally, after the Church condemned the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity, there was no way the marriage could continue.
Marital Discord and Civil War
The Muslims threatened to occupy Aragon in the summer of 1109, but Alfonso, accompanied by Urraca, defeated the Muslim forces on January 24, 1110. The following summer, Urraca and Alfonso separated. Two years later, Urraca led her forces against those of Alfonso in an attempt to retake Castilla, which had been seized by her husband. By 1113, Alfonso laid claim to Toledo, Leon, Castilla, and Aragon. The marriage between Urraca and Alfonso was annulled in 1114.
With continued fighting between Urraca and Alfonso I, Urraca made her son by Count Raymond, Alfonso Raimundez, her co-ruler and heir. By the winter of 1116, Urraca had reclaimed most of Castilla from her ex-husband. By that time, Alfonso I was planning on laying siege to the Muslim stronghold of Zaragoza. To free his hand, Alfonso agreed to negotiate a truce with Urraca. The truce would hold until Urraca's death nine years later. And so, in 1117, Urraca chose to hold Castilla at the expense of giving up Zaragoza.
Alfonso I captured Zaragoza from the Moors in 1118. He spent the next five years consolidating that victory, capturing Calatayud in 1120, and many other towns after that. In 1125 he raided Andalusia, raising Christian morale, while encouraging Christians in Muslim lands to settle in his domain. Meanwhile, Urraca focused her attention on securing Toledo.
In 1120, Urraca made the tactical mistake of briefly seizing the prelate Bishop Gelmirez, who had served her father but favored a faction surrounding her son following the death of Alfonso VI. The act placed her at risk of excommunication and could have led to her deposition and replacement by her son. But by appealing directly to the pope, she was able to counter her enemies at home.
Death of Urraca
Urraca died on March 8, 1126, at Saldana on the Rio Carrion in the Tierra de Campos. (Some sources the give the date of her death as March 9.) It is not known whether she died of an extended illness.
Some writers have stated that Urraca took as lovers Count Gomez of Candespina and Count Pedro Gonzalez of Lara. It has also been speculated that Urraca used her relationships with suitors as a weapon to achieve political gains, since there is no record that she was ever dominated by any of her reputed paramours. In speeches attributed to Urraca, the queen referred to herself as a lone, poor, weak woman, but her motivation for making these statements is not clear. Possibly they were only meant to appeal to sympathetic listeners.
Uracca's son and heir Alfonso VII was initially refused the crown in favor of Urraca's consort, Count Pedro Gonzalez of Lara and his brother, Rodrigo Gonzalez, Count Astururias de Santillana. But with the support of his allies, Urraca's son ascended to the throne as Alfonso VII in fairly short order, inheriting a kingdom internally at peace. He then set about to recover lands that had been lost to Alfonso I. In 1134, he defeated Alfonso I, who was killed in the battle. Urraca's daughter, Sancha, who never married, played no further role in the monarchy.
Of Urraca's seventeen years on the throne, only four did not involve a military campaign. Still, Urraca was probably fortunate because the Muslim threat to Leon-Castilla reached its peak at the end of the reign of her father.
During her reign, Urraca made four major policy decisions: to end her Aragonese marriage in 1110-1112; to associate her son with herself in governing her kingdom in 1111 and 1116; to make a truce with Aragon in 1117; and to seize the Archbishop Gelmirez in 1120.
Urraca left 118 known charters. Urraca's administration appears to have been successful, given the paucity of surviving documents. Her society was chiefly agricultural, with a limited exchange of goods locally. Her government would have been expected to arbitrate disputes rather than establish social directions. A number of coins from Urraca's reign survive, some bearing her likeness.
In the 12th century, the Church was involved at every level of political, social, economic, and religious dispute. The bishops of Leon-Castilla opposed Urraca's marriage with Alfonso I, supported her son, and organized military expeditions in defense of her kingdom against the Aragonese in the east and the Muslims in the south. Urraca was able to secure papal support to achieve her own purposes. She avoided excommunication in 1110-1111 over her marriage and persuaded the Church to bless her truce with Alfonso I in 1117.
Reilly, Bernard F., The Kingdom of Leon-Castilla under Queen Urraca, 1109-1126, Princeton University Press, 1982.
"Urraca of Castile and Leon," http://www.goldenfrog.com/jeffman/genealogy/html/d0001/I4493.html (February 2003).