Alfonso X, el Sabio 1221-84. Politics.

Alfonso X, el Sabio (the Learned): 1221-84.
The 13th century was an age of great kings.  Alfonso X’s father, Fernando III not only united once and for all the kingdoms of Castile and León but also struck at the heart of al-Andalus with the conquest Córdoba (1236) and Seville (1248) and was preparing to invade North Africa when he died.  For his exploits he earned for himself the title of “Saint”. 

To the east, another king, Jaime el Conquistador (James the Conqueror) of Aragón, took the city of Valencia (1238) and the island of Mallorca, the first steps to what would be an Aragonese-Catalan empire in the Mediterranean.

In France, the pious and chivalric Louis IX (1215-70) stamped his personality on Europe as a man of justice and integrity, and firmly established his country’s presence in the Mediterranean. Absolute in his faith, he led two crusades (the 7th and 8th), in fact dying of plague in Tunisia during the second. He too was elevated to sainthood.

Perhaps even more formidable than these was the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II (1194-1250), another crusader (leader of the 6th) but better known politically for his ongoing battles with the papacy whose influence he tried to limit strictly to spiritual matters. Still, it is his cultural achievements that impressed his contemporaries, so much so that he was called Stupor Mundi (“Wonder of the World”). Brought up in Sicily, where Muslims were still numerous, he was reputed to be half Muslim himself, enjoying the pleasures of a large harem and engaging a troupe of Muslim dancing girls for his entertainment. But that is to sidestep his remarkable intellectual accomplishments; he was multilingual, being fluent in German, French, Italian and Arabic, and read both Latin and Greek with ease. He had studied ancient philosophy and was knowledgeable about contemporary writings on geography, medicine and the sciences.

It so happens that Alfonso X was the son-in-law of Jaime and a distant relative of both Frederick and Louis (first cousin once removed), so great things might be expected of him.

Alfonso was born in Toledo in 1221 but spent his early years away from the hurly-burly of the court in Burgos and Galicia where he learnt Galician. These tranquil years were over by the time he was 10, when he had his first military experience on the Moorish frontier. We do not know much about his adolescent years. He campaigned in Murcia (1243) and Portugal (1246).  When he was 27 he married Violante, the oldest daughter of Jaime I of Aragón by whom he had eleven children (in addition he had four other children out of wedlock). He succeeded his father in 1252, apparently crowning himself (as a gesture of independence from any sign of  subservience to the Church and Pope) in Toledo, the imperial city where Visigothic kings were once crowned.  Alfonso died at the age of 62 in Seville; he is buried in the Royal Chapel of the cathedral.

How does Alfonso measure up to these imposing figures? The title sabio (“wise” or more likely “learned”) suggests a favourable evaluation, but it has been applied exclusively to Alfonso’s cultural achievements. As a ruler, history has found him wanting, although recent investigations have tempered the harshness of past criticism.

A youthful picture of Alfonso X, el Sabio from the Book of Games (1283).

What we must remember is that Alfonso inherited a turbulent kingdom that had expanded rapidly under his father, and that was in fact made up of several different kingdoms.

He was faced with the serious question of repopulating conquered territory with Christians to replace those Moors who had fled to Granada after the fall of Córdoba (1236), Valencia (1238) and Seville (1248). Nevertheless, there still remained pockets of disaffected Moors and the resentful Muslim state in Granada to keep an eye on as well as the threatening presence of a new Muslim dynasty –the Benimerines– in Morocco. 

In addition, he faced challenges from within, especially from the nobility and the Military Orders of Santiago, Alcántara and Calatrava, which had become increasingly powerful with the acquisition of land in the newly conquered al-Andalus, and increasingly from the church, a powerful estate backed furthermore by the authority of the pope.   And there was no mistaking the claims to authority made by Rome. Pope Gregory (1227-41), a near contemporary of Alfonso, had staked his claim to jurisdiction over all, including kings in no uncertain terms: “when Christ rose to the heavens, he left one Vicar on the earth; from which it can be deduced that it is necessary that the kings of all nations that wish to be Christian must submit to him” (González Jiménez 198). 

Alfonso, however, was equally forthcoming.  Accepting a king’s obedience to the pope in spiritual matters, he made it very clear that in the secular world the king was supreme, and independent of spiritual authority. And as supreme leader and “head” of his realm, by the grace of God and not popes, the king was owed obedience and allegiance from his people and empowered to make laws and administer justice for the well-being of his people.

It was a clear claim for absolute authority that was bound to come into conflict with the nobles too, who not only enjoyed considerable privileges but at the highest level –the magnates or ricoshombres— considered the king simply as the first among equals.

A summary of the political setbacks suffered by Alfonso reads something like this: 1. a frustrated attempt at a crusade in North Africa; 2. failure in fulfilling his ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor; 3. involvement in wars with Portugal, Navarre and English Aquitaine in the first 10 years of his reign; 4. revolt of Mudejares (Muslims who retained their religion under Christians) in Andalusia and Murcia in 1264 (finally overcome in 1266); 5.  rebellion of many nobles –including one of his brothers– in 1272 (who rubbed salt into the wounds by defecting to Muslim Granada!); 6. invasion from Morocco; 7. a war against Granada 1279-81; and finally 8. the uprising of his son, Sancho, who effectively deposed him, leaving him powerless during the last two years of his reign. Illness, too, in his later years made his actions increasingly erratic, which is one reason given by many of those who abandoned him, including his wife, other sons and a brother.

Perhaps Alfonso’s political ambitions exceeded his grasp, but he recognised the need to unite the disparate Christian community that he inherited from his father. His official title, for example, was “King of Castile, Toledo, León, Galicia, Seville, Córdoba, Murcia, Jaén, and the Algarve”. Castile was by now the foremost Christian kingdom, and it was around Castile that he proposed to reshape his other kingdoms into a major political power.

If these political ambitions were constantly undermined not so his dreams of making Castile a cultural force. It is as a scholar, in fact, that he did more to establish the groundwork for a unified Spanish state than anyone before the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, ruled 1474-1516.  An accomplished poet, he surrounded himself with artists, men of letters, translators, and spearheaded a wide ranging cultural flowering that produced a remarkable number of legal, historical, literary, and scientific works. 

Alfonso X el sabio dictating at court.

As a scholar he valued intellectual accomplishments whatever their source, and in the peninsula he could draw upon his own Roman, Christian and Visigothic legacies not to mention the wealth of Islamic and Hebraic traditions.

Naturally, given his political commitments and his constant travels, Alfonso was not the “author” in the modern sense; his role is nicely summed up in a passage from his General Estoriawhen a king makes a book, he does not himself write it but provides the ideas and the format; he makes changes and corrections and orders how the book should be done, and even who is to write it, but still we say that the king made the book (Carrión Gutiérrez 124).

His job, then, was something like that of general editor: to inspire, initiate, direct works, and be the guiding spirit that would mold a culture out of these varied roots consonant with his imperial dreams. And the language to realise these dreams would be Castilian rather than Latin.

Burns, Robert I ed    Emperor of Culture: Alfonso X the Learned of Castile and His Thirteenth Century Renaissance Philadelphia 1990
Carrión Gutiérrez, Jose M    Conociendo a Alfonso el Sabio Murcia 1997
González-Casanovas    “Alfonso X’s Concept of Hispania: Cultural Politics in the Histories,” in Concepts of National Identity in the Middle Ages eds Forde, Johnson, Murray, Leeds 1995
González Jiménez, Manuel    Alfonso X el sabio 1252-1284 Palencia 1993
O’Callaghan, Joseph    The Learned King: The Reign of Alfonso X of Castile Philadelphia 1993.
Image of Alfonso at court:

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