Catalonia. History. 15th Century.

Catalonia-Catalunya 15th Century.

Castile enters the picture.
Catalonia from the 12th century had formed part of the Crown of Aragón, while retaining its dynastic title of House of Barcelona. The Crown of Aragón also included the kingdoms of Aragón, Valencia and other lesser realms in the west Mediterranean.

When Martí I of Aragón died in 1410 without an heir, the question of succession became a vital issue for Catalonia because his son, Martí the Younger, had died in 1409 leaving an illegitimate son, Frederic.

The widowed and ailing Martí I hastily remarried after his son’s death in the hope of producing a legitimate heir but to no avail.  Eight months following the marriage he was dead, without making clear his choice as heir. There were several claimants to the throne, including the illegitimate Frederic and others who were descended from branches of the royal House of Barcelona.  

The most likely candidate was Jaume (Jaime, James) of Urgel, male descendant –like Martí I– of Alfons III (r 1327-36) and Catalan to the core. He had also been favoured by Martí I, who had named Jaume his viceroy in Aragón a position normally occupied by the heir to the throne. 

And yet the successful claimant turned out to be the Castilian, Fernando of Antequera. Admittedly, Fernando was the son of Martí’s sister Leonor (and King Juan I of Castile), but since he was a descendant by the female line, there were others considered ahead of him (and royal wills going back to Pere III -r. 1336-87- had excluded descendants by the female line).

The significance of Ferdinand de Antequera’s successful claim is that although the Crown of Aragón still existed, with Fernando it fell into in the hands of a new dynasty: that of the Trastámaras of Castile! The power that the House of Barcelona had exercised in guiding Catalonia’s destiny from the time of Guifré el Pilós (Wilfred the Hairy) in the 9th century), now passed to Castile.

A Tale of Political Intrigue.
How the Castilian-speaking Fernando of Antequera ended up as King of the Crown of Aragón is a tale of political intrigue, embracing also the famous and acrimonious Great Schism (1378-1417) that ruptured the medieval Church.

Jaume of Urgel’s main support came from Catalonia, but in Aragón many of the nobles opposed him because of the way he had treated them as viceroy. Indecision on the part of the Catalan Corts (guardian of the laws of Catalonia) in initially pushing Jaume’s claim when Martí I died, and then their willingness to look at other claimants also worked against Jaume. 

His cause received a further setback when one of his supporters murdered the prominent Archbishop of Zaragoza, a strong opponent of Jaume and supporter of Fernando. Fernando responded to calls from other opponents of Jaume by invading parts of Aragón and Valencia. 

It is here that the Church entered the picture in the shape of the aged antipope, Benedict XIII (1328 – 23 May 1423). Benedict –a noble by birth– was born in Aragón, and was a former soldier who had fought for Enrique/ Henry II of Trastámara, Fernando’s grandfather, in Henry’s war (1358-69) against his half brother, Pedro/ Peter the Cruel. And it turns out that Fernando had supported Benedict in the latter’s struggle against the rival pope in Rome! 

This background is important in view of Benedict’s role in the final decision. Most importantly, he managed to persuade Catalans, Aragonese and Valencians to overcome their differences by selecting nine compromisarios (judges) who between them would choose the next king.

A list was drawn up which, thanks to Benedict’s manipulation (he excommunicated the supporters of Jaume, who were tainted by association with the murder of the Archbishop of Zaragoza), ended up being the one submitted by the Aragonese.  At a conclave called by Benedict in June 1412, the three members from Aragón were clearly going to favour Fernando; in Catalonia and Valencia the outcome was not so clear.  Here again Benedict played a key role.

The most influential representative from Valencia was the Dominican preacher Vicente de Ferrer (scourge of the Jews and later a saint). Another was Ferrer’s brother. As it happened, Vicente de Ferrer was Benedict’s confessor and his brother had defended Benedict’s claims in the Great Schism. Predictably they threw their weight behind Fernando.

As for the Catalan judges, one was a servant of Benedict and long-time enemy of Jaume.  Six members, then, favoured Fernando, and that was enough to reach the majority of six, as required by agreement.  The Compromise of Caspe, as it was known (after the Aragonese town where the conclave met) was really a rigged election, but Fernando also increased the odds of his election with generous bribes from a large fortune he enjoyed from his wife’s estates.

The result was binding, but was not popular in Catalonia. Jaume, after some hesitation, decided that he had enough support to rebel, but it was too late and he was quickly defeated and reduced to a pitiable figure begging Fernando’s forgiveness on his knees. 

The shame –and with it a painfully humiliating moment in Catalan history– was complete:  A Catalan claimant to the Catalan-Aragónese throne (or Crown of Aragón) on his knees before a Castilian prince who had usurped his throne!

Castilians in Control.
Compounding the humiliation was the apparent lack of interest demonstrated by Fernando (now Ferrán I of Aragón) and his successors in establishing a close rapport with their Catalan subjects. They married Castilian princesses, preferred the company of Castilian courtiers and installed Castilians in positions of authority. 

Alfons IV, the Magnanimous (V of Aragón), Ferrán’s son and longest ruling Aragonese monarch of the 15th century (r 1416-58) spent 20 years campaigning for the Kingdom of Naples and asserting Aragonese presence in the central Mediterranean. After conquering the Kingdom of Naples in 1442-43, the city became the seat of Alfonso’s government and he never returned to Aragón. A patron of the arts and founder of the Academy of Naples, Alfonso also delighted in hunting, fine clothes and dancing.

After Alfonso’s death in 1458, he was succeeded by his brother Joan/ John II (r. 1458-79), who was born and spent much of his youth in Castile where he inherited large estates at the death of his father, Ferrán I, in 1416. In 1419, Joan married Blanche I of Navarra, and as a result he became king consort of that kingdom.

After Blanche’s death in 1441, civil war broke out between those who supported Joan’s claim to the throne and those who championed his son, Carles/ Charles of Viana. Joan won, but his victory had repercussions in Catalonia. There was a brief reconciliation between father and son, but that became undone when rumours reached Joan that Carles had been in contact with Enrique/ Henry IV of Castile with a view to marriage with his half sister, Isabella of Castile.

Since Joan had plans for Carles to marry the Portuguese princess, and for Ferdinand, his son by his second marriage, to marry Isabella, he saw Carles’s plan as insubordination and not to his interests. Joan met Carles in Lérida (Lleida in Catalan) in 1460, and had him arrested and then imprisoned in the castle of Morella. Carles’s imprisonment provoked a wave of protests in Catalonia and his death two years later triggered a civil war which lasted until 1472.

The war was triggered in part by Joan’s high-handedness in applying Castilian laws, which allowed virtually unlimited authority to the king, in Catalonia. Catalonia, however, had its own laws (usatges) that imposed contractual limitations whereby the king acted together with the Corts and could not arbitrarily change laws. In denying Carles’s right of succession, Joan had meddled with the laws of succession and violated the laws of Catalonia.

Such high-handedness was seen as a threat by most of the Catalan nobility, the urban bourgeoisie and the landed gentry, whose power base was in Barcelona. Collectively these were known as the Biga. Opposed to them were the peasants and workers, known as the Busca. Each side fought for control of Barcelona’s City Council (the Consell de Cent: Council of One Hundred), which had been set up in the 13th century and whose members were elected from the citizens, included men from the working class (tradespeople, artisans etc.)

Peasants working the land (known as payeses de remença) in Catalonia also took the opportunity of the discontent to air their grievances against a feudal system that tied them to their lord’s land. They could only be freed from feudal obligations by paying a hefty sum of money, which was beyond the means of the majority.

Their appeals to Joan were looked upon favourably, especially since both he and the peasants had a common enemy in the Catalan ruling class. The conflict finally exploded into a 10-year civil war (1462-1472) with monarchy and peasantry pitted against the ruling class. Joan prevailed over the rebels, but the war left Barcelona and Catalonia financially strapped. Businessmen and their families abandoned Barcelona –many to neighbouring Valencia– and trade and growth stagnated.

One significant outcome of Catalan commercial stagnation and internal conflict was a vital loss of trading influence in the Mediterranean to Barcelona’s long-time rival Genoa. There was also an impact when Castile conquered the kingdom of Granada (1492), the last Muslim enclave of al-Andalus (the name the Muslims gave to the land they occupied). It was the Genoese, not the Catalans, who moved into Cádiz and Seville and secured control of exports from Spain’s southern ports.

A Fateful Marriage for Catalonia.
Joan continued as King of the Crown of Aragón until his death in 1479, but in the meantime a marriage had taken place in Valladolid (Castile) in 1469 that had an immense impact on the future of Spain.

It was the marriage between Isabella, heir to the throne of Castile, and Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragón. Together, they are better known as the Catholic Monarchs and are generally recognized as the founders of the modern state of Spain.

Of the two kingdoms, Castile was by far the larger partner, being about 3 times larger geographically and about 6 times larger demographically. Important, too, Castile experienced at the end of the 15th century a period of rapid expansion with the completion of the conquest of Granada and the discovery of America —Las Indias— both in 1492.

Then in 1516 Spain acquired vast territories in Europe when the Hapsburg heir, Charles I, succeeded to the Spanish throne. It was primarily to Castile that Charles looked both financially and militarily for support during his reign, even though he spent most of it outside the country defending the interests of the Catholic Church as Holy Roman Emperor (as Charles V, the title for which he is better known).

Predictably, under these conditions, the interests of an economically and politically weakened Catalonia were subordinated to those of Castile. As a result, Catalonia was sidelined from any really influential part in Spain’s imperial ventures (headed by Castile) in the 16th century, (e. g. in 1518 the Catalan fleet was prohibited from trading with the newly discovered Indias, i. e. Latin America).

Simmering discontent produced a revolt in the 17th century, which was suppressed after 12 years (1640-52), but the lowest point in Catalonia’s history was still to come: the 18th century, which was a political disaster.

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