Urraca of Castile and Léon: Defiant Spanish Wife, Unconquered Iberian Queen

13-century miniature of Queen Urraca presiding the Court from Tumbo A codex Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

When people think of famous medieval queens, Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Empress Matilda, would-be Queen of England, come most often to mind. But more successful than either queen was their southern cousin from the Iberian peninsula, Urraca Queen of Castile and Léon (and, by marriage, of Aragon). Her greatest weapon? Diplomacy not war.

Urraca (1082-1126), along with her sister Teresa of Portugal, had a major effect on the late medieval borders of Iberia. But it didn’t start out that way. Urraca began her life as an infanta–a princess–destined for a dynastic marriage not rule. She married young and bore two children, one of them a male heir, Alfonso Raimúndez.

All of this changed when she was 25. First, her husband Raymond of Burgundy died in 1107. Then, her brother, the heir to the throne, died in battle in 1108. Suddenly, she was heir to the thrones of Léon and Castile.

Before he died in 1109, her father, Alfonso VI, betrothed her to his contemporary and erstwhile rival, Alfonso I (el Batallador) of Aragon. On paper the match seemed a brilliant stroke. “The Battler” was one of the most accomplished warriors of the Middle Ages and the marriage would unite most of the Iberian peninsula under one rule.

Reality was a disaster. Urraca disliked Alfonso intensely and the marriage produced no offspring. It’s not even certain that they ever consummated it. Urraca accused the much-older Alfonso of beating her. The misogynistic Alfonso may also have been sterile, impotent or even gay, these theories stemming from his utter lack of progeny, either legitimate or illegitimate, and Urraca’s continued fertility after their divorce.

The situation deteriorated into open warfare. Urraca did not shy from fighting Alfonso on the battlefield, though he far outmatched her. But she outmatched him in other ways–all of the territory that he took in battle she reclaimed by diplomacy. The Castilian nobility backed her, even after she took lovers among their number and bore an illegitimate child by one.

It was not all a triumph–Urraca’s half-sister, Teresa, did not like being in Urraca’s shadow. She and her husband, Henry, successfully broke away the county of Portugal so that their son became the first king of Portugal. Also, Urraca’s son constantly pushed his mother to turn over the reins of power to him. But he did not reign until after her death in 1126. While she lived, Urraca ruled both her kingdom and her son.