Alfonso X of Castile

23 Nov 1221
4 Apr 1284
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Alfonso X (also occasionally Alphonso X, Alphonse X, or Alfons X, 23 November 1221 – 4 April 1284), called the Wise (Spanish: el Sabio), was the King of Castile, León and Galicia from 30 May 1252 until his death.

During the Imperial election of 1257, a dissident faction chose him to be King of the Romans (Latin: Rex Romanorum; German: Römisch-deutscher König) on 1 April. He renounced his imperial claim in 1275, and in creating an alliance with England in 1254 his claim on Gascony also.

Alfonso X fostered the development of a cosmopolitan court that encouraged learning. Jews, Muslims, and Christians had prominent roles in his court. As a result of his encouraging the translation of works from Arabic and Latin into the vernacular of Castile, many intellectual changes took place, perhaps the most notable being encouragement of the use of Castilian as a primary language of higher learning, science, and law.

Alfonso was a prolific author of Galician poetry, such as the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which are equally notable for their musical notation as for their literary merit.

Alfonso’s scientific interests—he is sometimes nicknamed “the Astrologer” (el Astrólogo)—led him to sponsor the creation of the Alfonsine tables, and the Alphonsus crater on the moon is named after him. As a legislator he introduced the first vernacular law code in Spain, the Siete Partidas.

He created the Mesta, an association of sheep farmers in the central plain, but debased the coinage to finance his claim to the German crown. He fought a successful war with Portugal, but a less successful one with Granada. The end of his reign was marred by a civil war with his eldest surviving son, the future Sancho IV, which would continue after his death.

Born in Toledo, Kingdom of Castile, Alfonso was the eldest son of Ferdinand III of Castile and Elizabeth (Beatrice) of Swabia. His mother was the paternal cousin of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, to whom Alfonso is often compared. His maternal grandparents were Philip of Swabia and Irene Angelina. Little is known about his upbringing, but he was most likely raised in Toledo.

For the first nine years of his life he was only heir to Castile until his father succeeded his own father Alfonso IX of Leon and united the kingdoms of Castile and Leon. He began his career as a soldier, under the command of his father, when he was only sixteen years old.

After the election of Theobald I as king of Navarre, his father tried to arrange a marriage for Alfonso with Theobald’s daughter, Blanche of Navarre, but the move was unsuccessful. At the same time, he had a romantic relationship with Mayor Guillén de Guzmán, who bore him a daughter, Beatrice.

In 1240, he married Mayor Guillén de Guzmán, but the marriage was later annulled and their issue declared illegitimate. In the same period (1240–1250) he conquered several Muslim strongholds in Al-Andalus alongside his father, such as Murcia, Alicante and Cadiz.

In 1249, Alfonso married Violante of Aragon, the daughter of King James I of Aragon and Yolande of Hungary, although betrothed already in 1246.

Alfonso succeeded his father as King of Castile and León in 1252. The following year he invaded Portugal, capturing the region of the Algarve.

King Afonso III of Portugal had to surrender, but he gained an agreement by which, after he consented to marry Alfonso X’s daughter Beatrice of Castile, the land would be returned to their heirs. In 1263 Alfonso X returned Algarve to the King of Portugal and signed the Treaty of Badajoz (1267).

In 1254 Alfonso X signed a treaty of alliance with the King of England and Duke of Aquitaine, Henry III, supporting him in the war against Louis IX of France.

In the same year Alfonso’s half sister, Eleanor of Castile, married Henry’s heir to the throne, Edward: with this act Alfonso renounced forever all claim to the Duchy of Gascony, to which Castile had been a pretender since the marriage of Alfonso VIII of Castile with Eleanor of England.

In 1256, at the death of William II of Holland, Alfonso’s descent from the Hohenstaufen through his mother, a daughter of the emperor Philip of Swabia, gave him a claim through the Swabian line. Alfonso’s election as King of the Romans by the imperial prince-electors misled him into complicated schemes that involved excessive expense but never succeeded.

Alfonso never even traveled to Germany, and his alliance with the Italian Ghibelline lord Ezzelino IV da Romano deprived him of the initial support of Pope Alexander IV. His rival, Richard of Cornwall, went to Germany and was crowned in 1257 at Aachen.

To obtain money, Alfonso debased the coinage and then endeavored to prevent a rise in prices by an arbitrary tariff.

The little trade of his dominions was ruined, and the burghers and peasants were deeply offended. His nobles, whom he tried to cow by sporadic acts of violence, rebelled against him in 1272. Reconciliation was bought by Alfonso’s son Ferdinand in 1273.

In the end, after Richard’s death, the German princes elected Rudolph I of Habsburg (1273), Alfonso being declared deposed by Pope Gregory X.

In 1275 Alfonso tried to meet with his imperial vicar in Italy, William VII of Montferrat (who had succeeded Ezzelino) and his Ghibelline allies in Piedmont and Lombardy to celebrate the victory against the Guelph Charles I of Anjou and be crowned in Lombardy; he was however halted in his imperial ambitions in Provence by the Pope who, after a long negotiation, obtained Alfonso’s oral renunciation of the title of King of the Romans.

As a ruler, Alfonso showed legislative capacity, and a wish to provide the kingdoms expanded under his father with a code of laws and a consistent judicial system. The Fuero Real was undoubtedly his work.

He began medieval Europe’s most comprehensive code of law, the Siete Partidas, which, however, thwarted by the nobility of Castile, was only promulgated by his great-grandson. Because of this, and because the Partidas remain fundamental law in the American Southwest, he is one of the 23 lawmakers depicted in the House of Representatives chamber of the United States Capitol.

From a young age Alfonso X showed an interest in military life and chivalry. In 1231 Alfonso traveled with Pérez de Castron on a military campaign in lower Andalusia.

Writing in Estoria de España, Alfonso describes having seen St. James on a white horse with a white banner and a legion of knights fighting a war above the soldiers of Spain. This vision of a heavenly army fighting in Jerez and participation in military campaigns likely left Alfonso X with a high degree of knowledge and respect for military operations and chivalric knights. Alfonso’s respect for chivalry can also be seen in his writing of Spanish law.

Spanish Chivalric conduct was codified in the Siete Partidas (2,21) where he wrote that knights should be, “of good linage and distinguished by gentility, wisdom, understanding, loyalty, courage, moderation, justice, prowess, and the practical knowledge necessary to asses the quality of horse and arms (Siete Partidas, 21,1-10).”

These efforts to make a codified standard of chivalric conduct were likely meant to both encourage strength of arms (prowess) and to restrain the use of violence for only just (state-sponsored) usage.

As an intellectual he gained considerable scientific fame based on his encouragement of astronomy, which included astrology at the time and the Ptolemaic cosmology as known to him through the Arabs. He surrounded himself with mostly Jewish translators who rendered Arabic scientific texts into Castilian at Toledo.

His fame extends to the preparation of the Alfonsine tables, based on calculations of al-Zarqali, “Arzachel”. Alexander Bogdanov maintained that these tables formed the basis for Copernicus’s development of a heliocentric understanding in astronomy.

Because of this work, the lunar crater Alphonsus is named after him. One famous, but apocryphal, quote attributed to him upon his hearing an explanation of the extremely complicated mathematics required to demonstrate Ptolemy’s theory of astronomy was “If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on creation thus, I should have recommended something simpler.”

Gingerich (1990) says that a form of this alleged quotation was mentioned (but rejected) as early as the 16th century by the historian Jerónimo de Zurita, and that Soriano Viguera (1926) states that “nothing of the sort can be found in Alfonso’s writings.” Nevertheless, Dean Acheson (U.S. Secretary of State, 1949-1953) used it as the basis for the title and epigraph of his memoir Present at the Creation.

Alfonso’s court complied in Castilian a work titled General Estoria. This work was an attempt at a world history that drew from many sources and included translations from the Vulgate Old Testament mixed with myths and histories from the classical world, mostly Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

This world history was left incomplete, however, and so it stops at the birth of Christ. The main significance of this work lies in the translations from Latin into Castilian. Much like his chronicles, the ability of Alfonso’s court to compile writings from a variety of cultures and translate them into Castilian left a historic impact on Spain.

Alfonso also had the Libro de ajedrez, dados, y tablas (“Libro de los Juegos” (The Book of Games)) translated into Castilian from Arabic and added illustrations with the goal of perfecting the work. It was completed in 1283.

Alfonso X commissioned or co-authored numerous works of music during his reign. These works included Cantigas d’escarnio e maldicer and the vast compilation Cantigas de Santa Maria (“Songs to the Virgin Mary”), which was written in Galician-Portuguese and figures among the most important of his works.

The Cantigas form one of the largest collections of vernacular monophonic songs to survive from the Middle Ages.

They consist of 420 poems with musical notation. The poems are for the most part on miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary. One of the miracles Alfonso relates is his own healing in Puerto de Santa María.

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