Spoiler Alert ⚠
In a dusty castle in Andalusia there resided an abandoned Queen and her son, the Infante Don Pedro, heir to the Castilian throne. For years Queen Maria of Spain, daughter of Portugal, had been cast aside by her husband King Alfonso XI in favor of his mistress Leonor de Guzman and the ten illegitimate children she bore him. By right it was Maria who was Queen but it was a concubine who reigned in the King’s court as consort. And so, for years Queen Maria languished, while in her heart burned a longing for vengeance.
By the mid-14th century the romance of the Medieval Age had long-ago subsided. Troubadours and jongleurs no longer galivanted from city to walled city. The Black Plague tormented the continent. As war ravaged Europe, the people were beset by vagabonds, pirates, and thieves. The Renaissance, which had begun in Italy, had not yet reached the Hispanic Peninsula. Five kingdoms ruled Iberia: Portugal to the west; Castile-Leon taking up the vast center; Navarre to the northeast; Aragon to the east; and in the south, the last Muslim stronghold of Granada. Violence ruled the day. Although there was often intermarriage among the Christian kingdoms much time was spent battling each other, not to mention the centuries-old Christian Crusade of the Reconquista to overtake Granada.
It was in Granada where Pedro’s father, waging yet another war, met his end to the Plague. Pedro was not quite 16 years of age. At long last, Maria and her son were set free.
Book – Peter The Cruel: The Life of the Notorious Don Pedro of Castile, together with an Account of His Relations with the Famous Maria de Padilla
Pedro had not harbored resentment towards his father and half-siblings as his mother had. He longed for his brothers’ and sisters’ company and welcomed them into his fold. Leonor de Guzman, as the mother of his half-siblings, he believed, was due respect. One may wonder how such a seemingly kind-hearted young boy grew to be such a despised monarch. When Pedro reached maturity, he would be a fine figure of a man at 6 feet in height, blond-haired, blue-eyed, active, and fit, and except for knees that tended to crack when he walked, had few physical flaws. He would reign on and off for 19 years over a time of civil war and strife and earn the menacing sobriquet of Pedro el Cruel, or Peter the Cruel.
Edward Storer’s Peter the Cruel: The Life of the Notorious Don Pedro of Castile, together with an Account of His Relations with the Famous Maria de Padilla is a terrific historical read. His compact book of 333 pages is supported by 60 works of references, including direct accounts Pedro’s personal historian, Pedro Lopez de Ayala, who was no lover of King Pedro, as well as apologist Prosper Merimee’s hefty 2-part biography (no joke, I own these books and they are about 3 inches thick each). Storer’s work is academic, dismissing rumor from fact, resulting in a fair, ostensibly unbiased look at the much-maligned king.
The Young King Learns to Rule
Young Pedro was, as youths tend to be, naïve. He did not understand how great his brothers’ powers were. Their father, King Alfonso, had given them lands and titles. Enrique, the eldest surviving son, was named Conde de Trastamara (remember that name), his twin, Fadrique, was made Master of the order of Santiago, and the third son was named Don Tello. To guide King Pedro through political waters was Don Juan Alonso de Albuquerque, a nobleman of Portuguese origin. First, Albuquerque set his sights on marriage for the King to a lady of a great family, Juana de Villena. In the first of many betrayals, Pedro’s brother Enrique would elope with Dona Juana, claiming a childhood betrothal gave him the right to her hand and her vast fortune.
This led to various factions across the kingdom fighting it out in the first on many civil wars. Pedro learned that betrayal must be punished with the harshest of penalties. His first murder was that of a knight, Garci Laso, who had the misfortune of choosing the opposing side. Upon Pedro’s order, Laso was maced to death, his brains and skull splattering upon the stones of the floor before Pedro’s throne.
There would be many more brutal slayings to follow, some the typical works of a king seeking to consolidate power, others the kinds that even God might not forgive.
In another betrayal against Pedro, his mother Maria plotted in secret to have her former adversary Leonor de Guzman murdered. Despite who she was, Pedro had never wanted this. While his brother Don Tello received the notification of his mother’s death with ease, the twins were not as forgiving. Enrique & Fadrique would be consumed with a bloodlust for their brother that could only end in murder.
After a bout of sickness, Pedro set upon ruling. Although Storer does not go in depth at this point, it is said that Pedro relaxed laws against Jews, giving them more opportunities (indeed his treasurer Simuel el Levi was Jewish) and tightened control over the nobles. This could not stand.
Albuquerque plotted to take his young King’s mind off governing and introduced him to one, Maria de Padilla. While not as politically powerful as other royal mistresses in history, such as Madame de Pompadour or Barbara Villiers, the influence she wielded on King Pedro and his reign is undeniable. She was his love, his obsession, his sanctuary, his torment. In his favorite city of Seville, he lived an idyllic life of Oriental decadence with the ravishing Maria, who would bear his children.
After it became obvious that Pedro’s obsession with his mistress was more than a fleeting romance, Albuquerque again attempted to maneuver a political alliance for Pedro. This time he was successful, arranging a marriage to Blanca (Blanche) of Bourbon, niece to the king of France. He sent Pedro’s half-brother, Fadrique, to France to accompany the sweet lady into the land of castles.
One would think that with his mother having been so ill-treated by her husband, Pedro would grant his Queen the respect that was her due. But either Maria de Padilla’s embraces were so memorable, or poor Blanca was so repulsive, or perhaps Blanca’s dowry had not yet been received, that Pedro tired of his wife after a mere two days of marriage. He fled to seek the comforting arms of his mistress, only to return for a few more days and then once more leave his bride, alone & imprisoned, for the rest of her short, pathetic life.
His romance with the infamous Padilla woman was filled with passionate turmoils. After one heated argument Maria threatened to retreat to a nunnery and Pedro left in disgust. During this separation, he found time to romance Juana de Castro, a beautiful, elegant widow, whom Pedro pursued with a deep intensity. Juana would not be content to live as mistress to the King; she wanted Holy Matrimony. Pedro’s marriage to Blanca was declared null and void by his decree. But this was not enough. King Pedro threatened two bishops upon penalty of death to declare King Pedro free to marry. This resulted in the bishops being called to the Pope’s residence to receive harsh punishments. Pedro, himself, would later be excommunicated by the Church for cruelties against the clergy.
In a phony marriage ceremony, Pedro bonded himself to Juana. Unfortunately for Juana, she was to be humiliated in the worst way, abandoned by the King after only one night in his bed. One wonders for what reason such a beautiful lady could have displeased the King. Was it merely the pursuit of the hunt and not the nubile target that intrigued him? In any case, Maria never entered a convent, and it was back to her loving bed where Pedro returned.
It is here where events turn endlessly violent. The Padilla family had gained power in Pedro’s court, ousting Albuquerque who fled to Portugal, as did the Dowager Queen, who had found love in her homeland with a handsome knight. Pedro had many enemies: the Portuguese, including his mother and the spurned Albuquerque; the French whom he had offended with his ill-treatment of Blanche; his Trastamara brothers; the Spanish nobles who plotted against him; and the kingdom of Aragon, with its slight ties to the Castilian throne. Bloody skirmishes were fought.
Eventually, Pedro was captured by his brothers and pled for mercy. He was held prisoner for some time and would never be the same after his eventual escape. He had been disgraced; now, he hungered for vengeance. There would be no mercy, not even for his mother. Maria had foolishly decided to go to battle against her son. As punishment, he had her lover and other knights murdered before her horrified eyes. It just one of many in a series of assassinations. Heads on pikes were a common sight in the middle ages. During Pedro’s reign, they were prolific.
More murders were to come. Although Storer denies the veracity of such claims, it was said that during the long months’ travels from France to Spain, Pedro’s bride, Blanca, had been especially close with her guard, Don Fadrique. A love affair had formed. Pedro heard these rumors and it was yet another insult his brothers had cast against him, yet another bitter potion to swallow. He was insatiable in his quest for vengeance.
War was also on the agenda. A moment at sea where Pedro found himself tauntingly threatened by Catalan pirates led to a protracted conflict with Aragon.
Betrayals and Love Affairs
In the meantime, his mother was disgracing herself in the courts of Portugal. Maria, seeking to stamp out memories of her beloved knight was entertaining herself with lover after lover. Her death via poisoning soon followed. Storer admits that Pedro could have been behind her death but dismisses the charges as improbable. More likely, it was her father the King of Portugal who had Maria poisoned. Medieval politics made for tenuous family ties.
A new love affair ensued for King Pedro. This time with a Dona Aldonza whom he chased with an intense ferocity, his pursuit sprouting legends, worthy of the ancient Greek gods. She hid in a convent believing herself to be safe in such a holy sanctuary, but Pedro mercilessly searched every room until he found her. Yet Peter had not forgotten about his Maria. Like a sultan of old, Peter had two households of women. Two women who shared his bed and his ear for politics. A power play arose between the ladies. Ultimately Aldonza overplayed her hand, leaving Maria victorious and Pedro disgusted with her. Thus, she retired again to a nunnery for the rest of her life.
Several more betrayals by his Trastamara brothers led Pedro to the conclusion that their deaths would be the only solution to his problems. In the Arabesque halls of his beloved castle in Seville, the Alcazar, he would order the death of Fadrique de Trastamara. His brother was hunted down like a rabbit, dying only after a long, harrowing chase. His butchered body lay on the mosaic tiled floor, gore flecking the walls.
Pedro dined at his corpse.
Don Tello was also on Pedro’s kill-list, but due to his more suspicious nature, Tello fled before Pedro’s men could reach him. Fadrique’s gruesome death, coupled with the executions Peter mandated for the Spanish nobleman who revolted against him, made the tales about his despotism grow. The soil was fertile for Enrique to gather allies against the King. Illegitimate though he was, he was still a Prince and he perceived he had rights to the throne.
More cruelties followed, including the death of Pedro’s Queen, Blanca, who had been locked away for years. Storer demurs to claim outright whether Pedro ordered her death, offering several options and letting the reader can come to his or her own conclusions. In my opinion, he likely did.
The End for Pedro
Then came his beloved Maria de Padilla’s death. Her loss was painful, but ever the amorous man, King Pedro was able to find solace with numerous women in the remaining years of his life. It was the death of his only son with Maria that profoundly changed him. He became weaker, more dissolute. More murders of noblemen occurred. The number of his enemies grew larger and larger. Numerous people wanted Pedro dead.
Eventually, Pedro became involved in the Hundred Years’ War, allying himself with England. The Black Prince himself came to Spain with thousands of men to lend aid to Pedro. On one side were the Castilians and the English, on the other, the Aragonese, the French, and the Trastamaras. Many knights from far away lands came to Hispania to battle for glory.
Whether through subterfuge or capture, Pedro found himself in a military tent with his brother, Enrique. The knights watched as brother fought brother. It looked as if the more powerful Pedro had the upper hand, but a knight—probably the famous French knight Bertrand du Guesclin—aided Enrique, allowing him to get to his knife and sink it into Pedro’s flesh. Whether Enrique gave the killing blow, or if Pedro was done in by the final stabs of others, is not certain. On that twenty-third day of March in the year 1369, Pedro the Cruel’s reign came to an end.
Through fratricide, the bastard, Enrique de Trastamara had gained the throne of Castile-Leon. His descendants would rule Spain for centuries, first as Trastamaras, then as Hapsburgs, for he was the ancestor of Isabel the Catholic of Castile, Juana I the Mad, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and King Phillip II of Spain, among others.
Pedro’s descendants lived on through his children by Maria. His daughters would be Constance, Duchess of Lancaster, wife to the Edward III of England’s son, John of Gaunt, and the other Isabella, Duchess of York.
As for Pedro’s legacy, it is a mixed one. He was, by the standards of his time, truly not more bloodthirsty a king than most others. However, he did not wage his war upon the peasantry nor persecuted minorities, but on nobles. His attempt at social reforms, his unwillingness to oppress Jews, and his endeavors to decrease crimes through harsher punishments were not forgotten. For that, later historians have called him el Justiciero, the Lawful.
It was in personal matters wherein Pedro was dissolute and wicked. More importantly, he lost his crown to a man who had the power to dictate history, the founding ruler of a powerful dynasty whose bloodline lives on today in the royal families of Europe.
The life of Pedro the I has been the subject of many works, with each artist putting his own spin on the disparaged king. Storer writes his life story with organized, even-handed elegance. This work is history come to life, where you can smell the orange blossoms and taste the metallic blood. Peter the Cruel is a wonderful read, an excellent biography for any Hispanophile’s library.