Generally, queens in medieval Spain earned their title in one of two ways: by marrying into the royal family or by being the mother of a widowed king. Unlike their male counterparts, female monarchs rarely inherited their kingdoms from their predecessors. One example of such a regnant queen, whose rank equaled that of a king, is Urraca of León-Castile, who reigned for seventeen years from 1109 to 1126 CE. Her father lacked legitimate sons and thus named his daughter as his successor. Although Urraca’s reign began with this stroke of good fortune, the rest of her career was defined by her own actions and decisions.
Many researchers characterize Urraca’s reign as being underwhelming and one of turbulence and trouble. They blame the failures of her reign on her poor leadership and attribute her successes to her father. In some scholarly analyses of Spanish medieval royalty, her reign is skipped over altogether. However, a closer look at her life reveals that despite the opposition that she faced from her subjects and neighboring rulers, she made significant contributions to the state and effectively cemented her legacy in medieval history. This was possible because of the agency that Urraca of León-Castile possessed as queen. But history has rarely looked upon powerful women with kind eyes.
Leading the Armed Forces
During the Middle Ages, it was not customary for women, much less female rulers, to take on military leadership. Urraca, however, was an exception, as she played an active role in the military. In 1109, Urraca married King Alfonso I of Aragon, with whom she had a rocky relationship. Their issues soon became political as they were unable to conceive an heir to take the throne, and romance quickly turned into rivalry. A war broke out between Leon-Castile and Aragon, with the armies of their kingdoms fighting constantly. After about four years, Urraca and her men defeated Alfonso’s forces, causing him to lose three thousand of his men. The queen could have accepted her fate and remained subservient to her husband, which was the expected behavior of wives during this period. However, Urraca did not remain complacent and instead took action against her husband by fighting in the battles herself. She not only willingly led a battle against her husband and his army, but also exceeded expectations and achieved victory for León-Castile.
In addition to fighting Aragon, Urraca used her military prowess to quell domestic unrest. In 1117, when Urraca went to visit Santiago, a group of townspeople began to rebel and attack the queen. Instead of backing down, she stood up to them and commanded her men to retaliate. After days of fighting, the city surrendered to Urraca and she maintained her dominance as the monarch. Urraca was not one to concede because of her gender. She was willing to do what any king in her place would do–take fierce action against her opponents, whether by fighting them directly or commanding the troops.
Alongside her active role in the military, Urraca also took it upon herself to build relationships to increase her popularity among her Christian subjects. Instead of relying on her father’s network, Urraca actively sought out her own connections to solidify her political position. In medieval Europe, alliances between the church and state were common to legitimize the power of both parties. Urraca understood this and fostered her relationship with the clergy by providing considerable economic support to the Church of San Isidoro in León. Her father had previously built a small chapel there, which she worked to expand throughout her reign. In 1117, Urraca made a lavish donation to the Church of San Isidoro, which would provide enough income for future expansions and maintenance. Through her patronage of the Church of San Isidoro, she established her legacy in the form of architecture. She also cemented political goodwill between the church and her successors. She did not want to remain in the shadow of her father, who was already a respected ruler, but instead wanted to achieve her own political success.
Since León was also on the route to Santiago de Compostela, a popular pilgrimage city, Urraca also wanted to encourage travelers to explore her city when visiting the Church of San Isidoro. She added a second set of doors to the church that opened directly into the rest of the city to accomplish this. The purpose of the expansion was also to liken San Isidoro to a pilgrimage chapel rather than a private one. In this way, travelers who came to visit the church of San Isidoro would visit the rest of León as well, stimulating the city’s economy and ultimately strengthening Urraca’s political power.
Her patronage of the Church of San Isidoro was just one of the ways that Urraca left a mark on material culture. Urraca also became the first monarch of Iberia to coin money in her own name. She had her portrait minted on the coin, which was uncommon for medieval female rulers. The coin’s engraving depicts her portrait facing forward wearing a royal headband, which highlights her position as the monarch. Additionally, some variations of the coin have two points below the headdress, which may represent earrings. Some scholars believe the placement of the earrings below the head may serve to emphasize her femininity. By having both her name and image minted onto the currency, Urraca ensured that her legacy would be long-lasting. As the supreme ruler of León-Castile, she knew that she deserved to be represented on the most powerful asset of society.
Coin of Urraca minted in Toledo, 1109-25. Image obtained from Manuel Mozo Monroy, Toledo mint by Urraca, Queen of Leon and Toledo.
Queen Urraca’s reign is characterized by a series of trailblazing events––from directly inheriting the kingdom from her father to minting her own image on the currency. She also left a material legacy through her contributions to the Church of San Isidoro while simultaneously strengthening her relationship with the bishops of the church. Urraca died during childbirth in her forties, so we will never know what she would have been able to accomplish, had she lived a longer life.
A deeper analysis of the reigns of female rulers is necessary to understand their true impact. Throughout history, female leaders have been hastily labeled as “emotional” or “weak.” The archbishop of Santiago de Compostela echoes this sentiment regarding Urraca: “[The archbishop] knew her spirit to be too weak and womanly to govern in peace and justice the kingdom of Spain…the spirit of a woman is weak and unstable and it rapidly loses control of itself.”
Nearly a millennium later, when asked about his thoughts on appointing a woman to the Supreme Court, Former U.S. President Richard Nixon answered, “I don't think a woman should be in any government job whatever. I mean, I really don't. The reason why I do is mainly because they are erratic. And emotional. Men are erratic and emotional, too, but the point is a woman is more likely to be.” Even in recent history, society has continued to question women’s ability to lead.
Similarly, many modern (and usually male) medieval scholars dwell on Urraca’s broken marriage with her husband or her relationship with her father, rather than focusing on her independent successes. In fact, Urraca’s autonomy allowed her to achieve military success, while her political savviness enabled her to solidify her family’s legacy through patronage and coinage. Women in positions of power deserve to be regarded with the same historical weight as their male counterparts.