The past week (March 23rd to be exact) marked the 650th anniversary of the assassination of Pedro I of Castile-León (r. 1350-1369), one of medieval Iberia’s most controversial, enigmatic and interesting sovereigns. For some, he represents a vicious tyrant whose repressive policies were catastrophic for Castile. Meanwhile, others have memorialized him as a sovereign who promoted a culture of toleration, employed Jews and Muslims in significant numbers within his administration, and sought to curb the power of the nobility. Far from attempting to grapple with or unpack his complex legacy, this post introduces the English-speaking reader to this complicated sovereign in order to encourage further inquiry into his life and times.
(Coin of Pedro I, minted in Seville. Source)
Ascending to the throne at the age of 16 following the death of his father Alfonso XI in 1350, he reigned for about 19 years and is remembered primarily for his immense ambitions, his intensive war with the Kingdom of Aragón, and alliance with the Nasrid ruler Muhammad V of Granada (r. 1354-1359, 1362-1391). His reign was dominated by a variety of conflicts, the most significant of which was the Castilian Civil War, which slowly became intertwined with the course of the Hundred Years’ War.
This internecine conflict culminated in the Battle of Nájera (April 3 1367), which ended in a victory for Pedro I (aided heavily by his English allies, led by the Black Prince) over a Franco-Castilian force commanded by his half-brother Count Enrique of Trastámara (Enrique II of Castile-León) and the French nobleman Bertrand du Guesclin (d. 1380).
(Battle of Nájera depicted in a 15th-c. manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles. Source)
Around the same time, between 1366 and 1369, Nasrid cavalry, ostensibly acting as Pedro’s allies and attacking towns loyal to Enrique, launched major raids that devastated Andalusia and enabled them to recapture significant swathes of territory and border fortresses from Castile. Despite his extensive alliances with the English, Nasrid Granada, and Marinid North Africa, which allowed him to briefly turn the tide against Enrique and his allies, Pedro eventually found himself isolated and besieged in the small castle of Montiel in La Mancha, which was controlled by the Order of Santiago (Pedro’s allies).
(Castillo de la Estrella, Montiel. Source)
(View of Montiel from its fortress. Source)
(Castillo de la Estrella, Montiel. Source)
On March 14 1369, the forces of Pedro and Enrique engaged in battle at Montiel. Due to the military assistance of the Castilian nobility and Bertrand du Guesclin, Enrique emerged victorious and forced Pedro to fortify himself within the town’s castle.
(Representation of the Battle of Montiel. Source).
Bertrand du Guesclin was sent as an envoy to negotiate the Castilian king’s surrender, and Pedro offered Du Guesclin a substantial sum, in addition to extensive lands, if he abandoned Enrique and joined him. Although feigning support for Pedro, Du Guesclin cut a separate deal with Enrique. On the night of March 23 1369, he led Pedro to his tent, where Enrique was waiting. According to the Castilian historian Pero López de Ayala (d. 1407), one of the most important chroniclers of this period of Iberian history, Enrique immediately attacked the 35 year old Pedro with his dagger, stabbing him multiple times until he was dead.
This effectively brought the Castilian Civil War to an end and secured Enrique’s succession as Enrique II (although he had already been acclaimed king of Castile earlier). The death of Pedro I marked the end of the reign of the House of Ivrea in Iberia, which had ruled since 1126, and inaugurated the beginning of the reign of the Trastámara dynasty. Already during Pedro’s reign, and certainly after his death, Enrique II launched an attack against the legitimacy, reign and conduct of his predecessor. It was this Trastámaran propaganda that constructed the image of Pedro I as a ruthless, anti-Christian tyrant whose alliances with Muslims and Jews, centralizing policies and endless wars were responsible for throwing the realm into turmoil. Pedro’s epithet “the Cruel” was a reference to the many acts of personal violence that he perpetrated against his enemies. In addition to murdering his father’s mistress (and mother of Enrique of Trastámara), he killed a number of his own half-brothers, assassinated a deposed Nasrid ruler of Granada (apparently with his own hands), and executed his treasurer Samuel ha-Levi (d. 1360).
(Enrique II of Castile, on the left. Source)
The circumstances of Pedro’s brutal murder in Montiel at the hands of his half-brother Count Enrique of Trastámara, an act of regicide and fratricide, was frequently remarked upon (and criticized) by various chroniclers in Latin Christendom and the Islamic world (including the Nasrid historian and statesman Lisan al-Din ibn al-Khatib, d. 1374). These same authors also acknowledged the violence with which Pedro I often went about suppressing opposition to his rule, including the murder of his own half-brothers. While he was popularly remembered as a tyrant (“Pedro the Cruel”) by his enemies, Pedro I nevertheless had his share of supporters (even after his death). One of the most famous memorializations of him written within a generation of his death were the following lines in The Canterbury Tales by the English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400):
Chaucer, like many of Pedro’s English allies who fought to secure his throne, viewed him as a tragic figure, a legitimate Castilian sovereign whose rebellious nobles forced him to flee his own kingdom and whose life was ended by the treacherous blade of his own brother. In addition to the complex political history of his reign, which can be read about in detail in Clara Estow’s excellent study of his reign, Pedro’s legacy was also defined by his patronage of monumental architecture, including the Alcázar in Seville and the synagogue of El Tránsito in Toledo (constructed under the auspices of his treasurer Samuel ha-Levi), promotion of learning, and the creation of a vibrant court culture. The famous Muslim historian and scholar ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) was among those hosted temporarily by Pedro in Seville during the 1360s, and his court included Jewish luminaries such as Joseph b. Waqqar and Abraham b. Zarzal. The inscriptions on his palace often resembled those found in the Alhambra of Granada, with the invocation (in Arabic) “Glory to our lord, the sovereign (sultan) Don Pedro” being found throughout the Alcázar in Seville.
This cultural production, which has played an important in defining modern understandings of medieval Iberia, accounts for the complexity of his legacy among modern historians. In early modern Spain, Pedro I was rehabilitated (in some circles) and remembered as El Justo (the Just), a sovereign whose use of violence against the nobility was predicated upon his attempt to centralize royal power and enforce the law. His relationship with Muslims and Jews, which was used to undermine his legitimacy in the late Middle Ages, has attracted more attention from 20th and 21st-century historians and scholars who view this as an indication of his relative “tolerance” toward these communities.
(Synagogue of El Tránsito in Toledo [Source], with the dedication plaque bearing the royal Castilian coat of arms and a dedication to Pedro I [Source].
Among modern scholars, Bretton Rodriguez, a specialist in the literature, history, and culture of medieval and early modern Iberia, provides one of the most important and nuanced assessments of Pedro I’s legacy:
[The] representation [of Pedro I]…reflects the political calculations that surrounded the representation of divisive historical figures. It is also evidence of how political writing historical narratives was during this period. For Enrique II and his followers, Pedro I had to be an illegitimate, immoral ruler, or the king was guilty of both regicide and fratricide. For Pedro’s supporters, the king had to be the rightful king, or they had behaved illicitly in supporting him and his heirs. Moreover, moving into the reign of Enrique II and beyond, both sides based their own legitimacy on their versions of past events. Thus, to maintain their current privileges, they had to promote their account of the past.
Although one would see a similar politicization of later figures – for instance, the difference in the representations of Enrique IV crafted by his followers compared to those of Isabel I – the case of Pedro I is unique because of its importance not just within Iberia, but also throughout Western Europe. For people throughout Castile, the Crown of Aragon, France, England, and beyond; the image of Pedro I mattered. Was he a cruel and immoral king who had to be overthrown? Or, was he the rightful king of Castile who was unjustly overthrown and killed by those closest to him? Within Castile, the interpretation of Pedro would continue to be important for centuries. For instance, Isabel I, a descendant of both Enrique II and Pedro I, tried to promote the idea of Pedro as a just king. Centuries later, Lope de Vega supported the opposite position, and he reinforced the image of Pedro as an immoral and unjust king in several plays.
….depictions of the life and death of Pedro I were strongly influenced by contemporary politics. Through this variety of conflicting reports, however, we can draw a couple of clear conclusions. First, contemporary historical narratives were frequently linked to the political needs of contemporary rulers. Medieval histories used the past to legitimize the present, and in the case of Pedro, the king’s image was intrinsically connected to the legitimacy of a new king and his descendants in medieval Castile. Second, Pedro I – and the actions of those who attempted to construct or deconstruct the image of him as a cruel tyrant – played an important role not only in the history and development of fourteenth-century Castile, but also in the Hundred Years’ War and the wider world of Western Europe. (Source)
The varied (and conflicting) representations of Pedro I from the Middle Ages to the present reflect the different priorities, politics and perspectives of all those who have written about him. Pedro’s legacy was shaped equally by broader ideas about medieval Iberian history as by the particular events and developments of his reign. Even on the 650th anniversary of his death, his legacy remains contested. For those interested in exploring these questions further, I refer readers to the excellent Redes Petristas, a transnational, interdisciplinary network of scholars working on the figure and legacy of Pedro I.
(Alabaster statue of Pedro I. Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid)
Luis Vincente Díaz Martin (ed.). Colección documental de Pedro I de Castilla (1350–1369), 4 volumes. Valladolid: Junta de Castilla y León, Consejería de Educación y Cultura, 1997.
———. Los oficiales de Pedro I de Castilla. Valladolid: Secretariado de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Valladolid, 1987.
———. Pedro I, 1350–1369. Palencia: Diputación Provincial de Palencia, 1995.
Jerrilyn D. Dodds, Maria Rosa Menocal and Abigail Krasner Balbale. The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.
Clara Estow. Pedro the Cruel of Castile, 1350–1369. Leiden: Brill, 1995.
Jean Froissart. Chronicles. Translated by Geoffrey Brereton. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
Paulino García Toraño. El rey Don Pedro el Cruel y su mundo. Madrid: Marcial Pons, 1996.
Pero López de Ayala. Coronica del Rey don Pedro. Edited by Constance L. Wilkins and Heanon M. Wilkins. Madison: Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies, 1985.
Jean-Pierre Molénat. “Encore sur la rencontre d’Ibn Khaldun et de Pierre le Cruel à Seville (1363–1364).” In Al-Rihla récit de voyage entre l’Orient et l’Occident, edited by Mohammed Hammam, pp. 17–22. Rabat: Kulliyat al-Adab wa al-`Ulum al-Insaniya, 2003.
———. “Ibn Jaldún ante Pedro I de Castille: el revés de un encuentro.” In Ibn Jaldún. El Mediterráneo en el siglo XIV. Auge y declive de los imperios, pp. 142–145. Granada and Seville: Fundación El Legado Andalusí, 2006.
Bretton Rodriguez. “Competing Images of Pedro I: López de Ayala and the Formation of Historical Memory.” La corónica: A Journal of Medieval Hispanic Literatures, Languages & Cultures 45.2 (2017): 79-108.
———. “López de Ayala and the Politics of Rewriting the Past.” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 7.2 (2015): 266-282.
Peter Edward Russell. The English Intervention in Spain and Portugal in the Time of Edward III and Richard II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955.
Covadonga Valdaliso Casanova. Historiografía y legitimización dinástica: análisis de la Crónica de Pedro I de Castilla. Valladolid: Universidad de Valladolid, 2010.
(Coin of Pedro I. Source)