miércoles, 28 de marzo de 2012

Catherine of Lancaster, Queen of Castile

Versión en español

Among the queens of Castile born in England, the most relevant is Catherine of Lancaster (1373-1418). This is her history roughly.

Henry II, first king of the Trastámara dynasty, had come to the Castilian throne after killing his half brother King Peter I in the battle of Montiel (1369).

Henry II had received the support of France, while Peter I had received it from England. Both countries were engaged in the Hundred Years War and both were interested in having the support of the Castilian fleet, which maintained a flourishing trade with Flanders.

John of Gaunt, I Duke of Lancaster, married his second wife Constance of Castile (Peter I’s daughter) and considered that this marriage entitled him to the Castilian crown. To get it he confronted King John I of Castile, Henry II’s son and successor, taking advantage of his apparent weakness after been defeated by the Portuguese in the battle of Aljubarrota (1385).

However, the conflict between John of Gaunt and John I ended in 1388 with the treaty of Bayonne. According to it, Catherine of Lancaster (daughter of John of Gaunt and Constance of Castile) and Henry, who was the underage son of John I and heir to the throne, become married. With this marriage, the legitimate and illegitimate branches of the same family, both descendants of Alfonso XI of Castile, joined so that the Trastámara dynasty became legitimated.

As a result of the Treaty of Bayonne, the future Henry III and his wife Catherine of Lancaster were the first heirs to the throne of Castile to receive the title of Prince and Princess of Asturias.

John I died in 1390, when his son Henry was only eleven years old. Castile was a chaos for three years due to the struggles between the nobles to increase their plots of power.

Henry III was declared of age and came to the throne in 1393. The main events of his reign were:
  • The nobility was pacified and the royal power restored, supported by the gentry.
  • The privileges granted by his predecessors to the Cortes of Castile were repealed, the figure of the ‘corregidores’ in the cities empowered and the economy of the kingdom cleaned up.
  • Persecutions against the Jews decreased by issuing several edicts against violence, which had been very serious in 1391.
  • The Castilian fleet fought the Barbary and Christians pirates successfully in the Mediterranean. Also against the English pirates and corsairs who harassed Biscay ports and trade with Flanders. A fleet under the command of Pero Nino devastated the southern coast of England and the ports considered a haven for pirates.
  • The colonization of the Canary Islands began, for which the French explorer Jean de Bethencourt was sent there in 1402.
  • A Portuguese invasion was stopped. It started with an attack on Badajoz in 1396 and ended with a truce agreement signed with John I of Portugal in 1402.
  • The campaign against the Nazari kingdom of Granada was resumed but could not be completed, despite of having won a victory at the Battle of Collejares (1406), because the king died shortly after. He was barely 27 years old.
  • However, one of the most known events of his reign is probably the embassy sent to Samarkand and led by Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo. It has come us the story of the journey in a book entitled, Embassy to Tamerlane.
The memory of the Embassy led by Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo is very much alive in today's Uzbekistan.
 There is a street in Samarkand named as the Castilian ambassador.


The marriage of Henry III of Castile and Catherine of Lancaster was harmonious. When Henry died in 1406, their son and heir to the throne, the future John II, was under two years old.

Catherine took over the regency of the kingdom, together with her brother-in-law the Infante Ferdinand. The target of her life became ensure her son’s arrival to the throne.

Some disagreements between the two regents caused them to split the territories ruled by each one. Ferdinand was elected King of Aragon in 1412 but continued as regent of Castile. He died in 1416 and Catherine became in the unique regent.

Catherine managed to improve relations with England and Portugal, without breaking with France, a traditional Trastámara’s ally. The Castilian ships could continue trading with England and Flanders. She also contributed to end the Western Schism by recognizing Pope Martin V. In general, she always advocated peaceful solutions for the problems and gave up some of her pretensions to avoid bigger confrontations.

Catherine was widely criticized by her contemporaries because she surrounded herself with some women, to whom she distinguished with her confidence and taking into account their opinions on governance issues.

She died in 1418, just months before her son John II reached his majority and the throne, which he held for 25 years.

Catherine and Henry are buried in the New Kings Chapel of the Cathedral of Toledo.

It is said that Isabel the Catholic, the most important Queen in the history of Spain, John II’s daughter and Catherine’s granddaughter, inherited many of her physical and character features.

Cathedral of Toledo. The graves of Catherine of Lancaster and Henry III are inside.
Recommended video (in Spanish): Catalina de Lancaster (Mujeres en la Historia. RTVE.es A la Carta)

We thank Alfredo Vilchez, Phd in History, for his review of the original text and advice.