Alfonso el Sabio and his times

The life of Alfonso X covers the 63 years that run from 1221 to 1284, the very heart of the thirteenth century. Alfonso was King of Castile and Leon and elected to head the Holy Roman Empire; he was a legal reformer and promoter of science and culture. The impact of the political and intellectual activity of which he was the driver during the three decades of his reign was felt far beyond the frontiers of the Peninsula in a way that was unmatched for any medieval Iberian monarch either before or after, to the point that he became a key figure in the epoch of beginnings and endings that was thirteenth-century Christendom. A brief overview of his life and work cannot but leave the impression that Alfonso was at the core of all of the major developments left to us by that century.

In part, this chronological and individual centrality is a reflection of his genealogical centrality; for through his veins ran the blood of the major European dynasties of his day. The son of Fernando III and Beatrice of Swabia, his paternal line was intertwined with the royal houses of England and France (he was the great-grandson of Eleanor Plantaganet, wife of Alfonso VIII and his great aunt was Blanca, wife of Louis VIII); on the maternal side he was linked to both Roman and Byzantine imperial dynasties (through his great-grandfathers Frederick Barbarossa and Isaac II Angelos). Alfonso seems to have regarded his lineage as providential; this can be seen in the almost messianic dimension of his sense of responsibility and the energy with which he threw himself into his all-encompassing political and intellectual ambitions. Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in the passage of the Estoria de España in which the cloud that covered Spain at the birth of Christ is interpreted to mean that in the Peninsula «avié de nacer un príncep cristiano que serié señor de tod’el mundo, e valdrié más por él tod’el linage de los omnes, bien cuemo esclareció toda la tierra por la claridat d’aquella nuve en quanto ella duró».


In any case, although many analyses of Alfonso tend to separate artificially the characteristics of “Learned” and “King” (often accompanied by the topos that he was a giant of the former and unsuited to the exercise of the latter) it should be noted that Alfonso himself seems not to have regard these two facets as so easily divisible. On the contrary, he seems to have taken on his intellectual commitments as a direct consequence of his royal condition; a view confirmed by the oft-cited words of the Segunda Partida which state that «Acucioso debe seer el rey en aprender los saberes, ca por ellos entendrá las cosas de raíz e sabrá mejor obrar en ellas».


Little is known with any great certainty about his education and intellectual formation. A range of direct influences has been posited for his upbringing, amongst whom the Archbishop of Toledo Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, the Dominican friar Pedro Gallego (subsequently bishop of Murcia, a city which Alfonso knew well), the masters of rhetoric Ponce de Provenza and Geoffrey de Everseley, the bishop Raimundo de Losana and the Italian jurist Jacobo de Junta stand out. To these possible influences must also be added the importance of early contact with his Jewish collaborator Judá ben Moisés ha-Cohen (a central figure in the later composition of works in astrology and magic), and the education he could conceivably have received in the madrassa of Murcia run by Ibn Abu Bakr al-Riquti, where, it has been suggested, the young Alfonso learned to use Arabic.

By the same token, it must be recognised that despite the personal stamp that Alfonso put on all of his projects, cultural as well as political, in many respects the king was the beneficiary of the initiatives of his father, years before his own ascension to the throne. Thus, such ideas as the restoration of the Imperium hispanicum and the fecho de allende, not to mention the rediscovery of Roman Law or the use of Galician in courtly poetry and Castilian in the chancellery documentation were already present in the court of Fernando.

Alfonso’s life can be divided almost equally between the periods of activity as prince (1221-1252) and king (1252-1284). It is noteworthy that both his political ideas and his intellectual vocation (which appears to have been present in him from an early age) hark back to his period as heir to the throne, as might be suggested by his central role in the conquest of Murcia (1243) and his patronage of the translation of the collection of Oriental wisdom known as Calila e Dimna (1251). That this reputation for intellectual capabilities accompanied him from before his years as king can be seen in the description of him as non ignarus Alfonso on the Atarazanas de Sevilla; an inscription made short weeks after his accession to the throne in 1252.

As king, Alfonso faced the challenge of extending the frontiers of his kingdom, something which he would have assumed to be a central part of his royal task. In this respect, Alfonso was battling on four fronts simultaneously: the increase of Casilian/Leonese hegemony among the other peninsular kingdoms, the completion of the conquest of the remaining Muslim territories in the Peninsula and the so-called fecho de allende and fecho del Imperio. The practical failure on all four political fronts has tinged the conclusions of subsequent accounts of his reign although the totalising aim of his projects is not often appreciated.

In the first of these Alfonso’s efforts were directed above all at the restoration of the Imperium hispanicum in the person of the Castilian/Leonese monarch, for which there existed a ready made precedent in the figure of another Alfonso, Alfonso VII. This aim (apparently inherited from his father) from an early stage conditioned Alfonso’s relations with the neighbouring kingdoms of Portugal, Navarre and Aragon and was marked by episodes of intervention and territorial aspiration in Portugal such as the “Algarve question” (Alfonso retained the Algarve in the list of his kingdoms even after his definitive renunciation to his claim in the treaty of Badajoz in 1267) on the one hand, and repeated attempts to annex Navarre (following the deaths of Teobaldo I in 1253, Teobaldo II in 1270 and Enrique I in 1274 on the other. For his part, Jaume I of Aragon always looked with some suspicion at the expansionary ambitions of his son-in-law (Alfonso married Jaume’s daughter Violante in 1246) although this did not stop the alliance between the two kings in time developing into friendship and mutual support. In sum, although Castilian/Leonese hegemony was never put in question during Alfonso’s reign, he was never to attain the specific title of Imperator Hispaniae.

With respect to the expansion of Christian territory on the Peninsula, Alfonso failed to advance much beyond what his father had already achieved. In the face of the spectacular advance of Castile/Leon during the lifetime of Fernando III (in which wide swathes of Andalucía -including Jaén, Córdoba and Sevilla- and the kingdom of Murcia had been won) Alfonso’s annexation of the kingdoms of Jerez and Niebla (1261) look rather live pyrrhic victories, especially in the context of the rebellion of the mudéjars, Alfonso’s perennially complex and ambiguous relationship with Granada and the successive invasions of the Banu Marin (1272, 1275 y 1277). In addition, the extension overseas of the peninsular crusade represented by the fecho de allende (which aimed to recover the African territories of the Visigoths and even to set the stage for a possible conquest of the Holy Land through the Magreb) also failed to reach the heights of Alfonso’s ambition as it was reduced to the temporary conquest of a few maritime strongholds at the beginning of his reign and the misfortunate sacking of the port of Salé in 1260. Two decades later, in 1279, the destruction of the Christian fleet before Algeciras put a definitive end to Alfonso’s overseas adventures.

But perhaps the greatest political failure associated with Alfonso is that of his frustrated aspirations to claim the title of Holy Roman Emperor. The king was candidate by virtue of his mother (Beatriz was a Staufen, and cousin of Fredrick II). But the overwhelming desire to be elected Romanorum Imperator ended by emptying the treasury of the kingdom and pushing the resources and patience of the powerful groups of his kingdom (nobility, Church and councils) to breaking point.

The story of Alfonso’s imperial dream began 1256, when an embassy from Pisa offered the role to the king, and it ended definitively in 1275 at the meeting between Alfonso and the pope at Beaucaire at which Gregory X finally rejected his candidature in favour of Rudolf of Habsburg who had already been proclaimed emperor. In between these dates there were almost twenty years of campaigning, the outlay of vast sums of money and intense international diplomacy which kept the king of Castile and Leon in the eye of all of Occidental Europe, but which also made him the object of ever more harsh criticism from the influential circles of his own kingdom, from whom, in repeated gatherings, he ceaselessly demanded the means to pursue his Imperial ambitions. And at the end of the process, if Alfonso’s fecho del Imperio was condemned to failure, this was due no small part to that fact that the king (Ghibelline by borth and conviction) never managed to acquire the support of the papacy; the one institution whose views on the matter truly counted.

If the fecho del Imperio undermined the economy of the kingdom (an economy which Alfonso had no hesitation in reforming through a series of mainly fiscal measures), it also conditioned the king’s internal policy. The demands for money were not well received by a nobility which was already up in arms at Alfonso’s reforms of foral law and fiscal policy. The ongoing conflict with the nobility, due in large measure to the central place accorded to the Crown in all of the Alfonsine political and intellectual projects, came to a head in 1272 when almost the entirety of the Castilian and Leonese nobility rose against the king, breaking their ties of vassalage with him and exiled themselves to Granada, thereby obliging Alfonso to reduce his aims of centralising royal power in a range of concessions to the nobles. Despite the subsequent return of the nobles, the shadow of the plot never left the kingdom, as seen in the judgments carried out against Alfonso’s own brother Fadrique and Simón Ruiz de los Cameros in 1277. All of this would eventually give rise to a conspiracy led by the second son of the king, the future Sancho IV. Sancho had been in conflict with Alfonso since 1275, when the death of his brother and heir to the throne Fernando de la Cerda left a succession crisis in Castile and Leon: Fernando had two sons, the Infantes de la Cerda, whose priority in the succession was defended by France -the Infantes’ mother Blanca was the daughter of St. Louis, but Sancho had shown his prowess in the difficult days of 1275 and had significant noble support. The conflict would eventually give rise to a civil war between 1282 and 1284 which set an aged and infirm Alfonso against Sancho and the majority of the realm, including Alfonso’s wife Violante. It is in this context of heightened political and personal tension that some of Alfonso’s more controversial decisions can be understood: the disinheritance and damning of Sancho; the collaboration with the Banu Marin in the civil war and the proposed clause in his will which conceived of the annexation by France of the kingdoms of Castile and Leon.

These and related episodes, alongside his reputation as an astrologer, contributed to the early creation of a black legend surrounding Alfonso; it was one that would be amplified with the passage of time by those with an interest in the blackening of his name (thus the famous legend of the blasphemy of Alfonso according to which he declared that if he had been with God at the Creation, he would have done it better) and by those who rushed to judgment, exemplified by the phrase of Eduardo Marquina, based on the views of padre Mariana: «De tanto mirar al cielo / se le cayó la corona». However, in the light of his own concept of kingship («Vicarios de Dios son los reyes») it is more correct to say that Alsonso never releaed his crown as he looked to the heavens, or better still that he received his crown with an eye to the heavens with a breadth of vision and knowledge that not all of his contemporaries (nor indeed those who have studied his reign) were able to appreciate. To reverse the words of the Poema de Mio Cid, «¡Dios, qué buen señor, si oviese buenos vasallos!».