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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Alfonso X el Sabio: Conclusion

Alfonso X in an eighteenth-century
sculpture in the garden of the
Royal Palace, Madrid
Vacillating regularly between his second son and his grandson as he came under different pressures to name an heir, Alfonso was unable to avoid international incidents as he dealt with recurring and worsening illness, the distrust of the townspeople and their unwillingness to provide the funds he needed for the defense of the kingdom, invasions from the south and threats from the north. In 1277, Alfonso ordered the summary execution of his brother Fadrique. Although Fadrique had probably taken the opportunity caused by Alfonso’s illness and Sancho’s minority to seize the crown for himself, the official records allege a homosexual relationship that was imperiling the entire nation. In 1278, the Courts granted Sancho enormous power, making him a virtual co-regent with his father. Meanwhile, Alfonso’s queen, Violante, fled to Aragón, probably because of mistreatment she suffered as a result of Alfonso’s prolonged physical distress. Before she could return after a year’s absence, negotiations became highly politicized because of the whereabouts of Alfonso’s grandsons. In an attempt to curb Moroccan power in the peninsula, Alfonso besieged Algeciras, but Sancho gave the money intended for the siege to his mother for her expenses in Aragón, and the siege failed. To show his displeasure, Alfonso executed the innocent Jew who had collected the funds from delinquent taxpayers. Still desperate for money, he also held all of the Jews in Castile for ransom. Using these extreme measures as evidence of his father’s insanity and inability to rule, Sancho sought and gained the support of most of the royal family, Aragón, Portugal, and the military orders of Castile. He collected funds and convoked a plenary assembly to restore traditional laws and promise to maintain the coinage from the time of his grandfather.
The courts agreed to divest Alfonso X of all his power, leaving him with only the title of king. Alfonso pawned his gold crown and resorted to the help of his former enemy, the King of Morocco, who laid waste to many important towns that had turned to Sancho. During a final prolonged illness in Seville, the last loyal city, Alfonso disinherited Sancho in his testament, although in an addendum he refused to specify exactly who would receive control of his kingdoms. Sancho’s suspicious behavior drove some of the royal family members back to Seville, and the Pope excommunicated everyone in Sancho’s camp. When Alfonso’s brother, Manuel, died while acting as Sancho’s most important advisor, both camps began to make overtures to reconcile, but they were never to meet face to face again. Alfonso officially pardoned his wayward son and asked for a papal absolution for him just days before his death. It is unknown whether Sancho ever learned of this belated blessing.
From the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The king
in the bottom center is Alfonso.
In or about 1269, it seems that a horse kicked Alfonso in the face. Although not a matter of state, this incident would influence each one of Alfonso’s subsequent actions. Poor healing of a nasal fracture resulted in repeated infections, which eventually led to debilitating pain and cancerous tumors, which disfigured and ultimately killed him. This highly intimate knowledge helps to humanize the drama of Alfonso’s life. If we consider the severe physical pressures he was suffering as well as the confusing factionalism of his subjects, his equivocation and occasional rash behavior becomes much more understandable.
Alfonso X would be remarkable in any context, but he stands out in especially high relief against the society in which he lived. Literally backwards-looking, Alfonso’s subjects demanded time and again that he return his government to what it had been during previous reigns. The king wanted the best for his people, but he was never able to fully grasp just how hard he would have to push them into a future that made no sense to them. But, even at the sad end of his life, Alfonso probably realized that his intellectual legacy would prevail and that history would (eventually) regard him kindly. In this way, Alfonso still inspires us to believe in the value of education for the betterment of society.
The figure of the Wise King first sparked my attention as an undergraduate. It has steered my entire academic career, and sustained my interest through the unexpected work in history, linguistics and law that became necessary in order to complete my dissertation on his legalistic and literary output. 
To date, the best Alfonsine biography in English is Joseph O’Callaghan’s The Learned King (1993). Students use this well-researched piece as a reference once they already have some familiarity with thirteenth-century history, but I doubt they would pick it up at the library for a bit of fun reading. Additionally, it treats only the years of his reign, leaving Alfonso’s childhood, personal life, and subsequent legacy for the reader to find out. H. Salvador Martínez’s authoritative Alfonso X, el Sabio should appear in English translation by the end of 2011. However, even if it has been cut drastically in length, that book will still require enormous patience and previous knowledge of Spanish cultural heritage. I'm dreaming of a book that would reach a wide American audience. It would be the life story of one extraordinary person, without abstruse language or unnecessarily distracting notes. It would bring Alfonso’s accomplishments and tragedies to people who might never have heard of him. Perhaps readers would then feel inspired to pursue their own useful learning. Continuing this legacy of enrichment would be the most fitting tribute to a king who wanted most of all to increase knowledge.

Part One of this biographyA Day in the Life of Alfonso X  • Alfonso's Bookish Legacy • Cantigas de Santa María • Cantiga 185Alfonso's Astronomy • Alfonso's Last Book •