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Berenguela of Castile

Berenguela of Castile was born in about 1180, and was the eldest child of Eleanor of England and Alfonso VIII of Castile. She was a Castilian granddaughter of Alienor of Aquitaine, and Henry II, and her sister, Blanche would go on to be Queen of France. This family, more than most was supported by capable women who were more than wives.

Bereguela had eleven younger siblings, although many died in infancy; she was the Heir Presumptive of Castile until 1189 when her younger brother Ferdinand was born, who would predecease his father in 1203 when he contracted a fever (returning through the San Vicente mountains from a campaign against the Muslims) and died. After his death, the heir of Castile became Henry, the youngest child of Eleanor and Alfonso.

By 1187, Berenguela had had four siblings who had died in infancy, and was viewed as a great matrimonial prize (despite being about seven at the time). And so the marriage offers started arriving. The suitor was Conrad, the fifth son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. The marriage contract was quite a complicated one, given that Bereguela was heir to Castile at the time, and no-one wanted Castile to be snapped up into the Holy Roman Empire. In the end, it was agreed that Berenguela would inherit Castile after her father and any childless brothers who may arrive, that Conrad would only be able to co-rule the Kingdom, and that should they die childless, it would not become part of the Holy Roman Empire. Conrad then went back to his own domains, and the couple never saw each other again when Conrad was assassinated in 1196. Before his death, Bereguela had been attempting to get an annulment from Conrad (while aged about eleven) and was probably influenced by her Grandmother, Alienor of Aquitaine who did not want a neighbour who was a close relative to the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1197, a more promising offer for marriage came along, from her father's cousin, Alfonso IX, King of Leon. The marriage was made in an effort to bring peace between Castile and Leon, and Berenguela received control of land and castles by the borders of the two Kingdoms. In seven years of marriage, the couple had five children:

Eleanor, born 1198/99, who died in infancy

Constance, born 1200, who became a nun at the Abbey of las Huelgas (died 1242)

Ferdinand, born 1201, who became the King of Castile and Leon before his death in 1252 and married Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen and Joan, Countess of Ponthieu

Alfonso, born 1203, who married Mafalda de Lara, heiress of Molina and Mesa, and became Lord of Molina and Mesa in her right, and secondly married Teresa Núñez, and then married Mayor Téllez de Meneses, Lady of Montealegre and Tiedra.

Berenguela, born 1204 who married John of Brienne, King of Jerusalem.

However, in 1204, the marriage was dissolved by the Pope, on grounds of contingency, despite both Berengeula and Alfonso paying large sums of money and doing everything in their power, but the Pope prevailed. This perhaps shows that their marriage was a happy one, and one that neither wanted to give up (although it may have been for a more political reason, like trying to keep the peace between Castile and Leon). The couple had managed to hold out for a while, given that the Pope had started his objections in 1198.

Berenguela returned to her parent's court in Castile, and in the following years, Castile and Leon went to war several times, in part over her lands on the Border. The result of these wars were basically that she gained more land. She had lost her crown, and the marriage alliance had come to nothing, so instead, she devoted herself to her four children, and became a patron to religious institutions like her mother had been before her. In 1214, her life took an unexpected turn when her father died, and was followed by her mother less than a month later, who was overwhelmed by grief. The King of Castile was now her ten-year-old brother, Henry, and she was regent (as well as Heir Presumptive once again).

Yet, able as Berenguela was, she was soon forced to cede the regency to Count Álvaro Núñez de Lara. Civil War was eminent, as other powerful nobles began to side with her, to oppose Álvaro Núñez de Lara, where she was soon joined by more supporters, despite her position becoming so perilous that she sent her eldest son, Ferdinand to his father's court in Leon. But this changed once again, when Henry died suddenly when a falling roof tile killed him, leaving Berenguela as Queen of Castile.

Berenguela had luckily inherited a fare share of Alienor of Aquitaine's political acumen, and knew that her former husband could pose a problem to her throne, being the closest male living relative to her father, so kept Henry's death a secret from him, and instead wrote to ask that Ferdinand return to her court. When Ferdinand arrived she abdicated in his favour. Her reign had been short and successful (by short, it was only a few months long). She continued to have a large role in the ruling of Castile, and was her son's closest adviser. She was a skilled diplomat, and organised her son's marriage to Elisabeth of Hohenstaufen, granddaughter of both the Byzantine and Holy Roman Emperors in 1219. There had always been tensions with the de Lara's which Berenguela dispelled in 1222, with her son's marriage to Mafalda de Lara, and meant that her second son got lands to rule. Perhaps the most ingenious of her interventions, one that would have made her grandmother proud was in 1224, when she arranged the marriage of her daughter Berenguela to John of Brienne. This brought her son closer to the throne of Leon, as her former husband was planning to marry one of his daughters by his first marriage to John (this first marriage was also dissolved on grounds of contingency), and prevented her former husband from creating an alliance with John.

But the most successful of her actions was one that gave her son the Throne of Leon as well as Castile. When her former husband, King Alfonso of Leon, his heirs were his daughters by his first marriage, but Berenguela met with their mother, and created a treaty, where they would renounce their claim to the throne in return for a large amount of money, and reunifying the thrones of Castile and Leon. After Ferdinand's wife's death in 1235, she acted to find him a new bride, and chose Joan, Countess of Ponthieu at her sister, Blanche, Queen Regent of France's urging.

Berenguela died in 1246, aged sixty-six, after a long, and relatively happy life, wielding power that many other women never could have experienced. Her political maneuvers were decisive as she proved to Europe that she was a true granddaughter of Alienor d'Aquitaine.