29 January 2014

June 1, 1252: Retracing a Day in the Life of Alfonso X el Sabio

Alfonso X in the monument in Plaza Nueva, Sevilla
Today Sevilla, Spain, is the capital of Andalusia. It exudes Baroque splendor at the same time that it shows off the latest technology. In this post, however, let me take you on a tour through the small nucleus of the city and imagine what it was like on one specific day during the reign of King Alfonso X. Alfonso's father, Fernando III, took Sevilla from the Moorish taifa king in 1248, only four years before our day. It quickly became Alfonso's favorite city and he spent nearly half his reign here, in spite of frequent, extensive travels for matters of court and politics.

The remains of the Moorish baths that were extant in Alfonso's time now house
an Italian restaurant. www.sanmarco.es
Just beyond the cathedral, nestled up close to the royal palace for protection and a short commute to the king's side, Sevilla's Jewish quarter keeps its secrets in a maze of narrow streets. Today's judería is largely a nineteenth-century reconstruction, but it preserves the idea of what it must have been like to walk around Sevilla in the thirteenth century as well as at least one authentic bit of history: the archways of a Moorish bath. While these baths served the community at large in the thirteenth century, Alfonso X and his household probably used a bath within the royal palace walls on a daily basis. On June 1, 1252, Alfonso probably took great care in his morning grooming routine, calling on all the available attendants and slaves.

Only the lower three quarters of the Giralda
bell tower existed in 1252.
Behind him, the best lineage and upbringing as well as training in politics and war. Ahead, spectacular achievements in the arts and sciences, the disappointing pursuit of his candidacy for Holy Roman Emperor, strife, and much more war. But on June 1, 1252, Alfonso X, whom history calls "el Sabio" (the Learned), was crowned King of Castile at thirty years old. Reasonably experienced at that age, but also not too old, the new king might have been a little nervous, but also secure in his destiny and obligation when the decree rang out at the cathedral in Sevilla.

The current cathedral in Sevilla is an enormous gothic masterpiece, started some 200 years after Alfonso's coronation. The cathedral in Alfonso's time would have been architecturally a mosque, hastily reconsecrated to the Christian faith. The minaret would subsequently be redesigned as a bell tower, but even today it preserves the wide ramps visitors can climb to stand under the bells and look out over the city. Originally, these interior ramps were intended to accommodate a muezzin, who would ascend to the highest point in Andalusia on horseback to perform the call to prayer.

Fernando III as depicted in a 17th-century sculpture
in the Sevilla cathedral treasury
Fernando III's conquests and his ability to unite the kingdoms of Castile and León made him so well loved that he became a serious candidate for sainthood just after his death on May 30, 1252. Alfonso, the heir to that legacy of consolidating the Iberian peninsula under Christian power, had a lot to live up to.

With the city mourning the beloved king, and with the pragmatism that usually dominates Castilian politics, the coronation was probably not an elaborate affair. No descriptions have come down to us, but it likely took place in the morning hours and involved Alfonso's oath, a bishop placing the ceremonial crown upon Alfonso's head, and oaths of fealty from the many noble vassals present. Alfonso's biographer Ballesteros Beretta imagines that the spectators then lifted Alfonso on their shoulders and paraded him around the cathedral square. Did he look down and see the faces of the nobles who would revolt against him, or the brother who would conspire against the crown? Perhaps he looked into the bright sky of Sevilla and glimpsed the Virgin Mary smiling on him. The cult of Mary would be Alfonso's lifelong devotion.

After a bit of a welcome to his new role, it's likely King Alfonso had to head straight back to the royal palace to work on matters of state. Like the cathedral, the royal palace in Sevilla was adapted from a beautiful complex constructed by the previous Muslim rulers. Only one salon and one garden area survive from the original building. Although splendid, they are now dwarfed by the labyrinthine layout and opulence of the mudéjar-style palace constructed for Pedro the Cruel in the fourteenth century.

The gothic sections of the palace were constructed beginning in 1254. New crossed archways hold the ceilings up elegantly in this small chapel and two other state rooms. In 1535, Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V had the gothic rooms covered with painted tiles and tapestries commemorating the conquest of Tunis. Alfonso would have slept and toiled in the original buildings while the gothic salons were constructed and moved his business to the area that would most impress a specific visitor once all was complete.

At the end of a terribly busy and emotional June 1, 1252, Alfonso would have climbed into a bed supported on ropes and furnished with the softest ticking, the finest sheets, and the most luxurious pillows. Although most historians have tried to paint an unhappy picture of his marriage, the person most likely sleeping next to Alfonso was his consort, now Queen Violante. She would bear ten children who survived into adulthood. She would also become embroiled in the battles of royal succession that took place upon the death of her firstborn son. But on June 1, 1252, Violante assumed her new role with quiet dignity and stood by her husband in the cathedral, the square, and the palace.

A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss is also a freelance editor, a translator, and a founding partner and editor at Loose Leaves Publishing. Find out more about her historical novel here, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too! She took five of the photos in this post in 2009 and can't wait to go back to Spain.