The she-wolves of navarre
Queens of Navarre
In the Middle Ages, with the re-emergence of Salic Law, it became impossible for women to succeed to the throne in most European kingdoms. Yet between 1274 and 1512 five queens ruled the Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, as Elena Woodacre tells their stories.
Female succession, or the right of women to occupy the throne and rule in their own right, is an issue that is still contested today. Previously, women could only inherit if there was a lack of male heirs. In some countries, such as pre-Republican France, they could not inherit at all. In Japan they still can’t. Recently laws have been changed in the UK to reflect constitutional changes in other European countries, such as Sweden, Belgium, Norway and Denmark, which have implemented equal or absolute primogeniture ensuring that the eldest child inherits the throne whether they are male or female.
Though not impossible, it was much more difficult for a woman in the Middle Ages to inherit the throne. Yet in a period when female succession was relatively rare the Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, now a semi-autonomous region of Spain, had an impressive number of female sovereigns. Five women ruled the realm in their own right between 1274 and the annexation of the kingdom by Castile in 1512. How were so many women able to succeed to the throne?
There are two sets of factors that enabled the succession of the Navarrese queens: legal and circumstantial. The Fueros were a compilation of ancient customs, rights and privileges that formed the legal foundation of the realm of Navarre and they expressly allowed the succession of females to the throne in default of male heirs. The overall preference was for direct, legitimate line inheritors, male or female, which gave a monarch’s daughters precedence over uncles or illegitimate brothers and this is what made such a large group of female sovereigns possible. In addition to the clause that permitted female succession the Fueros allowed for female inheritance on a wider scale, reflecting the regional Basque traditions of inheritance which were favourable to women. In these customs a designated child, normally the eldest, would inherit the family property, regardless of its gender.
Precedent was a further factor. Before the first queen of Navarre came to the throne in 1274, there were several examples of reigning queens that paved the way for female rule in the region. In the 12th century these include Urraca of Leon-Castile (1109-26), Petronilla of Aragon (1137-62), Constance of Sicily (1194-98), Melisende of Jerusalem (1131-61) and her granddaughters Sibylla (1186-90) and Isabella (1190-1205). Both Urraca and Melisende were vigorous and active rulers, even though neither reign was without controversy. Both women struggled against rivals who aimed to unseat them; Urraca fought a destructive war against her ex-husband Alfonso of Aragon, while Melisende’s refusal to hand power over to her son also led to a civil war. However, the ‘Empress’ Matilda was unsuccessful in attaining the English crown in the 12th century despite being her father’s designated heir.
The 13th century saw few reigning queens. In the troubled Kingdom of Jerusalem, Maria of Montferrat followed her mother to become the third queen regnant in a row (1205-12) and left an infant daughter, Yolande, to succeed her. Neither woman was able to regain the city of Jerusalem or to exercise power effectively in her own right. In Iberia the right of Berenguela of Castile to succeed her father, Alfonso VIII, was recognised in 1217 but she was forced to step aside in favour of her son. Sancha and Dulce of Leon were also unsuccessful claimants despite their father Alfonso IX’s desire to see them succeed to the throne of Leon after his death in 1230.
Regardless of the mixed success of these earlier queens there was a significant precedent for women to inherit the throne. In Navarre, although there had not yet been a queen regnant, there was a precedent for succession through the female line. Teobaldo I (r. 1234-53) successfully claimed the Navarrese throne in 1234 through the right of his mother, Blanca, after the death of her brother Sancho VII ‘el Fuerte’ (1194-1234). If Blanca had not died a few years earlier in 1229 it is possible that she might have inherited the throne herself as the next claimant in the direct line. This legacy of precedent, coupled with the generally favourable laws and customs of female inheritance of the region, were all factors enabling the succession of the first female sovereign of Navarre, Juana I (1274-1305).
Juana I inherited the throne in 1274 before she had reached her second birthday. Her brother, Teobaldo, had died by falling out of a castle window, leaving her the only surviving child of Enrique I (r. 1270-74). Although the Fueros permitted Juana’s accession and many of her father’s subjects supported her claim following his death, there was intense pressure from both the neighbouring kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, which hoped to take advantage of the accession of a young girl to annex the kingdom. Juana’s mother, Blanche of Artois (c.1248-1302), was initially named regent but, concerned about the threat of incursion from Castile and Aragon, she fled north across the Pyrenees to plead for help from her cousin, Philip III of France (1270-85). Philip was willing to support Juana’s claim if she became his daughter-in-law. In addition to her Navarrese crown, Juana was also the countess of Champagne and Philip III was keen to bring these rich lands into the royal fold. The Treaty of Orleans of May 1275 provided a marriage agreement between his son Philip and the young queen that would eventually unite the crowns of France and Navarre. It would give the French king a strategic toehold in Iberia and ensure that Juana could retain her throne. The couple were married in 1284, the year before Philip acceded to the French throne. The crowns of Navarre and France remained united from this point until 1328, as the thrones of both kingdoms passed through all three of the couple’s sons: Louis (1289-1316), Philip (1292-1322) and Charles (1294-1328). During this period Navarre was governed remotely from Paris with a team of French governors and officials installed in Pamplona.
Juana I’s eldest son, Louis X of France and Navarre, died in 1316. At the time of his death, his wife, Clémence of Hungary, was pregnant but her child, a son named Jean, died a few days after his birth in mid-November 1316. This left another Juana, a young daughter from Louis’ first marriage to Marguerite of Burgundy (1290-1315), as the only surviving child of the king. Although by Navarrese law and custom she was considered to be the rightful queen of Navarre, Juana encountered difficulties with the French succession due to her extreme youth, sex and disputed parentage. Her mother had been accused of adultery and had died while incarcerated for the alleged crime in a royal scandal known as the ‘Tour de Nesle affair’. Many were reluctant to support the young Juana’s claim, viewing her as the likely product of her mother’s infidelity.
Salic Law, which originally dates from the sixth century, prohibited females from inheriting ‘Salic Land’ and eventually became the legal justification for barring women from the French throne. However this was not a factor in Juana’s failure to claim the throne, as this ancient law was not ‘rediscovered’ until nearly 40 years later; the first known reference to it with regard to the succession of females was made in 1358. By the 15th century the prejudice against female succession was such that Salic Law was considered a fundamental, if not a defining, element of the French monarchy. Although later writers such as the lawyer and scholar Francois Hotman (1524-90) claimed that Salic Law was invoked in the succession crises of 1316-28, there is no evidence to support this. Juana’s failure to claim the throne as the first female ‘test case’ set a negative precedent for female succession in France.
Juana’s uncles, Philip and Charles, ruled both France and Navarre in turn, usurping their young niece. The Navarrese reluctantly tolerated the rule of Louis’ brothers, but when another grandson of Philip III, Philip of Valois (1293-1350), claimed the French crown on Charles’ death in 1328 there was no possibility he would attempt to claim Navarre as he lacked any blood tie to the royal Navarrese line. Juana II was finally acknowledged as Queen of Navarre and she and her husband, Philip d’Evreux, went to Pamplona to receive the crown in 1329. After years of being ruled in absentia via French governors and officials the Navarrese were delighted to welcome the new queen. The Navarrese chronicler, Jose de Moret, noted a local saying about the event: ‘One Juana took the kingdom abroad, the other Juana restored it to us and returned home.’
The next ruling queen of Navarre, Blanca I, who succeeded in 1425, had a much smoother path to the throne and her claim was not contested. Blanca (1387-1441), second daughter of Carlos III of Navarre (r. 1387-1425), became the primogenita (literally meaning first-born but used by the Navarrese to indicate the heir apparent) after the death of her two younger brothers and two elder sisters. Although Blanca had illegitimate siblings as well as younger sisters, the order of succession had been made unmistakably clear through repeated formal, public affirmations. Blanca was not only her father’s formally designated and publicly acknowledged heir but she was also a mother with a son and two daughters who could provide dynastic continuity. Furthermore she was an experienced ruler. During her first marriage to Martin of Aragon (r.1390-1409) she had governed the island of Sicily during his absences in 1404, when he returned to Aragon, and in 1409 when he went on campaign to Sardinia, where he died of an illness, and for several tumultuous years after his death.
Another factor that helped account for Blanca’s smooth accession was that her father, Carlos III (r. 1387-1425), had bequeathed his daughter and heir a stable, prosperous kingdom. Unfortunately this was not the case for the next two ruling queens of Navarre, due to the machinations of Blanca’s second husband, Juan of Aragon (king consort of Navarre, 1425-79; king of Aragon, 1458-79). Juan of Aragon drew Navarre into a war with Castile due to his continual interference in Castilian politics. Blanca worked hard to defend the realm and to broker peace with their neighbours. The Treaty of Toledo in 1436 attempted to restore Iberian harmony through a marriage in 1440 between the young Castilian heir, Enrique, and Blanca and Juan’s eldest daughter (also named Blanca). However, after Blanca I’s death in 1441 the situation in Navarre rapidly deteriorated. Juan of Aragon used a codicil in his wife’s will to prevent their son Carlos, the Principe de Viana, from acceding to the throne of Navarre, although he did allow Carlos to administer the realm as his lieutenant. When Juan remarried and attempted to install his new wife, Juana Enríquez, as lieutenant in Carlos’ place the quarrel between father and son erupted into a civil war. Two rival groups emerged; the Agramonts, who supported Juan’s continued governance, and the Beaumonts, who supported Carlos’ rights. These two groups continued to fight each other long after both Juan and Carlos were dead and the kingdom never managed fully to recover from the effects of this prolonged conflict.
Matters were made worse in 1453 when, after 13 years of marriage, Enrique of Castile decided to repudiate his Navarrese bride. Although his motivation for the divorce was undoubtedly political, Enrique cited personal reasons for his decision, claiming that his union with the princess Blanca had never been consummated as she had bewitched him and rendered him impotent (thus earning himself the sobriquet ‘el Impotente). After this humiliating annulment of her marriage and the loss of her position as the next queen of Castile, Blanca returned home to Navarre and joined her brother in his struggle against their father.
With his two eldest children fighting against him, Juan made an astonishing decision. Contrary to normal practices of succession, Juan decided to disinherit his rebellious older children in favour of his youngest daughter Leonor (1426-79), who was married to Gaston IV, Count of Foix (r. 1436-72). Leonor’s promotion was cemented by the shadowy deaths of her elder siblings. Carlos died in Barcelona in 1461, ostensibly of an illness but there have been suggestions that his stepmother, Juana Enríquez, wanted him out of the way before he became reconciled with Juan and replaced her son Ferdinand in the succession to Aragon. Blanca was forcibly taken north of the Pyrenees on the orders of her father in April 1462 and died while a ‘guest’ in her brother-in-law Gaston of Foix’s stronghold at Orthez in 1464. Although there is no remaining evidence, Leonor has always been implicated in the death of her sister. Even though Blanca had been disinherited, she commanded the loyalities of a sizable group of supporters, who vehemently believed that she was the rightful queen of Navarre. As long as Blanca lived, Leonor’s position as heir-apparent would never be secure. Leonor was first accused of poisoning her sister by early modern chroniclers but the story of the two sisters reached legendary proportions in the 19th century when a number of historians, travel writers and the novelist Francisco Villoslada all wrote about the untimely death of the princess. In these works Blanca was portrayed as an innocent, almost angelic victim who was wrongfully robbed of her crown and her life by the scheming, ambitious Leonor.
Juan’s decision to favour Leonor’s claim over that of his older children ultimately changed the direction of Navarrese history, establishing a union between the crown of Navarre and the sizable French territory of the House of Foix. The union pulled the loyalties of the Navarrese crown back towards France and created a situation in which the ruling dynasty attempted to manage a large territorial amalgamation on both sides of the Pyrenees.
Leonor presided over her father’s kingdom as his lieutenant and heir apparent from 1455 to 1479, while her husband, Gaston, ruled his French lands and provided military, financial and political support to Navarre. However, Leonor struggled to govern the country and to maintain peace during continuous outbreaks of civil discord. She also struggled to maintain good relations with her father due to his insufficient support against the rebels in Navarre and her own impatience to rule as queen in her own right. However Leonor’s unsuccessful attempt to ally with the French and remove her father from the Navarrese throne provoked Juan of Aragon in December 1469 to take the lieutenancy away from her and bestow it on her son, Gaston. This created a major rift in the family as Leonor and her husband protested vociferously against the decision to unseat them and castigated their ungrateful son for usurping them. Louis XI of France attempted to broker a reconciliation, sending an envoy to tell the couple that the young Gaston was ‘their good, loyal and obedient son and serves them in all and by that he would please them’. Tragically, Gaston was killed while participating in a tournament on November 23rd, 1470. Although this allowed his mother to regain her position as lieutenant and heir-apparent, Leonor and her husband were distraught that their son and heir had died while they were so bitterly estranged. The 17th-century chronicler Andre Favyn suggested that the death of Leonor’s eldest son happened ‘by divine permission, for the vengeance and punishment of the hastened death of the Princess Blanca of Navarre’.
Leonor’s husband died in 1472, leaving her isolated without the military and financial support that he had provided. Her daughter-in-law, Magdalena of France (1442-95), took over the domains of Foix as regent for her three-year-old son Francisco Fébo, the new Count of Foix, and she was less willing to help Leonor. In fact the two women were often working against each other’s interests. Juan of Aragon died in January 1479, leaving Leonor finally able to claim the Navarrese crown. However she only ruled as queen in her own right for a matter of weeks before succumbing to illness in February 1479.
The next reigning queen of Navarre, Leonor’s granddaughter Catalina (r.1483-1512), inherited the impressive Foix territories and the ongoing civil conflict in Navarre when she succeeded to the throne in 1483. Catalina was the designated heir of her brother Francisco Fébo, who died unmarried and without issue. Although she laid claim both to the throne of Navarre and the patrimony of the counts of Foix her position was challenged by her uncle, Jean of Narbonne (c.1450-1500), who maintained that, as the next male heir to his father’s domains in Foix and his mother’s crown of Navarre, his rights were superior to Catalina’s. Although her uncle’s claim was supported by Charles VIII of France, Catalina was eventually able to resolve the dispute with the Treaty of Tarbes in 1497, which established her right and that of her heirs over the claim of Jean of Narbonne.
Catalina had difficulty establishing her rule in Navarre. This was due to two factors: continuing instability in the realm from civil conflict and opposition to her marriage. Her mother Magdalena’s decision to opt for the suit of the French noble Jean d’Albret for her daughter rather than that of Juan of Castile, son of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile, angered and alienated the Navarrese. It took ten years before Catalina and her husband felt secure enough to travel to Pamplona for their coronation, which took place in January 1494.
Political instability in Navarre continued to be an issue throughout Catalina’s rule; a legacy of the civil war begun by Juan of Aragon and his son Carlos nearly 50 years earlier. The other major difficulty that Catalina faced was due to international politics and the increasing rivalry between the kings of France and the Reyes Católicos of Spain, which left Navarre in a difficult position. Catalina had family ties to both monarchs and the geographical position of Navarre and its subsidiary French territories on the border of the two rival states made it extremely important both to France and to Spain to control the Pyrenean realm. For most of her reign Catalina worked with the Spanish sovereigns instigating a series of treaties and matrimonial proposals designed to bind the realms of Spain and Navarre together. However, Ferdinand’s increasingly predatory behaviour after the death of Isabel of Castile and his second marriage to Catalina’s cousin and rival claimant, Germana of Foix (1488-1538), the daughter of Jean of Narbonne, forced the Navarrese queen to reconsider her alliances. The Treaty of Blois, which she signed with the King of France in 1512, freed Ferdinand from any need to maintain friendly relations and he annexed Navarre in July 1512.
Catalina and her husband attempted to regain the kingdom diplomatically and with a military campaign, but were unsuccessful. Although Catalina and her descendants continued to style themselves as the rulers of Navarre, in reality they were left with the patrimony of the houses of Foix and Albret, north of the Pyrenees. This still gave them considerable leverage in French politics, however, and though they never regained the Navarrese crown, a great-grandson, Henri of Navarre, became king of France in 1589.
Henri ruled France as Henri IV and began the Bourbon dynasty, which took its name from the king’s father, Antoine de Bourbon. This dynasty eventually ruled both France and Spain, paradoxically importing Salic Law into the Spanish monarchy and, by extension, to Navarre itself. Salic Law remained a central feature of the French monarchy until it was abolished with the French Revolution of 1789 where, after multiple restorations, it finally came to an end in the 19th century. It was ultimately repealed in Spain to allow the accession of Isabel II in 1833. Currently, the Spanish crown prince, the Prince of Asturias, has two daughters, Leonor and Sofia. However, Spain has not yet implemented equal primogeniture, so if a son is born, he will displace the two princesses in the line of succession.
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Rachel Bard, Navarra: The Durable Kingdom (University of Nevada Reno Press, 1982).
Joseph F. O’Callaghan, A History of Medieval Spain (Cornell University Press, 1975).
Olga S. Opfell, Queens, Empresses, Grand Duchesses and Regents: Women Rulers of Europe AD 1328-1989 (McFarland, 1989).
William Monter, The Rise of Female Kings in Europe, 1300-1800 (Yale University Press, 2012).
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Juana I with her husband Philip IV of France, ivory, c.1300.
Juana II with an angel, in an illumination from her Book of Hours, c.1340. Below: head of the marble statue from her 14th-century tomb in Saint-Denis, Paris.
15th-century dish decorated with the arms of Blanca I and Juan d’Aragon.
Leonor, left, and Blanca II, right, in contemporary paintings. Both spent time at the palace of Olite (now heavily restored), the church of which is shown here. The palace was one of the seats of the court of Navarre until its annexation by Castile in 1512.
16th-century ducat with the crowned heads of Catalina and Jean d’Albret.
By Elena Woodacre
Elena Woodacre has recently completed her PhD on the queens regnant of Navarre in the late medieval period at Bath Spa University. She is the French and Spanish editor for the Female Biography Project.