PEDRO I, THE CRUEL OR THE JUST?
Pedro I, Peter the Cruel, was the great great grandfather of Richard III and Edward IV, through Peter’s daughter, Isabella, wife of Edmund of Langley.(Another daughter, Constance of Castile, married John of Gaunt.)
Pedro or Peter has an interesting story—his life, his death and his subsequent reputation.
Born August 30, 1334, Peter was the last of the House of Ivrea, coming to the throne at age sixteen after the plague-related death of his father, Alfonso XI. Standing around 6 foot tall, he was muscular and handsome, with blond hair, fair skin and pale blue eyes. A patron of the arts, Peter was well read and learned…but he had a familiar vice: he ‘loved women greatly.’
He had a powerful and influential mother, Maria, who King Alfonso had seemingly ignored for his mistress, Eleanor or Leonor of Guzman. Maria perhaps imbued young Peter with hatred for his many bastard half-brothers and their mother Eleanor—and when Alfonso died, Queen Maria ordered her rival Eleanor put to death.
Peter did break free of his mother’s influence, however, and took a mistress, the beautiful Maria Padilla…who he then married in secret. Maria Padilla influenced Peter greatly, causing a fall-out between the young King and one of his top ministers and supporters, Juan Alonso de Albuquerque.
Queen Maria, thinking that Maria Padilla was only her son’s mistress, pressed upon the young man to make a worthy alliance by marrying Blanche of Bourbon. …He reluctantly agreed but this meant he had to deny ever marrying Maria. Almost immediately after the wedding, he abandoned his new Queen, and a few years later Blanche, imprisoned in various castles, died—reputedly at Peter’s command, though the circumstances are sketchy and controversial, ranging from poison by herbs to being shot with a crossbow. (Removing the unwanted Blanche did not stop Peter’s penchant for bigamy; later, he began another bigamous marriage with Juana de Castro, whom he also promptly deserted. Maria Padilla remained his love throughout all, and they had four children including Isabella and Constance.)
In the civil wars that troubled Spain, Peter soon became ‘notorious’ for a number of murders, including slaying a contingent of Moors at a banquet in order to replace their leader with someone more in line with his cause. Meanwhile, his half-brothers from his father’s relationship with Eleanor Guzman assailed him with armies composed mainly of mercenaries. Eventually, driven from his lands, he fled to Galicia, where he ordered the murder of an Archbishop and a Dean who opposed him. While there, he also met with one of his half-brothers, Fadrique, who had supposedly come looking for reconciliation. Apparently as they spoke, he had Fadrique hit over the head with a mace by an assassin…and then Peter sat down calmly and ate his lunch overlooking the cooling body.
Peter’s main rival was his half-brother Enrique (Henry). Henry liked to insult Peter by calling him such names as ‘King of the Jews’ to foment unrest against him through anti-Semitic feeling. Peter himself was known to be quite fair to Jews, and took measures against any activities harmful to Spain’s Jewish population.
Edward the Black Prince threw in his lot with the exiled Peter and used his strength and military prowess to return him to the throne. However, Peter was unwilling or unable to repay the debts he owed Edward after the campaign, and, as his health declined, the Black Prince left him and returned to England.
Henry continued to wage war against Peter. Eventually, Peter holed up in the fortress of Montiel, where he attempted negotiations with a well-known ‘double dealer’, Bertrand du Guescelin. Bertrand promptly fared to Henry’s camp and informed him of all Peter’s plans, and asked Henry for additional funds if du Guescelin would betray the King.
Henry agreed to his terms, and du Guescelin persuaded Peter to come to his tent on a matter of importance. When he arrived, Henry was hiding inside. Peter’s rival half-brother pulled a dagger, fell upon the king and promptly stabbed him to death. His body was left lying on the ground for three days, and was abused and mocked by his foes—similar to the fate off his descendant, Richard III, after the battle of Bosworth.
So was the ‘terrible tyrant’ Peter, deposed by the supposedly ‘noble Henry’, a thoroughly evil and universally hated man who eventually got his just deserts? Certainly Peter was a hard King, a fierce and uncompromising warrior who carried vengeance to an extreme; however the civil wars of the Iberian peninsula did have a particularly bloody character, even beyond those that took place in England, with personal vendettas carried to extreme levels …and certainly not all of those vendettas were carried out on Peter’s behalf.
Some time after his demise, Peter received another name besides Cruel—Peter the Just. Many said that he only killed those who would not submit to the law, and that he ruled fairly over common men. The main source of the evil legends about him came from one work—that of the Chronicler Pero Lopez de Ayala, who was serving under King Henry, Peter’s usurping bastard half-brother. Naturally, he had to bolster his new master’s rather shaky claim to the throne by ramping up the crimes of the former king.
As with some of chroniclers writing about Richard III, even Ayala’s essentially hostile tract does in fact mention positive points about the king—in Peter’s case, that many of his subjects regretted his death, especially the merchant classes.
Some of the more lurid tales about Peter seem, just as with Richard, somewhat folkloric and apocryphal in nature. Did he kill his unwanted wife Blanche by poison or by crossbow? The question might actually be, did he kill Blanche at all…the circumstances of her death remain an unproven legend, and contemporary accounts other than the biased Ayala’s state she died of ‘natural causes.’ The other macabre story of Peter calmly eating lunch over his murdered half-brother Fadrique’s body also smacks of legend rather than reality—it is similar in tone to Shakespeare’s lines in his play, Richard III, when Hastings is dragged away for execution and Richard says; Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.
Interestingly, the English remembered Peter the Cruel in a much more positive light than the nobles of Henry of Trastamare’s court—Chaucer even mentions Peter in The Monk’s Tale and recalls him as noble and honourable, rather than cruel.
Clara Estow—Peter the Cruel of Castile
Barbara Tuchman—A Distant Mirror