1902 Encyclopedia > Spain > Spanish History - Aragon (1213-1479)

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Aragon (1213-1479)

ARAGON (1213-1479). Constitution. The kingdom of Aragon which we left in the reign of James the Conqueror (1213-1276), consisted of the three provinces of Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia. Each province retained its own laws and institutions, and Valencia and Catalonia regarded with the keenest jealousy any attempt to govern them on the principles which prevailed in Aragon. The powers of the crown were far more limited than in the neighbouring kingdom of Castile. The great nobles, or ricos hombres, formed a small and exclusive class, whose privileges made them almost the equals of the monarch. All conquests had to be divided between them, and the king was forbidden to confer a fief or honour upon any person outside their ranks. They possessed and exercised the right of private war, and were entitled at will to renounce their allegiance to their sovereign. The smallness of their numbers made them much more united than the nobles of Castile, and proportionately more formidable. The difference between the two kingdoms was recognized by Ferdinand the Catholic with his usual acuteness when he said that " it was as difficult to divide the nobles of Aragon as it was to unite those of Castile." But the privileges of the nobles, great as they were, were not the only check upon the royal power. Each province had its own cortes, which possessed from a very early date the right of granting taxes and approving legislation. In Valencia and Catalonia the cortes consisted, as in Castile, of the ordinary three estates; but in Catalonia, where a maritime life had inspired the inhabitants with a passionate love of freedom, the commons enjoyed a predominance which was hardly to be paralleled in any other country in the Middle Ages. The cortes of Aragon, which were more important, and whose history has been more carefully elucidated, consisted of four estates or arms (brazos). Besides the great prelates and the ricos hombres, both of whom had the right of appearing by proxy, there was a separate chamber of smaller landholders. This contained the infanzones, or lesser tenants-in-chief, and the caballeros or knights, who were tenants of the greater barons but whose military rank gave them the right of personal attendance. The fourth chamber alone was representative, and consisted of the deputies of the towns. Their presence is first mentioned in 1133, thirty years before anything is heard of popular representation in Castile. Their numbers were naturally small, as the kingdom was of very limited extent, but it seems to have been early established that a town which had once sent deputies was permanently entitled to the privilege, and this preserved them from having their rights tampered with by the crown as was done in Castile. Besides their legislative and taxative functions, the Aragonese cortes were also a supreme court of justice, and in this capacity were presided over by the justiciar, an official whose unique powers have attracted the attention of all writers on Spanish history. In its origin the office had nothing very remarkable about it, and it is only the peculiar circumstances of the kingdom which forced it into such prominence. The justiciar was not at first entrusted with any political functions, but the difficulty of adjusting the relations between the king and the barons led to his being called in as mediator. By the 14th century he had become almost the supreme arbiter in all constitutional questions. To him the people could appeal against any infraction of their liberties, while the king regarded him as his chief councillor and as the most efficient barrier against armed rebellion, which was the only alternative method of settling disputes between his subjects and himself. As the justiciar thus became the pivot of the constitution, it was of great importance to secure that he should exercise his functions with firmness and impartiality. As the ricos hombres were exempted from corporal punishment, he was always chosen from the lesser nobles or knights, and was made responsible to the cortes under penalty of death. The dignity of the office was enhanced by the character of its successive holders ; and the mediaeval history of Aragon abounds with instances of their fearless opposition to the crown and of their resolute resistance to despotism on the one hand and to anarchy on the other.

The glorious reign of James (I.) the Conqueror was disturbed towards its close by quarrels which arose from his scheme of partitioning his conquests among his children.

Pedro III. The death, however, of his youngest and favourite son put an end to these projects, and the most important of the provinces passed into the hands of Pedro III. (1276-1285). Under Pedro and his son and successor Alfonso III. (1285-1291), attention was almost wholly diverted from internal affairs to the conquest of Sicily. By his marriage with Constance, the daughter of Manfred, Pedro could put forward a claim to succeed to the Hohenstaufen in Naples and Sicily, but it is not probable that he would have been able to make any use of the claim if the Sicilian Vespers (1283) had not thrown that island into his hands. The result was a long series of wars with the Angevin rulers of Naples, but the hold upon Sicily was steadily retained. These wars had a notable influence upon Aragonese history, as they compelled the kings to purchase the support of their subjects by concessions which could only with great difficulty have been extorted from them. Thus in 1283 Pedro III. granted the famous "General Privilege," the Magna Carta of Aragon. By this the crown formally laid down a number of rules to secure all classes against oppression. The General Privilege is quite as important a document as the English charter; it is even more full and precise, and its numerous confirmations show that it was as highly prized. It had the additional advantage of being issued to a people already possessed of institutions sufficiently developed to employ and defend the national liberties. But if Pedro's concessions were for the advantage of his country, his successor went to an extreme which was equally harmful.

Alfonso III. In 1287 Alfonso III. signed the famous "Privilege of Union," by which his subjects were formally authorized to take up arms against their sovereign if he attempted to infringe their liberties. The right of revolt, while it is and must be the ultimate safeguard against oppression, becomes at once liable to abuse when it is formulated and discussed. The act of 1287 gave an unlimited licence to disorder, which could always disguise itself under the pretence of defending liberty. Until it was repealed there was always a danger that the constitution would succumb, not to the tyrannical usurpations of the crown, but to the selfish interests of the nobles.

James II. On the death of Alfonso III. the crown passed to his brother James II. (1291-1327). The new king handed over Sicily to his younger brother Frederick, thus creating a separate dynasty in that island. In the hope of depressing the greater barons, James II. strengthened the hands of the justiciar and sought to conciliate the clergy and citizens to the crown. By these steps he succeeded in avoiding any open conflict during his reign, and at the same time he sought to secure external unity by an edict which declared the three provinces of Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia to be for ever indivisible (1319).

Alfonso IV. But his successor, Alfonso IV. (1327-1336), did not hesitate to break this edict, in spirit if not in letter, by carving out great fiefs for his second wife, Eleanor of Castile, and her children.

Pedro IV. By this measure he gave rise to the difficulties, and indirectly to the triumphs, of his son, Pedro IV. (1336-1387). Pedro's reign is a great epoch in Aragonese history, as to him is due the arrest of the tendencies which threatened to divide and destroy the kingdom. He began by recalling his father's excessive grants to his stepmother and his half-brothers. The intervention of Alfonso XL of Castile on behalf of his sister failed to make any impression upon the king, and it was only the pressing danger from the Moors, which was removed in 1340 by the Castilian victory on the Salado, that induced him at last to consent to a compromise. The same desire to unite all the possessions of the Aragonese crown is apparent in his treatment of the king of Majorca, James II., the descendant of James I.'s younger son, who had received from his father the Balearic Islands with Boussillon and Cerdagne as a vassal kingdom. As James II. showed inclination to evade his legal duties towards his suzerain, Pedro seized the first opportunity to pick a quarrel with him. In 1344 all the territories of the king of Majorca were declared to be united to Aragon; and, though James II. made an obstinate resistance, he met with little support from his former subjects, and the hopeless struggle was ended by his death in 1348.

These high-handed measures not unnaturally excited the misgivings of the nobles of Aragon, whose privileges were not likely to be very scrupulously respected by a prince with such an obvious sense of his own rights and duties. In 1347 chance gave them an eminent and capable leader. There was no law against female succession in Aragon, and there was the precedent of Queen Petronilla in its favour. On the other hand, there was a strong prejudice against it, and as a rule preference had been given to males, although further removed from the direct line. Pedro IV. had an only daughter, Constance, and he was eager to secure the succession to her in preference to his brother James, who was popularly regarded as the heir to the throne. This unconcealed intention excited the indignation of James, who was already discontented at the harsh treatment of the king of Majorca. He had no difficulty in inducing most of the chief nobles, including his half-brothers, to form a " Union," which was also joined by several of the towns in their discontent at the projected settlement of the succession (1347). Pedro was taken by surprise and could only gain time by concessions. He promised to convoke annual meetings of the cortes, to choose his councillors with the approval of the estates, to revoke his will in favour of his daughter, and to recognize his brother as his heir. Soon after this agreement, which left the Union master of the situation, James died; and men were not slow in attributing his death to the machinations of the king. This event was of the greatest advantage to Pedro, as it deprived his opponents of their leader, and from this moment the rebellion began to be split up by personal rivalries. The king and his advisers were not slow to avail themselves of the opportunity thus offered. The opposition was strongest in Aragon and Valencia, and Pedro succeeded in gaining over the Catalonians, who were always prone to act in isolation from the other provinces. With the troops thus acquired he met the army of the Union at Epila (1348) and won a complete victory. He followed up his success by destroying all the charters which gave any sanction to armed resistance to the crown, and especially the Privilege of Union of 1287. His elder half-brother Ferdinand, who had succeeded James as leader of the revolt and as heir-apparent to the throne, fled to Castile, but the chief nobles were severely punished, and the power of the crown was raised to a height which it had never before attained.

Thus Aragon, following the tendencies of the age, became centralized under a powerful monarchy, and the forces of feudal disunion received a final check. But Pedro IV. was far from establishing anything like a despotism. While destroying the Privilege of Union, he took a solemn oath to respect the political and personal liberties of his subjects, and enjoined the same oath upon his successors. At the same time he strengthened the powers of the justiciar, whose pre-eminence dates from this reign. The position of the king was immensely strengthened by the birth of a son, which destroyed the claims of his half-brothers. The later part of his reign was occupied with a war against Henry II. of Castile, which has been referred to above, and with resistance to James III. of Majorca, who made an unsuccessful effort to recover the territories of his father. Pedro concluded a second marriage with Sibilla, daughter of a Catalonian knight, and her influence involved him in a quarrel with his eldest son, whom he attempted to deprive of the office of lieutenant-general, which custom assigned to the heir to the throne. But he found that the authority of the justiciar was now strong enough to restrain the crown as well as the nobles. Dominic de Cerda, who now held the office, pronounced that the infant was legally entitled to the dignity from which he had been ousted, and compelled the king to restore him.

John I. The brief reign of John I. (1387-1395) was mainly occupied with wars in Sicily and Sardinia. The expense which these involved, which was increased by the luxury of a magnificent court, excited the most lively discontent on the part of the cortes. The remonstrances of his subjects were resented by the king, but they were backed up by the authority of the justiciar, and John I. gave way so far as to banish the unpopular favourites from the court.

Martin. On the king's death his daughters were passed over, and the crown was transferred to his brother Martin, who was occupied in restoring the Aragonese supremacy in Sicily. Under Martin a private war between the great families of Urrea and Luna was put down, and the dependence of the great nobles was more firmly secured. But the death in 1409 of the king's only son, Martin the younger, brought the kingdom face to face with the difficulty of a disputed succession. There were two male claimants,—the count of Urgel, a great-grandson of Alfonso IV, and the duke of Gandia, a grandson of James II. The former was the undoubted heir if the succession was absolutely limited to males, while the latter was advanced in years and could only bring forward the old contention of nearness to the royal stock. But, although precedent was in favour of the exclusion of females, there was no definite rule to prevent the succession of their male descendants. Of such claimants there were two,—Louis of Calabria, the son of John I.'s daughter Violante, and Ferdinand, infant of Castile, the son of Martin's sister Eleanor. Moreover, Martin the younger had left an illegitimate son, Frederick, count of Luna, and if the question had arisen a century earlier, before the clergy had obtained so much power, it is probable that his claims would have been preferred. The question was still unsettled on the death of the elder Martin in 1410, with whom ended the male line of the counts of Barcelona, A prolonged civil war seemed inevitable, and for two years the kingdom endured the evils of an interregnum. If the dispute was to be settled by force of arms, the count of Urgel seemed likely to carry all before him, as he had the pretty unanimous support both of the Catalans and of the powerful family of Luna. But his followers, confident in their superiority, allowed themselves to indulge in acts of violence which alienated the more orderly part of the population. The justiciar, Juan de Cerda, who had acted with such impartial firmness in the reign of John I., succeeded in forming a patriotic party which determined to settle the dispute by a legal decision. Jealousy of the De Lunas gave to this party the support of the rival house of Urrea. They succeeded in procuring the appointment of a joint commission of nine members,—three from the cortes of each province.

Ferdinand I. After a careful examination of all the claims, the commissioners decided, on what principle it is difficult to determine, in favour of the infant Ferdinand, who was then acting as regent of Castile for his nephew John II. (1412). As far as ability and merit went, the choice was probably the best that could have been made. By mingled firmness and concession Ferdinand succeeded in restoring order and unity to the kingdom and its dependencies. A revolt headed by the disappointed count of Urgel in the next year was supj)ressed, and its leader was punished with the confiscation of his territories and perpetual imprisonment.

Thus the house of Trastamara succeeded in obtaining the crown of Aragon as well as that of Castile. Ferdinand I., the first king of the new dynasty, did not live long to wield the sceptre which he had so fortunately acquired.

Alfonso V. On his death in 1416 the crown passed to his son Alfonso V. (1416-1458). The new prince played little part in Aragonese history, as his attention was almost wholly absorbed in the affairs of Italy. To his inherited possessions of Sicily and Sardinia he added the kingdom of Naples after a seven years' contest with the Angevin claimant, Bene le Bon of Provence (1435-1442). From this time he never quitted his new kingdom, where his politic rule and his patronage of literature acquired for him the name of "The Magnanimous." During his absence the government of Aragon was entrusted to his brother John, as lieutenant-general. The arbitrary character of this prince, which is so clearly visible in his subsequent history, seems to have been foreseen by his subjects. In order to secure the justiciar from undue influence on the part of the crown, a law was made in 1442 that the office should be held for life, and that its occupant could only be dismissed by the king with the express approval of the cortes. In 1461 this provision was followed up by another law which directed that all complaints against the justiciar should be heard before a commission regularly chosen from the four estates.

Relations of Aragon and Navarre. The history of John, both as regent for his brother and later as king in his own right, centres round the family quarrels which finally led to a formidable rebellion against him. His first wife was Blanche, widow of Martin of Sicily and heiress of Navarre. This little kingdom, which comprised territory on both sides of the Pyrenees, had been more closely connected with France than with Spain since its separation from Aragon on the death of Alfonso I. (1134). In the 13th century it was united to the French crown by the marriage of Jeanne of Navarre with the French king, Philip IV., but it again became independent on the death of Louis X. in 1315. His daughter Jeanne was the undoubted heiress of Navarre, and, though she was kept out of her rights by her uncles, Philip V. and Charles IV., she was allowed to succeed after their death. In 1329 she was crowned at Pamplona with her husband, Philip of Evreux. Her son, Charles the Bad (1349-1387), obtained an unenviable notoriety for the part which he played in French history during the troublous period of the English wars. His son, Charles III. (1387-1425), was a peace-loving prince, who devoted more attention to art and literature than to politics. The marriage of his daughter Blanche with John of Aragon brought the mountain-kingdom once more into close connexion with the western peninsula. By her marriage contract, Navarre was to pass on her death to her children and not to her husband, but a later agreement enjoined her son, before assuming the sovereignty, to obtain " the goodwill and approbation of his father." When Blanche died in 1442, John seems to have considered that this later stipulation justified him in retaining the title of king of Navarre, though he entrusted the administration of the kingdom to his son, Charles of Viana. For some time no difficulty was made about this arrangement. But in 1447 John married a second wife, Joanna Henriquez, a descendant of the royal family of Castile, and a few years later he sent Joanna to share the government of Navarre with his son. This appointment, coupled with the arrogant conduct of his stepmother, was regarded as an insult by Charles of Viana, who was not slow to remember that by right he was entitled to the crown. The old parties of Navarre, the Beaumonts and Agramonts, seized the opportunity to renew their feuds,—the former espousing the cause of the prince, the latter that of the queen. Before long the dispute developed into civil war, and John marched into Navarre to assist his wife, who was besieged in Estella by her stepson. At Aybar the hostile forces met in open conflict, but the superior discipline of the royal troops gave them a complete victory, and Charles fell a prisoner into his father's hands (1452). The prince was released after a short imprisonment, but the reconciliation was only a hollow one. The birth of a son to Joanna Henriquez (1452), afterwards famous as Ferdinand the Catholic, was a serious blow to the interests of the elder son. The queen scarcely concealed her desire to secure the succession to her own child, and her influence over her husband was unbounded. Charles found that his defeat had given the supremacy in Navarre to the hostile party, and after a vain attempt to recover his power he went to Naples to appeal to his uncle Alfonso V. But his hopes in this quarter were destroyed by Alfonso's death in 1458.

John II. Of his possessions, Aragon, Sicily, and Sardinia passed to his brother John II., while Naples, as a private acquisition of his own, was bequeathed to his natural son Ferdinand. The Neapolitan barons, dreading the gloomy and tyrannical character of their new ruler, offered to support Charles of Viana as a candidate for the throne, but he refused to oppose his cousin, and retired to Sicily, where he spent the next two years in seclusion. In 1460 he was induced to return by the solicitations of his father, who seems to have been disquieted by the popularity which the prince had obtained among the Sicilians. The intrigues of Joanna were not long in exciting the old mistrust between father and son, and her hostility towards Charles was increased by his attempts to obtain the hand of Isabella of Castile, whom she had already fixed upon as a suitable bride for her own son Ferdinand. In 1461 Charles was induced to meet his father at Lerida, and was at once imprisoned. When asked about the cause of this arbitrary proceeding, John only replied with obscure hints at a conspiracy. But his subjects were not prepared to acquiesce in this unnatural treatment of a prince whom they had learned to love and whom they regarded as their future ruler. The Catalans, always easily moved, rose in arms and marched upon Lerida, and it was only by a hasty retreat that John was able to escape with his court to Saragossa. But the revolt speedily spread from Catalonia to the other provinces, and even to Sicily and Sardinia, while it found supporters in the king of Castile and in the faction of the Beaumonts in Navarre. Surrounded by enemies, John II. found it necessary to yield. He not only released his son, professing that he did so at his wife's request, but appointed him lieutenant-general of Catalonia and promised not to enter that province without the permission of the cortes. But no sooner had Charles of Viana regained his liberty than he died, on September 23, 1461; and the circumstances led ready credence to be given to the suspicion that he had been poisoned during his captivity.

The crown of Navarre now devolved by right upon Charles's elder sister Blanche, who had been married to and afterwards repudiated by Henry IV. of Castile. But she had incurred her father's enmity by the support which she had given to her brother; and John II. was not unwilling to curry favour with France by securing Navarre to his second daughter Eleanor of Foix, whose son Gaston had married a sister of Louis XI. The unfortunate Blanche was committed to the guardianship of her younger sister, and after two years of imprisonment in the castle of Orthez she died of poison. But Eleanor reaped little advantage from the crime which all historians impute to her. Her father retained the crown of Navarre till his death, and she only survived him a few weeks. She was succeeded by her grandson Francis Phoebus, but he only lived for four years, and his sister and heiress Catherine brought the crown of Navarre by her marriage to the French house of D'Albret, from which it was wrested by Ferdinand the Catholic in 1512. This third union with Aragon proved permanent, although the district north of the Pyrenees was subsequently annexed to France.

Meanwhile the troubles of John II. were by no means removed by his son's death. In Aragon the young Ferdinand was acknowledged as heir, and was then sent with his mother to Catalonia to receive the oath of allegiance from that province. But the Catalans rose again in rebellion, and besieged Joanna and her son in the fortress of Gerona. As John II. was unable to advance through the revolted province to his wife's relief, he purchased the assistance of Louis XI. by a promise of 300,000 gold crowns, as security for which he pledged the counties of Koussillon and Cerdagne (1462). The Catalans replied to this alliance by throwing off their allegiance to John and proclaiming a republic. As, however, Gerona was relieved by the French, and the royal troops succeeded in reducing several of the chief towns, they determined to appeal for foreign aid. The crown was offered first to Henry IV. of Castile and then to the constable of Portugal, who was descended from the old counts of Barcelona. On the death of the latter in 1466 the rebels turned to the traditional rivals of the house of Aragon, and offered the crown to Bene le Bon, the head of the Angevin house. Bene, whose life had been spent in putting forward claims which he had never been able to enforce, accepted the offer and sent his chivalrous son John of Calabria to assist the Catalans (1467). John II.'s fortunes were now at their nadir. He had lost his eyesight, and the death of his wife in 1468 deprived him of the companion and adviser who had for years directed and inspired his policy. John of Calabria, whose enterprise was secretly encouraged by the treacherous king of France, was steadily regaining much of the ground which had been lost by the Catalana before his arrival. But the old king, whose sight was restored by a surgical operation, fought on with a dogged obstinacy worthy of a better cause. The death of the duke of Calabria in 1469 deprived his opponents of their leader, and from this moment their ultimate defeat was inevitable. The fall of Barcelona (1472) completed the reduction of Catalonia. But John did not venture to abuse the victory which he had so hardly won. He granted a general amnesty, and took a solemn oath to respect the constitution and liberties of the conquered province. The only notable event of the remaining years of John II.'s reign was an attempt to recover Boussillon and Cerdagne. But Louis XI. kept a firm hold by arms upon the provinces which his diplomacy had won, and they were only restored to Aragon in 1493 when Charles VIII. ceded them to Ferdinand the Catholic.

Ferdinand the Catholic. In 1479 the death of John II., at the ripe age of eighty-two, transferred the crown to his son Ferdinand, who ten years before had concluded his marriage with Isabella of Castile.

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