Pedro I and the Politics of Medieval History by Bretton Rodriguez
Today, modern politicians frequently attempt to control and spin the news media’s coverage of recent events. Similarly, medieval rulers often sought to shape contemporary depictions of their own rule as well as those of their immediate predecessors. These accounts most commonly took the form of chronicles, but they could also include romances, epics, biographies, and various other forms of historical narratives.
Unlike modern politicians, however, medieval rulers, and those writing on their behalf, had far fewer limits on the claims they could make and promote in these narratives. This freedom helped medieval histories to become vital instruments of political power. It also led to writers composing competing accounts of specific events and historical figures to support rival political agendas. A prime example of this is the contemporary treatment of Pedro I of Castile (r.1350-1366, 1366-1369).
During his lifetime, Pedro I sought to centralize political power under the crown in Castile, and he worked to expand his kingdom’s influence within the Iberian Peninsula. He also played a prominent role in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. In particular, Pedro’s decision to ally with England led France to support a rival to his throne, his half-brother, Enrique II. Although Pedro, supported by English forces, was victorious at the Battle of Nájera in 1367, he was eventually defeated and killed by Enrique and his French allies at Montiel in 1369. Even after Pedro’s death, however, his children, along with their English allies, continued to press their claims to the crown.
By comparing and contrasting the accounts of Pedro’s life composed by his followers and their English allies against those associated with Enrique and his supporters, we can see how politically significant the image of Pedro was in the decades following his death. Interestingly, many of the writers who constructed these accounts were either present at the Battle of Nájera in 1367, or were closely associated with figures who were there.
Pero López de Ayala, a Castilian nobleman who fought in support of Enrique II at Nájera, composed one of the best-known accounts of Pedro’s life. Writing his history at the explicit request of Enrique II, López de Ayala crafted a compelling negative image of the former king. In particular, he used his narrative to gradually transform Pedro from a legitimate king into a tyrant whose own illicit actions made him unfit to rule. Due to the popularity and wide dissemination of the text, López de Ayala’s narrative was fundamental in forming the enduring image of Pedro I as an immoral and unjust king who would pass into history as Pedro el Cruel.
Representative of the French perspective, Cuvelier produced a damning depiction of Pedro I in his biography of the life of Bertrand du Guesclin, a Breton knight who served the French crown, but who was also one of Enrique II’s principal allies at Nájera. Cuvelier, like López de Ayala, constructed a negative image of Pedro. However, his presentation was even more unfavorable than his Castilian contemporary. While López de Ayala had used characters within his narrative to articulate his critiques of Pedro, Cuvelier directly criticized the Castilian king. He also included several claims – for instance, that Pedro was the son of a Jew at court rather than Alfonso XI – that are absent from López de Ayala’s account.
Pedro IV of Aragon, who had also supported Enrique II in the period leading up to Nájara, composed his own negative image of Pedro I. Along with his initial support of Enrique, Pedro IV had his own reasons to disparage and malign his Castilian counterpart, against whom he had been at war since 1356. In his history of his own reign, Pedro IV formed an explicitly negative image of Pedro I, focusing particular attention on the violence that the Castilian king perpetrated again the Aragonese royal family.
Writing primarily for an English audience, Geoffrey Chaucer composed a very different image of the former Castilian king. Although he is not considered to be a historian, Chaucer – who had a close connection with John of Gaunt, an English prince who fought for Pedro at Nájera and later married the king’s daughter, Constance – is representative of the English position. In his Monk’s Tale, one of the collected stories that constitute the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer depicted Pedro as a noble and unjustly deposed king. Although it is possible that he was exposed to and borrowed from López de Ayala’s account, Chaucer’s representation of Pedro challenged the narrative offered by Enrique’s followers and allies, and it supported John of Gaunt’s claims to the Castilian crown.
The Chandos Herald, who wrote in French, but in support of the English position, offered a more ambivalent, although still generally positive, depiction of Pedro I. In particular, he was emphatic that Pedro was the rightful king of Castile who had been unjustly overthrown by Enrique II. By eliding specific references to the king’s supposed misdeeds, and focusing on his right to rule, the Chandos Herald promoted a far more positive image of Pedro. Moreover, by supporting Pedro’s actions, the Chandos Herald also defended those of his lord, Sir John Chandos, who was an important supporter of the Castilian king in the events leading up to and following the Battle of Nájera.
Given the polemical nature of these depictions of Pedro I – with Enrique II and his allies crafting the image of the king as a cruel despot who had to be overthrown, and Pedro’s supporters presenting him as the rightful king who had been unjustly deposed – the account offered by Jean Froissart is particularly notable. At various times, Froissart wrote his history for patrons who supported alternately the English and French positions in the Hundred Years’ War. He also knew many of the individual combatants from Nájara personally. As one might expect, the image he gave to us of the king is ambivalent. Pedro is both a cruel ruler – the Black Prince’s own men hesitate to support such an immoral king – and also a strong knight who was wrongly overthrown and killed by his illegitimate brother.
This representation, like those briefly outlined above, reflects the political calculations that surrounded the representation of divisive historical figures. It is also evidence of how political writing historical narratives was during this period. For Enrique II and his followers, Pedro I had to be an illegitimate, immoral ruler, or the king was guilty of both regicide and fratricide. For Pedro’s supporters, the king had to be the rightful king, or they had behaved illicitly in supporting him and his heirs. Moreover, moving into the reign of Enrique II and beyond, both sides based their own legitimacy on their versions of past events. Thus, to maintain their current privileges, they had to promote their account of the past.
Although one would see a similar politicization of later figures – for instance, the difference in the representations of Enrique IV crafted by his followers compared to those of Isabel I – the case of Pedro I is unique because of its importance not just within Iberia, but also throughout Western Europe. For people throughout Castile, the Crown of Aragon, France, England, and beyond; the image of Pedro I mattered. Was he a cruel and immoral king who had to be overthrown? Or, was he the rightful king of Castile who was unjustly overthrown and killed by those closest to him? Within Castile, the interpretation of Pedro would continue to be important for centuries. For instance, Isabel I, a descendant of both Enrique II and Pedro I, tried to promote the idea of Pedro as a just king. Centuries later, Lope de Vega supported the opposite position, and he reinforced the image of Pedro as an immoral and unjust king in several plays.
As this brief discussion has shown, depictions of the life and death of Pedro I were strongly influenced by contemporary politics. Through this variety of conflicting reports, however, we can draw a couple of clear conclusions. First, contemporary historical narratives were frequently linked to the political needs of contemporary rulers. Medieval histories used the past to legitimize the present, and in the case of Pedro, the king’s image was intrinsically connected to the legitimacy of a new king and his descendants in medieval Castile. Second, Pedro I – and the actions of those who attempted to construct or deconstruct the image of him as a cruel tyrant – played an important role not only in the history and development of fourteenth-century Castile, but also in the Hundred Years’ War and the wider world of Western Europe.
Images: The first is a depiction of the Battle of Nájera, comes from a fifteenth-century manuscript of Froissart (Bib. Nat. Fr., FR 2643, fol. 312v). The author has not been able to establish the provenance of the two depictions of Don Pedro being killed.
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