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Pedro of Castile

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Title: Pedro of Castile  
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Subject: 1366, 1367, 1369, Pedro I, Pedro, Andrade, The Monk's Tale, Sancho Alfonso, 1st Count of Alburquerque, Blanche of Bourbon, Tello Alfonso, Lord of Aguilar de Campoo
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Pedro of Castile

For other uses, see Peter of Castile (disambiguation).
Alabaster sculpture of Peter the Cruel, from 1504
King of Castile and León
Reign 1350–1366
Predecessor Alfonso XI
Successor Henry II
King of Castile and León
Reign 1367–1369
Predecessor Henry II
Successor Henry II
Consort María de Padilla
Blanche of Bourbon
Juana de Castro
Constance, Duchess of Lancaster
Isabella, Duchess of York
House House of Burgundy
Father Alfonso XI of Castile
Mother Maria of Portugal
Born (1334-08-30)30 August 1334
Burgos, Castile
Died 23 March 1369(1369-03-23) (aged 34)
Montiel, Toledo
Religion Roman Catholicism

Peter the Cruel (30 August 1334 – 23 March 1369), commonly called Pedro the Cruel or the Just,[1] was the king of Castile and León from 1350 to 1369. He was the son of Alfonso XI of Castile and Maria of Portugal,[2] daughter of Afonso IV of Portugal. Peter was the last ruler of the main branch of the House of Burgundy.

Early life

Peter was born in the defensive tower of the Monasterio de Santa Maria la Real de Las Huelgas in Burgos, Spain.

According to chancellor and chronicler Pero López de Ayala, he had a pale complexion, blue eyes and very light blond hair; he was tall (1'83 m.) and muscular. He was accustomed to long, strenuous hours of work. He was well read and a patron of the arts, and in his formative years he enjoyed entertainment, music and poetry.

Peter began his reign when but sixteen years old and subjected to the control of his mother and her favourites. He was to be married to Joan, daughter of Edward III of England; on her way to Castile, however, she travelled through cities infested with the Black Death, ignoring townspeople who had warned her not to enter their settlements. Joan soon contracted the disease and died.[3]

Though at first controlled by his mother, Peter emancipated himself with the encouragement of the minister Albuquerque. Becoming attached to María de Padilla, he married her in secret in 1353. María turned him against Albuquerque.

In the summer of 1353, the young king was practically coerced by his mother and the nobles into marrying Blanche of Bourbon; he deserted her at once. This marriage necessitated Peter's denying that he had married María, but his relationship with her continued and she bore him four children. He also apparently went through the form of marriage with a lady of the family of Castro (who bore him a son who died young, after Peter's death), then deserted her. A period of turmoil followed in which the king was for a time overpowered and in effect imprisoned. The dissension within the party striving to coerce him enabled him to escape from Toro, where he was under observation, to Segovia.

In 1361, Queen Blanche died at Medina Sidonia. Legend claims that Peter murdered her: one version of the story says she was poisoned, another that she was shot with a crossbow.[4]

Wars with Aragon

From 1356 to 1366, Peter engaged in constant wars with Aragon in the "War of the Two Peters", in which he showed neither ability nor good hand in his support of his English ally or Castilian interests in the Mediterranean against the French and Aragonese. The king of Aragon then supported Peter's bastard brothers against him. It was during this period that Peter perpetrated the series of murders which made him notorious.

In 1366 began the calamitous Castilian Civil War, which would see him dethroned. He was assailed by his bastard brother Henry of Trastámara at the head of a host of soldiers of fortune,[5] including Bertrand du Guesclin and Hugh Calveley, and abandoned the kingdom without daring to give battle, after retreating several times (first from Burgos, then from Toledo, and lastly from Seville) in the face of the oncoming armies. Peter fled with his treasury to Portugal, where he was coldly received by his uncle, King Peter I of Portugal, and thence to Galicia, in the northern Iberian Peninsula, where he ordered the murder of Suero, the archbishop of Santiago, and the dean, Peralvarez.

Peter's pro-Jewish policies

Peter's rival Henry of Trastámara continuously depicted Peter as "King of the Jews", and had some success in taking advantage of popular Castilian resentment towards the Jews. Henry of Trastámara instigated pogroms beginning a period of anti-Jewish riots and forced conversions in Castile that lasted approximately from 1370 to 1390. Peter took forceful measures against this, including the execution of at least five anti-Jewish leaders of a riot.


In the summer of 1366, Peter took refuge with Edward, the Black Prince, who restored him to his throne in the following year after the Battle of Nájera. But he disgusted his ally with his faithlessness and ferocity, as well as his failure to repay the costs of the campaign, as he had promised to do. The health of the Black Prince broke down, and he left the Iberian Peninsula.

Meanwhile, Henry of Trastámara returned to Castile in September, 1368. The cortes (legislature) of the city of Burgos recognized him as King of Castile. Others followed, including Córdoba, Palencia, Valladolid, and Jaén. Galicia and Asturias, on the other hand, continued to support Pedro. As Henry made his way toward Toledo, Peter, who had retreated to Andalusia, chose to confront him in battle. On 14 March 1369, the forces of Peter and Henry met at Montiel, a fortress then controlled by the Order of Santiago. Henry prevailed with the assistance of Bertrand du Guesclin. Peter took refuge in the fortress, which, being controlled by a military order of Galician origin, remained faithful to him. Negotiations were opened between Peter and his besieger, Henry. Peter met with du Guesclin, who was acting as Henry's envoy. Peter appealed to du Guesclin's well-known treacherous side. He offered du Guesclin 200,000 gold coins and several towns, including Soria, Almazan, and Atienza to betray Henry. Ever opportunistic, du Guesclin informed Henry of the offer and immediately bargained for greater compensation from Henry to betray Peter.

Having made a deal with Henry, Du Guesclin returned to Peter. Under the guise of accepting his deal, du Guesclin led Peter to his tent on the night of 23 March 1369. Henry was waiting. The historian Lopez de Ayala described the encounter as follows:
Upon entering du Guesclin's tent, Henry "saw King Peter. He did not recognize him because they had not seen each other for a long time. One of Bertrand's men said 'This is your enemy.' But King Henry asked if it was he and ... King Peter said twice, 'I am he, I am he.' Then King Henry recognized him and hit him in the face with a knife and they ... fell to the ground. King Henry struck him again and again."
Having dispatched his half-brother, Henry left Peter's body unburied for three days, during which time it was subjected to ridicule and abuse.

Legacy and reputation

From The Monk's Tale O noble, O worthy PETRO, glorie OF SPAYNE, Whom Fortune heeld so hye in magestee,
Wel oughten men thy pitous death complayne!
Out of thy land thy brother made thee flee,
And after, at a seege, by subtiltee,
Thou were bitraysed and lad unto his tente,
Where as he with his owene hand slow thee,
Succedynge in thy regne and in thy rente.

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

Popular memory generally views Peter as a vicious monster. Much but not all of Peter's reputation comes from the works of the chronicler Pero López de Ayala, who after his father's change of allegiance had little choice but to serve Peter's usurper. After time passed, there was a reaction in Peter's favour and an alternative name was found for him. It became a fashion to speak of him as El Justiciero, the executor of justice (the Lawful).[6] Apologists were found to say that he had killed only men who would not submit themselves to the law or respect the rights of others. Peter did have his supporters. Even Ayala confessed that the king's fall was regretted by many, among them the peasants and burghers subjected to the nobles by late feudal gifts and by the merchants, who enjoyed security under his rule.

The English, who backed Peter, also remembered the king positively. Geoffrey Chaucer visited Castile during Peter's reign and lamented the monarch's death in The Monk's Tale, part of The Canterbury Tales. (Chaucer's patron, John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, had fought on Peter's side in his struggle to reclaim the throne.)

Peter had many qualities of those later monarchs educated in the centralization style. He built a strong Royal administrative force ahead of his times. He failed to counter or check all the feudal powers that supported his rivals, however illegitimate and opposite to the principles of aristocracy they represented themselves. But his moral superiority was reduced too by the violent means, including fratricides, by which he sought to suppress opposition; he at times was extremely despotic and unpredictable, even by the standards of his age. In this he was preceded by his father Alfonso XI, who since the crisis at the death of Alfonso X had faced multiple rebellions against royal authority.

The death of King Peter ended the traditional alliance of Castile and Navarre with England, which had been started by the Plantagenets to keep France in check. The alliance was later renewed by the Trastámaras and Tudors.


Peter's children by María de Padilla were:

  • Beatrice (1353–1369), nun at the Abbey of Santa Clara at Tordesillas
  • Constance (1354–1394), married John of Gaunt[7]
  • Isabella (1355–1392), married Edmund of Langley[8]
  • Alfonso (1359–1362), Crown Prince of Castile and León (Tordesillas, 1359 – 19 October 1362). Peter forced the Cortes to recognize Alfonso as his legitimate heir on 29 April 1362. However, Alfonso, a very sickly child, died at the age of three, months from his recognition as Crown Prince.

Peter had one son with Juana de Castro:

  • John (1355–1405), married doña Elvira de Eril, had issue


The great original but hostile authority for the life of Peter the Cruel is the Chronicle of the Chancellor Pedro López de Ayala (1332–1407). To put that in perspective are a biography by Prosper Mérimée, Histoire de Don Pedro I, roi de Castille (1848) and a modern history setting Peter in the social and economic context of his time by Clara Estow (Pedro the Cruel of Castile (1350–1369), 1995).

Strictly speaking, Peter was not defeated by Henry but by the opposing aristocracy; the nobles accomplished their objective of enthroning a weaker dynasty (the House of Trastámara), much more amenable to their interests. Most of the bad stories about Peter are likely to be colored by Black Legend, coined by his enemies, who finally succeeded in their rebellion. The Chancellor López de Ayala, the main source for Peter's reign, was the official chronicler of the Trastámara, a servant of the new rulers and of Peter's aristocratic adversaries.

The change of dynasty can be considered as the epilogue of the first act of a long struggle between the Castilian monarchy and the aristocracy; this struggle was to continue for more than three centuries and come to an end only under Charles I of Spain, the grandson of Ferdinand II of Aragon (Ferdinand V of Castile) and Isabella I of Castile (The Catholic Monarchs), in the first quarter of the 16th century.




  • Estow, Clara, Pedro the Cruel of Castile, 1350-1369, BRILL, 1995.
  • Leese, Thelma Anna, Blood royal: issue of the kings and queens of medieval England, 1066-1399, Heritage Books Inc., 2007.
  • Medieval Iberia: an encyclopedia, Ed. E. Michael Gerli and Samuel G. Armistead, Routledge, 2003.
  • Mérimée, Prosper. The History of Peter the Cruel, King of Castile and Leon. London: R. Bentley, 1849.googlebooks Accessed November 17, 2007
  • Tuchman, Barbara Wertheim, A distant mirror: the calamitous 14th century, Random House Publishing Group, 1978.

Further reading

  • Bibliography of recent works (in Spanish)
  • [1] Santiago Sevilla, "El Rey Don Pedro el Cruel", "King Peter the Cruel", "Peter der Grausame König" a tragedy in Spanish, English, and German versions.
Peter of Castile
Born: 30 August 1334 Died: 23 March 1369
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Alfonso XI
King of Castile and León
Succeeded by
Henry II
Preceded by
Henry II
King of Castile and León

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