The End of Europe's Middle Ages

New Monarchies

This chapter is composed of five sections: Introduction, England, France, Spain, and Portugal. Please follow the link at the end of each section to read the entire chapter.

The Iberian Monarchies: Spain and Portugal

Map of Iberia, 1300

Although elements of the Iberian monarchies' development echo those of France, the prolonged presence of the Moors provided a unique shape to the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies. In the eighth century, a Berber Muslim army, the Moors, conquered much of the Iberian peninsula. A few tiny enclaves of Christian rule remained in the north of Spain but it was not until the tenth century that significant advances were made by the Christians to recapture land from the Moors. By the early thirteenth century, the Reconquista had forced the Moors from most of the Iberian peninsula and only a few small areas remained under Moorish control, including the port of Cádiz and the kingdom of Granada. The pre-eminent Christian kingdoms at the end of the thirteenth century were Castile and León, Aragón, and Portugal.

  The Reconquista


By the later Middle Ages, Spain was dominated by the kingdoms of Castile and León, and Aragón, the smaller kingdoms falling into their spheres of influence. Castile and León held Asturias, Córdoba, Extremurda, Galicia, Jaén, and Seville while Barcelona, Valencia, and the Balearic Islands fell to Aragón. Although these smaller kingdoms initially retained their own governments, called the Cortes, they recognised either the monarch of Castile and León or Aragón as king. Similar in concept to the English Parliament and the French Estates General, the Cortes were representative assemblies of the aristocracy, the Church and the common people. As the monarchies grew more powerful, the Cortes evolved from autonomous institutions into regional representative assemblies.

Throughout most of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, civil unrest prevented the Spanish monarchies from establishing significant control over the nobility. The Aragónese monarchy tried to placate the nobility and the townspeople by granting significant concessions to the Cortes but numerous revolts by the merchant class forced the expansion of royal powers at the expense of the local Cortes. In Castile, the greatest challenge to authority came from the nobility.

Castile and León

Ferdinand IV of Castile and León (1286?-1312) intertwined the monarchies of Portugal and Castile when he and Diniz of Portugal ended the wars between their two kingdoms by intermarrying their families. Ferdinand IV also succeeded in capturing Gibraltar from the Moors in 1309 but most of his reign was filled with anarchy and civil unrest. When Alfonso XI (1310?-1350) came to the throne in 1312, he set out to increase royal authority by granting privileges to the lower classes at the expense of the aristocracy, which further increased the discontent of the nobility. He joined with Alfonso IV of Portugal to defeat the Moors at the Battle of Salado River in 1340.

Alfonso XI was succeeded by his son, Pedro the Cruel (1334-1369), in 1350. His illegitimate half-brother, Henry of Trastamara, received help from Charles V of France and Pedro called on Edward III of England, who sent a force under Edward, the Black Prince. Pedro and his English allies defeated Henry and his French forces in 1367, when the English had left, Henry returned and defeated Pedro in 1369, assuming the throne as Henry II of Castile and León (1333?-1379). Henry II continued to honour his French alliance and his navy was instrumental in the destruction of the English fleet at La Rochelle in 1372.

John I (1358-1390) followed his father Henry II to the throne of Castile and León in 1379. One of his first actions was to break the long-standing Portuguese-English alliance by forcing his marriage to Ferdinand I of Portugal's daughter in 1382. When Ferdinand I died in 1383, John I of Castile claimed the Portuguese throne but he was defeated by John I of Portugal in 1385. In support of his Portuguese son-in-law, John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, invaded Castile in 1386. A treaty in 1387 and the marriage of one of John of Gaunt's daughters to John I of Castile's son, Henry, resolved the dispute.

John I's son Henry (1379-1406) was crowned Henry III of Castile and León following his father's death in 1390. Inheriting the internal disorder and violence of his father's reign, Henry III set out to soothe the nobility and to restore royal power. At his death in 1406, the throne passed smoothly to his young son, John II (1405-1454). The early years of John II's reign were ably administered by the co-regency of his mother, Catherine, and his uncle, Ferdinand I the Just of Aragón. When John II took power into his own hands in 1419, he wisely chose Don Alvaro de Luna as his chief counsellor. The kingdom was well governed by these two men until de Luna arranged a marriage with a Portuguese princess after the death of John II's first wife. The new queen resented de Luna's influence and pressed John II to dispose of him. De Luna was executed in 1453. John II died a few months later.

John II's daughter was the famous Isabella I the Catholic (1451-1504). She married her cousin Ferdinand of Aragón in 1469 and, when her brother Henry IV of Castile died in 1474, Isabella succeeded to the throne of Castile and León. The powerful Spanish kingdom was created when Ferdinand V of Aragón ascended to his title in 1479. Isabella I is best known for sponsoring Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World in 1492.


When Henry III of Castile and León died in 1406, his younger brother Ferdinand declined the Castilian crown, choosing to become coregent for young nephew, John II. His wise and careful administration distinguished him and, when his uncle died without a male heir, Ferdinand I the Just (1379?-1416) was chosen to take his place as king of Aragón and Sicily. His agreement to depose the antipope Benedict XII in 1416 helped to end the Great Schism.

Alfonso V the Magnanimous (1385-1458) of Aragón and Sicily ascended to the throne after his father's death in 1416. He helped defend Joanna II of Naples against attacks by Louis III of Anjou and was named her heir. Even though Joanna II changed her mind in 1423, instead choosing Louis III of Anjou to inherit her title, Alfonso V pressed his claim when the Neapolitan queen died in 1435. H was defeated and captured by the Genoese allies of the duke of Anjou and he was sent to Francesco Sforza, the duke of Milan, who promptly formed an alliance with him. The Angevine forces were finally defeated and Alfonso V of Aragón and Sicily added the kingdom of Naples to his titles in 1443.

In 1458, John II (1397-1479) followed his brother to the throne of Aragón, Sicily, and Naples. He married Blanche of Navarre in 1420, inheriting the kingdom of Navarre in 1425. However, the Cortes refused to recognise the claim of John II, preferring his son, Charles IV of Navarre. John II and Charles IV battled for control until Charles IV's death in 1461. A series of revolts in Catalonia caused further problems for John II until 1472. At the end of his reign, John II was embroiled in a war against the French king, Louis XI.

Isabella I and Ferdinand V with their children

John II's second son Ferdinand (1452-1516) became king of Sicily in 1468 and king of Aragón in 1479 as Ferdinand II and, as Ferdinand III, he ascended to the throne of Naples in 1504. However, he is best known as Ferdinand V the Catholic of Spain. It was through the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragón and Isabella of Castile and León that Spain was united and peace was finally established. While Ferdinand and Isabella remained independent rulers within their respective realms and the regional Cortes continued to operate, the royal couple were united in their overall vision for Spain and a centralised administration united the two kingdoms. The Spanish monarchs established a program of religious orthodoxy across the nation, forcing Jews and Moslems to choose between conversion to Christianity and exile. In 1478, in an attempt to root out heresy and 'insincere' converts, the Inquisition began, quickly becoming an instrument of political manipulation to suppress opposition to the monarchy. By 1492, nearly 200,000 Jews were expelled from Spain, the Moorish kingdom of Granada was captured, and the nobility had yielded to Ferdinand and Isabella. With their authority firmly entrenched in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella set out to establish their country as a leader in Europe. Ferdinand's sights were focused on the Mediterranean and on playing a more influential role within European politics while Isabella's eyes turned towards the horizon and the newly discovered territory and wealth of the Americas.

  The Spanish Inquisition
  European Voyages of Exploration - Spain

Return to New Monarchies: France Proceed to New Monarchies: Portugal

The End of Europe's Middle Ages / Applied History Research Group / University of Calgary
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