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This edited article about Pedro of Castile originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 837 published on 28 January 1978.
It was October, 1350 – and the Black Death continued to ravish Europe. As his army besieged the Moors in their Gibraltar stronghold, King Alfonso of Castile was struck down by the terrible plague and died.
So began the reign of the king’s son, Pedro. It was to be an era of unmitigated cruelty.
Pedro was a mere fifteen when proclaimed king by his father’s chief minister, the devious Juan Alonso de Albuquerque. It so happened that Alfonso had had two other sons, both illegitimate and both convinced that they had the right to the throne. Albuquerque needed Pedro if he was to retain power. On the other hand, the young king’s rivals had a champion in the governor of Castile, Garcia Laso de la Vego.
Albuquerque immediately arranged a state function to which Garcia was invited. When the governor entered the palace hall of Burgos the other guests suddenly vanished and Pedro, urged on by the schemer Albuquerque, ordered the governor’s arrest.
Now, coaxed by his evil minister, Pedro tasted that medieval right of monarchy to condemn man, woman or child to death. He shouted: “Kill him!” Obediently his soldiers plunged their knives into Garcia’s heart.
Pedro contracted the plague and hovered on the brink of death. But he recovered, and the doctors advised their young monarch to seek fresh air, and he took up hunting, which definitely suited Albuquerque. To make sure that his charge was always provided with further distractions, the power-mad minister introduced Pedro to Maria de Padilla, a beautiful member of his household. Pedro fell madly in love. But if Albuquerque thought Maria would obey his every order he was soon to discover otherwise. The girl had ambitions, and quickly suggested to Pedro that they did not need the old minister.
Albuquerque reacted fast. He arranged a marriage between Pedro and Blanche de Bourbon, the French king’s niece a union that the Castilian could not refuse to honour.
However, Pedro was quickly growing wise in the affairs of state and saw in this wedding a chance to make friends with his half-brothers and rid himself of Albuquerque forever.
The marriage ceremony at Valladolid looked more like a convention of armies than a matrimonial feast. Pedro’s brothers arrived with a huge following of armed men and signed an alliance with him, backing Pedro’s demand that Albuquerque present himself before the king to explain “certain matters”. The writing was on Albuquerque’s wall, and he fled to one of his Portuguese castles where, shortly afterwards, he was poisoned by an Italian doctor who had been bribed by Pedro to carry out the deed.
Things might have gone smoothly for Pedro if he had played the feudal game according to the feudal rules; but instead he elevated Maria’s relatives to out-rank his half-brothers. Furious, the pair gathered the support of the barons and raised an army in revolt. Pedro was at Alcazar, and sent a message to his wife at Toledo, ordering her to join him in his ‘most pressing hour’. When the Toledo merchants advised her that her life could be in danger, Blanche refused to comply.
Pedro was anything but a coward. He marched on Toledo, now headquarters for Blanche and his brothers. When he entered the town under a truce he was promptly taken prisoner and placed under house-arrest.
A friend of Maria de Padilla, one Simuel el Levi, Pedro’s official treasurer, helped the king to escape. By devising a scheme that completely fooled the kingdom’s richest men. Simuel amassed a huge fortune for Pedro which allowed the monarch to muster an army with which he besieged Toro, now the rebels’ stronghold. On 24th January, 1356, the city fell to Pedro. One half-brother became a prisoner, the other – Henry of Trastamara – found safety with the king of Aragon.
Soon Pedro was imagining that every man was against him. During a ‘sporting’ contest he personally slew Fadrique, one of his half-brothers. Nothing could stop Pedro now. On his orders many of the barons were declared outlaws and hunted down, beheaded and their lands confiscated. Now no-one was safe in Castile.
A minister suspected of an alliance with the exiled Henry of Trastamara was strangled and decapitated in front of a dinner gathering. Even the faithful Simuel el Levi, whom Pedro believed was growing too fat and wealthy, was tortured to death in a vain attempt to make him reveal where his fortune was hidden.
A Moorish pretender to the throne of Granada, over which Pedro was overlord, begged the Castile monarch to rule on his claim. Typically, Pedro held a banquet for the Moor and his chief emirs and during the meal had them all arrested, and taken on donkeys to a field behind the Alcazar palace. There, tied to stakes, the prisoners were used for target ‘sport’ by galloping horsemen. Pedro took the first shot with bow and arrow and eliminated yet another ‘rival’. That night, 38 heads were sent as a gift to the Granada king.
Next to die was Blanche de Bourbon, Pedro’s legal wife. Held in Jerez castle, she was safe as long as the governor there defied the king’s execution orders. But Pedro had the man removed and sent a crossbowman into murder Blanche.
In 1361, Maria de Padilla died suddenly. It seemed that this was the signal for Pedro’s fortunes to take a turn for the very worst. At the time, huge armies roamed Europe looking for wars to occupy generals and men made redundant by the truce arranged between France and England. One such general was Bertrand du Guesclin, and when Henry of Trastamara suggested they attack Pedro. Du Guesclin agreed.
Pedro was totally unprepared for the invasion. Du Guesclin’s troops crossed the Pyrenees and in March, 1366, they took Borja. Pedro retreated with all haste to Toledo: but the people there turned against him and he fled to Seville. Once again the local population forced Pedro to run until, finally, his last refuge at Alcazar was besieged and captured. Pedro, however, escaped and found sanctuary in Portugal.
Desperate, Pedro appealed to Edward III of England. It happened that Edward had his eyes on certain Bay of Biscay ports and agreed that his son, the Black Prince, should fight Du Guesclin and Henry of Trastamara for the unfortunate Pedro.
Outside the town of Navarrete, in 1367, the Black Prince raised his standard, advanced to the cry; “In the name of God and St George,” and crushed Pedro’s enemies in a scene of such unmitigated slaughter and wholesale butchery that his image was forever tarnished.
With victory his, Pedro took terrible revenge on all who had supported his half-brother. Henry: hostages were taken, and executed. The Black Prince, ill and realising that the devious Pedro did not intend to honour his promise of a generous reward for services rendered, returned to France.
But Henry of Trastamara had not given up his kingly ambitions. With a new army he again invaded Castile. The population rose in joyous expectation and drove the insidious Pedro into Montiel castle.
Pedro was thirty-six now, and he thought he could evade his fate yet another time. It was not to be. One March night in 1369 Pedro was recognized by a soldier as he tried to slip through Henry’s lines and was brought before his half-brother. Moments later, Pedro’s corpse lay at Henry’s feet, a dagger buried deep in his chest.
It is said that, in 1362, as Pedro journeyed on a campaign against a reluctant baron, a monk stopped him on a road, “Sire,” the monk said, “I have had a dream. Be warned – you will die by the hand of your brother and will be stone in Madrid.”
Pedro did die by his brother’s hand, and a stone statue was eventually erected to him in Madrid, a memorial to an infamous career.