One of the most attractive places in Portugal is the Monastery of Alcobaça. Its interest is multiple: religious, artistic-monumental, cultural and, of course, historical, which is why it is part of the World Heritage by UNESCO since 1989 and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of that country. Apart from its Gothic beauty – it was the first Portuguese monastery of that style – it also houses the tombs of many members of the royalty; the mausoleums of Peter I and Agnes de Castro are especially noteworthy, one next to the other to prolong their legend, the one that combines romanticism with a certain macabre air. Don’t you know it? Well, let’s tell it.
In the mid-14th century the king was Afonso IV, son of Denis I the farmer and Elizabeth of Aragon. Denis had done a great job, laying the foundations for Portuguese prosperity thanks to a pacifist policy that allowed coexistence in peace with Castile, and to his economic reforms, embodied in a general enrichment that spread to the world of culture with the founding of the University of Coimbra. When Denis died in 1325, the succession was disputed between his only legitimate son, Afonso, and one of the many bastards that the monarch had with multiple lovers.
Afonso Sanchez, as the latter was known, was really the deceased’s favourite, over even the legitimate one, so a party was formed to defend his rights and the thing inevitably ended in civil war. But he lost it and was exiled to Castile, being crowned Afonso, who went down in history with the ordinal of IV and the nickname of the Brave for his courage on the battlefield. The new sovereign did not follow his father’s line of action and engaged in a war with the Castilians, whom Afonso Sanchez incited.
That situation could only be solved by Pope Boniface VIII when he called for a crusade against the Muslims, which Castile and Portugal supported together parking their quarrels. It was the beginning of a new stage in the reign of Afonso IV, who from there fostered navigation and trade launching the Atlantic exploration, making the first visits to Azores and Canary Islands, and making Lisbon one of the most important capitals of Europe. It was a period of splendour, in short, which only became somewhat blurred with the epidemic of the Black Death that struck the kingdom in 1348.
But let’s go back to the hostilities with the neighboring country. Part of the blame was due to his son Peter, born of the king’s marriage with Beatrice of Castile, daughter of the Castilian king Sancho IV and María de Molina. Afonso and Beatrice had married in 1309 (in reality the marriage had been agreed eight years before but then they were minors and they had to wait, besides requesting papal bull) and they were so happy in their conjugal life that for the first time in a long period no royal bastards were registered.
Beatrice brought two things. On one side her conciliatory character, which made her always try to mediate in the conflicts that affected Portugal in those years. On the other side, she gave birth to seven children, although only three surpassed childhood. One of them, the first male to reach adulthood, was born in 1320 and was baptized with the name of Peter, being destined to assume the crown when the time came. Meanwhile, he married Blanche of Castile in 1325.
Blanche was the granddaughter of the aforementioned Castilian kings Sancho IV and María de Molina. She was born in Alcócer in 1319 and already one month before she was orphaned because her father, Infante Peter, was one of those who fell before the Nasrids in the disaster of the Vega de Granada. Thus, she grew up in Aragon with her mother under the protection of Garcilaso de la Vega the Elder, not without having to overcome the desire in the same sense expressed by Don Juan Manuel (the famous author of The Count Lucanor). Probably in between was the desire of the two notables to acquire the rich properties of both.
The fact is that in 1325 her marriage to Peter of Portugal was agreed. The wedding was celebrated but the marriage was not consummated, partly because she was only six years old and partly because of her always delicate state of health, so it was annulled and Blanche, after several more frustrated attempts to mate her, ended up entering the Monastery of the Huelgas in Burgos, where she would become an abbess.
A second wife was then sought for Peter and the chosen one was Constance Manuel de Villena, the daughter of the aforementioned Don Juan Manuel, at that time one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Castile, literary merits apart. Constance had already been married to King Afonso XI no less, but the monarch repudiated her when he considered it a reason to take the Infanta Mary, daughter of Afonso IV of Portugal, Peter’s eldest sister, as his wife.
In a skillful play, Don Juan Manuel avenged the offense by arranging his daughter’s marriage with the Portuguese heir; in reality it was the cherry on the cake of revenge, because he had previously joined the Muslims of Granada to fight against the king, although in the end they reconciled and in compensation he was distinguished with another position to add to his long curriculum, Adelantado Mayor of Murcia. Constance and Peter married by proxy and in 1340 she set out for the neighbouring country to meet her husband; in the entourage she was accompanied by the true protagonist of all this, her maiden Agnes de Castro.
Agnes was a Galician noblewoman, born in La Limia, in the current province of Orense, where she was born in 1325. She was the illegitimate daughter of the powerful Pedro Fernandez de Castro, Chief Steward of the Court, who was related to royalty on his mother’s side and had grown up in Portugal together with one of the bastards of the aforementioned Denis I. Although he married twice, he had an extra-marital relationship with Aldonza Lorenzo de Valladares, daughter of his Portuguese tutor, as a result of which Agnes was born; she grew up in the palace of Don Juan Manuel as a companion lady to Constance, who was also her cousin.
According to the chronicles, Peter of Portugal fell in love with her at first sight and turned her into his lover in spite of his new wife. That uncomfortable situation continued for five years, until in 1345, during the birth of her third child, Fernando, Constance lost her life. At that time it was normal for the king to have affairs as long as they were not women of the nobility, so even though there were no physical impediments, they had to keep the forms for quite some time. Peter, of course, took her out of exile in Alburquerque ordered by the king and stubbornly refused to marry various candidates introduced to him.
The sovereign himself, Afonso IV, had looked the other way, hoping that everything would be reduced to a simple love affair, despite the fact that it already manifested itself in the form of several offspring: the first, Afonso, died in 1346, as soon as he was born, but then Beatrice arrived in 1347, John in 1349 and Denis in 1354. This last year, however, Peter dared to take the step and took Agnes as his wife in Bragança, scandalizing the whole of Portugal even though he had already been a widower for almost a decade.
Unfortunately, there was no documentary record of that union having been officiated by the bishop of La Guarda, as it was said, for what would officially pass for clandestine and, consequently, invalid. This was followed by several nobles of the court to persuade the king to find a solution to the situation, stressing the danger to the succession posed by the bastards (who seemed healthier than the legitimate Ferdinand) and the constant interference that Agnes exercised in internal politics (it was rumored that she conspired to kill Ferdinand for the benefit of her children). The king listened to them and authorized, active or passive, a drastic measure: murder.
Three of his advisors, Alonso Gonçalves, Pedro Coelho and Diego López Pacheco, were the main instigators -because they were enemies of the Castros- and they stabbed Agnes to death ignoring her pleas. They took advantage of the absence of Peter, who was hunting: when he returned instead of assuming the will of his father, as he expected, he got angry and went mad in such a way that he took up arms against his progenitor, devastating with his hosts the regions of the Douro and the Minho. Father and son ended up reconciling through Queen Beatrice just in time because Afonso IV the Brave died in 1357 and Peter succeeded him to the throne.
Everything seemed to be over but the most morbid and fascinating part of this story was still missing, although it is not known how much of reality and how much of legend there is. Tradition has it that, with the crown on his head, Peter ordered the corpse of Agnes to be exhumed, to be seated on the throne next to him and to be married and thus make her queen. Then he demanded that the whole court parade before them to kiss the hand of the dead as a sign of submission.
It may seem macabre, but in Portugal there was the old custom of kissing dead monarchs’ hands, just as another one had the wax funerary mask placed on the throne. Therefore, it is possible that this is what really happened and over time the episode deformed making it more shocking. In fact, several literary works narrate it; Luis de Camoes did it in Os Lusíadas, Luis Vélez de Guevara in Reinar después de morir, Jerónimo Bermúdez in Nise laureada, Aphra Behn in The history of Agnes de Castro and even Lope de Vega in Doña Inés de Castro, among many other authors. However, the court chronicler, Fernando López, does not cite it and it seems that it is rather a myth that appeared in Spanish literature in the sixteenth century.
But Peter wasn’t content with that. He claimed from his Castilian namesake (Peter I the Cruel) the delivery of the murderers, who had taken refuge in the neighboring kingdom, and obtained it in 1360 through the signing of an agreement for the mutual extradition of evaders. Pacheco managed to escape to Avignon but the other two died after being brutally tortured. That same year Peter, who earned himself the nickname of the Avenger, signed the Declaration of Cantanhede, by which he swore to have legally married Agnes, so that the children had with her became legitimate.
Of course, after the dreadful coronation, he had his wife have a state funeral. As I said at the beginning, both rest today in the transept of Saint Mary of Alcobaça, in white marble tombs placed in such a way that they touch each other’s feet because the first thing the king would see on the day of his resurrection would be his beloved Agnes.
Sources: Después del entierro. A veces la muerte no es el final de la historia, sino el comienzo (Omar López Mato)/Reinar después de morir (Luis Vélez de Guevara)/Inés de Castro. La leyenda de la mujer que reinó después de muerta (María Pilar Queralt del Hierro)/Historia genealógica de la Casa Real portuguesa (Antonio Caetano de Souza)/Tenencia, Señorío y Condado de Lemos (Vicente Salas Merino)/Cultura e memória na literatura portuguesa (Hélder Garmes y José Carlos Siqueira)/Wikipedia