We wrote on other occasions about women who had a more or less prominent role in warfare. We’ve seen Vikings, Welsh, Bretons, and, in short, individuals from various nationalities, including several Spanish women. Today, we’ll focus on the national women, recalling the story of the Lady of Arintero, the daughter of a Leonese noble who, in the absence of a male heir, took up armor and sword to represent her family in the Castilian War of Succession in the last quarter of the 15th century.
Arintero is a tiny village in the municipality of Valdelugueros, province of León, located in the heart of the Cantabrian mountain range. Today, it has barely fourteen inhabitants, but five hundred forty-four years ago, without being much larger, it probably had around a hundred residents.
In any case, the local lord was Count García, a noble with a lineage, meaning that he had a manor house, and his four grandparents had recognized nobility (‘by all four sides’). With this status, he was obliged to provide an armed knight to the royal army.
León belonged to the Crown of Castile, which in 1475 was embroiled in a succession conflict following the heirless death of King Enrique IV. He had only one daughter, Juana de Trastámara, born in 1462 and proclaimed Princess of Asturias. However, she was immediately under suspicion, as the idea spread that her real father was the royal favorite, Beltrán de la Cueva, hence the nickname ‘La Beltraneja’, just as the monarch was called Enrique the Impotent.
It is impossible to know the truth for sure because Juana’s remains disappeared during the famous Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 (she was buried there), and therefore, her DNA cannot be verified. However, opponents of Enrique seized on the rumor to refuse to accept this succession, initiating a civil war with Juana’s half-brother, Infante Alfonso, as the candidate to the throne. They even proclaimed him in a bizarre act, the so-called ‘Farsa de Ávila’, during which a straw dummy representing the monarch was overthrown.
The peace was finally signed in the Concord of Guisando in 1468, but the succession issue remained unresolved. While Alfonso died the same year, the challenge was taken up by his sister Isabella. A year later, she married her cousin Fernando, heir to the Crown of Aragon, disobeying the king’s decision to marry her to Carlos de Trastámara y Évreux, Prince of Viana. Until then, Isabella had refused to act openly against the sovereign, but her supporters were moving to position themselves for the succession.
On December 11, 1474, the moment arrived when an illness (or poison, according to some) claimed the life of Enrique IV. Both Juana and Isabella proclaimed themselves queens, plunging Castile into civil war. The Isabelines had the alliance of the Aragonese, while the Juanistas arranged a marriage with her uncle, King Alfonso V of Portugal, to gain the support of that country and add it to that of France, Aragon’s rival. Other kingdoms remained neutral, such as England, Burgundy, or Granada, despite expressing sympathies for Isabella.
The entry of Portuguese troops through Plasencia to support the Juanista faction and the possibility that they would join forces with the French alarmed the opposing side. They sent messengers throughout Castile calling for arms. This news reached Arintero, where the aforementioned Count García found himself unable to respond to the call since he had no male heirs—only five daughters (or seven, according to different versions), which obliged him to go himself. Something that wouldn’t have been an impediment in other times, as he had participated in numerous campaigns against the Moors, except that now he was graying and not in a condition to return to military life.
It was humiliating for the nobleman to know that several neighbors were preparing to march to Benavente to join the army as foot soldiers, and, moreover, the offspring of other nobles in the area were already on the way. Therefore, seeing his moral decline, one of his daughters, named Juana, made an unusual proposal: she would go to represent the family. Initially, the idea was flatly rejected by the count, but the reality was that there was no other alternative, and gradually his refusal waned until he began to accept it.
Finally, he agreed. As the royal heralds had to traverse the entire kingdom, giving time to everyone to prepare, there were two months ahead for Juana to receive training as a warrior, from learning to control a horse in the heat of battle to handling a sword and lance, and getting used to the weight and discomfort of armor. But her determination made it possible, so at the end of that time, she was prepared and decided to present herself in Benavente as the knight Diego Oliveros de Arintero, after sacrificing her long hair.
The journey to the Zamoran town lasted four days, and once there, she joined the troops without anyone suspecting anything. For a whole year, she had the opportunity to fight and perfect her knowledge of the art of war—closed helmets, sturdy protections, and a courage that had nothing to envy from the most experienced preserved her identity. In February 1476, the kings laid siege to Zamora, which was in Portuguese hands, conquering it. The Portuguese withdrew before the city was fully taken, planning to entrench themselves in Toro.
Fernando realized this and pursued them, catching them just before they arrived. The clash occurred in the fields of a village called Peleagonzalo, although it would go down in history as the Battle of Toro. Alongside other knights, Juana charged against the enemy, trying to seize the standard from the standard-bearer, but in her zeal, she ended up isolated against three opponents. She managed to get rid of two, but the other had the advantage fighting downhill and disarmed and wounded her.
Here the story varies. Legend has it that in the heat of battle, the eyelets of her doublet tore, revealing one of her breasts; it seems impossible wearing armor. Although she tried to cover herself quickly, it did not go unnoticed, and word spread that there was a woman in the host. Another version says that she was discovered when bathing in the Duero river, but the most probable is that she became unconscious, and the doctors, preparing to treat her, realized that it was a female body.
In any case, the soldiers’ outcry reached the ears of the Castilian admiral, who thus learned her true identity. This was a significant problem because in the Middle Ages, the relegation of women was absolute following the legislative tradition of the Siete Partidas, and therefore, it was unthinkable for them to participate in war. King Fernando himself heard of the strange episode and summoned Juana to his presence. It was done, and the monarch was explained the whole story, who she was, and the reason for her actions. Fernando could not believe what he was hearing, but impressed by her valor, he did justice: not only did he pardon the deception, but he granted numerous and significant privileges to Juana.
Among them was, at her request, the elevation of all the villagers to nobility, freeing them from their blood contribution (i.e., going to war) and money (nobles did not pay taxes), prohibiting the settlement of the commoners (common people who paid taxes). He also gave her permission for Arintero to organize an annual fair—which was an important economic incentive at that time—and a festival in memory of the victory of Toro (which was not actually a victory, as the battle ended in a draw, but it was a political triumph by securing the throne for Isabella).
Moreover, the sovereign granted her permission to add to the coat of arms of her family a quarter showing a lady wielding a lance and a shield. Later, some verses, probably apocryphal, were added, which can be read today on a plaque of her alleged birthplace (actually a reconstruction, as the original was destroyed in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39). They say:
Know the people of Arintero your Lady so beautiful, as, like a knight, she was brave with her King. If you want to know who this brave warrior is, remove the armor, and you will see that she is the Lady of Arintero.
From all this history, there are no documentary sources (except for a letter presented to Philip V by the authorities of Arintero to assert their privilege before the new monarch) but ballads, so it is not known with certainty where the truth ends and the legend begins. Additionally, it has a sad ending that, once again, differs depending on who tells it. Some say Juana was returning to Arintero when, passing through the town of La Cándana (near Valdelugueros), a group of soldiers playing skittles tried to steal her privileges. As she did not allow it, a fight ensued, ending in her murder.
The other version is more intriguing and points to the kings, whose advisors must have made them see that those acts of grace, both tax exemptions and the pardon to the woman, could set dangerous precedents and even grievances for other regions. The throne was not yet strong enough to afford such indulgences. Some say it was Isabella, always strict about complying with the laws or desiring to demonstrate her determination to the nobility—perhaps even out of jealousy, interpreting an excess of her husband’s favor for the opposite sex. So several men were sent after Juana to demand the return of the documents, and when she refused to hand them over, there was a confrontation that ended in her death.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 14, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La Dama de Arintero, la joven que se hizo pasar por hombre para combatir por Isabel de Castilla
Mujeres de armas tomar (Isabel Valcárcel)/Leyendas españolas de todos los tiempos. Una memoria soñada (José María Merino)/Mujeres en el campo de batalla (Alicia María de los Reyes García y María Victoria Santos de Martín Pinillos)/La condición jurídica de la mujer a través de las Partidas (Mª Pilar Sánchez Vicente)/La España de los Reyes Católicos, 1474-1520 (John Edwards)/Los Reyes Católicos. La Conquista del trono (Luis Suárez Fernández)
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