Rediscovering the life of an outstanding sovereign who played a fundamental role in the political life of the 14th century, something that made her one of the Crown of Aragon's only lieutenants.
Biography of an alliance
To speak of Eleanor of Sicily is to speak of an independent and outstanding woman. She was ambitious, authoritarian and an inveterate traveller. Also known as Eleonor the Grand, her merits were such that she became an essential and unreplaceable advisor to her husband, Pere III, the Ceremonious, and she had her own palace, something quite unusual at the time, located in the heart of the old centre of Barcelona on the corner of Carrer dels Templars and Carrer d'Ataulf.
Born in 1325 to the distinguished court of Sicily, Eleanor was the second daughter of Elizabeth of Carinthia and Peter ll of Sicily's six children. Halfway through the 14th century, after being widowed for a second time, Pere III, the Ceremonious, asked for her hand in marriage and she saw the occasion as an opportunity to escape from her native land and her own family and, despite the fact that some opposed the alliance with the Crown of Aragon, they were married in Valencia in 1349. Three years later an even more important event took place when, under the watchful eyes of the nobility of the day, a nobility that wanted to see in this union an end to the disputes between the Sicilian Catalans (supporters of the king) and his pro-Angevin opponents (supporters of the House of Anjou), the queen consort was crowned by her husband. Eleanor and Pere had four children: John l of Aragon (the Hunter), Martin l of Aragon (the Humane), Alfonso of Aragon (died young) and Eleanor of Aragon and Sicily. Royal Tomb (Cactus Media) Coat of arms of Peter III the Ceremonious at the Royal Gate of the Monastery of Poblet (Oliver-Bonjoch, Wikimedia Commons)
An exceptional coronation
Eleanor is one of only five queens to be crowned during the many years of the Crown of Aragon. A symbolic act of finality, legitimacy and propaganda with a very clear ordinances. In Eleanor's case these were preceded by the quotation of a very illuminating text that helps understand the space commanded by women within the political realm of Catalonia during the middle ages.
It is a quotation taken from the Book of Genesis, and it is a metaphor that explains the way this coronation was to be understood. Without this preliminary explanation the coronation would not have been considered legitimate by a society that did not permit women to wield the power of the Crown. The biblical reference is to the idea, widely accepted by everyone at that time, that woman was created by God to accompany man in his solitude and, on account of this, was created from Adam's rib, given that only through man was it possible to create the first woman, Eve.
The Crown of Aragon had a distinctive feature with respect to other kingdoms, such as the kingdom of Castile, in that it prohibited queens from governing with equal powers as men, since the power of queens was intrinsically linked to that of their husbands. Nevertheless, there was considerable room for manoeuvre with respect to the relationship established between the king and the queen. When the king had full confidence in his queen and together they constituted an insoluble unit, the queen had access to the lieutenantship, which is to say that she could exercise maximum authority during the absence of the king, and Eleanor of Sicily was one of the few queens to attain this position. View of Zaragoza from the river, the city where he was crowned (Carabo_Spain, Pixabay)
Lieutenantship: a loophole in royal legislation
This position was created by Jaume I to satisfy his need for someone to ensure that his sons were in charge of everything while he was out of the kingdom. The role of the person occupying this institutional position was therefore to stand in for him when he wasn't there, to represent him and to defend his interests. Who better then, than the queen for such a role? Anyone else could represent a real danger for the stability of the kingdom since it potentially opened the way for plots to usurp royal power. But with his wife in charge, as long as there was a good relationship between them both, the king had no reason to worry and could leave the kingdom with peace of mind, knowing that the lieutenant queen would use these delegated powers responsibly.
His peace of mind would also have been helped by the favourable position the Crown of Aragon found itself in and, when the king left, he was in a position to create networks of influence and demonstrate the kingdom's commitment to culture through patronage. Furthermore, if queens were foreign they contributed to improving foreign relations since they created or reinforced alliances, a very valuable diplomatic function.
Eleanor of Sicily was a very worthy lieutenant queen. She was able to implement her own policies and even make controversial decisions such as initiating the process that would lead to the beheading of the royal advisor Bernat de Cabrera in 1364, who had been accused of being the instigator of the war with Castile. Eleanor also had a leading role in political relations between the kingdoms of Sicily and Sardinia, as well as in the creation of the Duchy of Girona in 1351, when the counties of Besalú, Girona, Empúries and Osona were merged, leading shortly afterwards to the title of Prince of Girona.
Tomb of Eleanor of Sicily (Cactus Media)
Lesser Royal Palace of Barcelona (Wikimedia Commons)
Tell me how you dress and...
Being one of the first lieutenant queens in the history of the crown of Aragon is not her only merit because she also left an account of what daily life at court was like through her writings, now kept at Barcelona cathedral.
They consist of three books of accounts in which her expenses are listed, and another book listing the clothes that entered and left her apartments. Curiously, these accounting documents have been of inestimable value for studying the characteristic clothing of medieval noble women because the annotations are meticulous in detail and reflect aspects of the court that would otherwise have remained unknown.
Codex Menesse (Wikimedia Commons)
Barcelona Cathedral, where Eleanor's account books are kept (Mromanchenko, Wikimedia Commons)
The language of medieval clothing
The book listing the clothes contains detailed descriptions of the clothing of the period, items of clothing such as the lined bodice, an item that is difficult to imagine now since it hardly features in the iconography of 14th-century Catalonia. The few that have survived are of undeniable interest, above all if we remember the implications of clothing in 14th-century Catalonia. This item of clothing served, not just to offer protection from the cold and to discourage unwanted looks from men, but was a veritable barometer of social status. It indicated the distinction between the sexes because, in the 14th century fashion was not a discipline and everyone dressed in the same way. Clothing also indicated the age and marital status of women because married women and widows had to cover their hair whilst unmarried women did not. Finally, as could not be otherwise in a profoundly stratified medieval society, clothing was also a mechanism for determining a person's social status.
It should not be forgotten that Eleanor was one of the first queens to have her own palace, the Palau Reial Menor, located in the heart of the Gothic Quarter and built to be a more comfortable and luxurious residence than the Palau Major, which was reserved for more institutional purposes. It achieved fame on account of its luxurious gardens and Eleanor's collection of exotic animals, although it also boasted noble rooms, a central courtyard and a large kitchen.
Eleanor died in 1375 in Lleida and her body was transferred to the royal pantheon at the Royal Monastery of Poblet, the resting place par excellence for the most outstanding figures in the Crown of Aragon: Joan I, Pere III, Jaume I, Maria de Navarra, Eleanor of Portugal and, of course, also Eleanor of Sicily, a most worthy royal lieutenant.
Royal tombs in the Monastery of Poblet (Job Vermeulen)
Exterior of the Monastery of Poblet (Departament de Cultura)