Violant of Hungary: the right hand of a great king | Cultural Heritage. Goverment of Catalonia.


Violant of Hungary: the right hand of a great king

We take a look at one of the most surprising, and little known, women in the history of Catalonia.

The unmentioned history

They say that behind every great man there is a great woman, and this is precisely the case of Violant of Hungary, the counsellor, confidant and wife of Jaume I the Conqueror. In a world where history has been written by men for men, it is not surprising that the backdrop to these histories is often unknown, the lives of women who, on many occasions, were a source of strength to these great men. It is true that we know very little about them because their lives were lived in the shade of these men, and if they do appear in the history books, it is only as a brief mention. They are very rarely studied in greater detail, even though their endeavours were of crucial importance for our country's history.

The case of Violant is one particular case of this because, while she has not been afforded the recognition she deserves as a great queen in the history books, she has been considered as one of the most important figures in the government of her husband, Jaume I.

Tomb of Violant of Hungary (Josep Giribet / Departament de Cultura)

To be a woman in the middle ages

It is well known that being a woman in the middle ages was not exactly a bed of roses. Religious fervour and the authority of the church over the kingdom's subjects contributed to extending a far-from-positive view of women, framed within a biblical duality: women were either sinners like Eve, and therefore considered the root of all humanity's evils, or they were good and pious, like the virgin Mary.

The fact is that the biblical texts influenced a perception of women as being inferior, the sacred texts having explained how Eve was created from Adam's rib and this justified the idea that women were there for men’s enjoyment and consequently had no rights or responsibilities.

The situation was rather different for queens and ladies in high society because their gender was what determined their roles as protective mothers. So what was expected of them? What did the life of a queen consist of?
As well as giving birth to the heir to the throne, given the need to transmit a good image of the monarchy to which she belonged, a queen's obligations also included such things as being charitable, fervently religious, well-mannered and judicious. But there were queens who managed to extend their power a little further than this thanks to their collusion with their husbands through which they demonstrated their loyalty and absolute commitment to them. Violant of Hungary is a clear example of such a queen. Although she had nine children (some sources say ten), her role exceeded that of motherhood and she gained an outstanding place in Jaume's government as counsellor, advisor and confidant of the man still considered today as the great king of the crown of Aragon.

Detail of the apse of Santa Maria de Taüll (Rafael Jiménez / Wikipedia Commons)
Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Vallbona (Departament de Cultura)

Violant's origins

It is thought that Violant was born in 1219 in Hungary. She was the daughter of Andrew II and his second wife, Violant of Courtenay. She received a French education which instilled the values of the Cistercian order that would, years later, help her adapt to a new country, a new language and customs that were very different from the ones she was used to.
After the annulment of his first marriage to Eleanor of Castile on the grounds of consanguinity, Jaume I asked Pope Gregory to find him a good candidate to fulfil the duties of a queen. The bishop of modern-day Pecs in Hungary therefore made various journeys to Barcelona to establish the details for the marriage, which eventually took place on 8 September 1235 in Barcelona cathedral.
Mosaic of Andrew II of Hungary, father of Violant, with his first wife, Gertrudis of Merania (Wolfgang Sauber / Wikipedia Commons)
Main facade of the Cathedral of Barcelona (José María Ligero Loarte / Wikipedia Commons)

The dynastic marriage: an instrument for diplomatic ambitions

Marriages between the elites of various kingdoms were an efficient means of intercultural communication at a tumultuous time that was prone to conflict, such as the Middle Ages. The bond established between the kingdoms of Hungary and Aragon through the marriage of Violant with the son of Pere II is an example of this: the Pope blessed this union with the intention of preventing Jaume l from marrying a princess from another country that might result in a threat to papal power. Nevertheless, his intention was also to reduce the distance between the Crown of Aragon and the House of France, to which the future queen was related.
The couple enjoyed 12 years of marriage and had nine children together. Violant gave the crown a worthy heir, one that history would call Pere El Gran. During this period, however, Violant was not just a mother, but also Jaume I's closest counsellor, the voice the king needed to listen to before making many of his decisions. She was so immersed in political affairs that she would even accompany her husband to war on a regular basis, and it was quite usual to see her, on horseback, entering the battlefield to encourage the soldiers. This is why many of her children were born in a tent, because Violant swapped the comforts of the palace for the duty of a good queen to be by her husband's side. The chronicles say she was intelligent, kind and gifted with a lot of character. Bernat Desclot says she was, "a very beautiful woman, pleasing to God and her people."
James I The Conqueror (Gonçal Peris Sarrià and Jaume Mateu / Wikipedia Commons/MNAC)
Tombs of the House of Aragon (José Luis Filpo Cabana / Wikipedia Commons)
Detail of the painting Triumphal entry of King James I into the city of Valencia (1884), Fernando Richart Montesinos (Joan Banjo / Wikipedia Commons)

The relationship between the king and queen was a close one because Violant had a strong influence on her husband and would often act as a mediator and counsellor during important conflicts, such as the arrangements for the surrender of Valencia on 9 October 1238. Violant participated in these negotiations and was consequently at her husband's side when he entered the city in triumph. She played an essential role, as reflected in the royal chronicle, "[...] and we, and she, joyfully entered the castle and with great happiness attended a feast". She played a similarly prominent role in the Treaty of Almizra, a peace agreement between the Crown of Aragon and Castile, that is to say, between Jaume I and prince Alfonso of Castile (later king Alfonso X, the Wise), in which her wise judgement was of key importance in achieving mediation between the parties, thereby avoiding war.
Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Vallbona (Josep Giribet/Departament the Cultura)

A relic for posterity

Society in the Middle Ages lived with and was accustomed to death and it was, perhaps, this familiarity with death, together with the sense of duty, that characterised her life, that explains why Violant drew up her will in such detail when she began to perceive her end was approaching.

Violant died at the Sanctuary of Santa Maria de Salas in Huesca around October 1251 at the age of 36, after having ensured that each of her offspring would inherit their due. She was buried according to her last wishes at the Monastery of Santa Maria de Vallbona, of which she was a benefactor. The cortege that brought her remains was headed by her husband, and the coffin was laid to rest in the church presbytery where it remains and can be visited today. Violant is the only member of the Árpád dynasty, the first dynasty to reign over Hungary, whose mortal remains have not been desecrated, a privilege, unfortunately, not afforded to all royal tombs.

A visit to her tomb in one of the three most important Cistercian monasteries in Catalonia is an experience that is also an invitation to discover more about the legacy of a great queen whose history shines with its own light.

Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Vallbona (Josep Giribet/Departament the Cultura)