The Kingdom of Aragon – part 1
Given the resurgence of Catalan nationalism it is of interest to know its origins and in the chapter “Aragon: A Mediterranean Empire (1137-1714)” of his book Vanished Kingdoms Norman Davies discusses the:
- origins of the combined territories of Aragon and Catalonia;
- decline in importance of the Kingdom of Aragon; and
- incorporation of both territories into the nation state of Spain.
The combination of Aragon and Catalonia may offend Catalan fundamentalists but it provides a broader historical understanding of how nations emerge and Davies’ work provides an important background to the forgotten memory of Aragon/Catalonian history and its incorporation as ‘a historic region’ of Spain. Its sovereignty is denied by the Madrid Government. Many Spaniards consider the Aragon / Catalan history as a codicil to the Castilian story.
Today, most Spaniards have no sense of Aragon/Catalan history. But neither do Catalans have a sense of the historic sharing of their history with Aragon. Catalan history books refer to the ‘medieval Catalan empire.’ It seems that modern Catalan nationalism wants to eliminate the memory of the dual ‘Kingdom-County.’ They have an historical amnesia about Aragon. This is typical of myth-making in history; each nation likes to imagine its identity and create a foundation story almost regardless of historical evidence.
The emergence of Aragon and the “union” with Catalonia
- Aragon gradually expanded in the 11th century and Pope Urban II accepted the Kingdom of Aragon in 1089.
- When Petronilla, Alfonso I of Aragon’s daughter, was betrothed to Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona in 1137 the territories were “united”.
- While both territories were ruled as one they each kept their own laws, language and assemblies.
- Both Catalonia and Aragon had powerful noble families who held lordships with special privileges granted by their sovereigns but by the end of the 13th century a constitutional order was emerging.
The devil is in the detail!
Davies’s begins his chapter on Aragon with Catalan folkloric in present day Perpignan, the former capital of Roussillon, and a former Catalan province, on the French side of the Pyrenees and ends his analysis in the same town with the people singing ‘le hymne a la Catalogne’ (in French) on the festival of San Jordi, and dancing the ‘sardana’. This neatly demonstrates that politically redrawn boundaries, in this case by the Treaty of the Pyrenees of 1654, do not necessarily change the underlying culture, even though the language has changed. For example, on festive days the Catalan flag is still flown in Perpignan.
Davies divides the histories of three parts of the Kingdom of Aragon and the Counts of Barcelona. This begins with the ‘interior’ Kingdom of Aragon, continues with the ‘external’ empire of Catalunya, and follows with the ‘ephemeral’ Kingdom of Mallorca, which included Perpignan and Montpelier. He quotes the insignia of the Kingdom of Mallorca on Perpignan’s castle entrance as ‘un royaume éphémère,’ which is an intriguing glimpse into this part of these three territories. Why would Perpignan be connected toMallorca? This leads us into family dynastic intrigue and Davies disentangles the different dynasties and stages of political growth in these territories.
The ‘interior’ Kingdom of Aragon emerged in the mountain fastnesses of the Pyrenees – squeezed between Castile, Navarre, the Islamic emirate of Zaragoza and the Counts of Barcelona on the Mediterranean. It had little contact with Frankish influences as had Catalonia, which from the times of Charlemagne had been part of the ‘Marca Hispanica,’ a defensive arrangement against Moorish encroachment.
The principle of hereditary kingship seems to have been affirmed sometime in the 11th century with Sancho el Mayor King of Pamplona, 1005-1035, and his son Ramiro, King of Aragon. At the same time Jaca became the first bishopric and the monastery of San Juan de la Pena was established nearby. Nevertheless, the small Pyrenean territories were against centralised authority and had an elected ‘justiciar’ as guardian of local laws. Thus the traditional Aragonese rights, known to this day as ‘fueros’, were reflected in the ‘oath of Sobrarbe’ ‘we who are worth as much as you …. take you as our King provided that you preserve our laws.’
Aragon gradually expanded in the 11th century and Pope Urban II accepted the Kingdom of Aragon in 1089. With the capture of Zaragoza in 1118 it commanded the valley of the Ebro and under Alfonso I (d. 1134) Zaragoza became its capital and cathedral. Navarre broke away from Aragon in the 1130s, but in 1137 Petronilla, Alfonso I’s daughter, was betrothed to Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, and both territories from then on were ruled as one.
Ramon Berenguer’s son, became Alfonso II of Aragon and Alfonso I of Barcelona. Thereafter dual titles were used, Kings of Aragon and Counts of Barcelona in Catalonia. They both kept their own laws, language and assemblies and these territories provided a counter-weight to Castile with a secure mountain stronghold and a maritime coastline of huge naval and commercial potential.
The house of Berenguer was older than that of the Ramiros and Catalonia was wealthier and larger than Aragon, with ports in Girona, Barcelona and Emporda. Nevertheless, the combination provided the manpower and taxes for expansion and conquests in Muslim Spain with the conquest of Valencia and the Mediterranean islands of Mallorca, Menorca and Sicily in the 13th century. Sardinia and Corscia were granted to James II by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297.
Both Catalonia and Aragon had powerful noble families who held lordships with special privileges granted by their sovereigns in return for military service in the long wars with the Moors. This fragmented sovereign authority but the first Catalan legal code was established in 1068 and laws were based on decisions in the Corts (assembly) in an attempt to impose law and order on fractious lordships. Likewise, when the territories merged in 1137 joint assemblies of Catalan and Aragonese nobles were convened by the Kings-Counts in Lleida. A Cortes was held at Huesca in Aragon in 1247, which led to the ‘Fuero de Aragon.’ An assembly at Barcelona in 1293 established a constitution or fundamental laws which were based on the pre-existing Usages and which made annual assemblies obligatory. These Catalan Corts were represented by the usual three estates of nobles, clergy and some merchants from royal towns.
In the joint Catalan/Aragonese assemblies laws were passed with the Kings/Counts consent on condition that they in turn approved laws initiated by the rulers. This was an attempt to maintain solidarity between nobles and rulers. To try and prevent oppressive monarchs a General Privilege was issued in 1283, granting a charter of rights and privileges to the nobles, which successive kings were obliged to reconfirm. Thus by the end of the 13th century a constitutional order was emerging.
By Dryden Liddle. Part 2 – The decline and absorption of Aragon into Spain
Dryden graduated with an MA in economics from Cambridge and spent 1965-69 in Madrid as a diplomat at the British embassy. He also worked at the UN for the FO. He then worked for 20 years as an investment banker in New York, London and Madrid, and finally in Washington with the InterAmerican Development Bank. Returning to Madrid as a business consultant, in 2001 Dryden started studying history obtaining an MA first from the Open University, external from Madrid, then a PhD in 2010.
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Books4Spain’s Recommended Reading regarding the Kingdom of Aragon and Catalonia
The Medieval Crown of Aragon: a short history by T. N. Bisson
War, Government, and Society in the Medieval Crown of Aragon by Donald J. Kagay
The Maid and the Queen, The Secret History of Joan of Arc and Yolande of Aragon by Nancy Goldstone £14.99 with FREE UK Shipping. Also available as an eBook
Imperial Spain by J H Elliott £11.69