A History of Barcelona in Three Royal Marriages

The original entrance to the Roman city of Barcina and part of the Roman wall

On September 11, 2012, around 600,000 demonstrators marched through the streets of Barcelona, the capital of the Spanish province of Catalonia to demand that Spain grant the autonomous province independence as a sovereign state. The thriving independence movement in modern day Catalonia reflects the region’s unique royal history. The union of Barcelona with Aragon then of Aragon with Castile to eventually form modern day Spain occurred through two dynastic marriages rather than popular acclaim. The current reign of King Juan Carlos and his consort, Queen Sofia has seen further historic changes including the inclusion of Spain in the European union, the revitalization of Barcelona as part of the 1992 Summer Olympics and the current Catalan independence movement. (All photographs in this post are from my visit to Barcelona from December 7 to 9, 2012).

Statue of Ramon Berenguer IV near Barcelona Cathedral

On August 11, 1137, the eighteen year old Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona married the one year old future Queen Petronilla of Aragon. The treaty between the Count of Barcelona and his father-in-law, King Ramiro II “the Monk” of Aragon stated that the descendants of this marriage would rule both territories. Each region, however, would retain its own laws, institutions and autonomy under this dynastic union, circumstances that provided a clear precedent for subsequent Catalan autonomy. One week after the wedding, King Ramiro retired to the Abbey of San Pedro, leaving Ramon Berenguer regent for the infant Queen. Ramon Bereguer ruled Aragon from this time but never assumed the title of King, referring to himself as Count of Barcelona and Prince of Aragon throughout his reign.

The Museum of Catalan History on Barcelona’s waterfront

When Queen Petronilla turned fifteen, her marriage to Ramon Berenguer was consummated and the royal couple had five children. Their descendants reaped the rewards of this strategic royal marriage as combined Counts of Barcelona and Kings of Aragon. Barcelona gained additional security by becoming part of larger entity while Aragon gained access to the Mediterranean Sea, which would be significant to the region’s subsequent trade and economy.

As the terms of Ramon Bereguer’s and Petronilla’s marriage contract stated, Catalonia retained it’s autonomy over the subsequent centuries. Attempts at centralization by the Kings of Aragon were met by popular rebellions. Prince Ferdinand, heir to the kingdom of Aragon and his mother, Queen Juana were instrumental to the resolution of one of these uprisings in the 1460s. Ferdinand addressed the parliament in Zaragoza in 1468, “Lords: You all know with what hardships my lady mother [Queen Juana Enriquez] has sustained the war to keep Catalonia within the House of Aragon. I see my lord father [King Juan II] old and myself very young. Therefore, I commend myself to you and place myself in your hands and ask you to please consider me as a son (translated and reprinted in Peggy Liss, Isabel the Queen: Life and Times, p. 64 .”

The Plaza del Reys where King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile may have received Christopher Columbus after his return from his first voyage to the New World.

Ferdinand’s marriage to Princess Isabella, the future Queen of Castile the following year, absorbed Barcelona, and the entire kingdom of Aragon into an even larger dynastic union. In contrast to Queen Petronilla of Aragon, who allowed her husband to continue to rule her kingdom after she came of age and abdicated immediately after his death in favour of her eldest surviving son, Isabel was determined to retain control over Castile.

The 1469 marriage contract formalized the equality of the King and Queen as future rulers of their respective kingdoms. In 1484, a German visitor to the court of “The Catholic Kings” observed “The King did nothing without the consent of the queen; he did not seal his own letters until the queen had read them, and if the queen did not approve of one of them the secretary tore it up in the presence of the King himself (ed. David Boruchoff, Isabel La Católica, Queen of Castile: Critical Essays, p. 30). The political and personal partnership between Ferdinand and Isabella strengthened the political position of both kingdoms. The two monarchs conquered the Muslim kingdom of Granada in 1492 and presided over the beginning of Spain’s age of exploration.

Statue of Christopher Columbus on Barcelona’s waterfront, supposedly pointing the way to the New World (but actually pointing to the Island of Madiera).

The union of Castile and Aragon, like the previous union of Barcelona and Aragon was dynastic rather than political and what is now Spain became part of the Holy Roman Empire upon the ascension of Ferdinand and Isabella’s grandson, Emperor Charles V to the Aragonese and Castilian thrones. The enactment of the Spanish constitution of 1812, allowed King Ferdinand VII of the Bourbon dynasty to assume the title of “King of Spain.”

In 1962, another royal marriage took place that would shape the recent history of Barcelona. The Infante Juan Carlos, son of Infante Juan, Count of Barcelona, married Princess Sofia of Greece and Denmark. At the time of the marriage, Spain was ruled by General Francisco Franco and did not have a reigning monarch. Franco declared Juan Carlos his heir, assuming the young prince would continue his authoritarian regime as King. At the suggestion of Princess Sofia, Juan Carlos assumed the title of “Prince of Spain” in 1969 rather than “Prince of Asturias,” the traditional title held by heirs to the Spanish throne.

Barcelona’s waterfront, revitalized for the 1992 Summer Olympics

When Juan Carlos became King upon Franco’s death in 1975, he presided over the transformation of Spain from authoritarian regime to democratic constitutional monarchy. In contrast to Franco’s regime, which suppressed regional autonomy and the Catalan language, Juan Carlos’ reign has seen the peaceful revival of Catalonia’s independence movement, culminating in the 2012 demonstrations in Barcelona.

The 1992 Summer Olympics served as the impetus for the urban renewal of Barcelona, opening the city up to its Mediterranean waterfront. The royal family was closely involved in the Games. Juan Carlos’ and Sophia’s son, Felipe, Prince of Asturias was the Spanish team’s flag bearer and participated as part of the sailing team. The European Union came into being the following year, placing the entire nation of Spain within a larger political entity as the marriages of Ramon Berenguer and Petronilla, and Ferdinand and Isabella had done for Barcelona during the Middle Ages.

Barcelona Marina

The current Catalan independence movement, centred in Barcelona, reflects how the regions that now comprise modern day Spain were gradually united through dynastic marriage. The wedding of Ramon Berenguer, Count of Barcelona to Queen Petronilla of Aragon in 1137 united Catalonia with Aragon while the marriage and conquests of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabel of Castile brought together all the regions that now comprise Spain by 1492. The reign of the current King of Spain, Juan Carlos and his consort, Queen Sofia has brought even greater change to Barcelona including the urban renewal that accompanied the 1992 Summer Olympic Games.

One thought on “A History of Barcelona in Three Royal Marriages

  1. sorry, but Ramón Berenguer IV,, always signed like (Lo rei) in Catalan, (The King)

    so not only his subjects in court treated him like a King, so also he always signed as a King, because it was actually the King..

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