The House of Trastámara was a royal dynasty that ruled over Spain during the Late Middle Ages. The dynasty was a cadet branch of the House of Burgundy, and initially ruled over the Crown of Castile. In time, however, the dynasty also gained control over Crown of Aragon. Arguably the most famous members of the House of Trastámara, of whom many would have heard of, are Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, known jointly as the “Catholic Monarchs.” At the same time, the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand marks the beginning of the end for the House of Trastámara. The dynasty’s final ruler was Joanna of Castile, the daughter of the Catholic Monarchs. After her death, the crowns of Castile and Aragon passed into the hands of the Habsburgs.
The House of Trastámara was founded by Henry II of Castile, who was born in Seville in 1333. Henry was an illegitimate son of Alfonso XI of Castile and his mistress, Eleanor de Guzmán. He is imaged here on the Royal Hall frieze in the Alcázar of Segovia. (Ввласенко / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The House of Trastámara was founded by Henry II of Castile
Henry II of Castile established the House of Trastámara. He was born in Seville in 1333 as the illegitimate son of Alfonso XI of Castile and his mistress, Eleanor de Guzmán. In fact, Henry was the fourth of the ten children that Alfonso had with Eleanor. The king was immensely generous towards Eleanor and her children, showering them with titles, gifts, and privileges. Henry, for instance, was made Count of Trastámara (a county in Galicia), after which his dynasty would be named. Alfonso’s preference for his mistress resulted in the neglect of his wife, Maria of Portugal, with whom the king had two sons. Whilst Alfonso was alive, there was little that Maria could do about her situation.
In 1350, Alfonso died during the Fifth Siege of Gibraltar, after falling victim to the Black Death . Following the king’s unexpected death, his legitimate son, Peter I of Castile (known also as Peter the Just or Peter the Cruel), became the new king. This provided his mother, Maria, the opportunity to take revenge on Eleanor, as the latter no longer enjoyed the protection of the king. Indeed, Eleanor was eventually arrested and executed in 1351.
The death of Eleanor did not bring peace to Castile. On the contrary, it only served to intensify the conflict between the new king and his half-brothers, i.e., Eleanor’s children. After his mother’s execution, Henry, fearing for his life, fled to Portugal. In the following year, Henry returned to Castile, having been pardoned by Peter. Soon, however, Henry rebelled against the king. Although a reconciliation between the half-brothers took place shortly after the rebellion, it did not last, as Henry rebelled once again. Eventually, Henry was forced to flee Castile, and ended up in France.
Henry was finally able to overthrow Peter in 1366, when he invaded Castile with the support of the French and Aragonese. Henry was crowned king at Burgos, whilst Peter fled north to into southwestern France, which was at the time under English control. There, Peter obtained the aid of Edward, the Black Prince. In return for the prince’s assistance in regaining his throne, Peter promised to give him some territory in Castile. On 3 April 1367, the Battle of Nájera was fought between Peter, supported by the Black Prince, and Henry. Peter emerged from the battle victorious, and Henry was forced to flee to France.
An Anglo-Portuguese army (right) defeats the French vanguard of the Castilian army who fought for the House of Trastámara. From the Chronique d’Angleterre of Jean de Wavrin. (Jean de Wavrin; Seignur de Forestel / Public domain )
The Battle for Supremacy Continues Between Henry and Peter
Not long after the victory, however, Peter and the Black Prince had a falling out, due to a dispute regarding the funding of the expedition. Consequently, the Black Prince left Castile, and returned to Bordeaux. In the meantime, Henry obtained the support of the French, and attacked Peter again. On 14 March 1369, the Battle of Montiel was fought between Peter and Henry, during which the former was captured. Nine days later, Peter was killed by Henry, who became the new king of Castile. This deed earned Henry the epithet “the Fratricidal.” In any case, Henry’s accession marks the beginning of the House of Trastámara as the ruling dynasty of Castile.
Henry ruled until his death in 1379. During his ten-year reign, Henry participated in the Fernandine Wars (against Portugal), and in the Hundred Years’ War (against England). Whilst Henry was ruthless against those who opposed him, he was generous towards his supporters. For instance, he introduced the hereditary titles of duke and marquess from France. This elevated his family and supporters to a class of grandees and enriched them through the estates that came with the titles. As a result, he was given yet another epithet: “El de las Mercedes,” “He of the mercies.”
Henry was succeeded by his son, John I. When John came to power, Castile was still at war with the English in the Hundred Years’ War . The primary cause of the conflict between the two sides was the claim made by John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, on the Castilian throne. The English duke had married Peter I’s daughter, Constance, through whom he had a claim to the throne. This conflict was resolved through the marriage of John’s son, the future Henry III, and the duke’s daughter, Catherine. Likewise, John was able to make peace with Portugal by marrying the daughter of Fernando I, Beatrice, in 1382.
King Henry III of Castile also warred across the Iberian Peninsula for the ambitions of the House of Trastámara. (Dageno / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
John’s Horse Fall Death and King Henry III’s Ascension
Another conflict with Portugal broke out, however, in 1383, following the death of the Portuguese king. Beatrice was the only surviving child of the late Portuguese king , and John tried to enforce her claim / claim the throne of Portugal himself. Although the Castilians invaded Portugal, they faced fierce resistance from the Portuguese. John’s designs on the Portuguese throne ended in 1385, when he was decisively defeated by John I of Portugal at the Battle of Aljubarrota. Five years later, John died in Alcalá when he fell from his horse. This happened when the king was riding in a fantasia (an exhibition of horsemanship) with the farfanes, light horsemen mounted and equipped in the Arab style.
John was succeeded by his son, Henry III, who was still a minor when he became king. Henry’s regency lasted until 1393, during which time anti-Jewish riots broke out in various parts of the kingdom. This was caused by fanatical preaching and resulted in many Jews being pressured to convert. It may be added that Henry’s grandfather had been hostile towards the Jews in Castile, whilst his father had been more tolerant towards them.
In any case, Henry assumed actual power after a regency of three years and restored royal control over the nobility. Additionally, by relying on legists, the new king was able to curb the power of the Cortes (parliament).
As for foreign policy, Henry resumed the armed conflict between his kingdom and Portugal. A truce was eventually reached between the two sides, with terms favoring the Castilians. In addition, Henry sent emissaries to the court of Timur, the founder of the Timurid Empire. The aim of this mission was to discuss the possibility of forming an alliance between the two powers against the Ottoman Empire.
In this painting by Spanish painter Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz, the House of Trastámara finally overcomes the Muslim stronghold of Granada. (Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz / Public domain )
The House of Trastámara Takes Granada, Ending Muslim Spain
Closer to home, the Emirate of Granada was the last stronghold of Islam on the Iberian Peninsula, and Henry had his sights set on its conquest. A military campaign against the emirate, was prepared by the king in 1406. Due to his poor health, however, Henry was unable to lead the troops himself. Consequently, his younger brother, the future Ferdinand I of Aragon, was appointed to lead the campaign. The war against Granada, however, came to a halt following Henry’s death in Toledo in December 1406.
The king left behind an infant son, John II, who was obviously too young to rule. Although Henry’s younger brother, Ferdinand, had the opportunity to claim the Castilian throne for himself, he declined to do so. Instead, he chose to rule as regent alongside his brother’s widow, Catherine. During his regency, Ferdinand continued the fight against Granada.
In 1410, he conquered the town of Antequera, which led to his epithet “El de Antequera.” This accomplishment is also said to have contributed to his election to the throne of Aragon later in 1412. In that year, Ferdinand’s maternal uncle, Martin I of Aragon, died without leaving an heir. This resulted in Ferdinand’s accession to the Aragonese throne. This meant that the House of Trastámara was now in control of the Crown of Aragon as well.
Ferdinand died in 1416, and the Castilian regency was now solely in the hands of Catherine, the king’s mother. Following his mother’s death in 1418, John came to rule in his own right. John ruled for a total of 48 years, one of the longest in Castilian history.
In spite of this long reign, John was not a particularly capable ruler. The king relied heavily on the Constable of Castile, Alvaro de Luna, who was also his favorite, in governing the kingdom. This led to factionalism at court, though with the king’s support, de Luna was practically in charge. In the end, however, John ceased supporting de Luna, upon the urging of the queen, Isabella of Portugal. The king’s former favorite was executed in 1453.
John died a year later, and was succeeded by his son, Henry IV, nicknamed “the Impotent.” Like his father, Henry was also a weak ruler. Consequently, during Henry’s reign, Castile became less centralized, and the nobility enjoyed greater power than they did before. Early in his reign, Henry conducted campaigns against the Emirate of Granada. These took place in 1455 and 1458 and were in fact wars of attrition. Punitive raids were carried out, with both sides avoiding pitched battles. The campaigns did little to change the status quo and served only to anger the Castilian nobility.
In the Eighth Siege of Gibraltar the House of Trastámara, led by Henry IV finally takes the Muslim island of Gibraltar. ( Gibraltar Timeline )
Henry IV, ‘The Impotent, ’Wins the 8th Siege of Gibraltar
In 1464, Henry scored a victory against the Muslims by reconquering Gibraltar in the successful Eighth Siege of Gibraltar. At home, however, Henry’s nobles were split into factions, leading to civil war in Castile. The alleged bone of contention was Henry’s choice as heir to the throne. Henry’s first marriage (to Blanche II of Navarre) was childless and ended in divorce. Subsequently, Henry married Joan of Portugal, and had a daughter with her, Joanna. Henry recognized his daughter as the heir to the throne, though this was disputed by a faction of nobles, who threw their support behind Henry’s younger half-brother, Alfonso.
Although Henry consented to the wishes of this faction of nobles, he soon reneged on his promise, thereby sparking a civil war. In 1468, after three years of fighting, however, Alfonso died suddenly, possibly due to an illness, at the age of 14. Alfonso was merely a figurehead for the rebelling nobles, who soon replaced him with his sister, the future Isabella I of Castile. Instead of continuing the war, however, Isabella resorted to diplomacy, and succeeded in obtaining from the king all that the rebellious nobles desired. Isabella herself was made heir to the throne.
For the rest of his reign, Henry was at peace with Isabella. In 1474, Henry died, and civil war broke out again in Castile, as there were still those amongst the nobility who supported Joanna. Additionally, the Portuguese were on the side of Joanna too. As for Isabella, she was supported by Aragon, as she had married Ferdinand II of Aragon. In the end, Isabella and her supporters prevailed, thereby allowing her to become the undisputed ruler of Castile.
Ferdinand and Isabella, the last Catholic Monarchs of the House of Trastámara. The youth to their right almost certainly is their son Don Juan, Prince of Asturias. ( Public domain )
Ferdinand and Isabella & the End of the House of Trastámara
Isabella and Ferdinand became known as the “Catholic Monarchs,” and since both were from the House of Trastámara, the Crowns of Castile and Aragon were united by them. During the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, the Reconquista was completed, when Granada was finally conquered. This resulted in the unification of Spain. Shortly after, the New World discovered by Christopher Columbus, lead to the rise of the Spanish Empire. The reign of the Catholic Monarchs, however, also marked the beginning of the end of the House of Trastámara.
Isabella died in 1504, and the throne of Castile passed to her daughter, Joanna, nicknamed ‘the Mad’. When Ferdinand died in 1516, the throne of Aragon went to Joanna as well. Although Joanna and her son, the Habsburg Charles V were co-rulers from 1516, the former was actually powerless.
Thus, as early as 1516, the House of Trastámara was no longer in charge of Castile and Spain. Joanna, the last ruler of the House of Trastámara, died in 1555, and the throne of Spain passed into Charles’ hands. This formally marked the end of the House of Trastámara, and its replacement by the House of Habsburg as the ruling dynasty of Spain.
Top image: Henry supervising the beheading of his rival Peter, thus firmly establishing the House of Trastámara that was a blend of the powerful kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, who eventually overthrew the Muslims in Granada. A manuscript page from the Grandes Chroniques de France. Source: Public domain
By Wu Mingren