James I of Aragon: inside the mind of a medieval king

In the 13th century, James I of Aragon did something almost unique for a medieval ruler: he wrote an autobiography. Rowena Cockett outlines five lessons that the king's memoirs teach us about what it meant to wield power, wage wars and venerate God in the Middle Ages

James I of Aragon, depicted in a 15th-century portrait. A king dubbed 'the Conqueror' invested enormous energy in projecting an image of power and authority. But behind the facade lay an insecure ruler who feared failure. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Today, autobiographies are everywhere, a staple of the book trade. Yet this was far from the case in the Middle Ages. Back then, autobiographies were so rare that some scholars claim the genre did not even exist. And those memoirs that did exist tended to be restricted to the religious sphere, accounts written by clerics such as St Augustine (354–430) and French theologian Peter Abelard (1079–1142).

Thanks to his Llibre dels fets or Book of Deeds, King James I of Aragon (reigned 1213–76) provides a fascinating exception to this rule. Apart from an imitation by James’s great-great-grandson, Peter IV the Ceremonius (reigned 1336–87), James’s is the only autobiography we have from a medieval king – and it lifts the lid on an incredible life.

Born in 1208, James lost both his parents at the age of five, leaving him to be raised by the Knights Templar while his newly inherited kingdom of Aragon, in the north-east corner of Spain, fell under the regency of his great-uncle, Sancho. A turbulent period of minority followed, during which James was subject to several kidnapping and assassination plots. He took part in his first battle aged 10 and was married at 13. His first military victory as an independent ruler came when he conquered Majorca from the Muslims in 1229, a triumph followed by the conquest of Valencia in 1238 and the suppression of Murcia in 1266. This effectively brought the whole eastern coast of Spain under Christian control and earned him the title ‘James the Conqueror’.

But The Book of Deeds is far more than a summary of his greatest achievements, although James clearly wants to memorialise these. It’s also a kind of handbook on kingship addressed to future generations of Aragonese monarchs, a volume that sheds light on James’s inner world – his self-perception, his ambitions, his anxieties – to reveal the peculiar challenges of being a 13th-century king. In short, it is an illuminating, first-hand account of what made a medieval monarch tick.

How to throw a medieval feast. An elaborate banquet depicted in a 14th-century illuminated manuscript of Froissart's Chronicles. (Getty Images)

Conquest

Wars had to be won at all costs

James would have been delighted to have been given the title ‘James the Conqueror’, since this is precisely the image he wished to convey in his autobiography. His cultural, administrative and institutional achievements received little mention. Instead, he focused almost exclusively on his military conquests, “so that all men may recognise and know, when we have passed from this mortal life, the deeds that we have done with the help of the powerful Lord”.

James saw himself as part of a line of successful military leaders – he recorded how his father died in battle “since it has always been the custom of our line… that either we must win or die” – and was determined to outstrip his forebears’ achievements by expanding Aragon’s land. Rejoicing at his conquest of Majorca, he asserted: “God has done such grace to us that he has given us a kingdom inside the sea, a thing that no king of Spain has ever achieved before.” He later resolved to conquer Valencia, believing that this would bring him the “greatest gain and greatest honour” because “this was something that nobody of my line had ever done”.

The steely determination with which James pursued his military goals comes across vividly in his account of the two-month siege at Borriana, north of Valencia, in 1233. Here, despite his nobles counselling a retreat because of dwindling food and finances, James refused: “You should wish me to leave here for the assets I might gain! Believe you me that I will not do it. Rather I ask you and I order you, for the lordship I hold over you, that you will help me to take it.”

James’s gritty determination to win at all costs characterised his military campaigns. Against repeated advice that, as king, “we should not risk our person”, James repeatedly dived headfirst into battle and refused to delegate military leadership.

His determination to be in the thick of it even saw him remove an arrow from the nobleman Bernat Guillem’s leg with his own hands. By exposing himself in this way, the king himself was later struck by an arrow to the head and recalled how: “Blood was running down our face… and our eyes swelled up so much that we could not see… for four or five days.”

James also showed himself to be an inventive tactician. In one siege, his knights used a discarded wooden beam to cross the moat and shimmy up a tower using leather belts; and, as he later related, Borriana was finally taken by a surprise attack using underground tunnels.

Piety

God was the key to victory

James may have cherished his military triumphs, but he rarely took sole credit for them. Like other medieval monarchs, he believed that all kings were hand-selected by God as his representatives on Earth – and that his conquests were part of God’s divine plan for Christian Spain. This belief is attested by a vision James recorded where an angel apparently foretold that: “In this conflict that has arisen between the Saracens and the Christians in Spain… one king has to save everyone and to defend them so that evil does not befall Spain.” That king was “the king of Aragon who had the name James”.

James believed that the hand of God personally ensured his victories. He wrote of a battle that was going badly for his army in Majorca – until shouts of “Santa Maria! Santa Maria!” and the miraculous appearance of Saint George transformed his men’s fortunes.

James’s own piety is evident in his writings. Upon triumphing at a siege in Murcia, “We thanked Our Lord God for the grace he had done us, and we knelt, crying and kissing the ground.”

The king believed that, by conquering lands for God, he and his men were atoning for their sins. This was because these enterprises were “so important and good that the bad reputation that you have may be erased, since the light of good works overcomes the dark”.

Most medieval Christians were deeply concerned about the fate of their souls after death. James was, it seems, no different. Nor did he believe that his royal blood would entitle him to special treatment: “We who are kings take nothing from this world when the hour of our death comes but a single shroud, though it be of finer cloth than that of other people,” he wrote.

An illumination of James shown in a 14th-century edition of his autobiography, 'The Book of Deeds'. (Photo by Shutterstock)
An illumination of James shown in a 14th-century edition of his autobiography, ‘The Book of Deeds’. (Photo by Shutterstock)

Kingship

A ruler’s reputation meant everything

One of the greatest insights that James’s autobiography offers into the inner lives of medieval kings is the immense pressure they felt to live up to expectations.

James was preoccupied with protecting his family honour, and with maintaining a reputation as a formidable king. His determination not to retreat from Borriana was based entirely around chivalric concepts of honour and shame, which deemed it more respectable to die in battle than to admit defeat. So concerned was James with chivalric expectations that “twice we uncovered our entire body to allow those inside to wound us, so that, if we had to raise the siege, it could be said that we raised it because of the wound we had received”.

James also felt pressure to assert authority over his men. Once, unable to get his troops to march, he desperately called on the Virgin Mary to intercede: “We were filled with anguish, because they did not obey our order. And we called upon the mother of God… that we should not receive this dishonour.”

But perhaps the greatest barrier to James’s vision of kingship came from his own nobles. They appear to have been more concerned with practical and financial affairs than with defending the king’s honour or supporting his military aims.

When James was called upon to support Alfonso X of Castile’s campaign against the Muslims in Murcia, his nobles refused to offer financial help. Showing his unruly temper, James retorted: “I never thought that… you would respond to me in so wicked and villainous a manner… I depart dissatisfied with you; as displeased as any lord can be with his men.”

Unrest

Disputes could spark rebellion

James’s tirade at his nobles over their refusal to support him in Murcia was far from an isolated incident. Early in his reign, James sometimes recounted good relations with the nobility, recalling “hunting small game” together and “sunning ourselves and chatting”. But, by the end of that reign, several of the most powerful men in Aragon were in outright revolt.

James’s autobiography shows how his stubborn determination to achieve his military goals led him repeatedly to disregard his nobles. He recalled how: “Although we had hoped they would encourage us, instead they discouraged us… And so we took little notice of their words and we rejected them.”

The king fostered further discontent by encroaching upon the nobles’ traditional legal rights. In one incident, James witnessed a man stab someone, then run into aristocrat Don García Romeu’s tent. Instead of respecting the traditional right to claim sanctuary in a lord’s home, James “took him by the hair and dragged him from there”. This caused García to complain vehemently to the king for “so great an affront” to his honour.

But James’s nobles weren’t the only source of unrest. The king’s later years were also marred by revolts by the conquered Muslim populations in Valencia, as he recalls in his autobiography. In exchange for surrendering their towns, James had granted the Muslims protection to “leave with all the goods that they could carry” or remain with “their law and those liberties they had been accustomed to enjoy in the time of the Saracens”.

In rebelling, James thought that the Muslims had broken these pacts. As a result, he attempted to expel them from his land.

Muslim troops shown during the battle for Majorca. James I's attitude to Muslims was conflicted: he tried to expel them from his lands, but also expressed pity for them. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Muslim troops shown during the battle for Majorca. James I’s attitude to Muslims was conflicted: he tried to expel them from his lands, but also expressed pity for them. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Emotions

Kings were surprisingly human

Although James’s angry outbursts and harsh punishments have led some to view him as vindictive and cruel, his autobiography offers a different perspective. Through it we can see a man who was emotionally affected by events, particularly by anything he perceived as betrayal.

When his nobles wished to accept payment to leave Borriana, James took great offence, writing: “They were very hard and cruel words for me to hear… And we could not help crying because of the great evil that we saw they would do us, because they preferred to have the goods of the king of Valencia, than to guard our honour.” Similarly, he saw the Muslim revolts as a personal betrayal, lamenting: “Though we had done good to them, they always looked to do us harm and trick us.”

The autobiography reveals a deep fear of people conspiring against him. After hearing that the nobles planned to abandon the village of Puig, which had been seized from Muslim forces, James gave an intimate description of his anxiety, writing: “Even though it was then January and it was very cold, during the night we tossed and turned on the bed more than 100 times… and we sweated as if we were in a bath.”

One could argue that the reason James felt so wounded by these ‘betrayals’ was that he felt such great affection for those around him. He cared deeply for his family, shared great comradeship with his men – attending to their wounds and bartering for the release of their captured relatives – and even voiced pity for the defeated Muslims.

To fully understand the man behind the crown, James’s ruthlessness must be seen in this emotional context. He reacted angrily and sometimes violently to betrayal, but inside he also felt hurt. Like every human being, he experienced fear and worried about his reputation, the intentions of others and the fate of his soul.

As a result, his autobiography shows us both the image James wished to project of himself – a powerful king conquering lands in the name of God – and his human vulnerabilities. Ultimately, James was an ordinary man trying to shoulder the responsibility of being an extraordinary king.

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Rowena Cockett is studying for a PhD in medieval studies at the University of Exeter, with a focus on medieval Iberia.