Maria de Molina was born in 1259 as the daughter of Alfonso of León, Lord of Molina – the son of King Alfonso IX of León and his second wife Queen Berengaria of Castile – and his third wife, Mayor Alfonso de Meneses. She had two surviving half-sisters from her father’s first two marriages and a full brother.
Maria’s early life is shrouded in mystery. We do not know her exact birthdate, nor the place of her birth. Although now known to history as Maria de Molina, she was baptised as Maria Alfonso de Meneses, but she would be granted the lordship of Molina in 1293. As the granddaughter of a King and Queen, she was raised by a nurse (ama) called Maria Dominguez and a governess (aya) called Maria Fernández Coronel. Maria would later also entrust her own first child to her governess. Not much is known about her exact education, but she was certainly able to read and write Latin and/or Castilian.
In July 1282, Maria married her first cousin-once-removed Infante Sancho, the second son of King Alfonso X of Castile and Yolanda of Aragon. There were several problems right from the start. First, they did not have the necessary dispensation for their consanguinity and second, Sancho was already pre-contracted to Guillerma de Moncada. It is unclear why this came to be, but it certainly caused difficulties for them in the road ahead. However, Maria knew very well that they had married without the necessary dispensation and she knew it would not be an easy road. It would take until 1301 to finally obtain the necessary dispensation.
Sancho’s elder brother, Ferdinand de la Cerda, died in November 1275, leaving behind two young sons. King Alfonso X summoned the Cortes to have Sancho, instead of his young grandson, recognised as heir to the throne. He may have been pressured into this by his brother Manuel. Sancho was an adult and could prove his worth in battle, while his nephew was barely five years old. However, the law was not on Sancho’s side and eventually, King Alfonso X disavowed Sancho as the heir and restored his grandson Infante Alfonso de la Cerda as the true heir. Sancho continued to squabble with his father, and King Alfonso X tried to placate him by dividing his Kingdom and giving them both a part of it. Sancho was not happy with this at all and rejected the proposal.
Shortly before his wedding to Maria, Sancho summoned an assembly which various of his supporters, such as his brother John, Peter and James, but also his mother Yolanda, attended. Sancho attempted to depose his father, declaring him unfit to rule. The assembly was the start of a two-year struggle for control of the Kingdom, and before King Alfonso X died on 4 April 1284, he officially disinherited Sancho. Nevertheless, Sancho assumed the throne as King Sancho IV of Castile as his young nephews continued to seek the support of the Aragonese and French Kings (their mother was a French Princess). They never did manage to reclaim their rights. When Maria and Sancho received the news that Alfonso had died, they dressed in mourning clothes. The following day, they attended mass, following which Sancho proclaimed himself King and recognised Maria as his Queen. Their first child, a daughter named Isabella, had been born in 1283 and he declared her his heir. The future Ferdinand IV of Castile was born to them in 1285, replacing Isabella as the heir. At least five more children followed, of which three survived to adulthood.
Maria became Sancho’s trusted advisor and partner. She gave birth to her sixth child in Seville, which was then the centre of the military operations. Then came the untimely death of Sancho on 25 April 1295. He was just 36 years old. Sancho appointed Maria as regent for their nine-year-old son. He “appointed guardian of the child Fernando to the noble companion of his life, which she shared with hardships and bitterness, always comforting him with her advice, his their (sic) happy interventions, discretion and tact.”1 At the time, they still did not have the required dispensation for their marriage, and there were still several contenders for the throne.
Soon after Sancho’s death, Ferdinand – dressed in royal purple – was brought before the high altar of the Cathedral of Toledo, where he was received as King and Lord in the presence of his mother, great-uncle Infante Henry, the Archbishop of Toledo and other important churchmen. Maria convened a royal council as soon as the nine days of mourning were over in order to consolidate her son’s position. She also abolished a tax hoping to gain the people’s favour. When Infante Henry went rogue and demanded to be made regent, Maria knew she needed to summon Ferdinand’s first cortes. Infante Henry’s plotting to prevent the cortes saw Maria forced to defend her position as regent and her son’s position. She was eventually forced to share the regency with Henry. The following cortes acknowledged Ferdinand as King. Nevertheless, she still had to deal with shifting loyalties.
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