“Faced with the game of chance, Alfonso X saw intelligence in chess”

The next November 23 marks the 800th anniversary of the birth in Toledo of Alfonso X of Castile, a medieval king more typical of the Renaissance, who cultivated the arts and sciences (hence he is recognized as El Sabio), while he fought against the Muslim leaders, he quelled family conspiracies and deployed his diplomacy to try to become, without success, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The historian Adolfo de Mingo Lorente (Madrid, 1979) publishes ‘Alfonso X El Sabio, el primer gran rey’ (La Esfera de los Libros) with which he offers an original perspective of this fundamental figure in the history of Spain who reigned for more 30 years. Son of the Castilian-Leonese monarch Fernando III, Alfonso X is considered a visionary king not yet sufficiently known by the new generations. “It is essential to spread his legacy in schools and institutes,” says De Mingo.

“Why the first great king?”

–Because of its pioneering nature in many aspects. It is true that part of his legacy he received from his father, Fernando III, but it was Alfonso who promoted the use of Castilian romance, the new role of the nobility or a contact with classical antiquity that, in a certain way, anticipates the culture of the Renaissance. He was a king ahead of his time with very advanced and long-standing approaches, from his interest in science to economic measures such as the Mesta.

-Alfonso X executed his brother, the Infante Fadrique, who rose up against him. Wise … and vindictive?

–The execution of Don Fadrique in 1277 took place in a context of succession crisis, two years after the death of the kingdom’s heir, the Infante Don Fernando de la Cerda. There are those who have raised that there could have been a conspiracy against Alfonso X in which Fadrique had weight. The infant was ambitious and proved it on several occasions, but it is difficult to know what happened for his own brother to make the decision to have him killed.

“He wanted his heart to be buried on Mount Calvary, in Jerusalem, something that finally did not take place”

– He cultivated the arts, music, literature, science, astronomy, the legal system … in short, knowledge. Was he an enlightened monarch?

– It was, it stood out for a great cultural and political activity. This last nuance is important, because we could not understand the important effort made by the king in matters such as history and law without taking into account his claims to become emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Above a painting of Alfonso X El Sabio in his Court. Below, the historian Adolfo de Mingo and the cover of his book. / R. C.

–And also he fought and conquered territories… how did culture marry arms?

-Alfonso X, like his father, felt a fascination for the new territories conquered from the Muslims. Cities like Murcia, whose doors were opened for the young Alfonso in 1243, or Seville, which his father conquered five years later, not only provided him with material wealth, but also an important source of knowledge. In both, he encouraged the creation of studies in which he expressed his interest in the wisdom transmitted from Al-Andalus. Just as culture was important to legitimize his European project, it was also important to function in the hectic panorama of the south of the peninsula. The example that best explains this, just taken Seville, is the resounding refusal of the young Alfonso that the minaret of the immense Sevillian main mosque, which later will be known as ‘La Giralda’, was demolished.

-He discovered very early the horrors of war …

–At just ten years old, Alfonso, still an infant, accompanied the nobleman Alvar Pérez de Castro in a skirmish against the Murcian Ibn Hud. The result was 500 beheaded Moorish captives. Apart from becoming a deeply educated king in the future, he was by no means unaware of war.

–He was intelligent and charismatic, and a good chess player?

“He must have been interested enough to dedicate a whole book to it.” Rather, three, since the Book of Games, considered the last of the entire production of the Alfonsi scriptorium, also deals with dice and tables. In all three, which represent a vigorous mosaic of characters from 13th century Spain (kings, friars, merchants, Muslims, Jews … play), he had himself represented. Alfonso X considered chess an exercise in intelligence compared to games in which luck reigned, such as dice.

“With Alfonso X, the Castilian romance became a cultured language”

– Why does your heart rest in an urn in the cathedral of Murcia and the rest of the body in Seville?

– He wanted his remains to rest in the monastery of Santa María la Real de Murcia, and that his heart be buried on Mount Calvary in Jerusalem, something that finally did not occur.

–He had his pluses and minuses with his wife and son Sancho for succession issues … Was he in the end a king loved by the people and reviled by the family?

-Yes and no. The people had reasons to love him, but also not to love him so much, because although Alfonso X favored measures that benefited him, such as the establishment of fairs and markets, it is also true that he required constant financial support to sustain his imperial aspirations. In fact, at the end of his life, few cities did not turn their back on him. Among them, Seville, where he died in 1284. And with regard to his family, which was very broad, relations were changing. There were children like Berenguela, the first-born, who expressed their support. Even her relationship with her son, the future King Sancho IV, changed over time during the hard times at the end of his reign.

– What would you highlight of your legacy?

–His contribution to the Spanish language. With his reign, the Castilian romance was definitely converted into a cultured language. It is not surprising that it was precisely Antonio de Nebrija, creator of the first Castilian Grammar, the first to recognize King Alfonso X with the nickname ‘El Sabio’.

– What value do you place on your Cantigas?

–Las Cantigas offer a mosaic of popular religiosity and of uses and customs that allow us to know the daily life of those who lived in the 13th century.

-He is the most represented king of the entire Middle Ages, but we still do not know with certainty what he was like …

–In the numerous miniatures of the Cantigas de Santa María, he is usually painted young, hairless, with a straight nose and smiling expression, like many of the characters that accompany him. There is also a miniature where he is represented with a beard.

–His fame is at the level of Ricardo Corazón de León… but his figure has not caught on in the cinema like that of the English, which has limited his projection…

– There has been little interest from the filmmakers in who could have been a film emblem. Not even during the Franco regime. His great intellectual stature –the jurist, the astronomer, the historian, the troubadour of the cantigas de Santa María …– has weighed like a slab when it comes to setting up an attractive character for filmmakers, and that he came to knight his brother-in-law Eduardo I, the evil enemy of Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’ … Without a doubt he is a king who would give game on the big screen.

“Is it known enough?”

-You can always improve. It is essential to spread his legacy in schools and institutes.

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