James I the Conqueror

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(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: James conquered three Islamic principalities in Spain and reorganized his many realms in Mediterranean Spain and Occitania (now southern France) into a great and prosperous state, rivaling Genoa for control of western Mediterranean naval power and trade. An autobiographer, he also founded a university and promulgated the first Romanized law code of general application in Europe.

Early Life

James I the Conqueror was born in the port city of Montpellier, whose sovereign lordship was held by his mother, Marie of Montpellier. His father was Peter II the Catholic, victor at Las Navas de Tolosa over the Islamic Almohad empire when James was a child (1212). Because of his incompetence in war, Peter lost the Battle of Muret to the French crusaders against the Albigensians—and, with it, his life and his dynasty’s control over much of what is now southern France.

The crusade’s leader, Simon de Montfort, kidnapped the child James, planning eventually to marry him to his own daughter. James’s mother, Marie, went to Rome, persuaded Pope Innocent III to rescue her son and protect his kingdom during the child’s minority, and then died (1213). Thus James was an orphan, sometimes poor and hungry, at the castle of Monzón, headquarters of the Knights Templars, who coruled his rebellious kingdom for him under papal orders.

In 1217, James began his personal rule. Although he was to call himself “king from the Rhone River to Valencia,” his main realms were the inland kingdom of Aragon and the coastal county of Catalonia. Aragon was a feudal, stock-raising land; Catalonia was a far wealthier and more powerful urban region. Each had its own language, law, government, economy, and culture. James himself spoke mainly Catalan, and doubtless some Aragonese and the Occitan of his trans-Pyrenean holdings. Still a teenager, James was knighted and, to help stabilize his restless realms, married in 1221 to an older woman, Princess Leonor of Castile. The unhappy union was annulled in 1229, after the birth of a son, Alfonso.

In his prime, James was an imposing figure, taller than his contemporaries, of athletic build, with blond hair and handsome countenance. His portrait at about age fifty was to show an alert majestic personage, with a small beard and the longish hair of his generation. His character was bold, impulsive, generous, and courteously chivalric. He was also cruel on occasion, as when he had the tongue of the Bishop of Gerona cut out in 1246.

James was also notorious in Christendom as a womanizer. He dearly loved his second wife, Princess Yolande of Hungary (1235), who gave him two daughters and two sons. At her death, he married and soon repudiated his third wife, Teresa Gil de Vidaure (1255), after having two more sons. James also had at least five illegitimate children.

Life’s Work

James spent much of his life conquering the Islamic regions to his south, already weakened by the breakup of the Almohad empire after his father’s victory at Las Navas de Tolosa. In 1229, James gathered a large fleet and army for an amphibious assault on the emirates of the Balearic Islands. Majorca Island fell in 1229, Minorca became a tributary in 1232, and Ibiza fell in 1235. Long after young James’s abortive invasion of the Islamic province, or principality, of Valencia in 1225, his raiding knights in 1232 began the long war of conquest there. James kept it going until 1245, in constant maneuvering and bypassing, with few pitched battles but with major sieges of Burriana (1233), the city of Valencia (1238), and Biar (1245). The siege of Játiva was rather a series of feints and interim arrangements from 1239 to 1252.

Meanwhile, the Franks of Francia, in the wake of the Albigensian Crusade, were absorbing ever more of Occitania; James counteracted the French moves ineffectively. In 1245, he patched up a final truce in southern Valencia with the local leader, declared his Valencian crusade finished, and plunged into Occitan affairs. He...

(The entire section is 2,491 words.)