The social status of women in the Alhambra

The Nasrid Court must have housed a mosaic of women who, from their considerable ethnic, social, physical and cultural differences, filled the many corners and spaces of the Alhambra with diversity and color, from Arab women to imported women as concubines.

The first group in the Nasrid female world was made up of the “legal wives” of the dynasty and was made up exclusively of those women belonging to the royal family itself who were married to emirs of the lineage. These legitimate women were the so-called free women.

Women inside the tower of the Infantas, by Edwin Lord Weeks

The legitimate Nasrid wives were generally paternal cousins ​​of the sovereign in question, since in the Kingdom of Granada the modality of marriage between cousins ​​was practiced with customary frequency.

The first reason that motivated this union was of an economic nature, since the marriage between cousins ​​allowed to maintain the properties within the own family. There are several cases of marriages of emirs with paternal cousins ​​in the Nasrid family environment such as Muhammad I, the founder of the lineage himself.

But an aspect of vital importance in this marriage and especially in the woman to be able to contract marriage, is that of her virginity.

In fact, the Qur’an highlights this quality as desirable, not to say imperative. This chastity was related to her modesty and for that reason, they should always be veiled, hidden from the sight of others except that of her husband and that of her non-prohibited relatives, being considered a symbol of respectability.

“… Tell the believers to look down modestly, to be chaste and show no more adornment than those in sight, to cover their cleavage with the veil and not to display their adornments but to their husbands”

The Harem Dance, by Edouard Richter

But along with the women of Nasrid blood, it is also known that there were slaves and concubines. In fact, the Qur’an alludes to slaves.

Let us not forget the fact that the Arab people consider themselves the son of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine slave, whose son Ishmael, is had by the Arabs father, while Isaac, Abraham’s other son along with his free wife Sarah, it is historically the ancestor of the Hebrew people. Abraham etymologically means “father of many peoples”.

But it should be noted that Hagar was not the true name of this Egyptian concubine, but her nickname. Hagar means the “estranged” due to exile and abandonment by Abraham at the request of his free wife Sarah.

In this culture, educating, freeing and marrying a slave by her master entailed a double heavenly reward and for this, the slave trade flourished in Al-Andalus.

Beautiful, blonde women of European origin could achieve the status of a legitimate woman, but there were also black slave women of African origin highly regarded as good cooks and excellent concubines.

The presence of foreign maids and women, so different in origin, was necessary as a reflection of the economic prosperity of the Nasrid court. Owning slaves of whatever genre was a sign of economic well-being and high position. Luxury increases the strength of a dynasty and women were a fundamental factor in its display, exercising a function that could be described as ornamental among both legitimate women and concubines.

Among the unfree women, there were the slaves turned into concubines – mothers of the Nasrid dynasty and those who, on the contrary, were only used for domestic service or entertainment in the Alhambra.

But the Nasrid sultans confirm the taste for Christian women. And for them, the only way out to freedom was conversion to Islam and motherhood was the means that allowed them, therefore, to climb the social pyramid of the harem and even within the dynasty. As is evident, the great hope of these concubines was not only to have a child, but also to become the mother of the future sultan. And this privilege was actually achieved by some concubines of the Alhambra.

But as was to be expected, free women, that is, legitimate wives, were logically the strongest opponents of concubinage, as they became the greatest victims of such a situation.

Isabel de Solis or Soraya

Along with the concubines of Christian origin, some of whom ended up being sultanas of the Alhambra, there were also other types of slaves in the Nasrid court, employed only for domestic service as cooks, waiters, midwives, doctors and nurses. And it should be noted, among the servants of the Alhambra, there were some women of color.

But it is also worth highlighting another third type of slave alongside concubines and women of color destined for domestic service. These were the singing and dancing slaves dedicated to entertainment and entertainment.

And the slaves of Granada in the Nasrid period excelled in the art of dances with kerchiefs and sabers, decked out with costumes and dressings, and other games, with which they showed their skills. Because they are so versatile, these women were therefore the most expensive.

And among all these concubines, the great favorite par excellence, in the history of the Nasrid dynasty, was Soraya, the second wife of Emir Muley Hacen.

Would you like to know Soraya’s story?

Charles V, king and emperor

Born in Ghent on February 24, 1500 and died in Yuste on September 21, 1558.

A series of dynastic alliances and premature deaths made the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs the most powerful young man in Europe and the new Americas.

He reigned as Carlos I of Spain from the age of sixteen and at the age of twenty, after the death of his paternal grandfather, the Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg, as emperor of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire and therefore designated as Carlos I of Spain and V of Germany.

But … Was he really an emperor who failed to be King?

In his last days, Carlos had plenty of time to reflect and rethink. In a talk with his sister Maria, he took stock of his years of reign, his achievements and defeats, his strengths and weaknesses, and furthermore, his mind filled with memories as he never forgot his wife, Isabella of Portugal.

“I was the most powerful man but I have found myself unable to fulfill the desire of a tormented woman… The distance between what I set out to do and what I achieved is great and that only has one name… failure. I neither put an end to heresy, nor did I subdue the infidel, nor did I manage to unite Christendom in a universal monarchy”

Many kingdoms succumbed after their kings died, but nothing compared to what happened after the death of Queen Isabella I of Castile.

Since the death of Isabella the Catholic, Ferdinand of Aragon, tried to gain control of the kingdoms, but the francophile policy of Philippe “Le Bel” made them confront them. Ferdinand left Castile and took refuge in Aragon. The sudden death of Philippe and the state of mental derangement of the latter’s wife, Joanna “the Mad”, changed the situation. Nobody ruled in Castile, Philippe dead, Joanna maddened. Then Ferdinand decided to return to Castile to keep the promise that he made to Isabella.

In 1516, after the death of Ferdinand the Catholic, Charles became the legitimate heir to all the states that had belonged to his grandparents.

However, Carlos was six years old, he was a child and Cisneros, regent of Castile, undoubtedly as a political and religious leader, was the key character during the most delicate time of Spain’s transition between the 15th and 16th centuries and his role was decisive for the creation of the Spanish Empire.

Until Carlos was declared of adult age on January 5, 1515, he received a careful education both by his aunt Margaret of Austria and Adriano of Utrech, his most influential teacher, and Guillermo de Croy, lord of Chièvres, as a fundamental piece in his politics.

Throughout his reign, Carlos traveled from one end of his domain to the other and fought on many battlefields, he was an itinerant monarch without having a stable court but he always knew how to surround himself with important artists, thinkers and men of science. And of all the countries he inherited, Spain was the most difficult to consolidate under his rule.

Charles V crowned emperor in Aachen

But why Charles and not his brother Ferdinand I of Austria. The story of two brothers who grew up suspicious of each other.

Paradoxically, whoever was born in Spain reigned in Germany, while the one who had grown up abroad was king of Spain.

Ferdinand, was Charles’s younger brother, was educated in Castile and was viewed with a certain sympathy by the Castilian nobility. After the election of Charles as emperor, Ferdinand became one of his most reliable collaborators but also a possible rival.

Ferdinand I of Habsburg was the exiled brother of Charles, who finally became emperor, and his policy was marked by the fight against the Protestants. However, the two emperors also had four, often-forgotten, sisters:

Leonor, the firstborn. She was handed over to the King of Portugal who was 30 years older than her and had previously been married to two Spanish princesses. She was widowed and married Francisco I, King of France, who was the main enemy of Spain.

Elizabeth, “the loyal one”. She was mistreated by her husband. She went through all kinds of vicissitudes because of an unfaithful husband, as in the case of her sister Leonor.

Maria, governor of the Netherlands. The most outstanding and perhaps the most intelligent of the four Archduchess sisters of Austria. She was the sister closest to the emperor. She ended up becoming an irreplaceable advisor to the most important emperor in Europe at the time.

Catalina, the only Spanish. Together with her brother Ferdinand, she was the only one born on Spanish soil. She was also the longest-lived of them all. She was confined with her mother Joanna in the Palace of Tordesillas. She did not blindly follow fraternal politics and, perhaps because she was queen, she always supported the projects of the Portuguese throne while remaining loyal to her dynasty, the Habsburg.

But the kings never ruled without their queens …

There are not a few women who have had a fundamental role in the history of Spain and who, however, have not been recognized as they should or have simply been fired by the flames of oblivion, as is the case of Elizabeth of Portugal, wife of the King and emperor of the Sacred Roman-German Empire.

She, 23, and Charles, 26 years old, married in the Reales Alcázares of Seville in 1526.

It has always been affirmed that Charles was “more Fifth than First”, more emperor than king; that is, he was much more involved in the affairs of the Empire than in his Castilian-Aragonese subjects.

Elizabeth became governor of Spain in the absence of her husband and many biographers assure that this state of loneliness contributed to her early death.

The princess received a careful humanistic education, learned to read and write, Latin, Spanish, English and French. He did not neglect his artistic training and received a solid musical training. That is why in each childbirth, according to some chroniclers, she always kept her face covered (like Elizabeth the Catholic) to endure her own pains with great composure.

Elizabeth of Portugal died in 1539, when she was only thirty-six years old. There has been much speculation about the causes of his death but, ultimately, part of the historiography agrees that what led to this premature death was nothing but sadness and loneliness in the face of the King’s long absences.

And Charles, did not remarry…

Thirteen years, from 1526 to 1539, Doña Isabel had lived in Spain as Empress and Queen consort.

The sad death was on May 1st at noon, and after the funeral honors, those of a Queen, the procession that was to accompany her mortal remains to Granada was launched by order of the Emperor, to be deposited in the Royal Chapel. But the desolate Emperor did not accompany this procession. Charles V took refuge in the Jeronimo de la Sisla Monastery, where he remained isolated for more than a month

It is here when the end of Carlos begins, the decline of the owner of the world.

Allegory of the abdication of Emperor Charles V in Brussels

Charles and Elizabeth had six children:

  • Phillip II of Spain, Maria of Austria, Ferdinand, Joanna of Austria, John and another John, who was born a year after the previous one died, and who at birth caused the death of his mother due to complications with childbirth.

But Charles V also had an entertaining extramarital life, and as a result the following children were born:

  • Elizabeth of Castile, Margarita of Austria, Joanna of Austria, Tadea of Austria y John of Austria.

It is important to note that each of these bastard sons of the king was the result of his relationship with a different woman. That is, they are all stepbrothers but none of them is the brother of another.

But not even the most powerful of men is immune to disease and death …

In the last stage of his life he ate alone because he was ashamed that his marked prognathism was even accentuated when chewing food. He had severe attacks of gout due to the excessive intake of meat in his diet, he also drank 4 or 5 liters of beer at each meal and was also prostrated on a wooden chair-stretcher until his death, in 1558, due to malaria.

And that is how Charles, King and Emperor, abdicated and went to Spain to never return, choosing the Yuste Monastery to spend the last days of his life.

“The generosity of my mother Joanna of Castile led me to rule at the age of 17, then, while still a boy, I was granted the right to an Empire.

In a short time I was to build Flanders, Naples, Sicily and the lands of overseas. It has perhaps been my life, a string of trips that have not only consumed this body of mine but also frequently ripped me from my most beloved companies, that of my children and my wife, to whom I would have wanted to give all my days.

But not only duty called me, for my torments and my dominions, also wars. Always a forced battle to defend myself from the ambition of others, of whom I believed would be my only enemy, the Turk, and the doom that was for me the King of France.

I also had to combat the outbreak of the heretic in my own empire, a danger that I have not known how to abate as I would have liked … But none of those jobs was more painful or afflicted me as much as the one I now feel when I leave you.

To govern the states that God granted me, I no longer have the strength and the few that I have left will soon be over … being so tired, I can no longer render any service as those who receive my legacy will do …

To my son Philip, to whom I leave Spain, Flanders, the Italian lands and those of the Indies while the Empire will remain in the hands of my brother Ferdinand.

Although there are many enemies, the strength of this family union will manage to defeat them all.

This man who had accumulated unparalleled power for centuries decided to abandon it before his time, affected, like his mother, by bouts of deep depression.

Silence and repose were already the only wishes of a man who had unwittingly suffered the tragedy of dominating the world.


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