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Petronila de Aragón

Queen on a chessboard of other people’s decisions

Huesca, 1136 – Barcelona, 1173

When Petronila, daughter of the King of Aragon, came into the world, her birth was a matter of state.
Only two years earlier, in 1134, Alfonso I of Aragon, the brave soldier who had led great military enterprises, taking the small mountain kingdom to the fertile lands of the Ebro Valley and its southern tributaries, died unexpectedly and without descendants. In his will, the Battler bequeathed the kingdom to the military orders of the Temple, the Hospitallers and the Holy Sepulchre. This was impossible to sustain, with the King of León occupying the lands of Saragossa and the Almoravids yearning to recover part of what had been lost.

The kingdom was in danger. The only option for the continuity of the dynasty was through the king’s brother, the monk Ramiro, who had to hang up his robes and look for descendants. Agnes of Poitou, a widow of proven fertility who had given birth to four children in her previous marriage, was chosen from among the European noble houses so that the kingdom of Aragon could guarantee its survival. The king had taken a wife, in his words, for “restoration of blood and lineage”.

And so, as a commissioned baby, Petronila was born. Her mission accomplished, Agnes crossed the Pyrenees again and confined herself to the abbey of Fontevrault, where she died in 1159 without her daughter ever having direct communication with her. Except for the first few weeks of her life (without the possibility of any recollection) and entrusted to the care of a housekeeper, Petronilla never saw her mother. Ramiro II retired to the monastery of San Pedro el Viejo in Huesca, with escapes to Nocito, and from then on (until Ramiro’s death in 1157) their meetings would be sporadic. Petronila did not belong to her parents, but to the kingdom.

Her marriage was arranged, also for the sake of state reasons, with Ramon Berenguer IV. During the years of waiting until the wedding (1150), the Count of Barcelona, twenty-three years her senior, had to compete with the intrigues launched from León to cancel the agreement. Meanwhile, Petronila was educated at the court of the Count of Barcelona (the city she fell in love with and where she was to live the last years of her short life) and spent some time in León with her sister-in-law Berenguela. The Catalan was a good ruler, loyal to his word and a skilful negotiator. Prince of Aragon, he recovered Daroca, won places in Los Monegros and Cinca, conquered Lérida and Tortosa, but he was never king, as this title was the exclusive preserve of his wife’s family, from which it would pass to his descendants.

From the beginning of her childbearing years, Petronila had several children. At the age of 16, during the birth of the first of her children, Pedro (who died in infancy), she had to make a will in childbirth. This gives us an idea of how precarious the question of succession, the preservation of the family name and the patrimony of the House of Aragon was. The eldest of those who survived infancy would be Alfonso II of Aragon. Widowed at the age of 26, Petronila did not want to take a husband again and was the mistress of her own actions. A determined woman, in 1164 she renounced the kingdom and gave it to her son. It was then that the Crown of Aragon was born, which, although it had been cemented by her marriage, now took on its charter.

There are still many gaps around the figure of Petronila. We know about her legacy and the circumstances surrounding her life, certain public acts… much more than about her real life. We know about her children, who after Alfonso would occupy various responsibilities and honours (Pedro, Count of Provence; Dulce, Queen Consort of Portugal; Sancho, Count of Roussillon, Provence and Cerdagne). We know of his death and burial in Barcelona Cathedral in the autumn of 1173, but there are still enigmas surrounding his tomb, which is not really located, and about which there are various hypotheses.


Teaching activities

Petronila, Ramón, and the wedding at home

It is said that the pacts for the marriage between Petronila and Ramón Berenguer were based on an institution called “marriage at home”. This consists of the husband attaching himself to the wife’s family: she is the one who passes on her membership of the family group, together with the patrimony she inherits; the husband formally submits to his father-in-law or the “senior lord” of the house, and the latter, in exchange, grants him the power over the family plot, but reserves his lordship over both the assets of the patrimonial plot and those contributed by the husband. Translated to the case we are dealing with here: Ramón Berenguer became another member of the House of Aragon and of his lineage, to all intents and purposes, and the reigning dynasty would use the designation “of Aragon”.

Look for information on the legal concept of “house”, which is very present in Aragonese law. Does it refer only to the building, or does it include something else? Why do you think it is so important (it guarantees the continuity of the heritage, avoids its dispersion)?

Another activity, in line with this marriage agreement: locate on a map the conquests and territories consolidated by Ramon Berenguer IV. Compare the situation of the kingdom of Aragon at the death of Alfonso I (1134) with the possessions left by the prince of Aragon at his death in 1162.

Child factories (designed to conceive) and the ancient demographic regime

The role reserved for Inés and Petronila, mother and daughter, although they were practically unknown to each other, was very similar (instrumentalised as containers for heirs) and reaches extremes that are difficult to understand today.

Whatever our opinion of this fact, the fact is that Petronila died at the age of 37. An age at which, nowadays, many women (especially in our western society) begin motherhood. In her short life, the Queen of Aragon had five children, four of whom survived her (the first-born Pedro died as an infant), who would reach these ages: 23 (the second Pedro), 38 (Dulce), 39 (Alfonso), with only the youngest Sancho reaching “old age” (62, which “today is nothing”).

If this happened in wealthy and noble houses, with extreme care, imagine what would happen in more disadvantaged social strata (which was the vast majority of the population). Many births were necessary to compensate for the high infant mortality rate; mothers started very young to optimise their childbearing age; it was difficult to live beyond the age of forty in good condition (after that age, many people could be considered old).

Inquire about these terms:

  • Fertility rate.
  • Birth rate.
  • Infant mortality rate.
  • Life expectancy.
  • Ancient / modern demographic regime.

How are they defined? Have they evolved throughout history? How do they relate to cultural, social and economic changes? Do scientific advances in medicine, hygiene, etc. have anything to do with the change from one regime to another?


A visit to the Museum

On the left, the Hall of Doña Petronila, where, according to tradition, the wedding between her and Count Ramón Berenguer IV took place. Above, La Campana room.

The Museum of Huesca contains an important part of what was once the Palace of the Kings of Aragon, and today it still has three of its rooms: the Bell Room, the Room of Doña Petronila and the Throne Room.

Visit the Museum: in addition to its permanent collection and its very interesting temporary exhibitions, you can find out more about the history of the building, the legends forged inside it, breathe in evocative atmospheres…



Little anecdotes that may pique your curiosity

Rome never recognised Petronila or her father as kings of Aragon. Only when the military orders renounced the Alfonso I’s inheritance did the Church admit the situation… and it did so half-heartedly, recognising Ramon Berenguer as ruler, despite the fact that it was not he, but his wife, who held the title to the kingdom.

Petronila was the first fully-fledged woman queen of Aragon, with a title in her own right. There would be only one other in the history of the kingdom, several centuries later. She was born in Toledo in 1479 and has gone down in posterity as “Juana the Mad”, although her sad reality is that of a person mistreated and humiliated by her father, first, and by her own son, later: Ferdinand the Catholic and Charles I. Again… this gives us much food for thought.

Alfonso or Ramón? The man who was to wear the crown after his mother’s renunciation had been christened Alfonso, but for his father he was always “Ramón”, and this is recorded in some documents. For the man from Barcelona it was important to maintain the traditional nomenclature of his county house, and Petronila was very jealous of the names customary in her “house”. Her uncle Alfonso, the champion of the kings of his time, weighed heavily, and when there was no more “competition”, after the death of Ramon Berenguer, the heir to the throne would accede to it, now without half measures, as Alfonso II of Aragon.

Look up information on this King Alfonso, the first king of the Crown of Aragon. Among other things, he has a relationship with Teruel, can you explain it?



Departamento de Educación, Cultura y Deporte

Parque Empresarial Dinamiza (Recinto Expo)
Avenida de Ranillas, 5D - 2ª planta
50018 Zaragoza
Tfno: 976 71 54 65