Postcard from Toledo, Spain: San Juan de los Reyes remains, but the royal remains were no-shows

While legions of tourists line up for the Cathedral in Toledo, you can wander a few blocks away and they almost vanish. Only a handful appeared as we peacefully explored San Juan de los Reyes Monastery.

A battle between the Juanistas and the Isabelists led to the construction of the monastery, and I’ll try to explain why. Life among the Iberian royals was complicated. Sometimes they fought their way to power, and other times they married to merge kingdoms.

Henry IV of Castile (1425-1474) had no heirs and wanted to peacefully sidle up to Portugal, so he talked the Pope into annulling his first marriage to free him to marry the sister of King Alfonso V (1432-1481) of Portugal. Things were going along fine for a while, but an heir didn’t appear for more than six years. Royal gossips believed the king impotent, but then Juana (1462-1530) was born. The snickering about her paternity never ceased.

In the meantime, Henry’s younger half-sister Isabel (1451-1504) snubbed proposals from Alfonso. Instead of the King of Portugal, she married her second cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon (1452-1516).

Well, when Henry up and died in 1474, many in Spain viewed young Juana’s pedigree as questionable. Isabel and Ferdinand’s marriage, on the other hand, conveniently unified the kingdom of Castile and Aragon.

The rejected suitor Alfonso did not like this turn of events. What better way to get control of his neighbor then to promote Juana as Henry’s heir to the throne and marry her, his 14-year-old niece?

So then the whole peninsula was conflicted between the Juanistas and the Isabelists, which, of course, convinced King Alfonso and King Ferdinand to pull out their armor and lead their followers into a big battle at Toro on the Duero River in 1476. Militarily, the outcome was questionable. The flanks were divided geographically, and the troops of one king were victorious on the right flank and the other on the left. Nightfall and fog created chaos, and everybody not killed went home declaring victory.

Which leads us to the monastery.

In a masterful public relations move, Isabel commissioned the monastery In Toledo as a monument to “victory” at the Battle of Toro, a victory securing her crown as Queen of Castile. Merging Flamboyant Gothic with Mudejar styles, this place needed to be nice because the queen announced it would be the final resting place of the royal couple.

By the time San Juan de los Reyes was finished, Ferdinand and Isabel had acquired a lot more land and wealth. The Cathedral in Granada seductively offered appropriately sumptuous quarters for permanent royal rest; San Juan appeared modest in comparison. So the Catholic monarchs presented the monastery to Franciscan monks.

Aside from a major fire during the French invasion in 1808, the monks were good stewards of their monastery. But the property was seized by the government in the 19th century.

The Monument Commission carried out what the monastery’s literature calls “a subjective Neo-Gothic restoration project, with traces of historicist Romanticism” at the end of the 19th century. And then, miraculously, the government returned San Juan de los Reyes to the Franciscans in 1954.




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