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Catalan trade by treaties with Genoa and Egypt

Ferdinand and Henry were brothers, the sons of John I of Castile and Eleanor of Aragon. Henry was never strong – he was known as ‘Henry the Sickly’ – but was a fairly successful king. His marriage to the English princess Catherine of Lancaster produced three children, a son John (who became John II of Castile) and two daughters: Maria, who married her cousin King Alfonso ‘the Magnanimous’ of Aragon and Catherine, who married his brother Henry. King Henry’s early death at the age of 27 meant that his widow Catherine and brother Ferdinand ruled as joint Regents for his baby son. Ferdinand was regarded as exceptionally kind (by ruthless fiteenth-century standards) for not usurping his nephew’s throne, but he used crown lands to enrich his own sons, which probably did more damage to Castile in the long run. Catherine continued as sole Regent after her brother-in-law was chosen King of Aragon in 1412.

Catherine was a tall, strapping blonde, whose hearty English appetite at banquets rather shocked her new subjects: she must have made quite a contrast to her frail husband. She was a successful Regent for her son, arranging close trade links between Castile and her native England: her death from a stroke at the age of 45 removed a useful guiding influence from him.

Her brother-in-law Ferdinand was a skilful politician and soldier, who captured the town of Antequera from the Moors – he was thereafter known as ‘Ferdinand of Antequera’. At the age of fifteen, he married the great heiress Eleanor of Alburquerque, who was twenty-one. She was famous for her beautiful red-gold hair and for the fact that she was so rich that she could travel from one side of Castile to the other without leaving her own lands: Eleanor was known as ‘La rica hembra’ – the wealthy woman. The death of of King Martin of Aragon without male heirs meant that the Corts, or Parliaments, of the Aragonese kingdoms had to choose a successor – at the Compromise of Caspe in 1412, they chose Ferdinand, whose mother Eleanor had been Martin’s sister.

Ferdinand struggled with the disputaceous Corts, but was beginning to make headway before his death in 1416 at the age of 35. He was successful in his foreign policy, confirming the Aragonese hold over Sicily and protecting Catalan trade by treaties with Genoa and Egypt. He was also instrumental in ending the Great Schism in the Catholic Church by removing his support from the last Antipope, Benedict XIII. He and Eleanor had had five sons and two daughters, and he was succeeded by his eldest son Alfonso, who was then aged 20.

It may come as a surprise to learn that Katherine also had Jewish ancestry: her great-great-great grandfather Alfonso Enriquez had an affair with a lady named Paloma of Toledo, who had converted to Christianity. Their son Alfonso succeeded his father as Admiral of Castile in default of legitimate heirs.