Tales from the Estoria (v) — Supersize Sancho

Many kings throughout history gain a reputation in one way or another. Alfonso X of Castile (1252-1284) was named “Alfonso the Wise”, after his many works of scholarship. England’s Richard I (1157-1199) was “the Lionheart” for his bravery and military prowess. Some titles weren’t quite so complimentary: the Russian tsar Ivan IV (1547-1584) came to be known as “Ivan the Terrible” due to his fearsome outbursts of violence. In the case of one tenth-century Spanish king, a rather unflattering title would live on in history… As always, the Estoria gives us another entertaining story, this time in the account of king Sancho “the Fat”.

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Sancho I “the Fat” (956-966) ruled over the kingdom of Leon, in northern Spain. At this time, the north was a mosaic of Christian counties and kingdoms, while central and southern Spain was ruled by the Muslim caliph Abd ar-Rahman III. These were unpredictable times: Christian kings and counts fought amongst each other, and there was a constant threat of Muslim armies from the south. In this world of cutthroat politics and rampant warfare, a monarch had to be at the top of his game.

Poor “Sancho the Fat” was apparently hindered by his weight problems. The Estoria tells us he was so large that he struggled to fit onto his horse! It was only with great effort that he managed to get around. At last he decided to do something about it, seeking counsel from his uncle. His concerned relative advised him to head south to Cordova, the capital of the Muslim caliphate. Islamic civilisation was highly advanced, and Sancho was told that the Muslim doctors there would help cure him of his obesity.

The tubby king immediately signed a truce with the Muslim caliph, and embarked on the long journey south to Cordova. The caliph received the Christian king warmly, and summoned his best physicians to see to his treatment. We read in the Estoria that the Cordovan doctors successfully cured Sancho of his weight problems. Unfortunately for the new Sancho “the slim”, in the time that he was away from his kingdom, one of his feisty Christian neighbours had seized his territory!

As amusing as this narrative seems, it offers a deep insight into the very real threat of betrayal and revolt in medieval politics. Christian Spain was plagued by disunity for centuries. In a bid for some stability, royal families intermarried, building bloodlines between rival kings and counts. Just think, it was enough to deal with the threat of invasion from the Muslims, let alone your own cousin plotting to overthrow you! The same threat remained three hundred years after Sancho “the Fat”: when the Estoria was written in the thirteenth century, king Alfonso X made sure his chronicle carried plenty of warnings about backstabbing neighbours and relatives. Alfonso himself turned out to be a victim of complot, thrown out of power by his rebellious son. It was just so hard to know who to trust!

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