Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Castellany of Amposta, Zaragoza

The earliest donation to the Order in Aragon was the the royal donation of Aliaga, in 1118. Royal patronage was exemplified by the famous will in 1131 of Alfonso el Ballatador when he bequeathed his kingdoms, Aragon and Navarre, to the Hospital, to the Templars and to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, in equal portions. It seems that the childless monarch believed they would be in the best position to continue the fight against the Moors. However at this death in 1134, the barons disagreed. In Navarre they elected Garcia Ramirez and in 1137 Aragon passed to the Count of Barcelona, through his marriage to Alfonso's niece.

To compensate the Hospitallers for their loss they received instead the port of Amposta at the mouth of the Ebro. Although it was not on the front line of the Reconquista, Amposta was the Order's first military enfeoffment in Aragon. This donation led to the establishment of  an Aragonese priory in 1149, which in 1154 became independent from Saint-Gilles, and was known as the Castellany of Amposta.

However in 1280 the Order was forced by the King, to relinquish Amposta. In response the Hospitallers moved their headquarters in Aragon to Zaragoza  although they continued to style their prior, Castellan of Amposta. The prioral palace at Zaragoza included the Tower of La Zuda, part of which  which had been gifted to the Order by Alfonso II back in 1180.

The tower of La Zuda had been built by the Moors on top of the Roman city walls that daated rom the 3rd century AD. La Zuda was the keep of the governor of Saraqusta's palace. When on 18th December 1118 the city surrended to Alfonso, el Ballatador, the King occupied La Zuda which was to become the royal residence of Aragon until the 13th Century, when they moved to the Aljafaria Palace.


Royal patronage of the Hospital in Aragon continued into the 14th century when Don Sancho, an illegitimate half brother of James II, after serving as Admiral of the Order at the conquest of Rhodes, in 1328 received the Castellany of Amposta. So when Pope Clement V ordered the transfer of the Templar's properties to the Order of St.John, in Aragon at least, there was royal acquiescence. With the transfer of the Templars estates in Catalonia to the Order of St.John, the Hospitallers became lords of almost all of Catalonia on the west bank of the River Ebro.The accession of so many  estates led to the creation of a separate Priory of Catalonia in 1319, although the part of Catalonia on the east bank of the Ebro remained part of the Castellany of Amposta, and became the personal estate of the Castellan himself.

The most famous, and controversial  Castellan of Amposta was the extraordinary Fra' Juan Fernadez de Heredia. Born in 1310, he was the  penniless scion of a family of marcher barons from the Aragonese frontier with Castile. His father had a place at court in the household of the Infanta Leonor and the young Juan became a childhood friend of Infante Pedro, heir to the Aragonese throne. Fra' Juan joined the Order of St. John in 1328 at the age of eighteen. While still in his twenties he was appointed to the former Templar commanderies of Villel and Alfambra which his family had somehow managed to wrest from royal control. Fra' Juan was able to benefit from the order's rule that whoever brought a property back to the Order was entitled to hold it for life.

Fra' Juan Fernandez de Heredia

Heredia's career was secured in 1346 when his old friend, by now King Pedro IV, in clear violation of the Order's rules on seniority and promotion, appointed him Castellan of Amposta. Fra' Juan's estates as Castellan included all the estates in Catalonia on the east bank of the Ebro including the castle of Miravet. As Castellan of Amposta he was the most powerful magnate in the kingdom of Aragon. Heredia used his position as Castellan to distribute rich commanderies to his relations and to increase his own landholdings in the kingdom.Fra' Juan soon showed the administrative flair for which he was to become famous by ordering the complilation of the Cartulary of Amposta in which all its possessions were recorded meticulously, in six volumes.

From time to time the Castellan was entrusted with delicate diplomatic missions by the King, to Castille (1348), Navarrre (1351) and Avignon where he was visiting the Papal Curia when he was urgently summoned home. King Pedro's half brother was threatening to invade  from Castille and the Castellan was needed to oversee the kingdom's defences. The following year (1352) Heredia was back in Avignon, on this occasion to do homage for Sardinia on behalf of King Pedro in front of the pope. It would be a meeting that would change his life. The new pope, Innocent VI (1352-62) was  to form as high an opinion of Heredia's abilities as King Pedro.

Innocent soon showed the Castellan his favour by using his influence (at the expense of the Hospital) with the Master to demand that Heredia be appointed to the vacant Priory of Castille (27 March 1354). However the king of Castille, an implacable opponent managed to prevent him from taking up the appointment.

In 1355 Innocent despatched Heredia on a mission to the Convent at Rhodes to enforce the administrative and disciplinary reforms he was trying to impose on the Order. It can be imagined what the brethren thought of Heredia at the best of times let alone in his role as the advocate of reform; he was the father of four illegitimate children and held one of the highest offices in the Order, the Castellany of Amposta in violation of all the rules on seniority and promotion, and what is more, did not pay his responsions to the Convent. Heredia informed the Convent of the pope's intention to remove the Convent from Rhodes to a more exposed position on the mainland. In the end this proposal came to nothing. However at the general chapter of the Order held in 1357, the Order passed statutes that attempted to curb Heredia's abuses by appointing new officers known as general receivers to whom all responsions were to be paid, in place of the priors, and by whom they would be sent to Rhodes.

However the pope further rewarded Heredia by instructing the Master to nominate him as Prior of Saint-Gilles, which he managed to take control of in January 1357, in a further violation of the Order's rules. Heredia now combined the two most powerful and prestigious offices of the Order in the west. An unprecedented abuse of power.

Next his patron Innocent sent the Castellan and Prior on a diplomatic initiative to try and prevent the coming clash of arms between England and France. Heredia had few illusions and the prospects of success and took the precaution of asking the pope for permission to fight alongside whoever was most willing to accpt his ofers of mediation should the other side reject it. Fra' Juan found that the King of France was the more anxious to secure peace and informed the King of England that he would fight for the French. Within days, the English, led by the Black Prince defeated the much larger French army at Potiers (19 September 1356). Heredia fought with conspicuous bravery and towards the end of the battle he was credited with saving the French king's life. He himself was so severely wounded that for a while his life hang in the balance. At first the Black Prince wanted to have him executed for having flouted his neutrality, but settled for a ransom of 10 000 francs. At the subsequent truce concluded between England and France at Bordeaux (march 1357) Heredia was given much of the credit.

As a consequence of the truce bands of unwanted soldiers roamed southern France. The pope at Avignon felt threatened, and turned to Heredia who was appointed Captain-General of the Comtat-Venaissin (1357) and the following year Captain- General of Avignon itself with responsibility for the defence of the papal city, a position  that he was to hold until 1376.

Only when his native Aragon was at war with Castille (1359) was Heredia grated a temporary leave of absence from Avignon. So anxious was Innocent VI that he return, he was threatened with excommunication should he fail to do so. On his return Heredia was rewarded with the Governorship of the Comtat-Venaissin, for his part Heredia showed his gratitude towards his patron by refortifying Avignon with splendid new walls at his own expense. A gift of staggering generosity. Fra' Juan was now at the height of his powers.

The accumulation of so much power naturally aroused suspicion and hostility, not least amongst his fellow brethren in the Order of St. John. Fra' Juan created outrage by accumulating a fortune at the expense of the Order and using it to provide for his children and relations. Not only did he hold the Castellany of Amposta and the Priory of Saint-Gilles simultaneously in violation of the Order's rules, but added further to the injury by refusing to pay his responsions. The Master sent the Grand Preceptor and the Marshal on a mission (1359) to seek the pope's approval before moving against Heredia. But Fra' Juan was too close to the pontiff to be seriously threatened. The issue was sidetracked by the appointment of cardinals whose submission (1361) not only exonerated Heredia but confirmed him in all his offices and cancelled all of his debt to the Order.

Only with the death of his patron Innocent VI (1362) did Heredia's position become more exposed, but it was not until the election of Fra' Raymond Berenger as Master (1365) that things became uncomfortable for him. Fra' Raymond was a Provencal knight who resented Heredia's disloyalty to the Order and his possession through papal patronage of an office, the Priory of Saint-Gilles that had always bee n held by a Frenchman. So Fra' Raymond decided to travel to Avignon in person where he found in the new pope Urban V a more sympathetic ear. Heredia thought it wise to withdraw to Aragon (1369) and he was stripped of the Priory of Saint-Gilles and his theoretical possession of the Priory of Castille.

But Fra' Juan remained Castellan of Amposta and his prestige was undiminished in Aragon where he formed a close relationship with Infante Juan, heir to the throne. Heredia used his position at court to outmaneuver the Master and when the Priory of Catalonia became vacant he managed to get nominated to the dignity, once again holding more than one high office, in violation of the Order's rules.

When Urban V died (1370) Fra' Juan had already returned to Avignon and was installed in the papal palace before the new pontiff had been chosen. Gregory XI (1370-78) was to become a friend of Heredia. It had long been the new pope's wish to return the papacy to Rome, after its seventy years in exile. When the great day approached it fell to Fra' Juan Fernandez de Heredia the honour of escorting the pope on the long and dangerous journey. After embarking at Marseilles, Heredia himself took the helm of the galley on which his holiness had embarked. The papal party finally arrived at Rome on 17th January 1377. Heredia's loyalty was rewarded by the ultimate prize when he was appointed by the pope to the Mastership of the Order of St.John

This increase in prestige enabled two further Spanish knights to assume the magistry. Fra' Antonio de Fluvia, who served under Naillac as his Lieutenant, was to succeed him as Master (1421-37) and Fra' Raimundo Zacosta who was Castellan when he was elected Master in 1461. At that time the King of Aragon was trying to put down a rebellion by the Catalans and as the Castellany with its vast estates was an important player, he imposed a knight loyal to him in the post, Fra' Bernado de Rocaberti.  However the Master supported his countrymen which led the King to sequester the Order's commanderies. Only after Zacosta's death were relations repaired and the Order recognised Rocarberti as Castellan.

The tower of La Zuda  in Zaragoza was rebuilt in the second half of the 16th century by Castellan Fra' Francisco Iniguez. The palace of the Castellan of Amposta occupied the western corner of the great square of del Pilar in Zaragoza, the largest urban square in Spain. The last major rebuilding of the palace was the construction of the Baroque church of  San Juan de Los Panetes, completed in 1725 by Castellan Fra' Vicente de Ora that replaced the Medieval chapel.  The leaning tower beside the church, like the tower of La Zuda, dates from the 16th century.


After the fall of Malta King Charles IV took the opportunity to impose his rule on the Spanish priories. In January 1802 he annexed them to the Crown by royal decree. After the hiatus of the French Revolution the King appointed his brother Don Francisco as Castellan. The anti-clerical regime of Queen Isabella confiscated the property of the Church and banished the Castellany of Amposta to history.