Peter “the Cruel,” king of Castile (1333-1369), (in Spanish, Pedro I) son of Alfonso XI and Maria, daughter of Alphonso IV of Portugal, was born in 1333. He earned for himself the reputation of monstrous cruelty which is indicated by the accepted title. In later ages, when the royal authority was thoroughly established, there was a reaction in Peter’s favour, and an alternative name was found for him. It became a fashion to speak of him as El Justiciero, the executor of justice. Apologists were found to say that he had only killed men who themselves would not submit to the law or respect the rights of others.
There is this amount of foundation for the plea, that the chronicler Lopez de Ayala, who fought against him, has confessed that the king’s fall was regretted by the merchants and traders, who enjoyed security under his rule. Peter began to reign at the age of sixteen, and found himself subjected to the control of his mother and her favourites. He was immoral, and unfaithful to his wife, as his father had been. But Alphonso XI did not imprison his wife, or cause her to be murdered. Peter certainly did the first, and there can be little doubt that he did the second.
He had not even the excuse that he was passionately in love with his mistress, Maria de Padilla; for, at a time when he asserted that he was married to her, and when he was undoubtedly married to Blanche of Bourbon, he went through the form of marriage with a lady of the family of Castro, who bore him a son, and then deserted her. Maria de Padilla was only the one lady of his harem of whom he never became quite tired. At first he was controlled by his mother, but emancipated himself with the encouragement of the minister Albuquerque and became attached to Maria de Padilla. Maria turned him against Albuquerque. In 1354 the king was practically coerced by his mother and the nobles into marrying Blanche of Bourbon, but deserted her at once.
A period of turmoil followed in which the king was for a time overpowered and in effect imprisoned. The dissensions of the party which was striving to coerce him enabled him to escape from Toro, where he was under observation, to Segovia. From 1356 to 1366 he was master, and was engaged in continual wars with Aragon, in which he showed neither ability nor daring. It was during this period that he perpetrated the series of murders which made him odious. He confided in nobody save the Jews, who were his tax-gatherers, or the Muslim guards he had about him.
The profound hatred of the Christians for the Jews and Mudejares, or Muslims settled among them, dates from the years in which they were the agents of his unbridled tyranny. In 1366 he was assailed by his bastard brother Henry of Trastamara at the head of a host of soldiers of fortune, including Bertrand du Guesclin and Hugh Calveley, and abandon the kingdom without daring to give battle, after retreating several times (first from Burgos, then from Toledo, and lastly from Seville) in the face of the oncoming armies. He fled, with his treasury, to Portugal where he was coldly received by his uncle, Pedro I, and thence to Galacia, in northern Spain, where he ordered murder Suero, the archbishop of Santiago, and the dean, Peralvarez.
In the summer of 1366 Peter took refuge with the Black Prince, by whom he was restored in the following year. But he disgusted his ally by his faithlessness and ferocity. The health of the Black Prince broke down, and he left Spain. When thrown on his own resources, Peter was soon overthrown by his brother Henry, with the aid of Bertrand du Guesclin and a body of French free companions. He was murdered by Henry in du Guesclin’s tent on March 23, 1369. His daughters by Maria de Padilla, Constance and Isabella, were respectively married to John of Gaunt and Edmund of Langley, sons of Edward III, king of England.