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The Bordeaux Challenge (1283)

Knights in front of a city. ACA,COL,Manuscripts,San Cugat,28,402v Pulse para ampliar

From the Sicilian Vespers to War

In March of 1282 a great popular revolt broke out in Sicily against its king, Charles of Anjou, who fled to Calabria. This son of the king of France had taken possession of the Mediterranean island in 1266, when on the battlefield he defeated and killed the previous king, Manfred of Hohenstaufen, son of the Holy Roman Emperor. The rebels soon looked for outside help and a new sovereign, and they found both in the King of Aragon, Pedro “El Grande” (Peter III of Aragon), who was married to Constance, the daughter of the unfortunate Manfred. The Aragonese monarch landed on the island in August, and the Sicilians swept him away to Palermo to crown him. In his letters, he promised them that they would soon be "freed from the dragon that wanted to devour them", alluding to the Frenchman.

That convoluted game of thrones threw the Crown of Aragon into the abyss of a continental war. Charles of Anjou took refuge in Naples and was supported by France and the Holy See. Aragon aligned himself with the Ghibellines, defenders of the Holy Roman Empire's authority over Italy. The initial enthusiasm was followed by fateful years: King Pedro was excommunicated, the French and Aragonese armies fought on land and sea, the extremely high taxes to finance the war impoverished society and led to popular uprisings, etc.

Knights in single combat. ACA,COL,Manuscripts,Ripoll,32,23r Pulse para ampliar

The Challenge

However, going back to the beginning, there was an opportunity to quickly resolve the conflict. In December 1282, Charles of Anjou and Peter III of Aragon challenged each other to a duel. They placed the fate of Sicily in the hands of God. The place: Bordeaux. The date: June 1, 1283. Two kings, each accompanied by 100 knights, would fight to the death under the supervision of the King of England.

The news spread like wildfire across Europe. Everyone who could tried to pull the strings to stop the madness. The pope threatened them spiritually. The English monarch was inhibited and temporarily ceded Bordeaux to France so that the city would cease to be neutral, in order to force the combat to be suspended.

Charles was confident that either Pedro would not show up—in which he would sell himself as the winner due to the non-appearance of the adversary—or he would come, and the French army would capture him. Pedro, although soon aware that there would be no combat, did not want to flee from the challenge. He secretly traveled to the Aquitaine city with a handful of faithful followers, and visited a Bordeaux notary the day before, who certified documents affirming that the Aragonese king had complied and that the French king had tried to set him up. And he left with the same stealth with which he had come.

Letter from the king to Pedro de Aibar. ACA,C,Royal Letters,Peter II,10 Pulse para ampliar

Pedro El Grande's Letter

The surprising unconsummated challenge was narrated in great detail by later chroniclers, and each one embellished or misrepresented it according to his sympathies for one or the other protagonist. In addition, some original documents from the time of the event are preserved, such as the one presented here.

On May 1, 1283, from Trápani (Sicily), the King of Aragon wrote a letter in Catalan to Pedro of Aibar, one of the knights who were to accompany him in combat. In it he explained the duel, ordered him to gather the best military equipment he could and prepare to travel urgently to Bordeaux. He warned him of the dangers of the journey through Gascony, a land infested with French troops eager to capture them. Immediately afterwards, the monarch began a hasty and dangerous journey to arrive on time for his appointment with Charles of Anjou, and thus safeguarded his honor and that of "all of Spain".

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ACA,CANCILLERÍA,Cartas Reales,Pedro II [III],Serie general,10

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