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Women, Nobility and Power

Women have always had, and still have, a capital role in our common history.

Although medieval prejudices had relegated women to the categories of mothers, nuns or witches, the Renaissance and the Modern period illuminated a new mental universe. However, for many centuries later, beauty, virtue, virginity, holiness and obedience, as well as the complete dedication to the husband and the family, continued being proposed as feminine ideals. Thereby, installed at the crossroads between Eva and the Virgin Mary, Sin and Paradise, this important part of population was eclipsed by male tutors, parents or husbands.

After all, noble ladies sometimes overflowed the misogynist role, traditionally assigned to women in the family, the domestic space and the public sphere, to take up the reins of their own existence and lineage or even of a whole manor.

This exhibition aims to be a feminine approach to the existence of great characters that held power or were outstanding pieces on the political board of their time. Besides, through the documents and contemporary images that we propose, it will be possible to contemplate the secrets of their daily life, their discreet influence on their husbands and monarchs, as well as the keys of their education, their devout and philanthropic background, and even their cultural patronage and their projection in arts.

In summary, a whole, a kaleidoscope of power spaces, prejudices, dreams and ambitions that evoke a past world in which women did not give up to be an active subject of their own destiny.


Spanish class-based society was deeply unequal. The set of rights and duties applicable to each person varied depending on the place where they lived and their ascription to a specific creed, lineage or gender, as well as their links with a certain corporation or guild.

During the Middle Ages and Modern times, women were considered, from the legal outlook, as minors who needed paternal guardianship

-while they were single- and marital tutelage after getting married. Only with widowhood did they reach certain autonomy and personal independence. Women were conceived as human beings whose natural spaces were the family and domestic environment, staying out of the public space where decision-making and struggle for power were developed.

However, the fact of belonging to a privileged status, guaranteed them to enjoy education and economic capability by having their own dowries and assets. In addition, their social relationships and family networks allowed them to have an access to power and to the royal court as a means of personal and social promotion, something that was forbidden to women belonging to other estates and economic levels.

Noble women, making use of their privileges and legal means that were socially permitted, were able to articulate their own power spaces beyond its family and domestic environment. Not only did they rule and impart justice over their vassals, but also they were active patrons and art promoters, and participated and machinated in the royal court and in the social life of their time.

Título de marquesa de Mendigorría


The existence of a privileged estate like nobility was justified since the Middle Ages taking into account the triple division of society: bellatores (warriors), oratores (clergy) and labratores (workers).

During the Early Medieval period, when the border society was still being set up, the capability to contribute to the defense and expansion of the kingdom through war was the gateway to an elite that, gradually, became increasingly inaccessible. Thereby, an individual could integrate

into the nobility basically in two ways: either by belonging to a heroic ancestor’s lineage, or by receiving a royal or pontifical concession as compensation for services that were rendered in the political or military sphere.

Since women were excluded from warlike undertakings, it is strange to find royal graces directly granted to them. For the most part, they enjoyed the consideration of noble ladies by blood right, or they were later exalted thanks to their close participation in the orbit of the court. Both circumstances provided them with the opportunity to access to spaces of power that otherwise would have been forbidden.


The extensive family network, which set up the lineage, wielded a tight control over women by placing them in a position primarily aimed at procreation and marriage. Through this, bonds between noble families were reinforced, as well as the patrimony and the social prestige of the lineage were consolidated.

In this way, sometimes when they were still girls, women were led to marriage by their parents or tutors’ decision after having settled marriage pacts in which girls had poor decision-making capability. These agreements, called capitulaciones, included, among other aspects, the amount of the husband and the wife’s contribution to the marriage partnership that was intended to establish.

Interests in getting advantageous marriages, in addition to the limitations of a reduced and select marriage market, forced the need to arrange weddings between close relatives that only could be performed by obtaining a consanguinity dispensation. Besides, the competition to obtain the most appropriate union made the amount of the dowry remarkably increase throughout the Middle Ages and Modern times. Therefore, quite often, lineage chiefs opted just to marry a reduced number of the women who were under their tutelage, procuring that the rest of them became nuns, given that a much less substantial dowry was required. Moreover, it is necessary to consider the investment in holiness, since having nuns and abbesses from their parentage entailed a prestige for the lineage.

Beyond their roles as mothers and wives, noble women also had the opportunity to thrive on the aristocratic environment where they lived. Some of these possibilities of development and increase of their social prestige were a consequence of the performance of several positions in the court and their membership in orders of noble ladies -equivalent to masculine cavalry orders-, as well as the elevation of their status by granting them royal graces, like the title known as Grandeza de España (Grandee of Spain).

What is evident is that the possibilities of these women holding a factual power were increased in those cases where they were not subjected to the authority of men, either by death or absence of them. In these periods, ladies acted as assets and properties managers and as tutors of their minor children, which gave them greater legal capability.

In any case, it cannot be forgotten that in spite of the tendency to agnatic (masculine via) transmission of the Western European nobility, Spanish women were not fully subsumed within the lineages of their husbands but they frequently tried to keep the identity signs of their own ancestry through the foundation of charities and secondary mayorazgos that demanded, in order to hold them, to assume the maternal symbols, such as coats of arms and surnames, by their masculine or feminine offspring. This fact was often embodied in the corresponding deeds of foundation of mayorazgo as well as in their last wills and testaments.


Despite social exclusion to which women were subjected, there were many cases in which they received, as inheritance, the main mayorazgos of their lineages and they could exercise public power as natural ladies of the manor. This circumstance always depended on the absence of better-positioned males in the line of succession, but the high mortality rate of preindustrial society made these situations not so exceptional as it could have expected.

To the circumstance of inheriting a manor by means of mayorazgo, it is necessary to add those cases in which the absence or the death of their husbands, especially when children were still minors, converted certain noble women in real owners of their House and estates. In addition, owning a “mayorazgo” often involved exercising jurisdiction over territories and villages, the possession of castles and fortresses, and the designation of posts. These facts allowed these women to exercise a direct power and to administer the government and justice over their vassals, as well as the power to appoint public officials and receive incomes derived from taxes.

In the same way, some abbesses became authentic ladies of the manor given that certain monasteries, such as “Las Huelgas Reales” (Burgos) had civil and criminal jurisdiction over numerous villages, owned a large number of estates and exerted direct influence on other dependent monasteries.

Catalina Carvajal correa mayor de Indias
Libro de cuentas del hospital de la Latina fundado por Beatriz Galindo


Masculine influence in class-based society fostered a specific education for each gender. The peculiarities of women education were conditioned by the roles that the community expected they played in their adult stage. Thus, noble girls were imbued with an atmosphere where devotional images and practices favoured the construction of a feminine ideal that privileged the assimilation of certain attitudes preferred by the Catholic society, which were suitable for both religious and secular life.

Sediments of this education, together with the economic possibilities of these families and their close relations between them and the high ecclesiastical hierarchy, led many noble ladies to allocate significant resources and efforts to the endowment and patronage of religious establishments and to the foundation of institutions that could focus on exalting a dogma (like the Catholic Blessed Sacrament) or exercising beneficence and pious assistance in favour of the most needy people, as a Christian caritas manifestation.

Such practices also had an important propaganda component, since they gave public visibility to the lineage and fame to women as righteous Christians, benefactors of the community and promoters of religious patronage. They also served to establish a link between religious institutions, such as convents, monasteries, chapels and brotherhoods, and the lineage of those who had founded and sponsored them.


Frequently, historiography has emphasized the process of political devaluation that women suffered with the passing of the Middle Ages, a situation that, to a greater or lesser extent, remained until the Contemporary Age.

During the Early and High Middle Ages, coinciding with the progressive institutionalization of the forms of government, women were confined in the private sphere. This fact was probably favoured by the violent environment and the territorial struggles in late-medieval Spain that so badly were in tune with the stereotyped image of the feminine universe.

However, despite the rejection of women’s public participation in government affairs (except queens), some noble ladies influenced kings and governors through a factual and informal power, based on ties of affiliation, marriage and friendship. This has been called “power in the shadow”, “smooth conditioning mechanisms” or “peaceful sociability areas”

Privileged spaces for the development of these tacit forms of influence were the royal palace and the court, where women exercised as meninas, ladies-in-waiting, nursemaids, and accompanying ladies of queens and princesses, but also councils, viceroyalties, embassies and, definitely, all those places where their mere presence, together with the ladies’ own abilities, aroused the royal favour and the access to privileged information.

The presence of women in these spaces of power was usual because of being wives, mothers, sisters or daughters of royal ministers or holding posts in the palace as a result of prizes granted by the monarchs due to their merits achieved by themselves or by some close ancestors.

Diploma de la academia romana de bellas artes de San Lucas concedido a la marquesa de Santa Cruz


Misogyny, which prevailed for centuries, presupposed that feminine intelligence and functions were inferior to masculine ones. This fact resulted in a historical restriction of women education to the tasks of the domestic universe and to the performance of their role as Catholic mothers and wives. However, this situation was very conditioned because of the belonging of these learners to a certain social stratum and their families’ financial resources.

Among the noble estate women, the exercise of cultural patronage was a way of fostering both their recognition and social influence and those of their lineages. Further, unlike other forms of power from which women were excluded as the government (at least in its formal aspect) or the military career, this way was the most lawful one for them, given that it was associated with socially accepted ideals, considered as properly feminine.

Since the Middle Ages, religious institutions were the main beneficiaries of noble ladies’ magnanimity and economic power, many of them often financed the construction and provision of temples, monasteries and chapels, exalting through art ethical values such as humility, piety and chastity, which were shared by clergymen and women.

New winds that Renaissance brought and the advent of Modernity increased women’s access to high culture through collecting, reading and artistic patronage, areas in which they were able to express, in a more personal way, their criteria and preferences, while they showed their wealth and status.

These cultural practices in aristocratic circles were an emulation of those accomplished in the royal courts, where image and writing were important tools for demonstrating the King’s power and the exaltation of his figure. All that favoured the establishment of client networks between ladies of the aristocracy and artists and writers from which both groups benefited. They obtained the economic advantages of having a sponsor and women enjoyed a greater social projection of themselves and their noble Houses.