The Muslim Princess Zaida, An Ancestor of the British Royal Family in al-Andalus

Published May 17, 2018 by Rodrigo Garcia-Velasco Bernal

Royal Wedding, Queen Elizabeth II, Zaida, Alfonso VI, Al-Andalus, Muslim, Christian, Seville, House Of Windsor

The House of Windsor is perceived, both at home and abroad, as one of the quintessential British institutions. Yet for all their Britishness, Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs boast an impressive lineage going back to Islamic Spain. Zaida, a Muslim Princess living in eleventh-century Seville, is one of the most improbable and extraordinary ancestors of the Royal Family. Zaida's bloodline reached the English shores through her engagement to Alfonso VI, king of León-Castile. From their offspring descended Isabel Pérez of Castile, who in the fourteenth century was sent to England to marry the Earl of Cambridge. The legacy of al-Andalus thus permeated into the Plantagenet royal court.

At the 14th century palace of the Castilian kings in Seville; this is called the Courtyard of the Damsels (Patio de las doncellas)

This lineage has been of recent interest both in the UK and in the Middle East, as it purportedly proves a family relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Prophet Muhammad himself. Respected experts and commentators such as Burke's Peerage and Ali Gomaa, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, have suggested that Zaida was the offspring of al-Mu'tamid, ruler of Seville and a descendant of Fatima and Ali. As a member of the Banu Hashim, Her Majesty would count as relatives, among others, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, a close friend of the Royal Family. Sadly, the theory of Queen Elizabeth II's Hashemite lineage is too good to be true. The mysteries surrounding Zaida's origins, the key to the puzzle, make it hard to sustain Her Majesty's potential right to rule over the Dar al-Islam.

Be that as it may, there are valuable lessons to be learned from Her Majesty's Spanish ancestor. The story of the marriage between Zaida and Alfonso VI not only puts in question racialised view of ethnic and cultural belonging, but also adds nuance to explanations of the contact between Islam and the Christian West, a historical subject that has seen a rising popular interest in the past decade. A number of recent books and articles have presented the contact between 'Las Tres Culturas' (as the Abrahamic faiths are commonly referred to in Spain) in one of two mutually-exclusive approaches: Spain was either a land of tolerance, better known as convivencia; or a theatre of war and inter-religious conflict. In fact, Zaida and Alfonso VI lived in a world which allowed little reflection on these modern debates.

Zaida enjoyed the many luxuries of the court of the 'Abbādid dynasty of Seville through her probable marriage to al-Fath al-Ma'mūn, the son of the emir al-Mu'tamid. By the 1040s, the 'Abbādids supplanted Cordoba as the most prominent in al-Andalus. Under the rule of Zaida's father-in-law, al-Mu'tamid, Seville has been regarded to have experienced a 'golden age' in Andalusi literary production. The collection of artists, poets and scholars gathered at the Sevillian court included the emir himself, whose verses were well-regarded by his peers; they were "beautiful as the bud when it opens to disclose the flower", according to the twelfth-century scholar Ibn Bassam.

Christian and Muslim playing chess

The poet king's promotion of the arts of the pen and of the sword had unequal results. In 1091, Seville was captured by the Almoravids troops of Yusuf ibn Tashfin, and al-Mu'tamid was exiled to Aghmat, in Morocco, where he would die soon after, lamenting in his last poems his own failures. As Zaida fled from the disastrous Almoravid siege, in which her husband al-Ma'mūn was killed, her fate appeared sealed. In her hurried exit seeking refuge north of Seville, the princess was taken in captivity and sent to the Castilian court, where she would find a new life.

Her future husband, Alfonso VI, had been for long a thorn in the side of al-Mu'tamid, particularly after May of 1085, when the Castilian ruler seized the bustling city of Toledo in replacement of the local Muslim dynasty. Alfonso VI's conquest of Toledo was a serious blow to the hegemony of al-Andalus in Iberian politics, causing panic among the different emirs of al-Andalus and fuelling the arrival of the Almoravids north of the Straits of Gibraltar.

That fateful series of events has garnered Alfonso VI the dubious honour of being one of the pioneers of the Reconquista. If it can be said at all that there was a process by which the Christian kingdoms of the north "recaptured" the territories lost by the Visigoths in 711 after the Arab arrival in Spain, Alfonso VI certainly did not meet the requirements. It is often forgotten that not a drop of blood was shed when taking over the city on the Tagus River. Likewise, it is not mentioned that Alfonso VI's affinity with the local Muslims scandalised his first wife, the French Queen Constance, to the point of causing a major rift at the Castilian court. In fact, Alfonso VI had spent some time at the Islamic courts in Seville and Toledo as a political exile, chased off by his brothers, García II and Sancho II, after staging a mutiny against him. During his Andalusi sojourn, the Castilian king appears to have taken up some Andalusi courtly practices, whether in personal hygiene or garb, keeping up with the latest trends in Seville.

This does not mean that Alfonso VI was acculturated; rather, the Castilian monarch had acquired a vision of his own political ambitions that transcended the boundaries of his faith. Alfonso VI aspired to become the sole ruler of the Iberian Peninsula, including the Islamic territories. According to the thirteenth-century Tunisian chronicler, Ibn al-Kardabūs, the arrogant Castilian ruler even started to fashion himself as the “"Emperor of the Two Religions". In this context, the decision to welcome Zaida at the Castilian court (instead of sending her to Morocco to her relatives in exile), and the commencement of a sexual relationship with the Muslim princess, was not as a sign of coexistence, but a confident statement of power.

La Giralda, the minaret built by the Almohads

Zaida's position at the court was as poorly understood by Christian contemporaries in Spain as it is nowadays. Some texts refer to her as a concubine; according to Pelayo, the famous bishop of Oviedo, Zaida was "nearly a wife" (quasi pro uxore). And if the presence of the Muslim princess at court might have been a touchy subject in itself, Alfonso VI's decision to sacralise his bond with Zaida was even more perplexing. The birth of Sancho, Alfonso VI's only son and poised to become the heir to the kingdom, was the determining factor. Zaida thus converted to Christianity took the same name Isabel, later used by her famous descendant. Zaida's alcove, so determinant in her rise to royal favour, also saw her fall. The princess died giving birth to one of the other two children begotten with Alfonso VI.

The story of Zaida's marriage to King Alfonso VI remind us of the intimate and profoundly complex interlacing of our common Islamic and European pasts. Transgressing as they did their seemingly insurmountable religious, cultural and political boundaries, Queen Elizabeth II's ancestors are difficult to box into the traditional division of military conquest versus cultural hybridity and tolerance. Looking at the past in pessimistic or rose-tinted lenses more often responds to modern political agendas than to historical concerns.

Rodrigo Garcia-Velasco Bernal was awarded the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship to undertake his PhD studies at the University of Cambridge. His project, which is supervised by Professor David Abulafia, and co-supervised by Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner, focuses on the formation of frontier communities in Spain during the period of Christian expansion over the previously Muslim-dominated territories of al-Andalus, between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.

The edited version of this piece can be found on The Conversation here.

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