Unveiling the secrets of Catalan Kings

A scientific investigation on the four royal tombs and mummies buried in the Santes Creus Monastery confirms some beliefs, corrects others and unveils some secrets. Peter the Great, who conquered the Kingdom of Sicily in 1282, was dying his hair and Blanche of Anjou died from complications post labour. In the Middle Ages, the Crown of Aragon ruled the Western Mediterranean basin.

CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

June 22, 2011 11:04 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- Archaeology, high-technology and Middle Age monarchs. Those are the ingredients of an ambitious investigation on the four royal tombs of the Santes Creus Monastery, from the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The study, which has now finished, has unveiled some secrets of the Catalan royals. The research has lasted two years and has focused on Peter III of Aragon, known as “the Great”, and Queen Blanche of Anjou, wife of Peter III’s heir. The study also wanted to analyse the remains of the Admiral Roger de Llúria, buried at the king’s feet, but the analysis indicated that his tomb contained remains from four different bodies and none of them were the Admiral’s. The investigation enabled the reconstruction of the king and queen’s faces. It has also confirmed that Blanche of Anjou died from complications post labour, after her tenth time giving birth. In addition, there were two surprises regarding Peter the Great, the Catalan monarch who conquered the Kingdom of Sicily in 1282. He was dying his hair blond, a common practice at the time, and he was not buried dressed as a monk, as previously thought. Both Peter the Great and Blanca of Anjou were buried with luxurious clothing. Last year, scientists already surprised everybody by opening Peter the Great’s tomb and inserting a camera that displayed a not so well preserved mummy, 725 years old.

To commemorate the 850th anniversary of the foundation of the Santes Creus’ Monastery, a study to investigate its Royal Tombs was launched. It had a total cost of 700,000 euros and includes the restoration and lighting of the tombs. After a two year investigation, on Monday the main results were presented by the head of the project Marina Miquel. Most confirmed initial hypotheses or data from bibliographic research. One of these is that Queen Blanche of Anjou, wife of James II ‘the Fair’, died just after her tenth labour, due to complications. The study has enabled the team to discover some burial practices. The Queen was buried wearing carmine on her cheeks, a post-mortem makeup. The king was buried wearing a luxurious tunic and not monk's clothes, as previously thought.

A surprising discovery has been that the king dyed his hair blond. The presence of Apigenin, a substance made from spartium –whose flowers are yellow–, was discovered in hairs found in the tomb. This substance was used to dye hair, a practice quite common at the time.

The research has enabled the faces of King Peter the Great and Queen Blanche of Anjou to be rebuilt. It has been found that the sculpture of the queen on the tomb, is not an accurate representation of her, but instead an ideal image of her. Peter the Great was a healthy man, quite tall for the time (between 1.75 and 1.80 metres), and suffered an infectious illness of the lungs. However, it has not been confirmed that he died from this illness.

DNA has also been analysed. Peter the Great belongs to the H mitochondrial kinship, a common DNA type in Europe nowadays. However, the Y chromosome could not be analysed, due to the body’s degradation. Therefore the descendants and ascendants of Peter the Great will not be identified. Blanche of Anjou belonged to the halogroup U, one of the most common and old in Europe, which presents specific mutations. Relatives of the queen may be identified in the future.

The investigation raises some additional questions, such as who are the four bodies found inside the tomb of Admiral Roger de Llúria. That tomb is at the feet of Peter the Great’s, as a sign of loyalty. However, the remains of the King’s Admiral who conquered Sicily were not found in the tomb, but those of four other people.

Most of the Catalan kings are buried in Poblet

Peter the Great (Peter III) contributed to the expansion of the Monastery of Santa Maria de Santes Creus, and asked to be buried there. He was joined by his admiral, who led the conquest of the Kingdom of Sicily. Peter’s son, King James II ‘the Fair’, and James’ wife, Blanche of Anjou were also buried there. Their tombs are in the monastery's church, in Gothic Mausoleums and are known as the “Royal Tombs”. The great-grand son of Peter the Great, King Peter IV called ‘the Ceremonial’ took the decision that Catalan kings would be buried in the Monastery of Poblet. However, he did not move the four Royal Tombs of Santes Creus.

Peter the Great was the son of James I, called ‘the Conqueror’. James I conquered the Muslim kingdoms of Mallorca and València. Peter III seized the Kingdom of Sicily and his son James II ‘the Fair’, the Kingdom of Sardinia. In the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries the Crown of Aragon ruled the western Mediterranean Basin, dominating Catalonia, Valencia, Aragon, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Naples, and for some decades some enclaves in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin.

Background on the Catalan monarchs

The Catalan monarchs in the 13th and 14th were actually Kings of Aragon as the title of “King of Catalonia” did no exist. Catalonia was part of the Crown of Aragon. It was the most powerful and rich part of the kingdom, with its own rules and institutions. In the mid 12th century, the Catalan counties, which had been independent for almost three centuries and were a strong power in Europe, united with the small Kingdom of Aragon. The Catalan counties formed a de facto unity and were led by the Count of Barcelona, who became “primus inter pares”, since the late 9th century. Catalan historiography pictures this figure as the “Count-King” as the Count of Barcelona was in practical terms a sovereign. Aragon was looking for a king to solve a succession problem and the Count of Barcelona, who had been acting as king for centuries, was looking for royal blood and a way of expanding his rule.

At the end of the 9th century, a group of counties declared their independence from the Kingdom of the Franks, tired from a weak and distant royal power that did not help them fight the Arabs and defend the Hispanic March. It was the birth of a self-governed territory, which would build over the centuries a feeling of unity and common identity. It was the embryo of the Catalan nation.