The royal family of Spain with daughter Leonor, Princess of Asturias
An exploration of Léonor de Guzman's lineage through the Spanish Monarchy
By Jeremy Johnson, Dramaturg
The title character in Donizetti’s La favorite was a true historical figure in medieval Castile, with whom King Alfonso XI had ten children. While the opera’s title implies—to present-day English speakers—that Léonor de Guzman was the king’s favorite mistress out of many, she was in fact his only mistress (he was married to Maria of Portugal, with whom he had two children). The term “favorite” refers to a specific role, one in which a mistress to the king holds significant lands and has influential political sway. Léonor de Guzman was being primed for queenship in their very public, scandalous affair. Much to the dismay of the nobility, she held many important lands and castles throughout the Kingdom of Castile.
While the opera ends with the title character’s death (no surprise there!), the historical Léonor outlived King Alfonso XI. After his death, Queen Maria had Léonor arrested and executed, not just for revenge, but also to further delegitimize the children she had with the late king. When King Alfonso XI died in 1350, his only living son with Maria became king, Pedro I. Alfonso’s oldest living son with Léonor was Enrique II; he retained the support of much of the Castilian nobility who saw in him a much weaker and more pliable monarch than Pedro. For 19 years, Pedro and Enrique waged a war of succession, the Castilian Civil War, until Pedro was finally assassinated at the hands of his half-brother. Léonor’s son became the official king of Castile in 1369 and Léonor’s lineage can be traced directly to the current Spanish monarch.