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Cistercian Royal Abbey & Nunnery of

Santa Maria la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos

Founded 1187


Spanish and Portuguese Cistercian Abbey Pages





The Cistercian Royal Abbey / Nunnery of Santa Maria la Real de Las Huelgas was founded in 1187 on the initiative of Queen Leonora (Eleanor Plantagenet) (1160 - 1214 (54)) and her husband, King Alfonso VIII (1156 - 1214 (58)).  Leonora was a daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and sister of the nasty English Plantagenet Kings Richard I (the gay crusader) and John (who "lack(ed)-land" and got Magna Cartared) and Queen Joan of Sicily.   She came to Alfonso with a dowry package that included Gascony!  One of her daughters, Blanche, became Queen Consort of Louis VIII of France, and paid for the North Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral, the most spectacular medieval rose window in France.


Las Huelgas broke new ground for women, as the Abbess and Prioress had full delegated powers to hear confessions and administer sacraments, in addition to the autonomous administration of the convent and its huge land holdings (including villages who were subject to law administered by the nunnery).  Other nunneries had to import a priest or ordained monk to do the sacraments and confessions. 


No doubt the fact that the institution specialized in royal nuns helped their autonomy along.  In fact the nunnery became so powerful that Innocent III (1161 - 1198 - 1216 (55)), himself the most powerful of the medieval Popes, had to get into a bit of heavy disciplining at an early stage in its life! 


An huelgas was a grazing area for cattle not required to work the land ...... aristocratic Spanish Cistercian nuns were obviously a different breed from the Cistercian blokes in France, Italy and Britain, most of whose jobs were to get down and dirty draining swamps, producing wool, building all manner of ingenious water driven devices and generally working their lands and water courses productively then later getting into pioneering iron smelting and forging.  In addition, the nunnery had Lay Brother equivalents (presumably Lay Sisters), which must have made life as easy as it gets.


As time went by, the church area of the nunnery became a royal pantheon littered with magnificent carved and painted stone sarcophagi (caskets).  Some 60 of these belonged to members of Royal Families, including 12 Kings and Queens in their own right (as opposed to Queen Consorts).  Below are those of Eleanor and Alfonso. 


It was also here that, in 1254, Plantagenet King Edward I of England married Eleanor of Castile (who later gave her name to England's Eleanor Crosses).  Eleanor was Leonora's great grand-daughter.


Apart from the historical tombs, and the sculptural and architectural masterpieces here, it's also worth going to see because of the wonderful old polished broad planked wood floors in the church and chapter house - which one is allowed to walk on.



Above: The tomb of Queen Leonora (Eleanor Plantagenet Jnr) (1160 - 1214 (54)), daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine and founder of the Abbey,  beside that of her husband, King Alfonso VIII (1156 - 1214 (58)) of Castile.


More photos of Royal tombs in the Abbey, and family tree of members of the royal families of León and Castile buried here 



Italy is not the only place where white vans pose for photographs!  This view of the Abbey church is taken from the north west.  On the right is the nave and the north (Saint Catherine's) aisle which contain most of the surviving royal sarcophagi, and the transept is in the centre.   The Abbey was still (2006) undergoing significant renovations which had closed the apse area and scaffolded parts of the choir and transept and the medieval fabrics museum.  Whilst the Abbey tours and administration are secular, there did seem to be evidence of a religious community lurking in the background.



The Great Cloister (which incorporates the Chapter House shown above) abuts the south side of the church in classic Cistercian fashion.  The broad old polished floorboards here and in the abbey church are some of the most magnificent you will ever see.




The church apse with the south transept to the left and the windows of the chapter house on the far left,

A centre capital in "Las Claustrillas" - the smaller and much more picturesque of the Abbey's two cloisters. 



The transept contains this hinged pulpit which can be swung across to give line of sight contact with the choir area.  Above it is a huge (partly relief) painting of two favourite Spanish themes - moor bashing and complicated coats of arms.  The simple panels at the base are the lions of Leon and the Castle of Castile.


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