The County of Barcelona and the Kingdom of Aragon were united following the marriage of the Count of Barcelona, Ramon Berenguer IV, to the one-year-old Peronella of Aragon in 1137. The two realms retained their own laws and were ruled separately and the resulting composite monarchy was known as the Crown of Aragon. New territories were incorporated, which also had different laws and political institutions. For this reason, the Catalano-Aragonese Confederation is a convenient way of referring to the Crown of Aragon and its component states.
Another common source of confusion revolves around the difference between the Kingdom of Aragon and the Crown of Aragon. The latter was created by the dynastic union of Catalonia and the Kingdom of Aragon and later came to include the Kingdoms of Valencia, Mallorca, Sardinia, Sicily and Naples as well as parts of Greece.
As all these constituent parts were separate sovereign states, the Crown of Aragon is often referred to by the convenient term the Catalano-Aragonese Confederation. This is because the two founder states, the Kingdom of Aragon and the Principality of Catalonia, always retained their sovereignty. However, the similarity between the names of the Kingdom and the Crown of Aragon is often used as an excuse to say that Catalonia was always part of Aragon and has never existed in its own right.
A Visit To Northern Castile
Although nearly 30 years in Barcelona has given me a very Catalan view on things, I have also had the good fortune to explore the rest of Spain in-depth. A couple of years ago, one of our close friends invited us to spend a week at her home in Palencia in Northern Castile. With typical Castilian generosity, she took us on fascinating historical, cultural and gastronomic tours of the region.
Very interested to hear my impressions, our friend was delighted to see that I was blown away by everything I saw but slightly annoyed that my experiences only served to confirm my sense of the difference between Castile and Catalonia. There are no Visigoth churches comparable with San Juan de Baños in Catalonia, for example, and the plateresque period, so important in Castilian religious ornamentation, finds virtually no representation in Catalan church design. I also became aware of the importance of the Kings of Navarre on the region during the Christian conquest and found myself reading up on a whole set of names with whom I was previously unacquainted. Furthermore, you try getting decent lechazo here in Barcelona.
I can't remember how the topic came up but one morning over breakfast, we were talking about the origins of the respective regions. Our friend came out with the claim that Catalonia had never existed as a separate entity because it was ruled by the Count of Barcelona. Her argument was that being only counts, they had to be vassals of somebody and that somebody had to be the King of Aragon. Catalonia had never existed in its own right.
Later that day we were taken into Valladolid and given an amazing tour of the city by a local historian. Once again, the topic of Catalonia came up. The historian also informed me that Catalonia had never existed other than as part of Aragon. It was at this point, that I discovered that mentioning the idea of a Catalano-Aragonese Confederation makes proud Castilians very angry indeed.
To put this into context, I must point out that these people were not only kind and generous but also extremely well-educated. They were showing off the best of their region or town to highly regarded friends. But they didn't have me completely sussed out and took me as an intelligent and motivated foreigner. Although aware of my interest in history, art and architecture, they underestimated how much I might know about Spanish history, in general, and Catalan history, in particular.
The comments they make were completely off guard and showed how ingrained their of opinions are. This is due to the education they have received and is reinforced by the limited view of Spanish history portrayed in the media.
A Dynastic Union
The union of the Houses of Barcelona and Aragon came about as a result of a succession crisis. Following the death of his brothers Pedro I (1094-1104) and Alfonso I (1104-1134), the third son of Sancho Ramirez of Aragon, Ramiro II came to the Aragonese throne in 1134. Being the third in line, Ramiro had never expected to become king and had spent most of his life as a Benedictine monk.
Ramiro had never married and had no descendents so the royal line of Aragon was about to die out. He was quickly betrothed to Agnes of Aquitaine, who gave birth to a daughter Peronella in 1136.
At the time, the power struggles between the kingdoms to the west of the Pyrenees were internecine to say the least. A particularly aggressive Castile was gradually attaining ascendancy and the Kingdom of Aragon wanted to secure its borders through alliance. Ramiro II found a solution to the Castilian threat on the other side of the Pyrenees, which marked a clearer border between Aragon and the territories ruled by the House of Barcelona. The one-year-old Peronella was married to the 24-year-old Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona, Girona, Osona and Cerdanya, in Barbastro on 11th August 1137.
With the succession problem resolved, the aged Ramiro II abdicated in November 1137 and returned to the monastery. As Peronella was still an infant, Ramon Berenguer IV became prince regent and effective ruler of a combined territory comprising the Kingdom of Aragon and the Catalan counties.
This was a marriage of convenience and the Aragonese nobles were keen to ensure that the two realms retained their own laws and customs. Around this period, we first encounter the use of Catalonia to refer to the domains of the Counts of Barcelona, where the Catalan language is spoken. These territories would never become a kingdom but were ruled by agreement with the other counts. From then on, this confederation of Catalan Counties slowly became known as the Principality of Catalonia.
Two Territories Ruled by a Single Monarch
The idea that separate countries can be ruled by the same monarch whilst at the same time retaining their own laws, institutions and identities is very easy to understand. A clear example would be that of England and Scotland, whose King James VI became James I of England in 1603. The two countries remained completely separate both politically and culturally throughout the 17th century until they were united politically by the Act of Union in 1707.
Catalonia and Aragon were constituent parts of the Crown of Aragon but remained separate for centuries. Together they were able to create an empire that included Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia and Balearic Islands as well as large parts of Southern France and later Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Naples and Milan and even Athens and Neopatria in Greece. The reasons behind the expansion were more commercial than territorial. As new territories were incorporated, they were given separate laws and political systems. Although not used at the time, the term Catalano-Aragonese Confederation conveniently describes the relationship between the component states.
The Crown of Aragon was a composite monarchy, also nowadays referred to as a confederation of individual states or kingdoms. It was ruled by one king as a result of the dynastic union of the Kingdom of Aragon and the County of Barcelona. The component realms of the Crown were not united politically except at the level of the king, who ruled over each autonomous polity according to its own laws, raising funds under each tax structure, dealing separately with each Cortes.
Put in contemporary terms, it has sometimes been considered that the different lands of the Crown of Aragon functioned more as a confederacy of cultures rather than as a single country. In this sense, the larger Crown of Aragon must not be confused with one of its constituent parts, the Kingdom of Aragon, from which it takes its name.
Although the capital of the Crown of Aragon was nominally Zaragoza, such a large Mediterranean empire could only be organised and administered from a port city. It is for this reason that from the coronation of Alfons II of Aragon and I of Barcelona in 1164 until the death of Martin the Humane in 1410, the Catalano-Aragonese Confederation was effectively ruled from the royal palaces in Plaça del Rei in Barcelona. This is also why the Archives of the Crown of Aragon are now kept in the Catalan capital.
An indication of Catalonia's role in the confederation is that the Crown of Aragon adopted the Catalan Senyera as its flag. The Senyera was the standard of the Counts of Barcelona and forms part of the flags of Catalonia, Aragon, Valencia and the Balearic Islands to this day. The Count-Kings were buried in Catalonia, mostly at the Monastery of Poblet in the south of the Principality.
A further indication is the extension of the Catalan language. Catalan is the authochtonous language of Mallorca, which was incorporated in 1232, and Valencia, which became part of the confederation in 1238. It is also spoken in the former Catalan counties in the south of France, a region on the border between modern Catalonia and Aragon known as La Franja as well as in Alghero in Sardinia, which was conquered in 1324.
The current Spanish government, however, refuses to accept the historical evidence. In a letter to Members of the European Parliament in October 2014, Partido Popular MEP Esteban González Pons claimed that "The situation in Scotland and Catalonia is neither similar nor comparable. Scotland was an independent kingdom and its own Parliament decided to join the rest of the UK in 1707. Catalonia was part of the former Crown of Aragon and has been an integral part of Spain from its origins."
While the Spanish government continues to deny that Catalonia ever existed as an sovereign state, it is unlikely that the Catalan people will get the treatment they deserve.