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Cistercian Royal Abbey & Nunnery of

Santa Maria la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos

Founded 1187





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)).  Eleanor was daughter of Eleanor of Aquitane, and sister of the nasty English Plantagenet Kings Richard I (the gay crusader) and John (who got Magna Cartared) and Queen Joan of Sicily.  


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 monk to do this. 


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 if ingenious water driven devices and generally working their lands and ponds productively.  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 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. 




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 



Above: 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 is still (2006) undergoing significant renovations which have 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) abuts the south side of the church in standard Cistercian fashion.




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.


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All original material © Adrian Fletcher 2000-07 - The contents may not be reproduced without permission.