Castle of the Week 131 – Castillo de Bellver
Jaume I, King of Aragon, reclaimed the Bealeric Isles from Islamic rule in the late 13th Century. When he perished in 1276, he split his kingdom between his two sons Pedro and Jaume. Pedro received the majority of the mainland territories while his brother gained the more secure, but less economically viable islands. Jaume (James II) established sweeping reforms on the Bealeric Isles that encouraged agricultural development and the establishment of trade and textile industries. He joined the rest of Christendom in arresting Templars and seizing their property in 1307. The wealth gained by James II was invested in building projects around the isles, including funding the building of Castillo de Bellver to protect his kingdom’s most important port city, Palma.
Pere Salva, the architect of the Almundaina Palace, was hired to design the castle, which also would serve as a summer palace for the royals. Master Builder Ponc Dercoli Rossiilon was hired to oversee the construction. Most of the castle’s stone came locally from mines in the hills although hard stone was imported from Portals and Santanyi. The old Catalan words “veer bell” meaning “beautiful view” were used to describe the castle as it was built on a hill overlooking Palma and its harbor. The castle was completed in 1311. Many surveyors note Eastern influences on the castle and often speculate that the castle design influenced the builders of Michelstetten Castle in Austria and Castel del Monte in Italy.
The architect developed a defensive exterior consisting of a circular wall with four towers and four turrets protected by a dry moat. Three of the towers are attached to wall. However the largest tower, the Torre de L’Homentage (Tower of Homage), is placed at a distance and connected to the circular wall by a bridge. It guards the bridge to the circular wall’s entrance and the entrance through the outer wall. The interior of the circular wall contains a circular courtyard with a well. It’s perimeter is lined with a gallery of Romanesque and Gothic arches and nearly all of the castle’s ceilings are cross-vaulted in Gothic style. The first floor of the castle contained a large kitchen, hall, armory, and barracks. The royal apartments and the Chapel of Saint Marc occupy the second floor. The dungeon was in the bottom of the Tower of Homage.
The royal brothers remained on friendly terms until their deaths. However, their heirs were more ambitious. The Bealeric Isles had become a powerful center of Mediterranean trade that rivaled Barcelona, possessed very good diplomatic relations with France and most of Italy, and was respected by and even allied with many Muslim cities on the mainland. Peter IV demanded the fealty of his archipelago-ruling cousin, James III. After stalling for some time, no acceptable submission was made, and Peter IV launched a legal process against James III to disposes him of his isles in 1339. The case went before the Pope and a council. Eventually it appeared that the Pope would rule in favor of James III. King James predicted that his cousin would turn to violence and returned to his islands to muster defenses.
Peter IV declared James III a contemptuous vassal and invaded the Bealeric Islands with a superior force in 1343. After a battle for control of Palma, James III withdrew to the countryside with the remains of his army. The mayor of Palma and several nobles and wealthy merchants held out in Castillo de Bellver until 1344, when the hope of a relief force vanished with the defeat of James III’s ruined army. James III was driven into exile. He would return in 1349 to reclaim his archipelago kingdom, but perished in his attempt. Peter IV imprisoned James III’s widow and children and other supporters of James III in Castillo de Bellver. In 1395, King Juan I of Aragon transferred his court to Bellver to escape the plague that ravaged mainland Europe. When he returned to the mainland, he ceded the castle to priors of Caroxia. Eventually the castle became the property of the Prince of Viana, the royal heir.
In the 1500s, reforms were issued across the Spanish Empire, which brought renovations to the castle that removed the barbican, strengthened the outer walls, and added artillery. In order to add artillery, the road leading to the castle was paved, and is known to this day as Powder Lane. The reforms included economic policies that were unpopular with the guilds, which eventually they rose up in rebellious conspiracies across Spain. The nobles and unallied merchants on Mallorca took refuge in Castillo de Bellver as the Revolt of the Brotherhoods ran its course on the islands (1521). Eventually the guilds’ forces gained entry and massacred the castle’s inhabitants; the only time the Bellver ever fell. They established an independent state on Mallorca that lasted one and half years when extinguished by Spanish Emperor’s troops.
Castillo de Bellver became the occasional residence of viceroys until the War of the Spanish Succession, wherein it was converted to a political prison (1717). During this time, a hooded external musket platform was built beyond the outer walls along with a garden. These have since been reclaimed by the forest. The castle’s reluctant prisoners included Joan Coll Crespi, Miquel I Bibiloni Corro, the physicist Francois Arago, radicals Louis Lacy and Esteve Bontet I Perello, republicans Valenti Almirall and Arsenio Martinex Campos. The castle saw continued prison duty through the mid 1800s and housed the surrendered French Officers who lost the Battle of Bailen in 1808, a defeat that broke the myth of Napoleonic invincibility. Perhaps it’s most famous reluctant inhabitant was Gaspar Melchor de Jjovellanos, the former minister to Carlos IV of Spain, who wrote the majority of his literary compositions while exiled to the island.
In the late 19th century, the castle became a coin mint, but was repurposed for prison duty during the Spanish Civil War. At one point, it held over 800 captured Republican soldiers and was the site of the execution of Spanish Parliament member Jaume I Rossello and republican mayor Emili Darder I Canaves. In 1931, the woods and Castle were ceded by the central government to the Palma Council on the condition that they would install a museum. After many renovations the Palma History Museum and the Despuig Collection of Classical Sculpture opened. Over the years it’s collections grew to include artifacts from the Talaiotic, Roman, Arab, and Spanish periods of the island’s history. The castle occasionally hosts musical performances and reenactments. All of the mounted city police’s horses are stabled in the forest surrounding the castle and a chapel dedicated to San Alonso Rodriguez was built on the traditional road to the castle. Castillo de Bellver is open year round with a small entrance fee.
Write-up by Sir Hugh.
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