The Interesting History of The Prince or Princess of Asturias Title in the Spanish Monarchy

Leonor The Princess of Asturias

In contrast to the common belief that the Asturias in The Prince or Princess of Asturias title is the Spanish word for Austria (because during the Hapsburg reign, the Spanish royals also carried the title Archduke and Archduchess of Austria), it is not. 

When the title was created in 1388, it was in reference to the ancient Principality of Asturias in the Kingdom of Castile.

Today, the Principality of Asturias is an autonomous community located in northwest Spain and bordered by Leon, Galicia, and the Cantabrian Sea. 

The Principality of Asturias in Spain

Asturias is known for its rugged coast, breathtaking mountains, and ancient religious sites. It is one of the most beautiful places in Spain due to its picturesque surroundings.

It is home to the Prince of Asturias Award, which was changed to the Princess of Asturias Awards when King Felipe VI succeeded his father in 2014, and his eldest daughter assumed the title, Princess of Asturias.

The Princess of Asturias

Unlike in Britain where the female heir-presumptive (such as Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II) could not take the title Princess of Wales (because it was reserved for the wife of the Prince of Wales), in Spain, the female heir-presumptive is allowed to use the title Princess of Asturias.

Leonor The Princess of Asturias
Leonor of Spain, the current Princess of Asturias since June 2014

The Kingdom of Castile, where the Prince of Asturias originated, allowed the use of the Princess of Asturias title for its female heir-presumptive since the 15th century. And continued until today.

Leonor The Princess of Asturias
The current Spanish royal family

It was stipulated in the Spanish Constitution of 1978 during the reign of King Juan Carlos, that the heir apparent or heir presumptive to the Spanish crown, from birth or event that makes him or her such, will have the dignity of Prince/Princess of Asturias and other titles traditionally linked to the successor of the Crown of Spain.

The first Princess of Asturias titleholder in her capacity as heir-presumptive, was Infanta Maria of Castile, between her birth in 1401 until the birth of her younger brother, John, in 1403, who became the Prince of Asturias as the heir-apparent.

They were great grandchildren of King Edward III of England through their mother, Catherine of Lancaster. 

Origin of the Prince of Asturias title

The history of how the Spanish heir-apparent or heir-presumptive, acquired the title, Prince or Princess of Asturias, is a long one but very interesting. 

In fact, the succeeding Prince and Princess of Asturias after the first title holder, Henry III of Castile, were descendants of King Edward III of England through his third son, Prince John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster.

Two daughters of King Peter I of Castile: Constance and Isabella, married Edward III of England 's sons. John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster (husband of Constance), and Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York (husband of Isabella). 

During ancient times, the wars of succession and dynastic struggles among heirs were prevalent in all European kingdoms, including the Kingdom of Castile. 

King Peter I of Castile was assassinated in 1369, possibly with the participation of his half-brother, who also succeeded him as Henry II. 

It began the dispute of dynastic succession among their descendants. When Peter I died, John of Gaunt pressed his claim to take the throne on behalf of his wife, Constance.

This claim was supported by his older brother, Edward, the Prince of Wales, who was also known as the Black Prince. The Prince of Wales already supported Constance's father, Peter I, during the Castilian Civil War.

However, the Duke of Lancaster was unsuccessful in his campaign to take the Castilian throne and the Crown was eventually inherited by Henry II's son, who became King John I of Castile (1358-1390).

King John I's first wife was Eleanor of Aragon, they had three children, but only two survived to adulthood: Henry and Ferdinand. Each would mount to the respective thrones of Castile and Aragon as kings.  

King Henry III of Castile, the first Prince of Asturias title holder

Henry (1379-1406) succeeded his father as King Henry III of Castile in 1390, while Ferdinand succeeded his childless maternal uncle (Martin I) as King of Aragon (Ferdinand I) in 1412.

To prevent the descendants of Peter I from launching another series of conflicts to claim the Castilian throne, John I, granted his firstborn son and heir-apparent, Henry, the title of The Prince of Asturias in 1388. The responsibility included jurisdiction over the territory of the Principality of Asturias.

The Principality of Asturias was chosen as the highest jurisdiction lordship of the King and served two purposes: to serve as a generic title of the heir apparent or heir presumptive to the Kingdom of Castile, and as a specific title to apply to the prince who was first in the line of succession to receive income from the principality.

To make peace with John of Gaunt and prevent further claims from his descendants over the throne of Castile, King John I made an agreement to marry his son, Henry, to John of Gaunt and Constance's only child, Princess Catherine of Lancaster.

Imaginary portrait of Catherine, Queen Consort of Castile

The marriage between Henry, the Prince of Asturias, and Catherine resolved the succession disputes between the descendants of Peter I and Henry II over Castile. It also established peace between England and Castile. 

Through Henry III and Catherine of Lancaster's dynastic marriage, the succeeding Prince and Princess of Asturias title holders were blood relatives of the English kings.

Henry and Catherine had three children:

  • Maria (1401-1458), became the wife of King Alfonso V of Aragon
  • Catherine (1402-1439), wife of Infante Henry, Duke of Villena
  • John II (1403-1454), 2nd Prince of Asturias

His son, John II, married Maria of Aragon, daughter of his younger brother, King Ferdinand I of Aragon, making John II and Maria first cousins.

King John II was also a great-grandson of King Edward III of England and nephew of King Henry IV of England. His mother, Catherine, was the half-sister of King Henry IV. He was also a first cousin to King Henry V of England.

John II and Queen Maria had four children but only one survived to adulthood, Henry IV of Castile. 

When the Queen died in 1445, John II married Infanta Isabella of Portugal, and had two children together, Infante Alfonso and Infanta Isabella.

Tension of naming heirs and Prince/Princess of Asturias

But succeeding circumstances, wars, and distrust among nobles toward the weak king, Henry IV, marred the naming of the future heir and heiress to the Castilian Crown.

Henry IV was called "The impotent" because he did not produce any children with his first wife, Blanche II Queen of Navarre. He was also accused of being weak due to his inability to make sound decisions.

However, when he divorced his first wife and married his second cousin, Joan of Portugal (granddaughter of King Ferdinand I of Aragon), they had a daughter, Joanna, born seven years after they got married.

But the birth of Joanna was surrounded by intrigues and rumors. It was speculated that she was not Henry IV's biological daughter but by a royal courtier with whom her mother, Joan, formed a close bond.

Despite Henry's effort to make his only child his heir-presumptive, the nobles forced him to name his half-younger brother, Infante Alfonso, as his heir. 

Henry IV relented and named Alfonso, the Prince of Asturias. But Alfonso died in 1468, which triggered the succession crisis in Castile. 

Alfonso had a younger sister, Isabella, who married their second cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon, in 1469.

Henry IV had divorced his second wife due to the issues of infidelity among others, so Joanna was displaced in the line of succession. 

Henry IV then appointed his half-younger sister, Infanta Isabella, as his heir-presumptive. 

But conflicts erupted when Henry IV died in 1474 and his younger half-sister succeeded him as Queen Isabella I of Castile.

Some nobles and Portuguese settlers in Castile opposed the accession of Isabella I and instead rallied behind Joanna to make her Queen as Henry IV's only child. 

The disputes triggered the War of Castilian Succession

Queen Isabella I of Castile, and Queen Consort of Aragon. She was the great-great-granddaughter of King Edward III of England

Joanna was supported by her maternal uncle, Alfonso V of Portugal, who she married in 1475. 

However, their war campaign was unsuccessful and it ended with a peace treaty in 1479, solidifying the reign of Queen Isabella I over Castile. 

It was also the same year that her husband mounted the throne of Aragon as Ferdinand II.

They were called the Catholic monarchs and the first recognized King and Queen of Spain, although Castile and Aragon remained two separate kingdoms. 

Their youngest daughter, Catherine, became the wife of King Henry VIII of England, and the mother of Queen Mary I of England.

The Prince of Asturias as the title of the heir-apparent to the Kingdom of Castile was continued by the Catholic monarchs. They bestowed it to their firstborn son, John. 

John, unfortunately, did not survive adulthood, so the thrones of Castile and Aragon were inherited by his younger sister, Joanna, who at 16 years old married Archduke Philip of Austria, a Hapsburg prince called "Philip the Handsome". 

Joanna first showed signs of madness when she discovered that her husband had extra-marital affairs. She became thoroughly mad when Philip died of suspected poisoning by her father, Ferdinand II. 

Joanna was eventually locked up in the monastery and her son, Charles, succeeded her as King of both Castile and Aragon. 

King Charles I (who was also Charles V in the Holy Roman Empire), merged Castile and Aragon into one Kingdom, establishing the geographical name of Spain. 

Philip II, the first Prince of Asturias under the united Spain

Charles I continued the tradition of naming the heir-apparent of Spain as Prince of Asturias. His son and successor, Philip, became the first Prince of Asturias under the united Kingdom of Spain. 

The country Philippines in Southeast Asia, which was discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, acquired its name from Philip. 

King Philip II of Spain, the first Prince of Asturias under united Spain

Ferdinand Magellan was a member of the minor Portuguese nobility. He was a skilled sailor and navigator in service of the Crown of Portugal in Asia.

But when King Manuel I of Portugal refused his proposal to reach the Spice islands in the East Indies, he switched allegiance and proposed his expedition plan to King Charles I of Spain in 1518, who accepted it. 

Magellan ultimately led the 1519 Spanish Expedition to the East Indies. In 1521, in search of the Spice islands, his fleet landed on the unknown island but was met with resistance from the island chieftain of Mactan named Lapu Lapu.

Magellan died during the Battle of Mactan but it began the Spanish colonization of the island, which was later named, Las Islas Filipinas or Philip's islands (1543) in honor of Philip, Prince of Asturias. 

It was eventually renamed to Philippine island and further shortened to the Philippines. The country became a colony of Spain for 377 years (1521-1898), from King Charles I to King Alfonso XIII, the great grandfather of King Felipe VI. 

While still Prince of Asturias, Philip married his second cousin, Maria Manuela of Portugal, and had a son, Don Carlos. 

When Maria Manuela died, Philip married his other cousin, Queen Mary I of England, but the marriage did not produce any children.

He returned to Spain after the death of Mary I, and horrified to discover his son and heir, Don Carlos, grew up eccentric. Nonetheless he bestowed Don Carlos the title Prince of Asturias when he ascended the Spanish throne in 1556.

The level of madness of Don Carlos reached a boiling point when he recruited men to assassinate his own father. Philip II was so incensed he locked up his son in a dark room. Don Carlos died of poisoning in total isolation.

Philip II ascended the Spanish throne in 1556 when Charles I abdicated the throne to become a monk. He married twice after Mary I of England. His fourth and last wife, Anna of Austria, gave birth to his heir, the future Philip III. 

Prince of Asturias under Bourbons

The Hapsburg line in Spain ended when King Charles II, the great-grandson of Philip II, died in 1700 without children. 

He named his great nephew, Prince Philip of Anjou his heir, but was not bestowed with the title of Prince of Asturias. 

Philip of Anjou was the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, a Bourbon king, and Infanta Maria of Spain, the older sister of Charles II.

But when Charles II died in 1700, his other great nephew, Archduke Charles of Austria, pressed his claim to the Spanish throne. The war dragged other European kingdoms into the conflict, which was later known as the War of Spanish Succession.

It was one of the bloodiest wars in Europe related to a succession dispute. One of the reasons why the war was triggered and why other European kingdoms supported Charles of Austria in his bid to become King of Spain was the fear of other European countries to expand the power and influence of France to other territories. 

Philip of Anjou was also in the line of succession to the French throne as the second son of Prince Louis, the eldest son and heir-apparent of King Louis XIV.

It was only settled when Philip gave up his claim, and those of his descendants, to the French throne. He ultimately reigned in Spain as King Philip V in 1705, and was the founder of the Bourbon dynasty in Spain. 

His descendants still reigned in Spain today and Bourbon remains Spain's reigning royal house. King Felipe VI, the current King of Spain is Philip V's great-grandson five times. 

The current Prince/Princess of Asturias

King Felipe VI was the first Prince of Asturias in an official capacity between the Spanish Third Republic and the restoration of the monarchy in 1975. His father, Juan Carlos, was not made Prince of Asturias during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. 

King Juan Carlos of Spain
Felipe, Prince of Asturias, and his father, King Juan Carlos

Felipe was officially named Prince of Asturias in 1977 when he was nine years old. It was also the same year that his grandfather, Infante Juan, Count of Barcelona, officially renounced his claim to the Spanish throne, two years after Juan Carlos, was proclaimed King of Spain. 

The Count of Barcelona was not named heir to the Spanish Crown by Francisco Franco, instead, skipped one generation and named Juan Carlos the next King of Spain, which created tension between father and son and led to their estrangement for decades.

King Juan Carlos of Spain
King Juan Carlos of Spain. Reigned: 1975-2014

Felipe also used the title, Duke of Montblanc, the title of the heir-apparent to the Kingdom of Aragon, in addition to Prince of Girona. He is the first member of the Bourbon dynasty to use such a title. 

Another title bestowed on him while still prince was Lord of Balaguer, the title to the heir-apparent of the Kingdom of Majorca, which was part of the Crown of Aragon in the middle ages.

Felipe VI, King of Spain since 2014

When he was still Prince of Asturias, Felipe established the Prince of Asturias Foundation in 1980 and its corresponding Awards in 1981. 

He also began using the title, Prince of Girona, in 1990 and established the Prince of Girona Foundation in 2009.

Prince of Girona was the title of the heir-apparent to the Kingdom of Aragon since 1351. By doing so, Felipe became the first Bourbon prince to carry the title of Prince of Girona. 

His father, King Juan Carlos, used the title, Prince of Girona, before his accession, and even included it in his passport, but it was not official because Francisco Franco only granted him the title, Prince of Spain.

The fifth Bourbon Princess of Asturias

King Felipe VI's eldest daughter and his heir-presumptive (Spain still follows the male-preference primogeniture succession), Leonor, became the first Bourbon princess to carry the title of Princess of Girona. And the fifth Bourbon princess to become Princess of Asturias in her own right.

Leonor The Princess of Asturias
Princess Leonor gave speech during the Princess of Girona Awards night in June this year. Photo: Getty Images

If she would ascend to the Spanish throne someday, she would be Spain's second Queen regnant after Queen Isabella II (1830-1904) in the 19th century. 

Both the Prince of Asturias Foundation and Awards and the Prince of Girona Foundation and Awards were changed to "princess" in 2014 when Leonor became Princess of Asturias and Girona.

Leonor The Princess of Asturias
Leonor of Spain, The Princess of Asturias

She will assume the chairmanship of the two foundations when she turns 18 in October 2023. 

At the moment, it's her father, the King, who assumes the honorary chairmanship of both foundations in her name.

The predecessor of Princess Leonor to the Princess of Asturias title (as heir-presumptive) was Infanta Mercedes, older sister of King Alfonso XIII. She was Princess of Asturias as heir-presumptive of her younger brother until her death in 1904.

Alfonso XIII, who was King of Spain at birth (his father, Alfonso XII, died months before he was born in 1886), only married in 1906 to Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg. Their grandson, Juan Carlos, would later restore the Spanish monarchy in 1975.

King Felipe VI of Spain
King Felipe VI, Queen Letizia, Leonor Princess of Asturias and Infanta Sofia

Leonor's complete official titles

Her Royal Highness Princess of Asturias, Princess of Girona, Princess of Viana (title of the heir to the Kingdom of Navarre), Duchess of Montblanc (secondary title of the heir to the Kingdom of Aragon), and Lady of Balaguer (title of the heir to the Kingdom of Majorca).

Princess Leonor, who was born on October 31, 2005, is currently completing her secondary school at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, United Kingdom.

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