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Simon Doubleday

The Wise King

The story of Alfonso X, the 13th-century Spanish philosopher-king whose affinity for Islamic culture left an indelible mark on Western civilization.
  • All the world’s a chessboard

    Prince Alfonso (b. 1221), heir to Castile and León, was tutored in the Arabic game of chess. But in medieval Spain’s complex game of power politics, even one’s own pieces could rebel.

  • Stargazer

    For centuries, Alfonso’s name was associated with the scientific study of the stars. The intellectual waves of his reign (1252-1284) washed over Renaissance Italy, and back across the Mediterranean.

  • Wisdom is the love of all loves, the water of all fountains

    Many Christians, Muslims, and Jews believed a king should lead his people in learning as in war. Alfonso modeled himself on the caliphs of Seville, the sophisticated city his father conquered in 1248.

  • Wise queens

    Among the women who reshaped Alfonso’s world were his politically expert grandmother Queen Berenguela, his diplomatically skilled wife Queen Yolant, and his half-sister, Queen Eleanor of Castile.

  • Tragedy and alchemy

    Alfonso’s eldest son died suddenly; another turned against him; his dream of continental power was beset with obstacles. But in art, writing and music, his struggles were alchemized into the sublime.

  • “King Solomon declared that a joyful spirit in man makes his life flourish in beauty: but that a gloomy spirit not only consumes the body but gnaws away the bones”

    Alfonso the Wise 1221-1284
  • “There is no pleasure in this world like the company of friends,” said the Mouse, “and no pain like losing them”

    Calila e Digna
  • “Because of their great desire to hurt those whom they dislike, men live in constant vexation and anxiety, waiting for the proper time to do them injury, and by brooding about this, they injure themselves, before they can do so to others”

    Alfonso the Wise 1221-1284
  • “A man who eagerly desires to collect great treasures, but not for the purpose of doing good with them, is not their master but their slave”

    Alfonso the Wise 1221-1284
  • “Children, learning while they are small, resemble white wax when an engraved seal is placed upon it, because it leaves its mark there”

    Alfonso the Wise 1221-1284
  • “When I went to the king to enter his service I gave him a finely crafted goblet engraved with this inscription: ‘Truth beheld revenge on falsehood / when Alfonso became king’”

    Todros ben Judah Abulafia 1247-c. 1300