Three hundred years after a romantic drama unfolded in Teruel, Spain, workers begin to restore the city’s San Pedro Church. But as it happens, the job doesn’t just bring the building back to its former glory. You see, as diggers shovel the ground at the ancient structure, they hit what turns out to be two sets of human remains. And thanks to that discovery, a mysterious piece of Spanish folklore – the truth of which has long been debated – may have just become very real indeed.
Yes, the unearthing of the mummified bodies could answer questions that have lingered in the Spanish consciousness for years. Even today, tourists continue to flock to the city that painted the backdrop for a tale that is not just romantic, but also thrilling and tragic.
The story in question started, however, in the early 1200s, when the Marcilla and Segura families were both at the top of Teruel’s social hierarchy. And, in theory, a marriage that brought together these clans wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the power and influence of both the Marcillas and the Seguras would likely increase as a result. When a man and a woman from each of the families fell in love, though, there was a problem: one of them was no longer very rich.
Yet the couple’s forbidden love raged on in spite of its detractors, while it’s even said that the pair were ultimately reunited in the public eye. Sadly, though, the reconciliation didn’t have a fairy tale ending. And questions remained about the liaison, too, when the two sets of remains were unveiled at the site of the San Pedro Church.
Centuries before the bodies were discovered, however, the Marcilla and Segura families were said to have reigned supreme in Teruel. The city lies in the Spanish region of Aragón, which is also home to Zaragoza. And while Juan Martinez – also known as Diego – came from the Marcilla clan, his childhood friend, Isabel, was part of the Seguras.
The story claims that Diego and Isabel had both been playmates when they were younger, in fact. And to begin with, the schoolyard crush they shared didn’t bother anyone; they both came from the same social circle, after all. When the pair had reached the age where they could put marriage on the table, though, Diego’s situation had changed.
Yes, at that time Diego’s family hit a rough patch, meaning they no longer held the wealth that had once defined them. As a result of the Marcillas’ change in fortunes, then, Isabel’s father forbade her from wedding her lifelong love. But this didn’t stop Diego; instead, he struck up a deal with the Segura patriarch in order to secure his intended’s hand in marriage.
Specifically, Diego told Isabel’s dad – who at that time was the wealthiest man in Teruel – that he would earn his way to the wedding. That’s right: the young man asked for five years to build his own wealth to make him worthy of marrying Isabel. Surprisingly, her father accepted the offer, and Diego left town to start accruing the money that he had promised. Apparently, a gentleman’s agreement was final.
In the meantime, though, Isabel’s father hoped that she might find another man to marry in Diego’s absence. Yet the young woman had no intention of vowing herself and her life to another, and this led her to tell her father that she wanted to stay a virgin until the age of 20. Waiting for Diego so long would give her the time to become skilled in housewifery to boot.
Now, although Isabel’s father didn’t seem to want her marrying Diego, he also loved his daughter deeply. He therefore obliged her request, and the two of them waited five years for the Marcilla boy to return. But during that time, no one ever heard from Diego.
Naturally, Diego’s lack of communication left the Segura family in the lurch. What’s more, Isabel’s 20th birthday was approaching, meaning the five-year promise was coming to a close, too. In the end, then, the Seguras found another reputable suitor named Don Pedro de Azagra, who came from Albarracín. And, heartbreakingly, he and Isabel wed on the last day of the half-decade in which Diego could have earned her hand.
Just as the ceremony ended, though, there was a disturbance at the gates of Teruel. Then guards informed the Segura family that a familiar face had returned. Yes, that interloper was indeed Diego, who was carrying the riches he had promised in order to marry Isabel. It seemed as well that he still wanted to wed his former sweetheart. But why hadn’t Diego arrived sooner?
Well, the young man had miscounted the time in which he had to accrue earnings. You see, he hadn’t counted the day on which he had spoken to Isabel’s father as part of his five-year timeframe; the Segura man had, on the other hand, and this was why he had scheduled the wedding for that particular date. It appeared, then, that Diego had returned to Teruel just a fraction too late. And the drama didn’t end there, either.
For one, Diego didn’t want to give up on Isabel. Instead, the night after her wedding to Azagra, he snuck into Isobel’s bedroom. And after the newlywed had awoken, he begged her for a kiss, supposedly saying, “Kiss me, for I am dying.”
But as Isabel had just gotten married, she had no intention of breaking her vow to Azagra. In fact, she responded to Diego’s request by saying, “God would not wish me to deceive my husband.” Instead, she implored him to move on with his life.
According to folklore, Isabel told Diego, “For the love of Christ, I beg you to find another and forget about me. If our love could not please God, then neither should it please me.” And while the heartbroken Spaniard asked one more time for a kiss – and yet again reminded Isabel that he was dying – she still refused to touch his lips with hers.
The story has it that Isabel’s refusal then left Diego with nothing to live for, as he couldn’t handle the thought of separating from her forever. So, the young man took one final breath and collapsed at her feet. He died right in front of his beloved, it’s said, having never received the kiss that he had wanted so badly.
As soon as Isabel realized that Diego had dropped dead, however, a shiver went through her body. Then she woke up her new husband, Azagra, and told him that his snoring had caused her to stir. Isobel added that she wanted Azagra to tell her a story. And after Azagra had done as his new bride had wished, Isobel decided to recount a tale of her own.
Yes, Isabel told Azagra about how Diego had entered their bedroom and died. Then she pointed out Diego’s lifeless body next to their bed – proving, it seems, that her story was real. And when Azagra wondered why his wife hadn’t just kissed the other man to stop him from perishing, she replied, “To not deceive my husband.”
For that decision, Azagra went on to deem Isabel “a woman worthy of praise.” But he wouldn’t have a long time to shower his wife with such affection. You see, after that the pair decided quickly to bury Diego at their local church in a secret ceremony – otherwise Azagra might be blamed for the death of his wife’s former lover.
And Isabel decided to make a statement of her own at the secret burial service for Diego. There, she turned up in her wedding dress and once again walked down the aisle. On this occasion, however, she approached the body of her lifelong love, whose body laid at the front of the church.
Now, while Diego may have died, Isabel felt that she owed him one last kiss – the one she hadn’t given him in life. After she put her lips on his, though, she swiftly met the same fate as her childhood friend. Yes, Isabel dropped dead atop Diego’s body, falling asleep eternally with the man whom she had always loved.
Then, shortly after the lovers’ deaths, Teruel residents called for a joint burial. This, you see, would allow the doomed pair to be together eternally – even if they didn’t get their chance to be united in life. All in all, then, it makes sense that such an explosive account would become an enduring legend.
Indeed, people continued to tell the tale of the Lovers of Teruel for decades after that. As the centuries passed, though, Isabel and Diego became mere historical characters. And as such, their story may have been viewed skeptically. Could the pair have actually died when faced with the reality that they couldn’t be together?
Then, in the 16th century, the legend was brought back to life. At that time, workers descended on the San Pedro Church to restore the place of worship to its former glory. And as they performed the job, they uncovered two bodies. Naturally, then, the find led some to speculate whether the remains could be those of Isabel and Diego.
And, remarkably, the investigators concluded that the workers had indeed uncovered the bodies of the doomed lovers. In 1560 the pair’s mummified remains even went on display in the church, meaning visitors could come and pay their respects – and by that point, the tale of the Lovers of Teruel had reached all parts of Spain.
Today, the couple thought to be Isabel and Diego reside in tombs as epic as the love story that is said to have defined their lives. The ornate burial chambers are the work of 20th-century sculptor Juan de Ávalos, who also chiseled the Segura family crest on Isabel’s tomb and the Marcilla clan’s arms on Diego’s.
And the most eye-catching part of the monuments has to be the chiseled figures atop each one. These models are intended to resemble the famed couple, of course, with the sculpture depicting Diego stretching towards the one that appears to be of Isabel. Yet there’s a fascinating detail: the tragic lovers are not actually touching each other.
Ostensibly, de Ávalos made this decision as a deference to religious rules. You see, as Isabel married someone else, she couldn’t be touching Diego in life nor in death. Regardless of the tombs’ beauty, though, some still found the story too good to be true.
Indeed, not everyone was convinced that the bodies inside belonged to Isabel and Diego. And although the 16th-century investigation claimed that the mummies had once been the famed lovers, in 2015 historian Fernando López Rajadel set out to prove once and for all whether this was the case.
López Rajadel therefore conducted a study of his own, examining the bodies that had long been thought to be Isabel and Diego’s. And his archaeological investigation uncovered some interesting information. It seemed, you see, that the woman’s pelvis would likely have been too wide for someone of Isabel’s age. A closer look suggested that the individual had given birth at some point, too.
From that, López Rajadel came up with a new hypothesis: the mummies actually belonged to a woman and her son. And if this were true, then the conclusion of the 16th-century investigation had led people astray for hundreds of years. In effect, people may have come to see a pair who could have had nothing to do with the famous tale. But there’s more.
Indeed, López Rajadel and other experts question whether Isabel and Diego’s story actually unfolded as it continues to be told. The skeptics have claimed, for example, that in 1353 Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio penned an eerily similar tale called Girolamo e Salvestra. In his version of the story, though, Boccaccio wrote a much more erotic depiction of the well-known events.
And, interestingly, this assertion actually serves as a counter-argument for those who believe that the Lovers of Teruel actually once existed. What’s more, it’s been claimed that the original story – that of Isabel and Diego – had to have come first. The reasoning given is that usually it takes an initial tale to inspire the erotic version rather than the other way around – meaning Boccaccio’s fable had to have been a re-telling.
Plus, those who argue for the story’s veracity point to the people of Teruel themselves. It’s been asserted, you see, that the Spanish locals would not have used an erotic story as inspiration for any piece of lore. Additionally, Boccaccio could have easily reworked the sentimental story from Aragón into his reworking of events.
Of course, such forbidden love stories have long inspired writers. Romeo and Juliet, for example, tells a similar story of a young couple falling in love and dying thereafter. And just as visitors flock to Verona to see what’s said to be Juliet’s famed balcony, so the Lovers of Teruel have continued to garner attention for the small Spanish city.
Isabel and Diego’s fable has had a life past the 16th-century church renovation, too. Famous dramatist Tirso de Molina wrote about the legend in 1635, for example. A couple of centuries later, Juan Eugenio Hartzenbusch also adapted the lovers’ story for the stage.
And with so many people aware of Isabel and Diego’s legend, Teruel continues to commemorate its claim to fame. On around Valentine’s Day each year, people descend upon the city in Aragón to attend its Lovers Festival, which includes a re-enactment of the sweethearts’ romantic and tragic end.
For the event, Teruel locals typically don medieval outfits to set the scene for retelling Isabel and Diego’s story. Additionally, they sell some of the region’s most famous products, including ironworks and pottery. The festival itself, meanwhile, honors Spanish couples who have reached their 25th or 50th wedding anniversaries.
So, while the tale of the Lovers of Teruel may be just a piece of fiction, its continued popularity proves yet again that love stories can endure through the ages. And this is especially true of those that come with an ending as tragic as Isabel and Diego’s.