Queen Isabella of Castile: Drama, Inquisition, and Exploration

Queen Isabella of Castile: Drama, Inquisition, and Exploration

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Isabella I was a Queen of Castile and León who lived between the middle of the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries. Her reign is notable for a number of important events, including the completion of the Reconquista, the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition , and Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage , which the monarch supported and financed.

Battle for the Throne

Isabella I was born in 1451. Her father was John of Castile, and her mother Isabella of Portugal. When her father died in 1454, Isabella’s half-brother, Henry IV, became the new king of Castile. Henry designated his daughter, Joanna, as his heir, though he was forced by the nobles to revoke this and accepted Alfonso, Isabella’s younger brother, as heir instead.

The young prince, however, died in 1468 of suspected poisoning or as a victim of the plague. Isabella was named by Alfonso as his successor, and the nobles - opposing Henry - offered her the crown, which she refused. The pressure mounted on Henry by the nobles, however, forced the king to compromise by naming his half-sister as his heiress.

Isabella I of Castile , depicted in the painting Virgen de la mosca at The Collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor (Church of Saint Mary the Great).

In 1469, Isabella married Ferdinand , who would become the King of Aragon, a union which would later serve to unify Spain physically and spiritually. This marriage would also create the basis for the political unification of Spain under Charles V, one of their grandsons. As the marriage occurred without the king’s consent, however, Isabella’s recognition as heiress to the throne of Castile was withdrawn by Henry, and Joanna was once more named as the Henry’s successor.

The wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella, c. 1469.

In 1474, Henry died and a civil war between Isabella and Joanna ensued. Isabella emerged victorious in 1479, and was recognized as the new Queen of Castile.

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Strengthening Her Position as Queen – The Inquisition

The reign of Henry had shown that a noble class with too much power in their hands was a threat to the monarchy. Therefore, one of the first steps taken by Isabella and Ferdinand to secure the throne was the initiation of reforms that served to increase the power of the monarchy and reduce the power of the nobles.

Apart from curbing the influence of the nobility, the new monarchs also saw religious conformity as a means to strengthen their position. At this point of time, Spain was home not only to Christians, but also to significant communities of Jews and Muslims.

Isabella and Ferdinand perceived these non-Christians as threats to their Christian kingdom and sought to do something about it. In 1480, the Spanish Inquisition was established. This was aimed at Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity, but were suspected of practicing their former faiths secretly. By rooting such individuals out, the Inquisition sought to “purify” the faith and the kingdom from potentially treacherous elements.

Isabella I. of Castile, Queen of Castile and León, with her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon.

The Queen’s External Enemies and a Voyage to the ‘New World’

Apart from internal enemies, Isabella and Ferdinand also dealt with external ones. The Reconquista, which had been going on since the 8th century, was concluded during their reign . By the 15th century, the only remaining Muslim state in Iberia was the Emirate of Granada in the southern part of the peninsula. In 1492, Granada fell to Isabella and Ferdinand’s forces.

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It was also during that year that the Alhambra Decree (known also as the Edict of Expulsion) was issued by Isabella and Ferdinand. The decree impacted the kingdom’s Jewish population, who were given the choice either to convert to Christianity or to leave.

Another significant event in that year was Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. The Genoese explorer had successfully convinced Isabella and Ferdinand to sponsor his voyage of discovery. This would later lead to Spanish dominance in South America.

Columbus Before the Queen (1843) by Emanuel Leutze.

All Reigns Must End Eventually, Even the Rule of Queen Isabella

Isabella and Ferdinand’s efforts to purify the Christian faith in their lands were recognized by Pope Alexander VI and they were granted the title of ‘ Catholic Monarchs .’ Queen Isabella’s legacy suggests the monarch had little qualms with making war and fighting for the things she believed in, regardless whether those actions would be seen in a positive or negative light by the future.

Isabella died on the November 26, 1504. Her remains were later entombed in the Royal Chapel of Granada. Her daughter, Joanna, became the new queen , while Ferdinand served as regent until his death 12 years later. Joanna’s religious views were much more tempered than those of her parents and her mental state was even called into question by her own father as Ferdinand fought for sole rule and imprisoned his own daughter to fulfill his goals.

Isabella and Ferdinand with their daughter, Joanna, c. 1482.

Isabella of Castile: Europe's First Great Queen

Before beginning this review, it is important to frame the commentary that follows with two caveats first, that I (or we as academics), am not the intended audience of this book and secondly, that although I have some criticisms of this work which I will discuss further below, I did genuinely enjoy reading this. Tremlett has consciously written this for the mass market and ‘interested public’ and thus some of the critique that I have of this book could be seen as rather unfair, given the audience that it was directed towards. The narrative, even dramatic, style of this book and its sweeping statements make the book engaging for its intended audience, even if it is somewhat frustrating for a historian, who is used to nuanced analysis and cautionary caveats about the ways in which contemporary sources should be approached and understood. Using the name Isabella rather than the Spanish Isabel underlines the intended Anglophone mass market audience, although a Spanish language edition will surely follow as was the case for his work on Catherine of Aragon and his Ghosts of Spain book.(1) The division of the sources in the bibliography into those in Spanish and those in English and other European languages rather than the customary division between primary and secondary material is another indicator of these two key target groups of readers in both languages. However, the bibliography demonstrates that Tremlett’s biography is underpinned by substantial research including a wide range of primary sources and secondary works. Tremlett has been diligent, consulting not only the extensive historiography on Isabel’s reign and Iberian history in the period but also contextual works on Isabel’s peers, European history and queenship studies. It is this intensive, and indeed impressive, research that makes this book of interest to scholars, even if the text itself has been written with a different audience in mind and quotes and sources are (frustratingly) not always cited.

Tremlett’s work is divided into small, easily digestible chapters and arranged roughly chronologically, although occasionally the desire to follow the topical narrative, as in the example of the expeditions and career of Columbus, leads to some doubling back in time. In the introduction, Tremlett is right to note Isabel’s ambivalent memory-spanning from ideal, virtuous and saintly queen to a ‘black legend’ of a hardline zealot driven by narratives of the Inquisition, which has always been closely linked to her reign. However, his assertion that Castile had an entirely ‘dismal’ reputation for regnant queens in the Middle Ages is highly questionable (p. 2) while Urraca’s reign in the 12th century was troubled, her great-great granddaughter Berenguela is known as ‘la Grande’ or ‘the great’. Arguably Berenguela is a difficult regnant queen who could be equally classed as a regent or even co-ruler with her son Fernando III, but then Castile had also known great regent queens like Maria de Molina or even Catalina de Lancaster before Isabel’s birth. Certainly the realm, and Iberia at large, was no stranger to powerful women on or near the throne in the Middle Ages.

The early chapters focus on Isabel’s childhood and her experience of Enrique IV’s somewhat chaotic court, noting the controlling nature of Juan Pacheco, the Marqués de Villena, although another of Enrique’s favourites, the infamous Beltrán de la Cueva, is all but missing. While the treatment of her early years is a little uneven, the strength of this book is its handling of Isabel’s relationship with her husband Ferdinand of Aragon. Tremlett’s argument that Isabel’s choice of Ferdinand was pragmatic rather than romantic is spot on and his exploration of their ruling partnership is well balanced, informed perhaps by his reading of Weissburger and Earenfight’s excellent research on this ruling pair. Another element which deserves merit is his discussion of their itinerant court, which is woven into several of the central chapters and gives real depth to his discussion of Isabel’s daily life and reign.

No discussion of Isabel’s reign is complete without coverage of the momentous year of 1492, which included the fall of Granada, the expulsion of the Jews and the voyages of Columbus. Tremlett covers each of these events and their context in great depth taken together these topics span 15 roughly consecutive chapters in the centre of the book which cover approximately 150 pages. While Granada is generally well handled, the discussion of the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews are mixed. The Inquisition is handled at the dark edge of its own ‘black legend’, with no hint of the recent revisionist scholarship on the institution in Iberia and beyond as per Henry Kamen or the less emotive view of the excellent sources and essays in Notre Dame’s Inquisitio project.(2) The expulsion of the Jews is handled far more sensitively with a generally nuanced, balanced and contextualized discussion of this important event in European history. Finally, while the description of Columbus himself is rather fanciful at times, Tremlett stays with the explorer for several chapters and expands on his later voyages and the disastrous early attempts at colonization an approach which works fairly well, despite breaking the generally chronological coverage as noted previously.

The discussion of Isabel’s sometimes strained relationship with her children is interesting, although it is very unbalanced in favour of their eldest daughter Isabel and the famous Juana ‘la Loca’. I take umbrage however, at his insensitive depiction of the younger Isabel as suffering from an eating disorder that he claims indicates the Infanta’s ‘perfectionist nature, and perhaps, a demanding mother’ (p. 374) – we must be extremely careful of diagnosing the ailments of those who have been dead over 500 years, particularly with regard to their mental health. While Tremlett gives focus and credit to the impressive and effective matrimonial diplomacy of the Reyes Católicos, no mention is given to their strenuous efforts to contract a marriage with the Navarrese queen Catalina I and later her offspring, in order to bring Navarre into their orbit, which is a missed opportunity.

The final chapter is somewhat frustrating as an epilogue Tremlett sweeps over the complicated political situation after Isabel’s death and the reigns of her successors in a rather simplistic and Whiggish narrative which does not do justice to the turmoil of the early modern period or the legacy of the Spanish empire. Isabel is both dammed for her connection to the Inquisition and hailed as the progenitor of the modern era – again perhaps this reflects the general divergence of opinion that Isabel has often generated. This final section highlights the constant tension in Tremlett’s approach to Isabel at times Tremlett has consciously tried to contextualize Isabel in her own period while at other moments he seems to judge her through an entirely modern lens.

Overall, Tremlett has worked hard to keep Isabel tied to his narrative but at times this work feels more like a history of her reign rather than a biography of the woman herself. With any ruler however, the divide between personal and political history is extremely difficult to maintain. He tries to connect with the woman wearing the crown but his tendency to ascribe emotions and feelings to his protagonist can be frustrating when there is no definitive evidence of how she may have felt. Historians are always extremely careful not to make assumptions about the thought processes of long dead figures – while some of her letters and actions can be interpreted in a certain light, we cannot say with certainty that she was feeling or thinking something particular at a given moment. This is territory best left to fiction and media, such as the excellent RTVE series Isabel which does an impressive job of making the queen a sympathetic and well-rounded character. I concede however that Tremlett’s audience will be looking for this personal touch, though his Isabella is far less likeable than Michelle Jenner’s Isabel on RTVE.

In sum, this book is engagingly written and a deeply interesting read. I would heartily recommend it to those who are perhaps unfamiliar with Isabel and want an extended and intensive examination of her life and reign. For students, this book would be a good read for those studying the queen herself or the long Siglo de Oro period, and the bibliography is strong and offers a window into source material that they may want to explore in both English and Spanish. Scholars may take some umbrage as I have at particular elements of this work, but will hopefully appreciate that Tremlett has clearly put tremendous effort and research into this project and has created an in-depth and approachable biography which will bring Isabel to a wider audience.

Early life

Isabella was the daughter of John II of Castile and his second wife, Isabella of Portugal. Three years after her birth her half brother became king as Henry IV. Despite the fact that she had a younger brother, Alfonso, and that her early years were spent quietly with her mother at Arévalo, Isabella was soon drawn into Castilian politics. She was brought to court when she was 13 in order to be under the king’s eye. At first the opposition to Henry IV gathered around Alfonso, but when the latter died in July 1468, the rebellious magnates naturally turned to Isabella. She did not, however, play the role thus designed for her, and the fruit of her wisdom was recognition as his heiress by Henry IV at the agreement known as the Accord of Toros de Guisando (September 19, 1468).

As heiress of Castile, the question of Isabella’s future marriage became a matter of increasing diplomatic activity at home and abroad. Portugal, Aragon, and France each put forward a marriage candidate. Henry seems to have wanted his half sister to marry Afonso V, king of Portugal. As between the Portuguese and Aragonese candidates, she herself, no doubt assisted in her decision by her small group of councillors, came down in favour of Ferdinand of Aragon. A third suitor, the French duc de Guiènne, was sidestepped, and without Henry’s approval she married Ferdinand in October 1469 in the palace of Juan de Vivero, at Valladolid. The prospect of an Aragonese consort led to the development of an anti-Aragonese party that put forward the claims of a rival heiress, Henry’s daughter Joan, known as la Beltraneja by those who believed that her true father was Beltrán de la Cueva, duque de Albuquerque. The king encouraged this group by going back on the accord of 1468 on the grounds that Isabella had shown disobedience to the crown in marrying Ferdinand without the royal consent. He now rejected Isabella’s claim to the throne and preferred that of Joan, for whom he sought the hand of the duc de Guiènne. Although Isabella and Henry were to some extent reconciled, the long-threatened war of succession broke out at once when the king died in 1474.

Queen Isabella

Queen Isabella
Financed Columbus in his Discovery of America
1451 – 1504 A.D.

Isabella, Queen of Castile, daughter of John II. In 1469 she married Ferdinand of Aragon, and when the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile united, Ferdinand and Isabella assumed the royal titles of Spain, and by this union the foundation of Spain’s future greatness was laid.

Isabella was beautiful in person, of pleasing manners and kindly heart, though of inflexible will, proud, ambitious, and exceedingly punctilious. She was always present in meetings of the council, and insisted on the use of her name with that of Ferdinand in all public documents.

Spain undoubtedly owed to Isabella’s clear intellect, resolute energy and unselfish patriotism much of that greatness which for the first time in acquired under “the Catholic Sovereigns.” The moral influence of the queen’s personal character over the Castilian court was incalculably great from the debasement and degradation of the proceeding reign she raised it to being the “nursery of virtue and of generous ambition.”

She did much for letters in Spain by founding the palace school, but the very sincerity of her piety and strength of her religious convictions led her more than once into errors of state policy, and into more than one act which offends the moral sense of a more refined age her efforts for the introduction of the Inquisition, and for the proscription of the Jews, are evidences of her bigotry.

Queen Isabella’s chief title to fame rests upon the well known part she took in promoting the great project of Columbus, and in the New World, at least, her memory will be immortal. When all others had herd with incredulity the scheme of Columbus, she recalled the wanderer to her presence with the words, “I will assume the undertaking for my own crown of Castile, and am ready to pawn my jewels to defray the expenses of it, if the funds in the treasury should be found inadequate.”

Through her influence, Ferdinand was prevailed upon to assist Columbus, and thus, the discovery of America, one of man’s greatest achievements, was made largely possible by the help of a woman.

Reference: Famous Women An Outline of Feminine Achievement Through the Ages With Life Stories of Five Hundred Noted Women By Joseph Adelman. Copyright, 1926 by Ellis M. Lonow Company.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition became an infamous event in history that would interest and shock people for centuries to come. King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella of Spain started the Spanish Inquisition in September of 1480 however, it was two years earlier in the November of 1478 that Pope Sixtus IV actually authorized the two monarchs to set up and start the Inquisition. (The Spanish Inquisition, n.d.)

The Inquisition mostly dealt with the conversos, or "Jews who had converted either under duress or out of social convenience, and were suspected of secretly practicing the Jewish faith." (The Spanish Inquisition, n.d.) While this is given as a definition of conversos, some people believe that the majority of conversos were excellent Catholics who took pride in their Jewish heritage. (Madden, 2003) It is important to know that the Spanish Inquisition had no power over practicing Jews and Muslims. It only could affect professed Christians who were suspected of being false and who may be a risk to the country. (The Spanish Inquisition, n.d.)

Sixtus IV set specific guidelines for the judges for the Inquisition. They had to be 40 years or older, have an impeccable reputation, be incredibly distinguished for virtue and wisdom, and be masters of theology or doctors, or licentiates of canon law. (Blotzer, 1910) On September 17, 1480 the King and Queen of Spain appointed two Dominicans to be the inquisitors, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martin. However, complaints of the two's actions soon reached Rome. On January 29, 1482 in a meeting with Pope Sixtus IV they were blamed to have unjustly imprisoned people, tortured them cruelly and declared them false believers. (Blotzer, 1910)

The real organizer and head of the Inquisition was really Fray Tomás Torquemada. Sixtus IV gave him the office of grand inquisitor, or inquisitor general, of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Valencia, and other cities. Torquemada happened to be from a converso family himself. (The Spanish.

Isabella : The Warrior Queen

An engrossing and revolutionary biography of Isabella of Castile, the controversial Queen of Spain who sponsored Christopher Columbus's journey to the New World, established the Spanish Inquisition, and became one of the most influential female rulers in history

Born at a time when Christianity was dying out and the Ottoman Empire was aggressively expanding, Isabella was inspired in her youth by tales of Joan of Arc, a devout young woman who unified her people and led them to victory against foreign invaders. In 1474, when most women were almost powerless, twenty-three-year-old Isabella defied a hostile brother and a mercurial husband to seize control of Castile and León. Her subsequent feats were legendary. She ended a twenty-four-generation struggle between Muslims and Christians, forcing North African invaders back over the Mediterranean Sea. She laid the foundation for a unified Spain. She sponsored Columbus's trip to the Indies and negotiated Spanish control over much of the New World with the help of Rodrigo Borgia, the infamous Pope Alexander VI. She also annihilated all who stood against her by establishing a bloody religious Inquisition that would darken Spain's reputation for centuries. Whether saintly or satanic, no female leader has done more to shape our modern world, in which millions of people in two hemispheres speak Spanish and practice Catholicism. Yet history has all but forgotten Isabella's influence, due to hundreds of years of misreporting that often attributed her accomplishments to Ferdinand, the bold and philandering husband she adored. Using new scholarship, Downey's luminous biography tells the story of this brilliant, fervent, forgotten woman, the faith that propelled her through life, and the land of ancient conflicts and intrigue she brought under her command.

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LibraryThing Review

A comprehensive look at Queen Isabella, largely known in the United States as the queen who funded Christopher Columbus in his original expedition. Isabella was a fascinating woman. Historians have . Читать весь отзыв

LibraryThing Review

I appreciated that this biography of Isabella of Spain took the time to detail not just Isabella's life, but to profile and delve into the figures who surrounded her and who she interacted with on the . Читать весь отзыв

Isabella of Castile: a brief guide to the medieval queen

She turned a kingdom in chaos into a major global leader, to the detriment and despair of many of her subjects. BBC History Revealed introduces the Spanish monarch who was responsible for the unification of her country, the Inquisition and mass deportation of Jews…

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Published: April 21, 2020 at 4:39 pm

Twenty-three-year-old Isabella first discovered that she was queen of the kingdom of Castile while residing in the turreted heights of the Alcázar of Segovia. Allegedly taken to the town square under a beautiful brocade canopy, she took her seat on the throne and the people cheered triumphantly. This occasion marked the start of a 30-year reign, which would see Granada recaptured from its Arabic rulers, Columbus’s voyage to the New World and the launch of the Spanish Inquisition.

Born in a small village in central Spain in 1451, one could hardly tell that the young Isabella would be destined for greatness. Though she was originally second in line to the throne after her older half-brother Henry, she was soon relegated to third with the birth of another brother.

When Henry ascended the Castilian throne in 1454, she and her mother were moved to a humble country castle with only the most basic provisions, probably because the new king saw them as a threat. The princess whiled away her hours with her mother, who firmly instilled the Catholic fear of God into her daughter.

Over the years, opposition to Henry’s rule grew. The kingdom’s noblemen desired more power, and believed that the solution was to have a monarch who owed his or her position to them. When they rallied around Isabella as their new figurehead, she found herself thrust into the limelight. But the wise princess favoured diplomacy, and reached a settlement with Henry. In gratitude, he named Isabella the heir to the throne.

Isabella’s secret marriage

Though Henry had tried several times to create political unions by marrying off his sister, Isabella only had eyes for one man – Ferdinand of Aragon. The pair had been betrothed when Isabella was just six, as Henry had been keen to ally with the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon. However, as Ferdinand’s father grew more powerful, he no longer needed the security and withdrew from the arrangement.

Despite this, Isabella and Ferdinand were secretly wed in 1469, and made a crucial prenuptial agreement that they would rule Spain as equals. An added bonus was that as rulers of Castile and Aragon, their marriage would unite two of Spain’s most powerful kingdoms.

When Isabella was crowned on 13 December 1474, she was not without enemies. Some maintained that Henry’s daughter, Joanna, was the rightful ruler. The King of Portugal, Afonso, quickly decided to betroth himself to Joanna and launched an invasion of Castile. So, Isabella and Ferdinand’s early reign was consumed with fighting this civil war, eventually sending Afonso packing back to Portugal.

Having cleared the path of their foes, the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ (as they would become known) set about rejuvenating their divided nation. In 1482, they led a military campaign on the Moorish city of Granada, the last remnant of the Muslim conquest of Spain.

The queen personally took an interest in military matters, and even moved the government a few miles away from the battle site. Eventually, in 1492, they won out and expelled the Muslim caliphate from Spain altogether. Now they controlled a vast expanse of territory, and it looked as if the entire Iberian Peninsula could be united.

Hernando del Pulgar, a 15th-century Jew who converted to Catholicism, said of Isabella: “She was very inclined to justice, so much so that she was reputed to follow more the path of rigour than that of mercy, and did so to remedy the great corruption of crimes that she found in the kingdom when she succeeded to the throne.”

1492 would prove a big year for Isabella’s reign. The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus visited the queen and Ferdinand at the beautiful Alhambra palace, seeking royal approval for his planned voyage to India. Once he gained their support, he went on his way, only to stumble upon the Americas instead. Upon his return, he presented the monarchs with Native American slaves as a gift, much to Isabella’s horror. She immediately demanded that they be released, and ruled that no native could be enslaved as they too were her subjects. Sadly, these policies were rarely respected.

Isabella and the Spanish Inquisition

While these momentous events were taking place, a sinister policy guided by Islamophobia and anti-Semitism was ravaging the nation. Early on in their reign, as a plot to unify Spain religiously as well as politically, Isabella and Ferdinand had forced a number of Muslims and Jews to convert to Catholicism.

They then began the notorious Spanish Inquisition, an attempt to root out so-called ‘heretics’ from the ranks of new Christians. The scale of torture, executions and pillaging was completely unprecedented.

In 1492, all Jews were evicted from the Catholic Monarchs’ territory, given only three months to leave and forbidden from taking anything valuable with them. Spain’s newly acquired position as a world power was weakened, since the Jews formed a large part of the nation’s economy. The loss of such a vital part of Spanish society took its toll on Isabella’s reign, as did a number of personal tragedies she faced.

In 1497, her only son and the heir to the throne, Juan, died before he reached the age of 20. To rub salt in her wounds, Isabella’s 27-year-old daughter died in childbirth, followed suit by Isabella’s baby grandson two years later.

The queen died in 1504, and Ferdinand continued to rule Castile as regent for their daughter Joanna, uniting Spain with his conquest of Navarre. The impact of her legacy on Spain was significant – as well as her foreign policy, the capable ruler had managed to restore law and order to a nation of bandits, reformed the Church, greatly improved Spain’s military, and repaired its financial system. Isabella remains one of Spain’s most revered monarchs.

Queen Isabella

She was never intended to be a queen. She wasn’t the firstborn and the rules of the time didn’t support her as a woman. Yet through cunning and guile, she managed to take power.

As a queen, she was at the center of many of the most significant and notorious events in European history, and she was largely responsible for the creation of the country which became Spain.

Learn more about Isabella I of Castille and how she influenced the history of Europe on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

This episode is sponsored by the Tourist office of Spain.

Queen Isabella traveled extensively in Spain, so there are many places in the country that have a connection to her life.

There is the Castle of Arévalo where she grew up as a child.

The Alcázar of Segovia is the place where she was proclaimed the queen of Castile and Leon.

The Royal Monastery of Santa María of Guadalupe was a place she was a frequent visitor.

One of her favorite homes was at the Alcazar of Cordoba,

And Queen Isabella’s grave is at the Royal Chapel of Granada.

You can start researching your dream trip to Spain today by visiting where you can get everything you need to know to plan your Spanish adventure.

Isabella was born to King John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal in 1451. At the time of her birth, the country we know as Spain today didn’t exist. It was a collection of kingdoms and a Muslim emirate in Granada.

At her birth, she was a highly unlikely candidate to assume the throne of Castile.

For starters, she was female at a time when European kingdoms were passed along male bloodlines. Secondly, she was born in the wrong order. At the time she was born, she had an elder half-brother Henry who was already 26 and was the heir to the throne. Then, a year after she was born, a younger brother, Alfonso, was born, putting her third in line to the throne.

When her father King John died in 1454, three-year-old Isabella and her mother were sent to Arévalo to live in a dilapidated castle by the new King and her half brother, Henry IV. Despite being royalty and living in a castle, she and her mother and brother were basically living in poverty.

Henry didn’t have any children with his first wife and he got the marriage annulled, but not before an extremely embarrassing ecclesiastical inquiry where he developed the nickname “Henry the Impotent”.

He then married the daughter of the King of Portugal to establish an alliance with them, and eventually had a daughter named Joanna.

Soon after the birth of Joanna, Isabella was moved to the court of Henry in Segovia where she was separated from her mother.

Despite the privations Isabella had growing up, the one thing she didn’t lack was an education. She was trained in grammar, mathematics, art, music, and Latin. Moreover, she paid very close attention to what was happening politically with the neighboring kingdoms, despite that her brother tried to keep her protected from such matters.

A group of nobles began to pressure Henry to name his half brother, and Isabella’s younger brother, Alfonso as his heir. Henry agreed, but only if Alfonso was betrothed to his daughter Johanna.

Yeah, kind of creepy, but it was 500 years ago.

Henry tried to back out, which caused a rebellion amongst the nobles, who then crowned the young Alfonso as king.

Alfonso then died three years later, which then left Isabella next in line.

Isabella was a teenager when this happened, and she had political smarts even at this age. The nobles pressured her to seize power now. However, she had the patience to wait. She agreed to continue to recognize Henry if she was named heir. Her condition was that she wouldn’t get married against her will.

Here we have to talk about her marriage.

Like many aristocratic women of the time, Isabela was in line for an arranged alliance marriage. With her arrangement with Henry, however, she instead could choose her husband and would only have to notify Henry.

Henry wanted Isabella to marry Alfonso V of Portugal to united Portugal and Castile.

Isabella didn’t want any of that. She decided to marry Ferdinand, the heir to the kingdoms of Aragon and Navarre, who oddly enough, she was originally betrothed to when she was six.

Ferdinand was technically the second cousin of Isabella, so they had to get a papal dispensation to get married. The papal dispensation was facilitated by one Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia who later became Pope Alexander VI, one of the most corrupt popes of all time.

Henry still wanted to marry her off to someone else, so Isabell and Ferdinand concocted stories to get away from their respective royal courts, and eloped. Something which pretty much never ever happened with royal marriages.

On December 12, 1474, Henry died and Isabella was proclaimed queen of Castille and Leon.

The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella was very much a political one, however, it worked. Their agreement had set firm limits on who had power where. It wasn’t a joint rule per se. They each had defined spheres of power.

Collectively, they were known as the “Catholic Monarchs”, and their marriage was the de facto beginning of the Kingdom of Spain.

One of the first things they set to doing is consolidating power with the intent of unifying the entire Iberian Peninsula. She was absolutely ruthless in her pursuit of power.

Isabella created the Santa Hermandad, or the Holy Brotherhood, which was a type of judicial police force which was designed to keep the nobility in check, in Castile. She didn’t want a repeat of the uprising which happened to Henry.

With the approval of Pope Sixtus IV, she established the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Castile, aka the Spanish Inquisition. One of the goals of the inquisition was to use Catholicism as a unifying force in Spain. The primary targets of the inquisition were Jews and Muslims. Eventually, all of the jews in the country were expelled, and those who had converted were still the subject of the inquisition.

The Reconquista, which had been slowly pushing the Muslims back for centuries, finally was completed in 1492. This was big news throughout Europe. It was the first time that Christians had actually gained ground against the Muslims since Constantinople fell.

If you had asked people in Europe back then what the most important thing that happened in 1492, this is what they probably would have mentioned.

Speaking of 1492, the thing which Isabella is probably best known for is funding the expedition of Columbus.

This really was mostly Isabella’s call. Columbus had pitched the idea to several other countries, but they passed on the idea because they thought he vastly underestimated the distance to Asia traveling west…which ironically enough, they were correct.

Isabella eventually convened a committee that came to the same conclusion, that Columbus’ calculations were way off. However, they concluded that it was worth the risk. If he was wrong and never returned, they would have lost little, but if he was right, it would make a fantastic return.

It was really one of the first instances of venture financing.

It resulted in the Capitulations of Santa Fe, which gave Columbus financing, titles, and 10% of any money derived from the venture.

The result of this decision eventually led to the creation of the Spanish Empire, which eventually would become the largest empire in the world.

In addition to these really big things which she oversaw, she also took the lead in reforming the laws and finances of the country as well.

Isabella and Ferdinand had five children who survived to adulthood.

The eldest daughter Isabella became the queen of Portugal.

John became the Prince of Asturias, a title which is now the Spanish equivalent of the Prince of Wales and is given to the heir apparent.

Johanna became the Queen of Castile after her mother died, and married into the Hapsburg dynasty, which is how Spain became part of the Holy Roman Empire.

Maria married another King of Portugal, also becoming queen.

Finally, the youngest child Catherine went on to marry a guy named Henry VIII of England, and their marriage and subsequent divorce sparked the creation of the Church of England.

Isabella passed away in 1504 at the age of 53.

Isabella unquestionably had an outsized impact on the world. The voyages of Columbus, the completion of the Reconquista, and the Spanish Inquisition were all major events in world history, albeit not always positive.

Isabella’s choice to merge the kingdom of Castille and Leon with Aragon and Navarre was the singular decision that created the modern-day country of Spain.

Her impact could best be described by a German traveler who visited her kingdom during her reign. They noted, “This queen of Spain, called Isabella, has had no equal on this earth for 500 years.”

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Death of Isabella I of Castile

After 50 days of anxious prayers and processions, Queen Isabella of Castile called a halt to all further intercession. She knew she was finished and she resolutely prepared herself for death. When an attempt to assassinate her husband Ferdinand almost succeeded in 1492, she had written that since ‘kings can die of some disaster like other people, there is reason to prepare to die well.’ Bedridden at her palace at Medina del Campo in her last months, suffering from a high fever and worsening dropsy, by the middle of September she was unable to cope with state papers and tormented by sleeplessness and thirst.

On October 12th she signed her will, a long document in which she declared that her mind was ‘healthy and free’, though her body had ‘an infirmity that God wished to give me.’ She begged the Virgin Mary, St Michael and the saints to intercede for her at the judgement, that through divine mercy her soul might ‘be placed in that glory for which it was created.’ She feared the vengeance of the Devil for his minions – Muslims, Jews, heretics – to whom she had given no quarter all her life. She charged her successors to honour God, protect and defend Holy Mother Church, proceed with the conquest of Africa from the infidels, keep a firm hold on the Straits of Gibraltar and support the Holy Inquisition in the fight against ‘the depraved heretic’. A codicil added on November 23rd asked for the Indians in the New World to be kindly treated. She did not want to die with them on her conscience.

At the end the Queen said that prayer and the reading of biblical texts, especially from Job, had given her a clearer understanding of God than she had ever felt before. She died on a Tuesday morning, between eleven and twelve o’clock, after receiving the last rites. Isabella was 53. She had been queen of Castile for thirty years since 1474 and joint ruler of Castile and Aragon with her husband Ferdinand for 25.

Her body was put in a plain coffin covered with leather and tied with cords, and carried behind a cross draped in black cloth across country through torrents of rain and over rivers in flood to reach Granada at last on December 18th. There she was interred in the Franciscan monastery in the Alhambra and there Ferdinand would duly join her after his death in 1516.

It was a suitable place. The marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, Los Reyos Catolicos (the Catholic Sovereigns), in 1469, had been a long step towards the conquest of the Muslim kingdom of Granada, the expulsion of the Moors and the creation of a united Christian Spain which would become the most powerful country in Europe. Although no one ever questioned the sincerity of Isabella’s religious convictions, a merciless Catholic ideology was a useful way of promoting political unity and a common purpose against a common foe. So were Isabella’s fair hair, blue eyes, expensive dresses and jewellery, and her constant travelling made her a ruler an unusual number of her subjects could recognise.

Ferdinand and Isabella’s drive to conquer the Moorish kingdom of Granada began in 1481. In 1483 they reorganised the Inquisition under royal control, with Isabella’s confessor Thomas de Torquemada at its head. Heresy became the same thing as treason and the Inquisition eagerly sniffed out ‘secret Jews’, who had allegedly faked conversion to Christianity. When Granada finally surrendered in 1492, the promises of religious toleration which had been made were broken and when Isabella showed misgivings about this, Torquemada held a cross out to her with the words, ‘Judas sold his master for thirty pieces of silver. How many will you take for this cross?’.

Jews and Muslims were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave. Some 20,000 Jewish families emigrated, many of them to settle in Istanbul. Many Muslims also left, for North Africa. Others, the Moriscos, accepted Christianity, or appeared to. Converted Jews and Muslims were deeply suspect and a witch-hunt began to smell out those who were not genuine. Thousands were convicted by the Inquisition and the fires burned for them across Spain.

Top 5 Facts About Isabella of Castile

Brief Bio: Isabella of Castile, Spanish, 1451-1504
Also known as Isabella the Catholic, Isabella was the queen of Castile and Leon from 1474 to 1504. During her reign she cleared the kingdoms of enormous debt, introduced a number of governmental reforms, brought the crime rate to the lowest in years and was responsible for the unification of Spain.

1. She was the first woman on a US dollar coin

In 1893, just over 400 years after Columbus’s fateful voyage, a coin was issued in the United States with Isabella’s image on it. That same year she also became the first woman featured on a commemorative US postage stamp, when she was shown alongside Columbus on the eight-cent stamp.

2. Columbus wouldn’t have found America without her

It was with Isabella’s backing that Christopher Columbus was able to afford his voyage that led to the discovery of the New World, which brought wealth and new lands to Spain. When Native Americans were brought back as slaves Isabella demanded they be set free.

3. She created the Spanish Inquisition

Isabella and her husband Ferdinand II established the notorious Spanish Inquisition to ensure that Jews and Muslims who had recently converted to Christianity were keeping to their new faith. She also commanded that all Jews and Muslims in Spain who refused to convert to Christianity be immediately exiled.

4. Henry VIII was her son in law

Of her seven children, two were stillborn. Five lived to see adulthood, one of whom was Joanna, nicknamed ‘Joanna the mad’ for her mental instability. However, her daughter Catherine of Aragon went on to become the first wife of Henry VIII, making Isabella the grandmother of Queen Mary I of England.

5. She had a marriage prenuptial

When Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon in 1469 they joined their two kingdoms together, although they maintained elements of independence. Before their union a prenuptial was signed saying they would share power under the saying ‘tanto monta, monta tanto’ – ‘equal opposites in balance.’

Originally published in All About History 19

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