Isabella of Castile was a shining example of queenship in the late medieval age. The blue-eyed, reddish-blonde haired, fair skinned Queen of Castile united the country of Spain with her husband, King Ferdinand II of Aragon as well as fearlessly led her soldiers into battle. Isabella was quite a woman – deeply religious and devout yet deviously ruthless; brave yet tender towards her children; a woman of many talents and who wielded extreme power.
Isabella was born April 22nd 1451 to King John II of Castile and Isabella of Portugal in Madrigal de las Altas Torres Spain. Isabella had two brothers; an older half-brother Enrique (Henry) and a younger brother Alfonso. When her father died in 1454, when she was only 3 years old, her older brother Henry became king of Castile and León as Henry IV. Isabella was then raised by her mother in squalor until 1457 when Henry IV brought his half-siblings to live with him at court where the conditions vastly improved. Isabella was educated in many subjects: reading, spelling, writing, grammar, mathematics, art, dance, music, embroidery and religion.
When Henry’s first marriage ended in divorce without children and his second marriage produced only daughter Juana the opposition attempted to replace Henry with Alfonso which in turn was met with defeat culminating with Alfonso’s death by poison in 1468. The nobles attempt to take things into their own hands and offered the crown to Isabella, who refused, but Henry decided to compromise – he would make Isabella is heiress after the Battle of Olmedo in 1467.
Since Isabella was his ward, Henry was able to do with her as he pleased in terms of her future and there were many betrothals – all of which were politically beneficial to him at the time. Isabella was betrothed to many men including Ferdinand and Charles IV of Navarre, both sons of John II of Aragon; and Alfonso V of Portugal to name a few. In the mist of all of the marriage negotiations civil war broke out in Castile due to Henry’s inability to rule. Perhaps if he focused a little more on matters of state and ruling his country and a little less time on marriage negotiations for his sister, he would have been able to rule properly and prevent civil war. But alas one must find the perfect ally for the future, not matter what the costs. As you may imagine, Isabella being a strong and independent woman, grew tired of waiting upon her incompetent brother so she decided that she was going to marry Ferdinand of Aragon without her brother’s permission. The two required a papal dispensation as there was an issue of consanguinity (they were second cousins after all) which was granted and the two married October 19th, 1469 in the Palacio de los Vivero in Valiadolid.
Once Henry found out about his sister’s marriage he was enraged to say the least – he even threatened to throw her into the dungeon, but of course he could not due to her popularity with the nobles. Henry then withdrew his recognition and again named his daughter Juana as his heiress. Upon Henry’s death in 1474 a war of succession ensued with Alfonso V of Portugal supporting his new wife Juana’s claims. The confusion over who was the right full queen of Castile led to a long and bloody war – the war of the Castilian succession, until the Battle of Toro took place and the war was finally settled in 1479 with Juana denouncing her claim as queen and Isabella was recognized as Queen of Castile and Portugal gained a favourable share of the Atlantic territories.
By this time Ferdinand was now King of Aragon and along with his Castilian Queen, the two began the unification of Spain beginning with reducing the power of the nobility and increasing the power of the crown as well as rectifying the disastrous reign of Isabella’s predecessor Henry IV. The two would rule Spain for 35 years, it would become known as a golden age for Spain. Their marriage would produce 5 children; 4 daughters and 1 son: Isabella (1470), Juan (1478), Juana (1479), Maria (1482) and Catherine (1485).
With the physical unification of Spain complete, Isabella and Ferdinand embarked on a process of spiritual unification of their country as well, their desire to bring Spain under one common faith: Roman Catholicism. Isabella and Ferdinand began the Spanish Inquisition in 1480. The Inquisition was just one of the many changes to the church the Catholic monarchs made in their country. The Inquisition was aimed mostly at Jews and Muslims who had overtly converted to Christianity but who were still practicing their own religions in secret, as well as at heretics who rejected the Roman Catholic orthodoxy – it was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in the kingdoms.
Throughout the Inquisition, Isabella fought alongside her husband and the couple lived in tents along with their soldiers instead of in cozy palaces. They spent years on crusade attempting to rid their beloved Spain of Jews, Muslims and those who were not of the Catholic faith, burning them as they went in the name of God. The Catholic monarchs began on a series of campaigns known as the Granada War which began with the attack of Alhama de Granada – the city fell in 1482 and after 10 years of many battles the Granada War ended in 1492 when the Moors handed over the keys of the Alhambra Palace to the Castilian soldiers. The Moors were actually pretty darn lucky – they were treated way better than the Jews as they were actually allowed to practice their own religion and were exempt from taxes for many years thanks to the Treaty of Granada.
|Surrender of the Moors|
Ferdinand and Isabella ordered the expulsion of all Jews and Muslims from Spain – many converted to Catholicism as a way of avoiding expulsion but many of the conversos were accused of secretly practising their original religion and they were arrested, imprisoned, interrogated under torture and in many cases burned to death. Finally in 1492 the Catholic monarchs created the Alhambra Decree which ordered the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The Jews were given 4 months to vacate Spain or to convert – tens of thousands of Jews abandoned Spain in favour of other lands to whom Ferdinand would address a letter later that year, you are welcomed to return to Spain as long as you become Christians. The Muslims were given the same orders – either convert or leave Spain; the other choice was death. They were just a little harsh weren’t they . . .
Isabella and Ferdinand also brought Spain their “golden age” by funding Christopher Columbus’ adventure to find India . . . or at least to find America and other lands, he never did find India, maybe he should have sailed in the other direction . . . Despite his failure to reach India, Columbus did find a land rich with gold, silver and spices and declared her for Spain. This land is what we know as Cuba and Columbus thought that it was located somewhere in Asia and that the island of Hispanola (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti) was just off the coast of China. Maybe Isabella and Ferdinand should have bought Columbus a better map and compass. Anyways, that’s beside the point, point is that the Catholic monarchs grew undoubtedly richer from Columbus’ travels – he brought them back treasures of all kinds; agriculture, cloths, glass, steel weapons and leather goods – all in thanks for their funding. Isabella was made protector of the Native Americans and she established laws against the abuse of the Native American people by colonists and adventures.
|Isabella and Ferdinand receiving Columbus|
Isabella’s later life was filled with grief – the deaths of her daughter Isabella and her son Juan as well as her grandson Miguel. Isabella officially withdrew from governmental affairs in September 1504 and she died that same year in November in Medina del Campo. Upon her death, her crown of Castile passed on to her daughter Juana.