Isabella of Castile

The Path to the Throne

Isabella was born of the second marriage of her father, Juan II of Castile, to Isabella of Portugal. Her father died when she was three, leaving the throne to her much older half-brother, Enrique IV. Isabella, her mother and younger brother, Alfonso, were, if not exactly banished, certainly not welcomed at her half-brother’s court and lived quietly in the country. As only the half-brother of a king, It was not anticipated that Isabella would make a particularly grand match, and her education was not extensive – certainly it did not equal that of her brothers.

Neither Isabella’s father nor her half-brother were effective kings. They were perceived as being ruled by favourites, whose rapacity knew no bounds. Castile became increasingly lawless and disorganised and Enrique seemed powerless to control the country. He was of a compromising nature, avoiding war where possible, and sought to conciliate, rather than enforce his will.

Enrique’s first marriage had been annulled for non-consummation, and he had married Joanna of Portugal as his second wife in 1455. It was not until 1462 that Queen Joanna produced a child, who was widely rumoured to be the daughter of one of Enrique’s courtiers, Beltran de la Cueva. The child became known as Juana la Beltraneja.

Factional politics at the Castilian court led to a rebellion, in which Isabella’s brother, Alfonso, was put forward as Enrique’s heir, instead of Juana. Enrique was forced to agree this at the Peace of Burgos in 1464. Alfonso’s youth made him the instrument of the nobles around him, including Alfonso de Carillo, Archbishop of Toledo. The rebels’ activities provoked Enrique beyond endurance and civil war broke out.

Alfonso died, aged fourteen, nominating Isabella as his heir. A truce was agreed at Toros de Guisando, and Isabella recognised as Princess of the Asturias. She was only to marry with Enrique’s consent. Various matches were proposed for her, including one to La Beltraneja’s uncle, Alfonso V of Portugal (her own mother’s cousin) but nothing was concluded. Isabella herself was determined to marry Ferdinand, son of Juan II of Aragon, and King of Sicily. The marriage was contracted in secret, without Enrique’s consent, leading to further quarrels, but not outright war.

Enrique died in late 1474. Ferdinand was absent, prosecuting Aragon’s war with France. Isabella immediately had herself proclaimed and crowned as queen in Segovia, much to the astonishment of those who thought she should be subservient to her husband.

The marriage contract with Ferdinand clearly stipulated that Isabella was to remain as sovereign queen in Castile, rather than being subordinate to her husband but, on Ferdinand’s return, the matter was mediated by Cardinal Mendoza and the Archbishop of Toledo. In effect, they became joint monarchs of Castile with almost equal powers, although Isabella retained an edge, whilst Isabella remained as consort in Aragon (after Ferdinand succeeded).

The supporters of Juana La Beltraneja, particularly her cousin, Alfonso of Portugal, were not content, and civil war raged for several years. Isabella emerged the victor, with Juana being despatched to a convent.

Taking Control

Once secure, Isabella, supported in every respect by Ferdinand, set about restoring the lawless country to obedience. Justice was meted out without respect to rank or fortune – although very vigorously, and seldom tempered with mercy. The quarrelling nobles, or ‘grandees’ as they were termed were tamed and the Queen travelled far and wide across the country, showing herself to the people and promoting the rule of law. She supervised a widespread codification of laws.

Mediaeval Spain is often lauded for its multi-culturalism – Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side in harmony, it is thought. That was true, but only up to a point. There had been various inter-religious confrontations that had resulted in conversions to Christianity which, if not exactly forced, were not necessarily freely embraced. This gave rise to a group known as the ‘Conversos’, who were widely resented by both Christians and Jews.

The fanatical Dominican priest, Tomas de Torquemada, influenced Isabella strongly and was convinced that many of the Conversos were secret Jews. Her other confessor, Tomas de Talavera believed that they might only be following Jewish practices through ignorance, and promoted a scheme of education. Isabella and Ferdinand listened to both, encouraged preaching and teaching, but demanded from the Pope the right to set up and oversee the Inquisition in Spain.

The Inquisition (or Holy Office as Isabella termed it) had previously been a church-run body which sought to combat heresy. It had been subject to Papal oversight. Now it was set up in Spain under the management of the monarchs.

Individuals who denounced Conversos for ‘judaising’ were often rewarded with their lands and goods. Unsurprisingly, there was a rash of denouncements, and Conversos throughout the kingdoms (it was set up in Aragon as well as Castile) were terrorised – often tortured by the Inquisition to admit their guilt and name others, before being handed over to the state to be burnt.

Having dealt, as they thought, with the issue of heresy, Isabella and Ferdinand turned their thoughts to the remaining Muslim kingdom in Spain – Granada. At this distance it is hard to sympathise with their desire to eradicate Muslim rule, but it should be set against the fears across Europe of the encroaching Ottoman Empire – Constantinople had fallen only the year before Isabella’s birth. It was also a bonding exercise within the country and kept the Grandees from their internecine wars.

Thus, the campaign to annex Granada began. It took ten years of unremitting siege and battle, and clever fomentation of the civil war that was going on within Granada between King Boabdil and his uncle.

Whilst Ferdinand led the army, Isabella took control of logistics and supplies. She was enormously effective at this, enabling the Christian army to press home every advantage. She was also a great inspiration to the troops, who both loved and feared her. In January, 1492, the Kingdom of Granada was surrendered to Isabella and Ferdinand. They gave generous terms to the defeated inhabitants, allowing them to stay or leave unmolested with their goods. Many headed for Africa.

The Years of Expansion

Meanwhile, having run out of Conversos to persecute, the Inquisition was turning its sights to the Jewish population accusing it of infecting the Conversos. Isabella decided that the answer was to expel any Jews who did not convert to Christianity. It should be remembered that England and France had already expelled Jews during the previous centuries, so the concept was not new. The Spanish Jews were permitted to leave Spain peacefully and take some of their goods, but gold and silver could not be exported.

The result was a humanitarian disaster. Many were robbed and pillaged (despite royal edicts that they be unharmed). Some left for Africa, where they often had a poor reception and those who entered Portugal were frequently ill-treated, despite the King of Portugal’s edicts.

Those who returned, accepting baptism, were allowed to purchase their land and goods back at the knock-down rate at which they had been forced to sell. Of course, these forced baptisms gave rise to a new group of Conversos who were instantly suspected by the Inquisition.

Isabella had financed an exploration by Christopher Columbus, a Genoan sailor who sought to find the Indies by travelling west, rather than East. In 1492, he arrived in what became known as the Americas, and claimed the land for Spain. This resulted in a whole new set of opportunities and problems for Isabella – although the initial result was a threatened war with Portugal, who claimed that the new lands were in their sphere of influence.

It also opened up the long debate on slavery. Slavery was the common lot for Europeans captured by the Ottomans in the east, and was practised with Papal blessing in Africa, where the Portuguese were attempting to conquer Muslim territories. Isabella appears to have had views consistent with this norm: slavery was an acceptable outcome for prisoners of war who refused to recognise Christianity, and also for cannibals, but it was not acceptable to enslave Christians, those who might be converts in future or non-combatants, and by and large she seems to have discouraged it.

The new lands in the Americas caused years of administrative and political headaches for Isabella, with only a slow accretion of the wealth she had hoped that Columbus would find there.

Isabella gave birth to five children who survived. There was a long gap between the eldest, the Infanta Isabella, and the second child, the longed-for son, Juan, named as Prince of the Asturias, who was followed by Juana, Maria and Katharine. These children were deeply loved by both parents. Isabella spent as much time with them as she could, and supervised their education. But there was no doubt that their role was to marry and increase Spanish power and influence.

Infanta Isabella was betrothed to the grandson of Alfonso V of Portugal, and in 1490, she was married to Prince Alfonso. The Prince was killed in a riding accident, and the distraught Infanta returned to Spain, to live in ostentatious mourning.

Juan and Juana were betrothed in a double arrangement to Margaret, Archduchess of Austria, and her brother, Philip, Duke of Burgundy and Archduke of Austria. These two were the children of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian. The marriages took place in 1497 as did a second marriage for Infanta Isabella – to the new King of Portugal, Manuel, a marriage to which the young woman only agreed when Manuel agreed to expel Jews and Muslims from his territories. Bizarrely, the Muslims were allowed to enter Spain.

Juan died shortly after his marriage, leaving a pregnant wife, who miscarried, and to add to the family’s grief, the young Isabella died in childbed, followed within two years, by her son.

Infanta Maria was sent to Portugal to marry her sister’s widower. She proved the most fortunate of Isabella’s family – bearing many children, and being loved and honoured as Queen of Portugal. 

Isabella's youngest child, Katharine, was promised to England.

The Later Years

During the last decade of her reign, Isabella was concerned with church reform. The state of the Catholic church throughout Europe was a cause of scandal – successive Popes had paid more attention to their material and political ambitions than to the state of religion, and there was increasing disquiet amongst a population where literacy and education were increasing.

In Florence, the monk Savonarola had instigated a theocratic state for a short period – a reflection of popular discontent. Ironically, one of the worst offenders was Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia). An Aragonese by birth, Alexander had been a supporter of Isabella and Ferdinand, and now, although Isabella utterly disapproved of him, he gave them powers to reform the Church in Spain.

These powers were used vigorously to promote better educated priests, more effective preaching, and less flagrant abuse of the rules on chastity and poverty by the clergy. Cardinal Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo, even instituted work on what became known as the Complutensian Bible – a scholarly compendium of the Bible in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

The rest of the royal couple’s time was taken up with new wars, but this time led by Aragon. Charles VIII of France had invaded Italy, and threatened the Kingdom of Naples, which was ruled over by Ferdinand’s cousin, Ferrante I.  Spain prepared for war, and thus began the Italian Wars – a fight between France and Spain for dominance in Italy, which only limped to an end in the reign of Isabella’s great-grandson, Philip II.

It was as part of the alliance that they needed to create to contain France that the marriage of their youngest daughter, Katharine, to the son of the King of England, was confirmed and carried out in 1501.

The loss of two of her children and her grandson profoundly affected Isabella. Although she and Ferdinand remained deeply attached to each other, she began to slide into depression, exacerbated with the departure of her two younger daughters and the rumours of the disastrous relationship between Juana and Philip. Philip treated his wife so disrespectfully, and Juana was so jealous of his mistresses, that it created an open scandal.

Ferdinand himself, whilst loving his wife dearly, saw no reason to be faithful to her, and Isabella had often been jealous, whilst accepting the situation with dignity.  

Trouble also mounted in Granada, where, despite the terms of the Treaty of Alhambra preventing interference with the faith of Muslims, Cardinal Cisneros persuaded Isabella and Ferdinand to accept forced conversions. This led to a brutally subdued revolt, which was followed up by even more repression.

In England, Katharine was in dire straits – widowed within a few months of marriage, she was now being bartered over for Henry VII’s second son, Isabella having firmly vetoed the idea of her marrying her father-in-law.

Isabella’s health deteriorated, and she withdrew to Medina del Campo. Deeply concerned about the state of the marriage of Juana and Philip, and the reports of discord that went as far as physical violence on his part, and threats to starve herself to death on Juana’s, Isabella reviewed the plans for the succession. She had no choice but to appoint Juana as her heir, knowing that Philip would be likely to take command. Her will gave them sage advice, as well as attempting to atone for any injustices she was conscious of, or debts that required repayment. Finally, she spared a thought for her subjects in the New World, begging that they be treated justly.

Isabella died on 26th November 1504 having left orders for her burial in a simple ceremony in the Alhambra.

Ferdinand ruled on for another 12 years, eventually taking control of Castile, after Philip died suddenly, and Juana’s mental health precluded (or so it was claimed) her ruling herself. He remarried in hope of an heir for Aragon and a resolution of the Italian Wars, but was disappointed on both counts. In 1516, he was buried at Isabella’s side in the tomb at the Alhambra where they still rest together.