Isabella of Castile (1451–1504)

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ISABELLA OF CASTILE (14511504), queen of Castile and joint ruler of Aragón. Isabel I was born in medieval Castile; she died in early modern Spain, having had much to do with the transition from medieval to modern. She was three years old in 1454 when her father, King John II (ruled 14061454) of Castile, died and her older half-brother, Henry IV (ruled 14541474), succeeded him. That year too another event paved her way to the crown and did much to determine the course of her reign: Constantinople, the eastern capital of Christendom, fell to Muslim Turks, causing widespread fear of Turkish advance into the West and a papal call for crusade. Henry IV responded to it by renewing war against Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Iberia. Some powerful nobles, already perceiving themselves shunted aside by the king, adjudged his pursuit of that war halfhearted. Civil war erupted in the 1460s, ending only when Henry named Isabel, whom the dissidents favored, his heir.

Against Henry's wishes, Isabel in 1469 contacted, met, and married Ferdinand, prince of Aragón, in what proved a love match and lifelong partnership, and put Spain on the road to national unity. The couple were cousins, their goals similar and their personalities complementary. On Henry's death in 1474 civil war again broke out. Two years later, it was clear the couple had won. Isabel emerged as reigning queen in Castile with Ferdinand as her consort. Yet from the outset, the reign was publicized as joint at Isabel's insistence, attesting to her sensitivity to the popular temper and mind cast and her recognition of a queen's limitations even while she overcame them. A medieval ruler was expected to do justice, lead in war, and lead subjects to God, guiding them to salvation. Having triumphed in war, Isabel immediately and effectively presided over a court of law in Seville, Castile's largest city. She chose her closest advisers from the two most educated groups, clergy and lawyers (most lawyers were also clergy). In medieval Europe, and especially in Spain, the monarch traditionally headed the church, while the clergy represented rulers as divinely sanctioned and were looked to as intermediaries linking the crowned heads and the people.

Isabel herself exhibited piety, but less the lady-praying-on-her-knees variety often ascribed to her than the militant Christianity of Spain's greatest kings, those who showed themselves as finding their highest purpose in the crusading endeavor to reconquer Spanish territory held by Muslims since 711. In announcing that such was her intent and thereby also reinforcing her own initially shaky right to rule, Isabel put traditional imagery to work. During her coronation she had a double-edged sword, perceived as the sword of justice, of God's warriors, and of divine wrath and vengeance, carried before her. As one of her first acts as queen, she commissioned tombs for her parents at Miraflores outside Burgos, their prominent display of the well-understood symbols of star and sun announcing her dynastic commitment to achieving Spain's cosmic destiny. She sponsored the Toledo church dedicated to her patron saint, San JuanSt. John the Evangelist, whose Book of Revelation promised salvation to the godly and a messianic end to history, promises often interpreted among the Spanish as made to themselves, the new Israel. When she gave birth in 1478 to a son, Juan, the prince was greeted in messianic terms in attendant ceremonies and by chroniclers and clergy. Moreover, it was expected that Juan, as heir to the crowns of both Castile and Aragón, would one day in his person unite Spain.

Isabel grew up in wartime, and war remained central to her evolving reign; no war was more popularly unifying, or of more transcendental purpose, or more capable of centralizing royal power than the by then traditional religious and national mission of reconquest. Resumption of war against Granada was announced in 1480, along with such other centralizing measures as codifying laws and reclaiming crown lands from nobles. Concurrently, Isabel also asserted royal religious authority in instituting the Spanish Inquisition (1478), designed to find and punish religious heretics and apostates. Its focus was those converted Jews, conversos, who still held to Jewish beliefs. Thereafter, Isabel's Spain waged religious warfare on two fronts, both internally and against the Muslim kingdom of Granada.

For nearly a decade, year after year, she relentlessly directed campaigns against the sprawling and mountainous kingdom of Granada. She oversaw recruitment, finances, and supplies, conferred on strategy, and on occasion cajoled Fernando into keeping to the field as military commander, or herself joined Spanish armies at the front during long sieges. On 1 January 1492, she and Ferdinand rode ceremoniously into the city of Granada. It was not simply happenstance that Isabel sent out Christopher Columbus that same year with instructions to find a sea route to the rich East and through it to the goal of all crusaders, Jerusalem, then under Muslim control; nor that in 1492 she and Fernando expelled Spain's Jews and, in 1502, Castile's Muslims. Rather, each of those measures was spoken of as advancing Christian conquest in accord with Spain's mandate.

Veterans of the Granada wars fought on, in Navarre, and in Italy against France and for the papacy, which in appreciation designated Spain's rulers "Los Reyes Católicos," The Catholic Kings. Many helped establish Spanish rule in the Caribbean islands and explored mainland coasts. Isabel looked on the peoples encountered as her subjects; she directed that they be instructed in the Spanish language and ways and in the Christian faith and that, if peaceful, they be well treated, but that those who warred on the Spanish be enslaved. A codicil to her will instructed her heirs that "if [the Indians] were receiving any harm, to remedy it, so that it did not exceed the apostolic order of concession." Arguably, nothing more succinctly expresses a piety that linked the royal role, morality, law, and national interest, and viewed all of them in an international context regulated and guaranteed through a religion and its titular head on earth.

In what was Isabel's last decade, Spain experienced aspects of the Renaissance. Isabel acquired paintings and tapestries by Flemish masters and pietistic devotional books from the new printing presses. Increasingly ill, she appears to have become more introspective, more concerned with her immortal soul and those of her subjects, and more averse to men dying in wars with no religious aim. And she repeatedly suffered personal loss. She had made grand dynastic marriages for her five childrenencircling France and creating an alliance with the powerful Habsburgs who ruled the Lowlands and much of Germany and Austria through the double marriage of her son Juan to the Princess Margaret and her daughter Joanna to the Habsburg heir, Philip. She married her daughter Isabel to the Portuguese King Manuel, and, when young Isabel died in childbirth, had another daughter, María, wed Manuel. And she sent her youngest child, Catherine, to England to wed Prince Arthur. She did not live to see Arthur die and his brother, becoming King Henry VIII, marry the widowed Catherine of Aragón. Probably of greatest impact on Isabel was the death of her son Juan, leaving as heir to Castile her oldest surviving child, the unstable Joanna, known to history as "La Loca" ('The Mad'). Nor did she live to see Joanna's son Charles I (Holy Roman emperor Charles V) unite Castile and Aragón as well as inherit Habsburg lands and new dependencies in America to make real what she fully expected to be Spain's future, a globe-encircling empire.

Spain came into modernity as one of Europe's most powerful and esteemed monarchies, but selectively, as a society closed to all aspects of modernity at odds with its dominant, nation-building religious beliefs.

See also Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Ferdinand of Aragón ; Inquisition, Spanish ; Spain .


Boruchoff, David A., ed. Isabel la Católica, Queen of Castile: Critical Essays. New York, 2003.

Ladero Quesada, Miguel Ángel. La España de los Reyes Católicos. Madrid, 1999.

Liss, Peggy K. "Isabel of Castile: Her Self-Representation and Its Context," In Queenship in Early Modern Spain, edited by Theresa Earenfight. New York, 2003.

. Isabel the Queen: Life and Times. New York, 1992. Spanish language edition Isabel la Católica. Madrid, 1999.

. "Isabel I of Castilla, reina de España." In Isabel la Católica, edited by Pedro Navascués. Madrid, 2002.

Peggy K. Liss

Isabella of Castile (1451–1504)

views updated May 17 2018

Isabella of Castile (14511504)

Queen of Castile whose marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon was the foundation of a united Spanish kingdom. Born in Madrigal, in the kingdom of Castile, she was the daughter of King John II of Castile and Queen Isabella of Portugal. In 1454, her half brother Henry IV became the Castilian king. When Henry sought to deny the succession to his brother, Afonso, supporters of Afonso rebelled, fighting with Henry's army at the Battle of Olmedo in 1467. In the next year, Afonso died, and the rebels then supported Isabella as their candidate for the throne. In 1469, Isabella married Ferdinand, prince of the kingdom of Aragon. Henry conferred the succession on his daughter Juana, a candidate supported by the monarch of Afonso V of Portugal.

In 1474, on the death of Henry IV, Isabella was crowned Queen of Castile, but she was challenged by Afonso and Joan. Ferdinand's army defeated the Portuguese at the Battle of Toro in 1476, after which Afonso gave up his opposition to Isabella. Three years later, Ferdinand became the king of Aragon. Ferdinand and Isabella united the courts of Castile and Aragon. A new parliament, the Cortes, began meeting, and a new system of laws and administration laid the groundwork for a united kingdom of Spain.

Determined to establish her legitimacy as queen, which had been so forcefully challenged, Isabella set out to enlarge and enhance the kingdom and her own authority. She led the campaign to recapture the kingdom of Granada, the last vestige of Moorish control of the Iberian Peninsula. Over ten years, the Spanish armies laid siege to a series of fortified towns while the Moors laid waste to the countryside. This campaign ended with final victory at Granada in 1492, ending the centuries-long campaign against the Moors known as the Reconquista.

In the meantime, Isabella had been rejecting the request of an Italian navigator, Christopher Columbus, to support a voyage of discovery to the west, where Columbus believed he would find an easy route to the spices and other riches of the East Indies. Such a route, Columbus promised, would allow Spain to bypass the Indian Ocean, which was under the control of the Portuguese, and build its own trading empire in Asia. In August 1492, she finally gave in, and Columbus's voyage to the New World that fall began Spain's conquest of colonies in the Western Hemisphere. The rivalry between Spain and Portugal was partially resolved by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, by which the two nations divided the world into two spheres of colonization.

At home, Isabella was transforming Spain into a purely Christian state. Ferdinand and Isabella had established the Inquisition in 1478 to investigate charges of false conversion and heresy. The 1492 Decree of Alhambra called for all Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave the kingdom. In 1502, after a revolt, Muslims were subject to forced baptism or exile. Isabella also vigorously pursued a policy of strengthening Spain's ties to other European realms through marriage. She allied Spain with the Habsburg monarchy by arranging the marriage of her son Juan and daughter Joanna into the Habsburg dynasty. She also engaged her daughter Isabel to the king of Portugal, Manuel, and after the death of Isabel engaged her second daughter Maria to the same king. Her grandson Charles became king of Spain as Charles I and Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. Her astute marital diplomacy raised Spain's importance in European affairs, while her sponsorship of Columbus established a realm of overseas colonies that would enrich the Spanish treasury for the next two centuries.

See Also: Charles V; Columbus, Christopher; Ferdinand II of Aragon; Inquisition

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Isabella of Castile