Isabel of Portugal (1428–1496)

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Isabel of Portugal (1428–1496)

Queen-consort of John II of Castile and mother of Isabella I of Castile. Name variations: Isabella. Born in 1428; died on August 15, 1496, in Arévalo; daughter of Isabella of Braganza (1402–1465) and John of Portugal, grand master of Santiago; became second wife of Juan also known as John II (1404–1454), king of Castile and Leon (r. 1406–1454), on July 22, 1447; children: Isabella I (1451–1504), queen of Castile; Alfonso also known as Alphonso (1453–1468).

Birth of John II (1406); birth of Isabella I of Castile (1451); execution of Alvaro de Luna (1453);death of John II and accession of Henry IV (1454); birth of Juana la Beltraneja (1462); death of Alphonso (1468); marriage of Isabella I and Ferdinand of Aragon (1469); death of Henry IV and accession of Isabella I (1474).

In 1428, Isabella of Braganza , wife of Prince John of Portugal, gave birth to a daughter whom she named Isabel. Little is known of Isabel of Portugal's childhood. Her youth coincided with the consolidation of the Portuguese monarchy as the nation began its maritime expansion leading to Portugal's golden age. Meanwhile, widowed John II of Castile began searching for a second wife (his first was Maria of Aragon [1403–1445]), and his chief minister and constable of Castile, Don Alvaro de Luna, arranged his wedding to Isabel. Luna saw it as a political match, giving Castile a Portuguese counterweight to Aragonese aggression. Isabel and John married on July 22, 1447, in Madrigal de las Altas Torres.

To Luna's consternation, however, Isabel of Portugal quickly became a rival to his power rather than a pawn through which he could continue to control John II. Don Alvaro had provided, in the words of chronicler Mosén Diego de Valera, "the knife that cut off his own head." Luna had been invaluable to John II, helping him dominate the rebellious Castilian aristocracy. But he also tried to dictate the royal couple's domestic arrangements, and the old king found Isabel entrancing. In 1451, she delivered a baby girl, whom the monarchs named Isabella (Isabella I ). The birth, however, provoked a prolonged depression in the young mother. Two years later, grown ever more resentful of Luna, the queen persuaded her husband to strip the minister of his power and send him to the scaffold. According to historian Peggy K. Liss , "His enemies hailed the Queen as a heroine—another Judith, another Esther, and worthy of comparison to Holy Mary." Luna's death and Isabel's increased popularity strengthened her hand, although it deprived the Castilian monarchy of a powerful albeit self-interested defender. John's reward from Isabel was Alphonso, born on December 17. The king died seven months later, on July 22, 1454.

Henry IV, her stepson by John's first wife Maria of Aragon, began his ill-starred reign. As a dowager in her 20s, Isabel needed to protect the interests of her children, yet protocol insisted that she leave the court. With her son and daughter, Isabel took up residence at Arévalo, west of Segovia, where Henry often held court. Not too long after her arrival there, Henry and one of his courtiers, Pedro de Girón, visited Isabel of Portugal. Girón apparently made some lascivious comments to the widow, which allegedly offended her piety and heightened her depression. Henry and Girón were probably trying to find a way to control Alphonso and Isabel through their mother so they would not become rallying points for factions opposed to Henry's rule. Yet Isabel "closed herself into a dark room, self-condemned to silence, and dominated by such depression that it degenerated into a form of madness," notes Liss. Certainly having to deal with her mother's isolation and mental illness must have helped form the personality of her daughter, Isabella I of Castile.

Isabel proved to be a strong-minded woman who developed an intense dislike for the constable and soon became one of his most implacable enemies.

—Joseph F. O'Callaghan, A History of Medieval Spain

Meanwhile, dissident nobles soon looked upon the boy Alphonso as a rival to Henry, whose reign became one of the most controversial in Spanish history. Although Henry's first wife Blanche of Navarre (1424–1464) had no children, allegedly because he was impotent, his second Joanna of Portugal (1439–1475) became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter in 1462. Alphonso's supporters claimed that a noble at court, Beltrán de la Cueva, had fathered the baby Juana, who became known as la Beltraneja (Juana la Beltraneja ). Alphonso's partisans nearly deposed Henry IV when the boy Alphonso suddenly died in 1468.

Isabel of Portugal's prolonged insanity made her irrelevant to the unfolding political struggle. Henry's death in 1474 brought her daughter Isabella I to the Castilian throne. Isabella I had already married Ferdinand of Aragon five years earlier, and together they ushered the Spanish kingdoms onto the world stage. Isabel of Portugal lingered in madness at Arévalo until her death in 1496. Her remains were eventually interred in the Carthusian convent of Miraflores at Burgos. Isabella I's own daughter, Juana la Loca (Juana the Mad), probably inherited a genetic predisposition to mental illness from her grandmother.


Crónica de don Alvaro de Luna. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1940.

Jaén, Didier Tisdel. John II of Castile and the Grand Master Alvaro de Luna: a Biography Compiled from the Chronicles of the Reign of King John II of Castile (1405–1454). Madrid: Castalia, 1978.

Liss, Peggy K. Isabel the Queen: Life and Times. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Miller, Townsend. Henry IV of Castile, 1425–1474. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.

Valera, Mosén Diego de. Memorial de diversas hazañas; chrónica de Enrique IV, ordenada por mos en Diego de Valera. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1941.

Kendall Brown , Professor of History, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah

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Isabel of Portugal (1428–1496)

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Isabel of Portugal (1428–1496)