Isabella I (1451–1504)

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Isabella I (1451–1504)

Queen of Castile, sponsor of Christopher Columbus' voyages of discovery, who is credited, along with her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon, with the creation of modern unified Spain . Name variations: Isabel I; Isabella of Spain,; Isabella I of Castile; Isabella the Catholic or Isabel la Católica. Born on April 22, 1451, at Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Spain; died on November 26, 1504, at Medina del Campo, Spain; daughter of Juan also known as John II (1405–1454), king of Castile (r. 1406–1454), and his second wife Isabel of Portugal (1428–1496); married Fernando also known as Ferdinand II, king of Aragon (r. 1479–1516), on October 19, 1469, at Valladolid; children: Isabella of Asturias (1471–1498); Juana la Loca (1479–1555); Maria of Castile (1482–1517); Catherine of Aragon (1485–1536); Juan or John (1478–1497, who married Margaret of Austria [1480–1530]).

Recognized as heir to throne of Castile (1468); proclaimed queen (1474); established Spanish Inquisition (1480); conquered Granada, expelled Jews, and sponsored Columbus' first voyage (1492).

Born April 22, 1451, at Madrigal de las Altas Torres, near Avila, Isabella was the daughter of King John II of Castile and his second wife, Isabel of Portugal . At her birth, Isabella was second in line for the throne, behind her much older half-brother Henry, a son of John's by his earlier marriage to Maria of Aragon (1403–1445). The birth in 1453 of another male child, Alphonso, moved her a step further away, so it was not expected that she would ever be queen in her own right. When John died in 1454, the older son succeeded him as Henry IV (Enrique IV), and the widowed queen withdrew from court to Arévalo, where she took up residence with her two small children. Stories from the time cast doubt on Isabel of Portugal's emotional stability, but it appears that the royal children enjoyed a comfortable, secure childhood, largely isolated from the pressures of court life. Princess Isabella received little formal education. By all accounts, her schooling was limited to needlework and other domestic skills considered appropriate for high-born women destined only to serve as pawns in dynastic alliances. Intelligent, curious, and an enthusiastic reader, Isabella lamented the gaps in her learning and studied hard to remedy them in later years.

Under Henry IV, Castile experienced almost constant political turmoil. The king himself was known as Henry el Impotente (the Impotent), less because of his ineffectiveness as a ruler than because of his failure to father an heir. Considerable doubt remains regarding Henry's sexual preference, as well as emotional and physiological problems he is said to have had. What appears certain is that his relationships with women were dysfunctional. In 1453, shortly after dissolving his childless marriage to Blanche of Navarre , Henry wed Joanna of Portugal , but for several years this union also remained without issue. Public estimation of Henry's manhood was not high, and it did not help that Queen Joanna was known to have lovers on the side. When in 1461 a daughter was finally born to the royal couple, it was widely repeated that the child's real father was Joanna's favorite, Beltrán de la Cueva. Henry at first claimed the new infanta, or princess, whose name was Juana, as his own, but she soon came to be known as Juana la Beltraneja , a mocking reference to her supposed paternity. Doubts about the princess' legitimacy threatened to lead to a disputed succession, the most frightening kind of political crisis in a monarchical system.

During the ensuing decade, civil warfare plagued Castile. Powerful nobles who opposed Henry IV coalesced around his father's two other surviving children, Alphonso and Isabella. In 1465 at Avila, a group of rebels renounced their allegiance to Henry and proclaimed Alphonso as king, although he was only 11 years old. Three years later, the youthful pretender died and his supporters turned to Isabella, but the princess declined to cooperate. Instead, she remained loyal to Henry, demanding as the price of her adherence that he publicly acknowledge her as his legitimate heir. This requirement compelled the king to repudiate the infanta Juana la Beltraneja, which he obligingly did in 1468 at Toros de Guisando.

Nature has made no other woman like her.

—Pietro Martire d'Anghiera

Isabella herself was only 17, but her conduct suggests a political maturity, coupled with a shrewdness in judging men and circumstances. Legitimate or not, an unmarried woman by herself would find it difficult to bring Castile's factions under control and rule effectively. Already determined to restore public order and honest government, Isabella recognized her need for a strong husband who could command troops in the field and father children to ensure the succession. Isabella's decision to marry was not an acceptance of the limited procreative role traditionally assigned to royal women. Rather, in the way she went about it, she showed herself to be defiant and independent, a woman who had her own agenda and who knew her own mind. There was no shortage of eligible suitors, including Henry's personal favorite, his brother-in-law King Afonso V of Portugal, but Isabella rejected them all in favor of her own choice, young Ferdinand (II), king of Sicily and heir also to the throne of neighboring Aragon. "It must be he," she is reported to have said, "and no other."

On October 19, 1469, Isabella and Ferdinand were married quietly in a private residence at Valladolid. Although they were second cousins, the bride and groom met for the first time only a few days before the wedding. According to contemporaries, there was an immediate bond between them. Both were young, Ferdinand in fact a year younger than Isabella, and both were reasonably sturdy and attractive. Also, both were intelligent, tough-minded pragmatists. The alliance strengthened Isabella's position at home, but the Aragonese, who were feeling French expansionist pressure to the north, needed it more than she did, a circumstance which allowed her to impose upon Ferdinand a marriage contract limiting his prerogatives to his wife's advantage. Isabella's new husband agreed to reside in Castile and to provide military support to her cause, but he was granted no independent authority in her lands. Official declarations would be issued in both names, but nothing would be done without Isabella's consent, and Ferdinand's rights in Castile would expire upon her death.

Henry IV reacted angrily but indecisively to news of Isabella and Ferdinand's marriage, first reinstating as his heir the infanta Juana la Beltraneja, then repudiating her again in order to make peace with his half-sister. On December 11, 1474, Henry died. Isabella was immediately proclaimed queen at Segovia and adherence to her cause spread rapidly across the kingdom. A small group of nobles opposed to the Aragonese connection quickly adopted the cause of the infanta Juana and sought assistance from neighboring Portugal in exchange for betrothing the unfortunate nine-year-old to King Afonso V, several decades her senior. Another long period of civil warfare followed. Aided by a Portuguese force, Isabella's opponents enjoyed an early advantage, but in 1476 the tide turned in the queen's favor when Ferdinand defeated Afonso at Toro. In 1479, the Treaty of Alcaçovas brought an end to hostilities and opened the way for Isabella to consolidate her hold on the Castilian throne.

Modern historians differ as to the legality of Isabella's claim, which rested finally on the question of whether or not Juana la Beltraneja was really illegitimate, as contemporaries charged. In any case, the issue was decided not according to justice, but by force of arms, public opinion, and practical exigencies. To Juana's disadvantage was her youth, her dependence upon the Portuguese party, and the damage done by Henry's own repudiation of her. As for Isabella, by the time the war ended, she was 28, politically experienced, and married to a well-liked prince whose family was Castilian in origin, values, and affections. Most important, she had been able to guarantee the succession. The birth in 1471 of a daughter, Isabella of Asturias , and especially in 1478 of a son, Juan, promised political stability in the future. Another factor in Isabella's growing power base was Ferdinand's own accession as king of Aragon upon his father's death in 1479.

With her husband's active collaboration, Isabella took energetic steps to restore public order in Castile, at the same time seeking to consolidate and expand royal authority at the expense of the feudal nobility. In 1476 at the Cortes, or parliament, of Madrigal, the monarchs agreed with the leading municipalities to revive and restructure the old medieval hermandades, or town militias, which were now placed under the supervision of a national council dominated by the crown. This effective rural police force cleared the countryside of murderers, robbers, and other violent criminals. In addition, it increased Isabella's influence over the administration of justice at the local level, thereby weakening the traditional aristocracy.

In other measures adopted at Madrigal and later at the Cortes of Toledo (1480), Isabella and Ferdinand sought to curb the power of the great lords by reforming the kingdom's political and administrative structure. The Royal Council, known also as the Council of Castile, became the principal policy-making body for interior affairs. It was staffed largely by university-trained lawyers, whose expertise was necessary to the increasingly complex business of government. Unlike the grandes, or members of the high nobility, who had dominated politics in previous reigns, these so-called "new men" had no independent power base of their own. They owed their positions to the monarchs, and, therefore, their loyalty was assured.

Isabella profited from the support of the towns and the "new men," but she did not intend to transfer power to them. The administrative reforms enacted at Toledo also increased royal oversight over municipal affairs, especially through the appointment of corregidores, or royal governors, to reside in the kingdom's most important cities. To be able to act autonomously, without restraint or competition, Isabella and Ferdinand required reliable revenues of their own, so that they would not need to request new taxes from the Cortes. To this end, they worked to recover sources of royal income which had been improperly ceded to private parties during the struggle between Henry and Isabella's brother Alphonso. Also, in 1476 Isabella began the process of absorbing into the crown the masterships of the immensely wealthy, but largely independent, military orders of Santiago, Calatrava, and Alcántara. As increased trade and a reformed coinage led to economic expansion, more efficient collection of existing taxes brought even greater returns to the crown. It is estimated that, during the 30 years of Isabella's reign, revenues from taxes increased by 360%. Financial solvency

made consultation of the Cortes unnecessary, and between 1483 and 1497 the monarchs did not convene the parliamentary body at all.

Devoutly religious, Isabella believed that it was the duty of Christian rulers to implement God's will on earth. In 1453, when she was still a small child, the Turks had taken Constantinople, an event which reawakened the crusading spirit in Europe. War against infidels was particularly valued in Spain, where Christians had maintained a tense frontier with Islam since the year 711. During the Reconquest, a centuries-long process of southward migration punctuated by periodic outbreaks of warfare, the rulers of what had eventually become Castile and Aragon had gradually recaptured most of the Iberian peninsula. As late as Isabella's reign, however, there was one remaining Muslim stronghold, the kingdom of Granada in the extreme south on the Mediterranean.

With the fall in 1482 of Muslim-held Alhama, Isabella and Ferdinand inaugurated a decade-long campaign to conquer Granada. While her husband took command in the field, the queen mobilized men, arms, and supplies. By necessity and custom, Isabella's role in the struggle was limited to support, but she was frequently at the front with Ferdinand. Her presence is said to have inspired her own soldiers and, on occasion, to have disheartened the enemy, but it also exposed her to great risk. At least twice, she came close to being killed or seriously injured. Castilian forces gradually dismembered the Moorish kingdom, taking in turn such strategic centers as Loja, Málaga, and Baza, and, by the close of 1490, they had settled in outside the city of Granada itself. On January 2, 1492, following a lengthy siege, Granada surrendered, and four days later the king and queen entered the former Muslim capital in triumph.

The fall of Granada marked the recovery of what Isabella believed to be the original patrimony of her distant forebears, the Christian kings of Visigothic Spain, but it was not the limit of her expansionist program. Concerned by recent advances made by the Portuguese in Africa and the Atlantic, as early as 1478 Ferdinand and Isabella had sent an expedition to the Canary Islands to enforce Castilian claims there. Meanwhile, in a more ambitious undertaking, the queen agreed to finance an attempt by the Genoese mariner Christopher Columbus to reach the Indies, that is, the Far East, by sailing westward across the Atlantic. Columbus' October 12, 1492, landfall in the Bahamas opened the way for the establishment of a Castilian empire in the so-called New World.

Castilian ventures in the Atlantic were expected to facilitate access to the riches of Africa and the Orient, but wealth was not the only goal of Isabelline expansionism. Inspired by the Biblical book of the Apocalypse, or Revelations, Isabella shared a current millenarian belief in the imminence of the Second Coming, which must be preceded by the rise of a world emperor who would recover Jerusalem from infidel hands. Given the successful war for Granada, it was easy for Isabella to see herself and Ferdinand, or perhaps one of their descendants, in such a role.

Isabella's fusion of her political agenda with her sense of religious obligation was responsible for two of her most controversial policies, the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion from her realm of the Jews. Long a cultural frontier, Castile had a significant Jewish population, whose members enjoyed great influence, especially as physicians, bankers, and tax gatherers. In the 14th century, outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence led to many baptisms of convenience, and the so-called "new men" were often conversos, as Jewish converts to Christianity were called. Also, many noble houses had marriage ties with converso families; in fact, Isabella and Ferdinand themselves both had Jewish ancestors. Conversos were to be found among the most devout of Christians, but frequent reports of clandestine Judaism in the convert community troubled Isabella, who regarded conformity in matters of belief to be an essential component of the new order of monarchical centralization. To enforce orthodoxy, she and Ferdinand acquired papal authorization to establish Inquisition tribunals, with the provision that, contrary to practice elsewhere in Europe, these courts would be under royal, rather than papal or episcopal, control.

Established first at Seville in 1480, the Spanish Inquisition spread throughout Castile and into Aragon as well, becoming one of the earliest national institutions in Spain. The Inquisition's abuses were notorious. Questioned under torture, defendants were kept ignorant of their accusers' identities. Because the inquisitors were allowed to confiscate the property of convicted persons, corruption was common. Although many of the sentences handed out, such as public penance, were relatively mild, there is a contemporary estimate that, during the 1480s, some 2,000 persons were sentenced, often on flimsy evidence, to death by burning.

The campaign against judaizing conversos also brought Castile's remaining Jewish population under Isabella's scrutiny. Convinced that unconverted Jews provided an ever-present bad example to the "new Christians," the queen believed also that the prophecy of the Second Coming required that the Jews disappear as a people before the world empire could emerge. In 1492, shortly after the conquest of Granada, Isabella ordered all the Jews of Castile to accept baptism as Christians or depart the kingdom. Many Jews did convert, but many others chose permanent exile instead. Having been guaranteed religious toleration when Granada surrendered, Castile's Muslims were at first spared similar treatment. Their reprieve was short-lived, however; in 1501, unconverted Muslims were ordered out of Granada, and the following year they were expelled from the rest of Castile as well.

The Spanish Inquisition and the mass deportation of the Jews produced great human suffering, but Isabella's record in religious affairs was not entirely one of bigotry and persecution. Years before state-sponsored church reform became fashionable elsewhere in Christian Europe, the queen recognized the need to improve the quality of the clergy and the discipline of the monastic orders, and to encourage greater spirituality and observance on the part of the laity. Her collaborator in these efforts was her confessor, the ascetic archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436–1517). Largely thanks to Isabella and Cisneros, the Roman Catholic Church cleaned its house in Spain so effectively that, in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation would have virtually no impact there. In recognition of their many services to the faith, in 1494 Pope Alexander IV awarded Isabella and Ferdinand the title of los Reyes Católicos, or the Catholic Monarchs, by which historians still refer to them.

The early 1490s saw Isabella's kingdom in much better shape than she had found it, but the last decade of her life would bring troubles. The Italian Wars (1494–1504), although fought to protect Aragonese dynastic interests against French intrusion, consumed Castilian resources and disheartened the queen, who lamented the expenditure of blood and treasure on war against other Christians, instead of infidels. Also during this period, Isabella experienced several personal tragedies, which had political consequences because stability in a monarchy depended upon the fortunes of the royal family. In Barcelona in December 1492, Ferdinand was almost killed in an assassination attempt, an incident which reminded Isabella of the fragility of the political order in Spain. A greater crisis came in 1497 with the sudden death of the infante Juan, the male heir under whom Ferdinand and Isabella had expected Castile and Aragon to be united once and for all. The monarchs' eldest daughter, Isabella of Asturias, now married to King Manuel I of Portugal, was designated as heir, but, while the Castilian Cortes immediately swore allegiance to her, the Aragonese parliament declined to do so, citing a traditional prohibition in that kingdom against female succession.

When Princess Isabella of Asturias herself died in childbirth in 1498, and was followed to the grave two years later by her infant son, the right to inherit in Castile passed to Ferdinand

and Isabella's second daughter, Juana. Isabella succeeded this time in extracting acceptance of a female heir from the Aragonese, but the problem of the succession continued to trouble her. Remembered in history as Juana la Loca, or the Insane, the new heir was emotionally unstable and was also dominated by her husband, Archduke Philip of Burgundy, known as Philip the Fair, whom Isabella did not trust. In 1503, as the queen herself fell seriously ill, possibly of cancer, she attempted in her will to guarantee the continuity of Ferdinand's authority in Castile, a reversal of the terms she had originally insisted upon in their marriage contract.

On November 26, 1504, Isabella died at Medina del Campo and, in compliance with her final wish, was carried to Granada for burial. Preceded in death by two of her children, she foresaw clearly the tragic life to which a third, the unfortunate Juana la Loca, was destined. Of the remaining two princesses, only one, Maria of Castile , who, following her sister Isabella of Asturias' death, was married to the widowed Portuguese king and gave birth to many children, enjoyed a relatively contented life. Both personal and political humiliations awaited the youngest daughter, known to history as Catherine of Aragon , who in 1509 became the first of the six wives of England's notorious King Henry VIII (1509–1547).

Although the union Isabella and Ferdinand created between Castile and Aragon was at first only a dynastic alliance, under them and their descendants Spain did come increasingly to be thought of as a single, unified power. In more recent times, during the Francisco Franco régime (1939–75), supporters of the dictatorship sought legitimacy in the historical example of the Catholic Monarchs. A movement even emerged proposing Isabella as a candidate for sainthood, but it made little progress because of persistent questions concerning the queen's responsibility for the excesses of the Inquisition and the sufferings of the native inhabitants of the New World.

Maria of Castile (1482–1517)

Queen of Portugal. Name variations: Maria of Castile or Marie of Castile; Mary Trastamara. Born on June 29, 1482, in Cordoba; died on March 7, 1517, in Lisbon; daughter of Ferdinand II, king of Aragon, and Isabella I (1451–1504), queen of Castile (r. 1468–1504); became second wife of Miguel also known as Manuel I the Fortunate (1469–1521), king of Portugal (r. 1495–1521), on October 30, 1500; children: Luiz (1506–1555), duke of Beja; Isabella of Portugal (1503–1539); Beatrice of Portugal (1504–1538, who married Charles II of Savoy); Fernando (1507–1534), duke of Guarda; Alfonso (1509–1540), archbishop of Lisbon; Enrique or Henry (1512–1580), cardinal of Portugal; Duarte (b. 1515, who married Isabella of Braganza ); Joao also known as John III, king of Portugal (r. 1521–1557, who married Catherine [1507–1578], sister of Charles V); Maria (1513–1513); Antonio (1516–1516).

Isabella the queen is so prominent a figure in history that it is not always easy to catch glimpses of Isabella the woman. By all accounts she was a devoted wife and mother, and, although Ferdinand, true to contemporary standards of princely conduct, was not always faithful to her, it is clear that they respected one another and that, on the whole, their marriage was a good one. United by bonds of genuine affection, as well as of dynastic interest, Isabella and Ferdinand enjoyed a remarkable partnership, successful both as a domestic arrangement and as a political alliance. Always sensitive to her subjects' skepticism regarding women rulers, Isabella deliberately kept Ferdinand on view, so that at times it is difficult for historians to distinguish what in their reign was hers, what was his, and what was theirs. From the beginning, however, Isabella was determined to implement her own vision of Castile's future. She was fiercely protective of her royal prerogatives, and it was she, not Ferdinand, who dictated the terms under which the partners shared authority at all.


Elliott, J.H. Imperial Spain, 1469–1716. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1964.

Fernández-Armesto, Felipe. Ferdinand and Isabella. NY: Taplinger, 1975.

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

suggested reading:

Mariéjol, J.H. The Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella. Translated by Benjamin Keen. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1961.

Merriman, Roger Bigelow. The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and in the New: The Catholic Kings. Vol. 2. NY: Macmillan, 1918.

Prescott, W.H. History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella. Abridged ed. NY: Heritage Press, 1967 (originally published in 1837).

Stephen Webre , Professor of History, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, Louisiana

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Isabella I (1451–1504)

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Isabella I (1451–1504)