Isabella of Portugal (1503–1539)

views updated

Isabella of Portugal (1503–1539)

Holy Roman empress who governed as regent of Spain during her husband's prolonged absences from the peninsula. Name variations: Isabel of Portugal; Isabella of Austria. Born on October 24, 1503, in Lisbon; died on May 1, 1539, in Toledo; daughter of Manuel I the Fortunate (1469–1521), king of Portugal (r. 1495–1521), and his second wife Maria of Castile (1482–1517); married Charles V (1500–1558), king of Spain (r. 1516–1556), king of the Romans (r. 1519–1530), Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1519–1558), on March 10, 1526; children: Philip II (b. 1527), king of Spain (r. 1556–1598), king of Portugal as Philip I (r. 1580–1598); Joanna of Austria (1535–1573), Fernando; Marie of Austria (1528–1603).

Birth of Charles V (1500); death of Isabella the Catholic (1504); death of Ferdinand of Aragon (1516); Charles V became king of Spain (1517); Luther launches the Reformation (1517); Charles elected Holy Roman Emperor (1519); Francis I defeated and captured by Charles V's forces at Pavia (1526); Treaty of Madrid (1526); sack of Rome by Charles V's army (1527); Schmalkaldic League formed by German protestants (1532); abdication of Charles V in favor of Philip II (1556); death of Charles V (1558).

The daughter of Manuel I of Portugal and his second wife, Queen Maria of Castile , Isabella of Portugal was born in Lisbon on October 24, 1503. Her mother, a daughter of the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella I , was "very honest, devout, and charitable" and punished her children "when they deserved it without pardoning any of them." She also inculcated ambition and religious piety in Isabella and her sisters. According to Maria of Castile's will, they were to either marry kings or become nuns. When the princess was 14, her mother died, at which point Manuel gave Isabella her mother's properties plus the income from Viseo and Torres Vedras.

Isabella of Portugal was renowned for her beauty and reportedly was determined to marry only the greatest king of Christian Europe. That her father Manuel I proposed her marriage to Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, must have pleased her immensely, for Charles was the foremost ruler in Christendom. Even more satisfying was Charles's response. In fact, Charles needed to wed for political reasons. Whereas Charles had been raised in Burgundy, his Spanish subjects insisted that he marry someone from the Iberian peninsula and that his heir be raised in Spain. The only delay in the engagement stemmed from the size of the dowry that Charles demanded. He was desperate for money to help finance his political ventures in Central Europe. Eventually Manuel agreed to provide 900,000 ducats, and Charles and Isabella were betrothed. Charles wasted no time in securing a papal dispensation (Isabella's mother was Charles' aunt, making the royal couple first cousins). He intended to wed and then leave his bride as regent to govern Spain while he went to Central Europe to deal with political and religious troubles there. They married on March 10, 1526, in Seville.

Awoman of regal dignity, strong character and profound religiosity.

—Peter Pierson

Writes historian Roger B. Merriman, "The Emperor was more fortunate in his marriage than he knew; for besides the financial and political advantages, he had the additional satisfaction of falling in love with his wife." Isabella seems to have entranced the emperor, and he tarried with her longer than anticipated. They honeymooned for several months in Granada. Her first pregnancy brought the birth on May 21, 1527, in Valladolid of the much-desired heir, the future Philip II. Altogether she had three children who survived to adulthood: Philip II, Marie of Austria , and Joanna of Austria . Charles did not leave Spain until July 1529.

As Charles had planned, he appointed Isabella regent and governor of Spain during his absence from the peninsula. She attended meetings of the governing councils and consulted with the ministers. As time passed, Isabella took a more active role in the policy-making process, suggesting her own solutions rather than merely accepting the advisors' recommendations. Charles considered her deliberations "very prudent and well thought out." She actively participated in the negotiations of marital alliances between the French and Spanish royal families, concerned that her own young children not be forced to wed the much older offspring of Francis I. During those years, she and the court traveled from city to city, moving in part to avoid exposure to epidemics.

Marriage to Charles was not easy, despite the mutual affection the royal couple shared. His first absence lasted from 1529 to April 1533. For two years, he remained in Spain, only to depart again in December 1536. Although he came back briefly in 1538, he left almost immediately, returning in November 1539. She wrote him regularly but often spent months without letters from Charles. During one of the emperor's long absences, complications from childbirth claimed her life on May 1, 1539 in Toledo. There is also speculation that she may have suffered from consumption, and its debilitating effects hastened her death. A contemporary described Isabella not long before her death: "The Empress is the greatest pity in the world; she is so thin as to not resemble a person." Nonetheless, during her 13 years of marriage to Charles V, according to historian J.H. Elliott, Isabella proved herself "the perfect Empress, a magnificently regal figure."

Charles V felt her loss greatly. In his later years, he spent hours contemplating Titian's portrait of her. He also ordered her body transported to Granada for entombment near his parents. The Marquis of Lombay accompanied the cortege with instructions to identify the corpse on arrival in Granada. Decomposition had so disfigured it, however, that he could not recognize Isabella. He was allegedly so horrified at what death had done to her beauty that he became a Jesuit, gaining fame as San Francisco de Borja. Two decades after Isabella died, her husband breathed his last. He succumbed clutching the same crucifix held by his beloved wife on her death bed.


Elliott, J.H. Imperial Spain, 1469–1716. NY: Penguin, 1990.

March, José María. Niñezy juventud de Felipe II; documentos inéditors sobre su educación civil, literariay religiosay su iniciación al gobierno (1527–1547). 2 vols. Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores, 1941–1942.

Mazarío Coleto, María del Carmen. Isabel de Portugal: emperatrizy reina de España. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1951.

Mexía, Pedro. Historia del Emperador Carlos V. Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1945.

Valesy Failde, Francisco Javier. La Emperatriz Isabel. Madrid: M. Aguilar, 1917.

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

About this article

Isabella of Portugal (1503–1539)

Updated About content Print Article