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Women of History: Isabel la catolica

Isabel la Católica-2

While researching my last featured woman of history, Catherine of Aragon, I came across stories of her mother Isabella of Castile (also known as Isabella The Catholic) and decided that she should be my next featured Queen.

Note: Some of the words used should have marks on them but don’t due to me not remembering how to open my character map on my PC.

Isabel (Isabella being the anglicised version of her name) was born on the Iberian peninsula, the modern home of Spain and Portugal. At the time, however, it was the home of several different kingdoms.  She was born in Madrigal de las Altas Torres in Availa, a providence in Castile located almost center in modern Spain.

Her father, Juan or John, was king of Castile at the time of her birth.  She was born on April 22, 1451 to Juan’s second wife, Isabella of Portugal.  Juan’s first wife had been Maria of Aragon, and the two had four children although only their son Henry survived to adulthood.  Maria had died in 1445, and Juan remarried.  Isabella of Portugal connected the throne of Castile to the throne of Portugal (she was the granddaughter of King João (anglicised as John) of Portugal) and England (she was the daughter of Philippa of Lancaster, who was the granddaughter of Edward III).  This would become important later in Isabel’s life.

Sadly, when Isabel was 3 years old, and her younger brother Alfonso only a year their father died and the throne passed on to their half-brother, who became in charge of their care. They were moved to another place located in Avila, but their conditions were much harsher then they had known.  It is debated whether Henry IV of Castile did this purposefully or through ineptitude.  Isabella did her best to raise her children in the church, and Isabel had a lifelong reverence for her religion, something passed down to her own daughter and granddaughter.

After their brother’s marriage to Joan of Portugal, the first cousin of Isabella, their situation changed again.  They went to live with Joan to finish their education under the supervision of Henry and his wife.  She was, however, kept there forbidden to venture away from the palace at Segovia, which is located north of Spain’s modern capital of Madrid.

Outside the palace, Castile was in crisis.  There were feuds going on about who should be the King, Henry or one of his half-siblings.  There was a rebellion that set out to make Alfonso the King.  They met King Henry in battle in 1467 (the Battle of Olmedo) and the end result was that Henry was forced to name Alfonso his successor.  He made the stipulation that his daughter Joanna be the Prince’s bride.  However, this agreement did not last long as Alfonso died in 1468, at the age of 15.

Eyes turned to Isabel.  She did not want to continue the war, so she negotiated with her brother.  She would become his heir over his daughter Joanna, and she would not choose a spouse without her brother’s consent (though she would not marry against her will, either).  It seemed like a win for Isabella, but it brought up a new problem.

Who would Isabella wed?  Henry had betrothed her when she was six to her distant cousin Ferdinand.  However, a year later it was broken by Henry who was in a disagreement with Ferdinand’s father’s it was back to the drawing board as far as husbands went.

Option number two was Charles of Viana, Ferdinand’s older brother.  Charles, like Henry, wasn’t getting along with Juan de Aragon.  However, after the secret alliance, Charles was thrown in prison by his father and later died, removing another potential husband for the Princess.

Option number three was Alfonso of Portugal, Joan’s brother.  This would make him Isabella’s first cousin once removed.  Isabella didn’t quite like this idea, and refused to consent.

Betrothal number 5 came in the form of Pedro Giron Acuna Pacheo, a nobleman and brother to Henry’s favorite court participant.  He had a lot of money to replenish the royal treasury, and also the support of those in rebellion.  To Isabella’s luck and Henry’s dismay, Don Pedro died before he could even visit his ‘bride’.

Alfonso tried his luck again, but once again it didn’t go through.  Isabella refused to marry her cousin Alfonso, and she also didn’t approve of the second marriage brokered between her niece Joanna and Alfonso’s son João.

Isabella decided that enough was enough and went back to the original plan – Ferdinand de Aragon.  Henry had other ideas  (marriage to a brother of King Edward of England or of King Louis of France) but in the end Isabella refused them all.  She negotiated her own marriage betrothal to Ferdinand and the two formerly were betrothed in 1469 when Isabella was 18.  The two eloped to prevent her brother from interfering on October 19, 1469 just a day after their formal betrothal.

Ferdinand had only been the nephew of the King when they were first betrothed in 1457. However in the 12 years since his situation had changed.  His Uncle, the King of Aragon, had died leaving his brother to succeed him.  Thus, Ferdinand was the heir presumptive of the neighboring Kingdom of Aragon.  Their marriage became the first step in uniting Spanish kingdoms under one rule.  Ferdinand would become King in 1479, five years after his wife would be crown Queen of Castile.

While Isabel and Ferdinand were eloping, Castile still was tense with division.  Henry was proving to be a poor administrator, and his support was lessening.  When King Henry died in 1474 in Madrid, Isabel found the support for her own coronation as Queen easy to find.  However, the tension was still there, and others plotted to remove Isabel from the throne.  In fact, one of her supporters left to plot against her, hoping to get Portugal to invade and hand them the kingdom.

In the end, neither side won or lost that battle, but things returned to the status quo with Isabel Queen of Castile and Leon.

Isabel’s legacy is both in her family and in her religion.  Isabel was a deeply devout Catholic, and that influence would show through her decisions, although not all were religious in nature.

When she came to the throne, she had been given a country in crisis due to her brother’s mismanagement.  Her reforms included a more formalized police force and crime reform.  She also reformed the royal treasury by reclaiming lands her grandfather had given away or sold at prices below their value.  She made a point however to protect gifts given to the church and the poor as well as made sure the transactions were dealt with fairly.  She reformed her administrative bodies to be more efficient, and made sure to be more involved with the people they were ruling over.  She promoted education as well.

Isabella and Ferdinand also accomplished the end of the Reconquista, a mission over 700 years long to claim the peninsula for christian nations.  They managed to conquer the Emirate of Granada, the last stronghold of Muslim rule in Spain. They signed the Treaty of Granada in 1492, a few short months after marching into its capital city as victors.

At first Isabella and her husband allowed the freedom of religion of those who lived in the area.  However, a revolt in 1500 caused them to change their mind and forced conversion or exile on the Muslims and Jews that lived in Spain.  This coincided with the establishment of the infamous Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition decreed the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 who would not convert to Catholicism.   The Inquisition became an institution by the time of the 1500 revolt, and within 2 years an expulsion of Muslims who would not convert to Roman Catholicism was decreed.

Under Isabel and Ferdinand the spanish military grew and modernized, setting up the power base that would support their grandson when he became Holy Roman Emperor and unified Spain.

Their work to bring Spain to unification of religion impressed the Pope and he gave them the title of “The Catholic” to honor their achievements.

Isabel and Ferdinand also worked to build Spain’s connections to other European strongholds.  Their eldest, Juan (called the Prince of Asturias), was married to a Habsburg Princess.  Their daughter Isabella married the King of Portugal, although she died early and so did her only son.  Their younger daughter Maria then married Manuel.  Their youngest daughter Catherine would become Queen of England, married first to Prince Arthur of Wales and then to his younger brother King Henry VIII.

The crown ended up falling to her second oldest daughter Joanna, who was married to another Habsburg, Prince Philip I.  Joanna’s reign was not a happy one, as her father and husband tried to overpower her. There were rumors of mental instability, though it has been argued that it may have been started by Ferdinand and Philip to impose their own rule over Joanna’s.

It would be Joanna’s son Carlos (or Charles) who would unite Spain and also become the Holy Roman Emperor.

Isabel had one other legacy.  In 1492, shortly after victory in Granada, Isabel and her husband were presented with an Italian explorer named Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo).  Columbus needed a sponsor for a voyage to discover a way to the Indies.  They agreed.  Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in the Americas, and returned thinking he had succeeded. While he hadn’t found a way to the Indies, he had found something else of worth for Isabel and her husband.  His ‘discoveries’ opened up the gates to Spanish expansion.

Isabel did not approve of Columbus’ enslavement of the American natives, and in fact declared that they were all citizens of Castile and therefore could not be legally enslaved. However, as history would show, her declaration held little sway in the end.

Isabel started to remove herself from public life after the death of her son in 1497, eventually leaving entirely in early 1504.  On November 26, 1504  Isabella died.  The Crown of Castile and Leon was handed down to her daughter Joanna, the eldest of her remaining children.  However, both her husband Ferdinand and son-in-law Philip would attempt to take over, claiming that Joanna was not mentally sound enough to rule on her own.

Isabel’s legacy was one of greatness and great bigotry.  She got things done, brought up her country from a failing economy and being crime ridden, and reorganized her government so it too could get things done.  She married exactly who she wanted to in a time when women didn’t often get a choice.  She took a small Spanish country and turned it into an empire.  She made sure her children were well-educated and they took that with them to various parts of Europe.  Her daughters would be Queens of Portugal, Castile & Leon and England.

Her flaws were great as well.  Her absolute devotion to Catholicism caused her to create the Inquisition and revoke religious freedom.  Thousands of people were forced to convert, and an equally large amount were forced into exile from their home for refusing.

Further Reading

Wikipedia: Isabella I of Castile

Luminarium:  Queen Isabella

Medieval Women: Isabella I of Castile

Wikipedia: The Inquisition

And just because I found the phrasing hilarious (Just to warn: it has adult language):

Badass of the Week: Isabella of Castile

Catherine of Aragon (previous)
TBD  (next)

Master List


A thirty-something Graphic Designer and writer who likes to blog about books, movies and History.

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