The Catholic Monarchs: Isabella of Castile
Guest article by: Meg
The Catholic Monarchs
Have you heard about Katherine of Aragon – the first unfortunate wife of Henry VIII of England? I am pretty sure you have. But do you know where she came from, whose child she was and what her parents did? Isabella and Ferdinand – The Catholic Monarchs.
Surprisingly they aren’t known well outside of Spain although they were one of the most powerful people of their time next to kings of France, Portugal and rulers of Low Countries. And undoubtedly one of the most interesting power couples whose „accomplishments left their contemporaries speechless” – according to one of Isabella’s Spanish biographers. They’re usually associated with such horrific acts as Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of Jews but there is much more you need to know about them!
*She:* a blonde, of very pale complexion and blue green*”cheerful” eyes.* A woman of middle stature, a bit shorter than her husband, of voice less clear than the one of the King but of good pronunciation. Nice face. Strong. Proud. A skillful politician. Manipulative. Very religious but also temperamental and firm – when she has made a decision neither anyone nor anything could make her change her mind. Passionately and „forever” in love with her husband. A very jealous wife „beyond all measure” who has been watching over her ladies-in-waiting to make sure Ferdinand wasn’t in love with any other but her. A lover of lavish, elaborate gowns and cloths as well as good cosmetics and a kind of austere in „her daily customs”. She was taking care of her children, overseeing their education. Trying to give them the best start possible, considering her own education was lacking even though she was a princess.
*He:* a man of middle stature, well-built, well-formed face and all his limbs, of *„smiling”,* *„clever” *dark eyes, sensual lips, black hair and swarthy complexion. He was raised on wars earning his experience and reputation of a warrior and later turning out to be the first king-soldier of his times. Strong, courageous, persistent, manipulative but also sympathetic and kind. He was believed to be the best diplomat, politician and soldier of the late 15th century. Highly charming: *„when anyone talked to him, they came to love him at once”.* A great fan of sports and board games. Seductive. A notorious womanizer. A the age of 17 (before getting married to Isabella) he already had three illegitimate children by two different women. Discreet. Passionate but also a calculative realist – the matter of state came first. *„He always loved Isabella but he never lost his mind for her.”*
Isabella I of Castile was born on 22th day of April 1451, in Madrigal de Las Altas Torres as a first child to John II of Castile and his second much younger wife, Isabella of Portugal, portuguese princess. As his father already had an heir (later Henry IV of Castile) by his first, deceased wife (Maria of Aragon) little princess didn’t get much attention of chroniclers – hence we don’t have much information regarding her childhood. After the birth of her younger brother Alfonso Trastámara in 1453 – no one really believed Isabella was destined to be a great Queen.
King John II died when his daughter was three years old and after the accession of her half-brother, she moved altogether with her mother and brother to Arévalo where she spent the rest of her childhood. There is way too much to be told about Henry and his idling reign so let’s focus on the basics: Henry IV of Castile nicknamed „The Impotent” that he has earned during his first marriage to Blanche of Navarre (Blanche was a half-sister to Ferdinand II of Aragon) was not only a weak king, prone to manipulation of those who surrounded him but he also had a problem with providing an heir to the throne. He had been married to Blanche for years and wasn’t able to consummate the marriage that’s why their union eventually got annulled and the king sought for a new bride – he chose Joanna of Portugal, his first cousin (Henry’s mother and Joanna’s mother were sisters) who after a few years gave him a child, a daughter named after her mother (1462). Unfortunately, people didn’t have a high opinion of Joanna of Avis who was believed to be dressing up and acting scandalously: it was one of many factors that casted a shadow of doubt on the little princess’ legitimacy. (It’s a subject for separate article.) That way infanta Isabella and her brother Alfonso became pawns on a political board in the hands of ambitious nobles who weren’t satisfied with Henry’s reign and most importantly with the fact others took the king’s favor away from them.
Unstable Castile divided into two factions: the one still faithful to the legitimate king, the other – trying to depose him, placing his half brother, 12-year-old infante on the throne.
Isabella and Alfonso were brought to their half-brother’s court (1462) – taken away from the Castle in Arevalo where they spent their rather happy and quiet childhood, living a modest life (from 1455 to 1462) almost in
isolation alongside their mother, The Queen Dowager, Isabella of Portugal (House of Avis) who was showing symptoms of *some mental illness.*
Since then they great journey had begun – once basically forgotten and ignored princess, Isabella burst out of obscurity. She had even become a godmother to her niece and nothing indicated the two would fight against one another in the future.
Isabella and Alfonso had been living at Joanna of Avis’ court for many years and from his later manifest directed at her half-brother we can assume they didn’t get along too well, as Isabella herself stated: *„we were brutally taken away from our mother’s arms”- *however, Henry IV of Castile wasn’t a tyrant, he was a man of a peaceful nature so we can’t say it was really brutal or that the infantes were treated badly.
5 June 1465
Riots against Henry IV got stronger. Nobles decided to use 12-year-old prince Alfonso against his older brother, hence so-called *Farce of **Ávila* took place on that memorable day. A group of powerful nobles set up a wooden stage outside of the walls of Avilla – and placed there a doll, „holding” a scepter and wearing a crown – a mockery, an epitome of King Henry IV which was *symbolically* deposed and devastated. Prince Alfonso was declared the *rightful* king of Castile and León.
From then on there had been two kings in the kingdom – each of them had their own supporters and factions – one was a grown but weak and undecided man, the other was still a child, not able to rule on his own.
As Isabella had been raised alongside her younger brother, she recognized him as her rightful king at the same time trying not to get into an open conflict with Henry – who to dissatisfaction of many still had the edge over Alfonso of rather those who were manipulating him.
At the time, Isabella was set free from her *incarceration *at the court of her sister-in-law. She received her own household in Alcazar of Segovia under pressure of a commission which was trying to lead up to an agreement between king Henry and so-called The League of Nobles (the ones that raised up against their sovereign). Meanwhile both brothers were bestowing upon her different graces like estates and cities. We can say the princess’ position was getting stronger and stronger.
Between winter of 1467 and summer of 1468 – the infantes, Alfonso and Isabella sent a few months together enjoying their company. Unfortunately in the summer of 1468 on their way from Arévalo to Ávila the king-prince had fallen ill and eventually died on 5th of July.
Those were difficult times for 17-year-old Isabella. She had to come to terms with her personal tragedy, with loss of her beloved brother and try to survive in the kingdom that had been plunged into chaos. She had to make a choice: should she claim herself Alfonso’s heir, following the whole route and come into conflict with Henry IV or to negotiate? At first she stuck to the first option but overtime upon noticing Henry’s faction was much stronger, The League of Nobles wasn’t as firm as it had been before prince Alfonso’s death and considering common longing for peace, she decided that negotiations would be the best solution.
19 September 1468
On that day King Henry and Isabella’s decisive meeting in Toros de Guisando took place. She was declared his rightful heir, put ahead of his daughter Joanna Trastamara in the line of succession, getting the title of Princess
of Asturias. According to the treaty:
Isabella would inherit the crown upon Henry’s death, she wouldn’t try to rise up against him, she wouldn’t get married without his consent but also: she wouldn’t be forced into any marriage by her older brother – the king.
However, the situation wasn’t as simple as it might have been seem: King Henry was being manipulated by his advisors and their plan was clear: Isabella received the duchy of Asturias alongside the title due to every heir of Castile and Leon – but it didn’t mean it was accepted willingly. It might have been some kind of a strategy to placate the infanta meanwhile planning on marrying her off to a foreign ruler, so she would be far away from her homeland and perhaps she would give up her rights to the throne under those circumstances? Being a queen consort of another country, occupied with bearing children, her position in Castile would have weakened.
Isabella was warned about all possible traps that might have been set up to get rid of her, most likely by her faithful advisors including the most important one, Gonzalo Chacón who had been her tutor even since the princess was a little girl – so even though she agreed on all Henry’s propositions, including the one of taking her to Ocana – where she would be kind of isolated – the infanta didn’t stop being wary.
Indeed, the princess had stuck in Ocaña for a couple of months under constant supervision waiting for an opportunity to set herself free.
It did happen in spring of 1469 as her brother the king left Ocaña altogether with his adviser. 18-year-old Isabella decided to take an action. She had to run away and she knew how she was going to achieve her goal.
The first anniversary of her younger brother’s death was coming and she as a sister had to go to Avilla to take care of all the preparations – it was her excuse. Only a few ladies-in-waiting that had been appointed by the king and his advisor (Juan Pacheco) were brave enough to accompany the infanta, considering a trip of this kind was very dangerous and rather a bold act on her part.
However, she managed to escape, taking part, as she stated in the mass in Alfonso’s honor and then going to Madrigal, seeking for her most powerful supporter’s help, Alfonso Carrillo, The Archbishop of Toledo who escorted
her to Valladolid – where she eventually would get married to her second cousin, Ferdinand of Aragon, the same year. The man that she chose on her own, making that important decision still being locked up in Ocana.
Isabella had many „suitors” including Alfonso V of Portugal – her mother’s first cousin and Henry IV of Castile’s brother-in-law who was, in her brother’s eyes, the perfect candidate – he would have taken Isabella to Portugal, away from his kingdom and on top of that this match would have strengthened castillian-portuguese alliance even more. However, Isabella didn’t agree to marry the old Portuguese king being perfectly aware of her brother’s cunning strategy. After her younger brother’s death Isabella became perfect bride in eyes of many; Louis XI of France wanted her as a wife for his younger brother, Charles, Duke of Guyenne – the match strongly supported by Henry IV, she was also considered a great candidate as for the queen of Edward IV of England. However, the Aragonese prince was the option she found the most suitable: young (he was one year younger than her), virile (before marrying Isabella, Ferdinand already fathered illegitimate children), militarily experienced moreover the same blood was running through their veins as both were direct members of the House of Trastámara. She needed him to achieve her goal, to win the throne and he was perfect for the role. It was purely a political match however shrouded in an atmosphere of romance as the prince came to Castile dressed up as a muleteer to marry the princess so he wouldn’t get captured by people of Henry IV – the marriage that changed the course of history.
Manuel Fernández Álvarez, „Isabel La Católica”, 2003/2007, ISBN:
Tarsicio de Azcona, „Isabel La Católica: vida y reinado”, 2014, ISBN:
Filip Kubiaczyk, „Mi?dzy wojn? a dyplomacj?. Ferdynand Katolicki i polityka
zagraniczna Hiszpanii w latach 1492-1516”, 2010, ISBN: 97883-242-1424-2
Hernando del Pulgar, „Crónica de los Señores Reyes Católicos Don Fernando y
Doña Isabel de Castilla y de Aragón”
About the Author:
My name is Meg, 23-year-old from Poland. Language nerd, history buff, dreamer. I would like to travel a lot and one day lock myself up in the Archive of Simancas for a couple of days.