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Isabella Of Castile

      Isabella, the only daughter of John II., of Castile, and Isabella, of Portugal, his second wife, was born in Madrigal, Spain, in 1451. Upon the death of her father her elder half-brother succeeded to the throne in 1454, as Henry IV. The queen dowager retired from court life with her infant son Alfonso, and her daughter Isabella, then in her fourth year. The royal children were reared by a wise mother in the seclusion of the little town of Arevalo, until Isabella was twelve years old. How carefully the seeds of character were sown in these early years is shown by the after-fruits. Her fervent piety and unwavering faith, her strict integrity and self-abnegation, disarmed the enemies of her crown, as they disarm the unprejudiced historian of to-day. The verdict of four hundred years is still: "Her faults were the faults of her age, her virtues were her own." The quiet home life at Arevalo came suddenly to an end in 1463, when King Henry arbitrarily ordered the infantas, as all royal children are called in Spain, to repair to the palace as members of his court. Thus at the early age of twelve years Isabella entered upon her public career, and from thenceforth the eyes of the civilized world were turned upon her. Shortly after, a revolution deposed Henry and placed Alfonso upon the throne. Both kings had their followers, and the boy-king, eleven years old, rode on horseback at the head of his troops beside his appointed regent. But the crown was too heavy for the young victim, and Alfonso was one morning found dead in his bed. To Isabella, a beautiful girl of sixteen, the fallen crown was offered and urged; but in spite of the fact that the old standard had already been unfurled in her honor, and unmoved by the eloquence of the primate and the arguments of the first nobles of the land, Isabella, with a wisdom beyond her years, resolutely refused to take the throne. Her reasons baffled her advisers: "So long as King Henry lives none other has the right to wear the crown."

      She advised his reinstatement and promised to help redress the wrongs of which the nation had the unquestioned right to complain. An amnesty was declared and a reconciliation was effected; but not until Henry had consented to divorce his queen and to acknowledge Isabella as the heir-apparent to the throne in place of his reputed daughter, Joanna. The cortes, or parliament, was assembled to ratify the treaty, and at the same time, passed a resolution that the infanta was not to be coerced in her matrimonial alliance. In 1468, with great pomp and ceremony, Isabella was solemnly proclaimed Princess of Asturias, heir-apparent to the throne of Castile and Leon. She is described as of medium height, of fair complexion, regular features, auburn hair, clear blue eyes, and with a sweet but serious expression that told both sides of her character. She inherited from her father a desire for knowledge and a love of literature, and was herself a fine linguist. These graces of mind and person, added to her nearness to the throne, soon brought many ardent suppliants from the principal thrones of Europe for the honor of her hand. Her cousin, Prince Ferdinand of Aragon, was her wise choice, and to him she was married, notwithstanding her brother's opposition, in 1469. The brilliant wedding at Valladolid, in the presence of the nobility and about two thousand persons, closes the second period of her life. Five years intervened before the Princess of Asturias became Queen of Leon and Castile. Stormy years, for the angry brother instituted a fresh rebellion against her succession, and Isabella was again the peace-maker; years of poverty, also, for the heirs-apparent of Castile and Aragon had scarcely a competency for their daily needs. Isabella was residing in Segovia at the time of her brother's death; hence, in Segovia, with more than the usual solemnities which accompany the accession of a new sovereign even in Spain, she took the vows and was crowned Queen of Castile and Leon in 1474. During the first four years and a half of her reign civil war desolated her kingdom, for Joanna, the reputed daughter of Henry IV., again contested her right to the crown, supported by the King of Portugal, to whom she was affianced. But the same people who had said "Isabella shall be the heir-apparent," said now "Isabella shall rule over us," and conquered. The reign of Isabella, therefore, dates from 1479, when she was left in undisputed possession of her throne, rather than from 1474, when she wore her crown for the first time in Segovia. The same year that brought peace to the Queen of Castile elevated Ferdinand to the throne of Aragon.

Ferdinand and Isabella. The surrender of Granada.

      No more important epoch marks the history of Spain than the union of the crowns of Castile and Aragon; it meant the end of petty principalities and powers, it meant united Spain. But the crowns were only linked together, for Isabella, even in her marriage contract, had maintained the independence of the crown of Castile and her individual right to rule over it. It was this loyalty to her inherited crown that won the love and confidence of her people and made them ready, when the need came, to die for Isabella of Castile. And it was this independence of her crown that enabled her to say at last to Columbus: "I will assume the enterprise for mine own crown of Castile," and "to the crown of Castile" belonged the first discovered territories in the New World.

      Had the reign of Isabella been less distinguished for events of such momentous magnitude as to involve the future interests of the world, her personal life would yet furnish data for a series of volumes, so replete was it with stirring incidents and with heart-breaking sorrows. But the same mental strength and moral courage that made her eminent as a queen, made her remarkable also as a friend and mother. Prescott says: "Her heart overflowed with affectionate sensibilities to her family and friends. She watched over the declining years of her aged mother and ministered to her sad infirmities with filial tenderness; we have abundant proofs of how fondly and faithfully she loved her husband to the last; while for her children she lived more than for herself, and for them too she died; for it was their loss and their afflictions which froze the current of her blood before age had had time to chill it."

      Five children, four daughters and one son, grew to maturity under her guiding influence. Isabella, the first born, and ever the favorite child of the sovereigns, was born in 1470. She was twice married, first to Alfonso, Prince of Portugal, who was killed by a fall from his horse within five months after their marriage. Seven years later she married his brother, Emanuel, King of Portugal. To the intense grief of her husband, her parents, and her kingdom, she died in 1498, just one hour after the birth of her son, the first and only heir to the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, and Portugal. The little Prince Miguel did not live to fulfil the hopes that were centred in him, for he died, to the great grief of the nation, before he had completed his second year.

      The only son of Ferdinand and Isabella, Juan, Prince of Asturias, was born in 1478. In his twentieth year he married the Princess Margaret, daughter of the Emperor Maximilian; but before the elaborate nuptial rejoicings had ended the young bridegroom died suddenly of a malignant fever.

      The Infanta Joanna, born 1479, married Philip I., son of the German emperor, and became the mother of the great Emperor Charles V. of Germany, Charles I. of Spain. Her mental derangement, tending to permanent insanity, was a sore grief to the great queen, who nevertheless made her the heir to her crown, with Ferdinand as regent.

      The Infanta Maria, born in 1482, married Emanuel, the King of Portugal, in 1600. Her daughter Isabella married her cousin, Charles V., and was the mother of Philip II.

      The fifth and last child of Ferdinand and Isabella, Catalina, was born in 1485. She married, when scarcely sixteen, Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII., but was left a widow within a year. By special dispensation from the Pope she married her brother-in-law in 1509, and is better known in history as Catharine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII., of England, mother of Mary I., or "bloody Mary." Knowing her Spanish parentage, we can better understand why she was such an ardent Roman Catholic. Strange that one so loyal to the forms of her religion should have been the innocent cause of the English Reformation! The injured queen, divorced, remained in England, a religious recluse, until her death in 1536.

      This brief outline of family life, with its joys, disappointments, and heart-breaking sorrows, brings into clearer relief the mental strength and moral courage of Isabella, who, while carrying this burden on her heart never relaxed for a moment her vigilant, vigorous rule over a mighty empire; and this brings us at last to the


      From the very beginning of the reconquest of Spain from the Arab-Moors in 718, when the brave band of refugees who had not bowed to the Saracen yoke issued from the mountains of Asturias in the extreme northwest corner of Spain, under Pelayo, with vows resting upon them "to rid the land of its infidel invaders and to advance the standard of the cross until it was everywhere victorious over the crescent," the "Expulsion of the Moors" had been the hereditary appanage of the crown of Castile and Leon, the first fruits of the reconquest.

      The crown was heavy and the burden was great that descended to Isabella in 1474, for although she came to the throne through Gothic ancestry and in conformity with Gothic law, her father's heir and the chosen of the people, yet the nation had already poured out its blood in defence of her "succession" and the war of her "accession" was pending. No wonder that Isabella never forgot that it was through the people and for the people, and in defence of the cross, that she wore the crown and sat upon the throne of Leon and Castile.

      During the preceding reigns the laws of the country had been so constantly defied that they had become of no effect. The one law of barbarism seemed the only law that governed,

      "He can take who has the power,
      And he may keep who can."

      The country was infested with lawless banditti, and even the cities were powerless to protect individuals or property. The prisons were overcrowded with suspected criminals who had never been brought to trial; the immorality of the court had spread like a deadly poison through the lower grades of social life; even the priests had become tainted with the general demoralization. The coin of Castile had been debased until the most necessary articles of life were enhanced from three to six times their value; the late civil wars had exhausted the treasury, and the country seemed on the verge of bankruptcy. The Moors had even ceased to pay tribute and were making frequent forays into the surrounding country, taking men, women, and children into Mussulman captivity with the hope of exacting a ransom. Public confidence was dead. No wonder that Isabella felt her crown heavy and the burden of her kingdom great.

      But the brave, resolute woman, making choice of wise and able counsellors, entered at once upon a vigorous crusade of reform. The first measure proposed to the cortes, in 1476, was the re-establishment of the celebrated Hermandad, or Holy Brotherhood, which was carried into effect the same year. The new institution differed from the ancient, inasmuch as its power proceeded from the crown and was disbanded by it in 1498. The Hermandad in our day would be called a mounted police, but in the days of Isabella every organization came under the sanction of the Church. The duties of the Holy Brotherhood were to arrest offenders throughout the kingdom and to enforce the law. Every one hundred householders throughout the kingdom maintained one Hermandad. Upon the flight of a criminal tocsins were sounded, and the officers of the Brotherhood stationed within hearing took up a pursuit that left little hope for escape. Thus a body of cavalry, two thousand in number, fully equipped and supported, was at the disposal of the crown to enforce the law and to suppress insurrections. In a few years the country was cleared of banditti and the blessing of personal security under the government was restored.

      Isabella revived also another ancient custom of her forefathers, that of presiding in person over courts of justice. From city to city she travelled on horseback, making the circuit of her kingdom, regardless of personal fatigue. Side by side with Ferdinand, when he had leisure from foreign complications to accompany her, she sat (not unmindful of the dignity belonging to the crown) with her courtiers around her, to listen with interest, that she might redress wrongs, punish the wrongdoers, and administer justice even to the lowliest of her subjects. Her personal address, and the unbounded respect which her integrity inspired; her proclamation throughout the kingdom that the interests of her people were her interests, re-established such public confidence that, says a writer of that age, "Those who had long despaired of public justice blessed God for their deliverance, as it were, from deplorable captivity." Nor did the sovereigns relax their personal efforts for the restoration of law and order until the cortes had passed measures for the permanent administration of justice. Thus in a few years, from a state of anarchy and misrule, Castile entered upon her "Golden Age of Justice."

      The golden age of literature, developed in the next century, has been justly ascribed to the impetus given by Isabella to liberal education, classical and scientific. Under her patronage schools were established in every city, presided over by learned men. The printing press, lately invented, was introduced; foreign books were imported free of duty, while such precedence was given to native literature as led on to the brilliant achievements of the sixteenth century. In social reform precept was enforced by example. In all that was pure, in all that was true, in all that was noble and magnanimous, Isabella, in private life, was a witness unto her people. No calumny of any kind, even in a depraved age, was ever cast upon Isabella of Castile or upon any one of her royal children. But the strongest characteristic of Isabella, that which colored her whole life and gave force to every public action, was her fervent piety and her unfaltering [perhaps blind] faith in the divine authority of the Roman Catholic Church. For all the evils that grew out of the latter she is still branded, even among the liberal-minded of to-day, regardless of her illiberal age, with that worst of all brands, "a religious bigot." This side of her character we will not discuss, but refer our readers to the history of Christianity during the fifteenth century, when the great flood-tide of religious intolerance reached its height.

      It was in the fulness of this tide that the great historic events of her reign occurred, viz., the conquest of Granada, the expulsion of the Jews, the Inquisition, and the discovery of America. After each of these, for honor or dishonor, we interline the name of Isabella. Yet the conquest of Granada, or the reconquest of every foot of land which the Moors had taken from the Goths, was foreordained in Castilian councils centuries before Isabella was born. The expulsion of the Jews, the so-called "enemies of Christ," was but a part of the same effort "to rid the land of unbelieving invaders." The Inquisition, with all its horrors, was re-established by the Church during that age of intolerance to which the reign of Isabella belongs. Yet these are still named to the dishonor of Isabella.

      But the discovery of America, with all its lasting benefits to mankind, is the immortal crown which the world has woven out of her proffered "Jewels;" and with this crown it has crowned Isabella of Castile.

      In the marriage contract of the youthful prince and princess it was agreed that Ferdinand should lead the armies of Castile against the Moors as soon as the affairs of the kingdom would permit. The opportunity and the provocation came after twelve years, when the sovereigns sent to demand of the Moors the long unpaid tribute, and received only the defiant answer, "Tell your masters that the Moors who paid tribute to Castile are dead. Our mints no longer coin gold, but steel!" And to prove the efficacy of their steel they sallied forth and took Zahara, one of the strongholds which the father of Ferdinand had taken from the Moors. The chivalry of Spain sprang quickly into well-girt saddles, and the ten years' siege of Granada, "the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain," began in 1481. The Iliad of the reconquest of Spain from the Arab-Moors has yet to be written; the Homer of its Iliad has yet to appear. But the closing year of the struggle between Christian knight and turbaned Moor would furnish as stirring incidents, and immortalize the names of its heroes as successfully, as has the Greek Homer the Trojan war.

      Those of us who have read the story of the Arab-Moors in Spain, the quick-witted, light-footed, brave-hearted Moors, who coveted the land "flowing with milk and honey" that lay across a narrow strait; who conquered it, redeemed its barren wastes, and made them to blossom as the rose; who, in their quick flight from the Arabian deserts through civilized lands, gathered seeds of knowledge and planted them so freely in the land of their adoption that their planting overspread the earth; who, like the Goths, became enervated when they became stationary, and were no longer able to resist the powerful foe who had from their entrance into Spain sworn their expulsion or their extermination, will be ready to weep when the final retribution comes. Yet come it did, when Ferdinand and Isabella pitched their tents and planted their banners of Castile and Aragon upon the verdant vega, or plain, around Granada.

      And yet we as readily accept the inevitable. We have known that it was impossible for Isabella to allow any portion of her dominions to be possessed by a people alien in race, language, customs, and religion; to see the Crescent triumphant over any site that had been hallowed by the Cross. To the Spanish Christian the fall of Granada was only the final victory of a righteous war. It was the triumph of his race, his nation, and his creed. And, looking back over the long march from Asturias to Granada, he claimed to have invaded no man's right; every victory but won back what was his own: every step retraced by the Moors but left him in possession of another portion of his inheritance from his forefathers.

      The Arab-Moors claimed also hereditary rights. For nearly eight hundred years the Moors had held possession of that strip of land between the "Snow Mountains" and the blue sea, in Southern Spain. One cannot but feel respect for the brave Moorish king of Granada, who said, when threatened with invasion, "Our mint no longer coins gold, but steel!" In this last great chivalrous war, a war for race and creed and country, all honor is due to the vanquished, who poured out their blood like water for their homes and their religion. The details of this heroic death-struggle belong to history rather than to biography. Yet Isabella was the great animating spirit of the war. Her tent was side by side with that of Ferdinand, and her counsel was ever wise and practical.

      And near the royal tents were others which she erected, where the wounded in the fray might have medical aid and tender nursing. Thus our "Warrior Queen," with a woman's heart, provided the first Army Hospital on record. The tents were burned down, but a substantial city arose, as if by magic, to take their place. The knights would have called it "Isabella," but she named it "Santa Fe," the city of Holy Faith. And this city helped to bring the war to a close. The Moors knew by it that Isabella had come to stay until she had added Granada to the crown of Castile.

      Another form rises before us as we look back four hundred years across the vega of Granada to the city of Sante Fe. We forget for a time the Christians and the Moors, we see only the great queen and the great discoverer. The man of science, Christoforo Colombo, had been lately dismissed from the court at Sante Fe. The sovereigns had no time for adventurers seeking aid to discover unknown lands when the reconquest of their own was just within their grasp. Cast down, but not discouraged, Columbus, all alone, was retracing his steps across the vega, en route for a port from whence to sail for England, when the queen sent a royal summons for him to return, and he reached Sante Fe just in time to be present at the surrender of Granada. Let me add that while the Moors as a nation fell with Granada, they were not as individuals banished from Spain until the reign of Philip II., the great-grandson of Isabella.

      We all know the story of Columbus. At this time he was but a penniless mendicant travelling on foot from court to court, seeking patronage to enable him to prove the truth which his great mind had grasped, the rotundity of the earth. The subject had given him no rest for eighteen years. He had discussed it before wise men in council assembled; he had pleaded with royalty in vain; at the court of Isabella, for the first time, he laid his plans and discussed his projects before a woman. The world to-day pays its tribute of four hundred years to Columbus, the World-finder. All honor to the brave man who, firm of faith and fearless of fate, unfurled his sails upon an unknown sea, and planted the cross and the banner of Castile upon an unknown land. All honor, too, to Queen Isabella of Spain, who, with "faith in things unseen," had the courage to say, "I will undertake the enterprise for mine own crown of Castile," and from whose presence Columbus went forth to discover a land he never dreamed of, and to open a gate for the exodus of nations across the pathless sea. The same pen that signed the capitulation of the Moors and the contract with Columbus, signed also an edict for the expulsion of all unbaptized Jews from Spain between March and July of 1492. This edict condemned to perpetual exile from one to eight hundred thousand of Spain's most wealthy subjects. The coast was lined with vessels of every kind, and size, busy with the transportation of these unhappy victims, when Columbus was seeking for vessels and men to cross the "Sea of Darkness." And now we are beginning to understand the momentous events that culminated in the reign of Isabella. We find that religious enthusiasm, inspired during the long wars with the "Infidel Moors," developed into religious bigotry. In the Jews, Spain expelled the most wealthy portion of her subjects; in the Moors, the most industrious; the wealth and industry of the nation were sacrificed for race and creed. And then within its own race and creed arose a new foe to combat; with equal energy and blind zeal Spain crushed Protestantism within her borders through the terrors of the Inquisition.

      But let us not lay the whole blame of such intolerant Christianity upon the unfortunate woman who fell heir to the crown of Castile during the period when the Church of Rome had the power to bind the consciences of men. Let us remember that as a woman Isabella was an honor to her sex; as a Christian she lived devoutly; as a queen she ruled wisely for the uplifting of her nation, and that the only censure the world casts upon her is the fortitude with which she said "Infidelity must be banished from the land."

      "Bury me in Granada, the brightest jewel in my crown," she said, when dying, in far-off Castile, November 26, 1504. The way was long and the December winds were cold as the royal cortege, with knightly escort, wended its way across the barren heights of Central Spain into the beautiful valley of Andalusia, across the lovely vega, past Santa Fe, up the rugged slope of the acropolis of Granada into the Chapel Isabella, near the unrivalled Alhambra. Here in the very heart of the last Moorish capital, while the whole nation mourned, they laid all that was mortal of the great queen, whom Lord Bacon has named "the corner-stone of the greatness of Spain."

      Twelve years later, January 23, 1516, they laid King Ferdinand beside her, "the wisest king that ever ruled in Spain." (Prescott.) Their grandson, Charles V., now summoned the finest artists in the world to prepare royal mausoleums for Ferdinand and Isabella and for his parents, Joanna of Castile and Philip of Burgundy. The cathedral of Granada is the Spanish temple of victory. It covers the site of an ancient Moorish mosque. Within its royal chapel one may read, in bas-relief, the whole story of the reconquest of Spain. On either side of its high altar kneel the life-size statues of the final conquerors; while in solemn, stately magnificence, the royal mausoleums of purest Carrara marble, with their reclining portrait figures of Ferdinand and Isabella in soft, time-tinted alabaster, tell us that here the nation, "redeemed from bondage," laid their deliverers to rest. And here, at the close of nearly four hundred years, a hand from across the sea lays this tribute, with a garland of white roses and a wreath of olive leaves and immortelles, upon the tomb of Isabella of Castile.

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