Isabel, or Ysabel, as was the proper spelling during her own time, was an amazing woman. She has been called by many titles: First Lady of the Renaissance, The Godmother of the Americas, The Last Crusader, The Catholic Queen (an official title given to her by the reigning Pope, along with her husband, Fernando, as the “Catholic King”). Dr. Warren H. Carroll, a recent biographer (1991) called her the greatest female after Our Blessed Mother and compared her military exploits to those of Saint Joan of Arc. Her cause for sainthood has been accepted by Rome; she governed her earthly realm with love, intelligence, fairness, and a strong hand, determined to keep Spain Spanish and Catholic and to bring the Faith to the millions of pagans in the newly discovered lands that became a part of her kingdom. She was not perfect — after all, Our Lady is the only truly perfect woman, having been conceived without Original Sin. But Isabel tried — and mostly succeeded — in every endeavor she undertook for the glory of God and Spain.
Spain Before Isabel
It has been said elsewhere on this website that Spain was different from other European countries in that she had been invaded in the year 711 A.D. by the warlike Muslim Moors from North Africa — a people completely alien to the Christian Spaniards. For 750 years the struggle to regain their occupied land by the native Spanish had continued, beginning in the north at Covadonga in Asturias where Don Pelayo I and a small band of Christians had taken refuge from the infidels. “Our hope is in Christ!” was their rallying cry. By the time Isabel was born in 1451, continuous warfare, sometimes referred to as the Last Crusade, had pushed the invaders to the very southern part of the peninsula — to Granada, where the only remaining Moorish kingdom still flourished. Yes, there were pockets of Moors here and there in Spanish-held territory, but their final stronghold was in the confines of Granada. There they had a luxurious and easy life, for this was the garden of Spain, so close to Africa with its warm climate, its lush fields and its surrounding protective mountains, close enough to that continent whence they could receive reinforcements from their co-religionists if necessary.
During the five generations before “Los Reyes Catolicos” assumed the throne in 1474, Spain was badly governed by weak and corrupt kings. In actuality, it was not Spain at all. There were several kingdoms on the peninsula — Castile (Isabel’s domain), Aragon (Fernando’s domain), Catalonia, Asturias, Extremadura, Galicia, and a few others, each governed by its own nobles and kings, some very loosely and some more tightly and peacefully. It was common at that time in Europe, just as nationalism was beginning to take hold, for petty nobles and self-appointed rulers to war against each other for control of towns and castles. Local feeling was always strong and respected in the Iberian Peninsula. Here is the origin of that battle cry of the Carlistas in a later age, “Dios, Patria, Fuero, y Rey” (God, Fatherland, Local Entity,1 and King”). Indeed, many of Spain’s historically separate areas retain their own languages and literature to this day; some, like Catalonia, still have separatist tendencies.
At any rate, weak and corrupt kings in the five generations preceding Isabel rendered Spain a dangerous, destitute and dissolute area. Wise and sainted men reigned in earlier generations, and these were Isabel’s true ancestors. Our queen-to-be was born to King Juan II and Princess Isabel, niece of the Portuguese King Alfonso V, whose brother was Prince Henry the Navigator, that early visionary and explorer about whom we learned in grammar school. Isabel of Portugal was King Juan’s second wife, his first being the Aragonese princess Maria, who died giving birth to the malformed Enrique who would allow Castile to sink to the depths of depravity. He was a weak and pathetic figure of a human being, hating Christianity and all forms of decency. King Enrique IV was so disinterested in anything but perverse pleasures that he allowed himself to be controlled by unscrupulous men who bilked him and the kingdom of its land and treasure. He was stupid and cowardly, rumored to be a homosexual, and rightly earned the moniker Enrique the Impotent. Royal marriages were always arranged for political reasons; rarely did the couple meet before the ceremony was to take place. Alliances with other royal houses of Europe were always considered in the most advantageous light for the kingdom. And so it was with Isabel the Catholic’s parents. Her father’s first marriage was arranged to ally Castile with Aragon to the east; his second, to ally Castile with Portugal to the west.
The War of Succession
Henry IV married Juana of Portugal, a loveless and sterile union because Henry was not interested in producing an heir — hence his unfortunate title, el Impotente. Juana entered Castile a pure and modest woman; the corrupt court of her husband turned her into quite the opposite. She took up with one of his hangers-on, Beltran de la Cueva, eventually producing a daughter, Juana — known as “La Bentraneja” (Beltran’s girl) — whom the King claimed as his own. The whole affair is sordid, but then, the entire court atmosphere of this pathetic excuse for a king was one of blasphemy and moral corruption. The importance of this for our story of Isabel is that as she grew and blossomed, her enemies moved to have Juana declared legitimate heir to the throne of Castile.
Enrique had banished his step mother, also named Isabel, and her two children, Princess Isabel and Prince Alfonso, to a lonely existence with barely a pittance to house and feed them at a remote outpost at Arevalo. The elder Isabel became more and more introverted, and when her two children were ten and eight, Enrique suddenly decided that they must be raised at his court where they could be watched and educated. The children were intelligent and devoted to the Catholic Faith — a poor fit for the immoral court life of this terrible king. Thus began their mother’s long decline into mental illness.
Political maneuvering brought on the War of Succession. Enrique’s adherents (better to call them controllers), notable among whom was Juan Pacheco, the Marques of Villena, insisted on having the illegitimate Juana declared the king’s heir apparent. Those with the greater interest of Castile and the Faith, favored the young Prince Alfonso. They, however, were too hasty and went about it in a totally illegal way. In a sham ceremony, an effigy of Henry, clothed in royal robes and crowned, was ceremonially kicked off the stage; Alfonso was declared king of Castile and crowned. Isabel was still very young, but she knew that this was no way to bring legitimacy to the monarchy and declared that she could not support her brother in this illegal overthrow of the true king of Castile, no matter how evil a person he was.
Maneuvering went on by the King of Aragon to marry the young princess to his son Fernando while Enrique (read Pacheco) insisted that Isabel marry the brother of Pacheco, a forty-five year-old man, supposedly a celibate monk. This would keep the young, intelligent, and dangerous princess under Pacheco’s control. Isabel was naturally horrified at this prospect. Being a very devout young woman of sixteen, her only recourse was to pray for his death or her own before such a union would take place. This she did, as Our Lord commanded, day and night.
Meanwhile, her prospective groom, Pedro Giron, was on his way to meet her for the nuptials. He and his men rode hard, stopping only to rest one night at the tiny village of Villarrubia de los Ojos (Villarrubia of the Eyes) where his traveling companions noticed him swaying in the saddle. Fever racked his body, his throat closed, and after three horrible days he died from the huge abscess that had formed on his tonsils, unable even to swallow water. Isabel’s prayers had been answered.
Each side had raised private armies, such was the dissolute state of Castile at the time, and the fighting went back and forth for too long. During a time of respite, Isabel met with her brother Prince Alfonso and their sometime friend (and sometime enemy) Archbishop Carrillo. They spent several months together at the Medina del Campo fair enjoying a glorious time. Shortly thereafter, the rebel armies once again took up arms with Alfonso as their titular head. As the army camped near a small village one evening, a succulent mountain trout dinner was brought to young (fourteen years old) Alfonso. A few days later, he was dead. Was it poison, a spoiled fish, or an illness unrelated to the fish? Alfonso was full of promise — intelligent, well-educated and devout; death had stolen his legacy. Now the seventeen year-old Princess Isabel was heir-apparent to the throne of Castile — if the case for Juana “La Beltraneja” did not hold up.
Imagine the maneuvering that occurred as a result of the young prince’s death. Isabel was too smart to be Enrique and Pacheco’s puppet. She knew they would try to force her to marry someone beneficial to their side, no matter what it would mean to Castile and Spain. At seventeen, tall and beautiful, with reddish hair and flashing blue-green eyes, she was pursued by three suitors — Alonso, king of Portugal (whose second wife she would be), the Duke of Guyenne of France, brother of the king and heir-apparent to the French throne, “a feeble, effeminate prince, with limbs so emaciated as to be almost deformed and eyes so weak that he was unfit for all knightly pursuits” (the opinion of Isabel’s emissary to France), and Fernando, the handsome, sixteen-year-old prince of Aragon, already tempered in battle, but just a little rough around the edges. He had the distinct advantage of being the favorite of the “three estates” — the nobles, the clergy, and the common people of Castile. Her choice was obvious, as well as infuriating to Enrique and his cohorts.
Fernando traveled from Aragon to Isabel in Valladolid disguised as a muleteer, for it would have been dangerous to announce his proposed arrival in advance. By the time the two met, Isabel was eighteen and Fernando seventeen. It was almost “love at first sight.” They met for the first time on October 14 and they were married five days later on October 19, 1469. There was a formal marriage treaty, with Fernando agreeing that upon her ascendency to the throne, Isabel would make the decisions regarding Castile independently, and that he would do the same for Aragon when his elderly father, the king, died. It was rare that they ever disagreed in matters of state, or, for that matter in domestic matters as well.
Los Reyes Catolicos
For the next five years, Castile was racked with crime, poverty, corruption in high places (including the clergy), and terrible rioting in cities between “old Christians” and “new Christians.” Blood ran in the streets of some of the major cities — Segovia, Toledo and others — partly because of Pacheco’s continuing attempts to damage or even assassinate the royal couple, but mostly because of long-standing animosity between the two Christian groups. (The “new” Christians were called conversos, not merely “converts” but insincere converts.) Some of these were Muslims, but the majority of the conversos were Jews. They professed Catholicism and practiced it outwardly, but retained their own religion inwardly. Most of them were wealthy professionals whose purpose was to undermine and ridicule Christianity. Many gained high positions in the Church and the government. Pacheco himself was from a converso family. (There is a very complete treatment of this subject in Walsh’s Isabella of Spain.) During Holy Week of 1473, in Cordoba, a terrible massacre occurred precipitated by a converso girl throwing dirty water onto a passing procession carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary. The water splashed onto the statue, and, literally, all hell broke loose with fighting and killing in the streets and the converso homes set on fire, burning whole sections of the city. Pacheco saw this as an opportunity to rid himself of the Princess and her husband, but the populace loyal to Isabel saw through his evil plot. Isabel did not take sides, but made every attempt to quell the trouble in a peaceful manner. For most of those years, the Prince and Princess fled with their young daughter from place to place, hiding from the evil man who still controlled the king.
At long last, the vile old politician died on October 3, 1474, in a manner similar to the death of Isabel’s suitor Pedro Giron. Not long afterward, on December 13, 1474, the pathetic Enrique followed him in death, the result of a number of ills. One of the last questions he was confronted with was the true paternity of his daughter Juana. Always the indecisive one, he turned his head toward the wall and died. Although he led a truly dissolute and corrupt life, he died in the graces of the Church and with the Last Sacraments. Requiescat in pace!
Within hours of the death of the king, Isabel made sure that she was properly crowned Queen of Castile. She was twenty-three years old. Even though Fernando was far away on one of his many trips to Aragon helping his father with his continuing skirmishes with France over the Roussillon area, it was all-important not to allow a time gap for fear that her enemies would attempt to install young Juana, now fifteen, purported daughter of Enrique, on the throne. This, in fact, they attempted by convincing the Portuguese king to attack over the border while Spain was weak.
Isabel and Fernando were able, by a united front, to fend off the invasion, but only at the terrible expense of the loss of their second child (a boy) because of the Queen’s hard riding to bolster (and even lead) the troops. Their firstborn, also Isabel, was born before the death of Enrique.
The Many Accomplishments of the Royal Couple
Isabel and Fernando had many challenges in their long and fruitful reign of thirty years. Their first and most pressing task was to rid the Peninsula of the foreign occupiers of nearly eight centuries. Theirs was the last — and the longest — Crusade. From those early days in Covadonga when Pelayo vowed with the help of God that the Muslim invaders would be expelled and their country would be totally Catholic again, Spain’s Christian warriors had never given up. Now, more than 750 years later, the Moors were confined to the southernmost kingdom of Spain in Granada. It was up to Los Reyes Catolicos to finish the business. This they accomplished with much bloodshed but with great honor. It was due to Isabel’s great dedication to this cause that it was finally accomplished in 1492.
In the meantime, a young Genoese navigator, who was about to change the history of Spain and of all the world, appeared in court in January, 1486, just after the birth of the royal couple’s fifth and last living child, Catherine. Christopher Columbus and Isabel were exactly the same age. Columbus (Colon in Spanish) was an experienced mariner, having been in the employ of Prince Henry of Portugal in his many explorations around the Iberian coast and south toward Africa. While the Portuguese explored west and south of Europe, Columbus had the notion that if a sailor would keep sailing west, already knowing that the earth was a sphere, one would eventually land in the “Indies” — meaning India and the many Islands of the eastern world. Although it was general knowledge in educated circles of the shape of the earth, Columbus’ calculations were far off on the actual size of it. His sturdy, trusty little ships could never have gone that far on the amount of supplies they carried. The traditional belief is that to his dying day, Columbus was convinced that he was somewhere in the Orient, not that he had founded a new, unknown land. However, one prominent historian, Kirkpatrick Sale, sees evidence in Columbus’ writings that he knew that he had found a new continent.
Fernando and Isabel’s advisers thought the great mariner a quack, as did other courts of Europe where he attempted to secure funding. But something clicked between these two bright, confident, and devoutly Catholic individuals, and although the monarchy was preoccupied with the war against the Moors at that moment, Isabel’s thoughts returned again and again to the visionary sailor.
Castile had long known of the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, and in fact, had established a foothold on several of those islands. The royals knew that there were primitive peoples on these islands. It was always the interest of the Spanish Catholic monarchs, particularly Isabel, to bring the Faith to any primitive, non-Christian peoples encountered in these wild places. Although the Portuguese seemed to have no qualms about enslaving native populations, Isabel and Fernando had a firm policy of not enslaving any of the natives, be they Christian or pagan. Slavery in Christian Spain had ended with the collapse of the Roman Empire centuries ago, and it was always against the official policy of the crown. In later years, when the Caribbean Islands were colonized and — long after Isabel — Mexico and South America were added to the Empire in the age of the Conquistadores, that policy was ignored and abused, especially with the stronger and more exploited Negroes, but it never ceased to be policy.
So it was that after Granada was secured for Spain, the couple turned their attention to funding the great mariner’s first expedition. Is it co-incidence that his first landing in the new world was on that great Spanish feast day of Nuestra Senora del Pilar, Our Lady of the Pillar, the feast which commemorates the appearance of Our Lady to Saint James the Apostle in northern Spain in the first century, October 12?
Although Columbus was possibly the most brilliant mariner who ever lived, he was not the best administrator of the local governments on the islands. With an enterprise so far away from the mother country and so far-reaching in its challenges and scope, naturally there were problems. His talent and his great love were exploring and mapping. He returned to Spain after his fourth voyage a tired and broken man, but in retrospect, he brought Catholicism to as many pagans in the New World as Catholics who were lost to the Faith in the Old World after the Protestant Revolt.
The Reform of the Church
Is it the monarch’s business to engage in Church reform? Remember we are talking about the period just at the beginning of the Renaissance. Already mentioned is the corruption of Spain’s various governments as well as the Church herself. Some priests had low morals, were poorly educated, and hardly ever said Mass. It tells us much when we learn that Isabel’s reform required priests to say Mass a minimum of four times a year and bishops at least three times a year. Like much of Europe during the Renaissance years, the people and the clergy alike fell into lax and immoral practices. In addition, hundreds of years of warfare against the infidels had left the Spanish populace exhausted, both physically and morally. When Isabel’s regular confessor of many years, Talavera, was made Bishop of the reconquered kingdom of Granada, she sought out the holiest and most ascetic monk that she could find to replace him. This man was Francisco Ximenez de Cisneros. He being her father confessor, she knew of his holiness and dedication to the Church; no better man could be found to act as the reformer of her beloved Church. She convinced her compatriot, Pope Alexander VI, no paragon of virtue himself, to appoint the good friar as Cardinal in charge of raising the standards of the Church in Spain. Isabel was holy and devout from her early childhood, and God saw fit to act through her as the impetus for this reform. In retrospect, these reforms spurred on by Isabel kept the Protestant Revolt out of Spain. Dr. Warren Carroll calls it her greatest achievement because it ran against the tide of Renaissance morals and manners.
Much has been said on this site about the Inquisition in an attempt to clarify the sinister use of the term by the enemies of Spain and the Church. Suffice it to say that the word simply means “a court of inquiry.” Since the earliest centuries of the Church, it was important to keep the Faith pure and free of heretical beliefs. Early on, Saint Augustine laid down the teaching that error has no rights; therefore, although false beliefs could be tolerated in a Christian society, they could not be allowed to spread. We know that Spain was unique in that there were many Muslims and Jews who became false Christians. It was these at whom the Inquisition was aimed because they could undermine the Church and the government from within. The numbers executed and tortured were few, particularly compared to the hideous tortures and grisly executions invented by Henry VIII and his evil daughter Elizabeth I in their efforts to rid their Empire of Catholics. The Protestant historian William Cobbett estimates those numbers at a mere 73,000! The primary intent of the courts of the Inquisition in Spain was to allow the recalcitrant an opportunity to recant his heresy and embrace the truth. I refer the reader to the wonderful little book Seven Lies about Catholic History by Dr. Diane Moczar for a simple, but complete explanation of this period.
Triumph and Sadness of Isabel’s Family
The preceding mention of England is a natural segue into the topic of Isabel and Fernando’s family life with its triumphs and its many tragedies. We have already spoken of her mother’s slide into mental illness. Before the older Isabel died, she did not even recognize her own daughter. The Princess lost her beloved younger brother at the age of fourteen. It was he who should have been king. What would Spain have been like if Isabel had not reigned?
The marriage of Fernando and Isabel was a genuine love affair. They had seven children, two of whom were stillborn. We have already told of the first son who was miscarried during the war of succession. The oldest child, also Isabel, married Alfonso, Prince of Portugal, who died at an early age, leaving the young widow grief stricken. Later she married Alfonso’s younger brother Manuel I, with whom she had a son, stillborn. So overwhelmed with sadness was she, that she, too, died shortly after her baby’s death. The royal couple’s only son to survive birth, Juan, died at nineteen after a bout with a raging fever. Fernando, who was present at the youth’s death “melted in tears.” Juan’s young wife was the Archduchess Margaret of Austria. They were not married long enough to produce an heir.
Their third child to live to adulthood was Juana, unfortunately called “la Loca” because she truly was “loca.” Sadly she had inherited her grandmother’s mental instability. She was the only one of their children who had inherited Fernando’s swarthiness, being of dark hair and eyes like him. Even from a child, she kept her mother at a distance. She gave her parents much heartache. Her arranged marriage with Philip the Handsome of the Netherlands was a one-sided affair. She was madly in love with him; he was cold to her. In fact, he broke her heart by flaunting his many mistresses at the northern court and always refused to learn Spanish. Juana, being the oldest of their children to survive, was the legal heir to the Spanish throne. It was a terrible worry to the king and queen what would happen to the kingdom that they had worked so hard to unite if Juana and Philip should ascend the throne. Fortunately for Spain, Philip died at age twenty-eight of an unknown but very sudden illness. Juana went completely insane, even to the point of having his body exhumed and carrying it about the countryside for two years. Fernando finally took Philip’s corpse away from her, reburied it and had her locked away in the castle at Tordesillas. Juana and Philip had several children, all but one of whom lived in the Netherlands. It was Spain’s — and the Holy Roman Empire’s — good fortune that Providence smiled on their oldest son, Carlos, who became Carlos I of Spain and Charles V of the Empire. His life is worthy of a whole article in itself.
The two youngest children were Maria (whose twin was stillborn) who married Manuel I of Portugal, her older sister’s widower. Maria was the only one of their children who had a normal, happy life. The youngest, and possibly the saddest, was the ill-fated Catalina, whom the English-speaking world knows as Catherine of Aragon. To forge a bond with the northern kingdom of England, Catalina was espoused to Arthur, oldest son of Henry VII. Another terrible blow struck when Arthur died within six months of their marriage. Isabel, steeling herself once more and thinking not only of her daughter, but of Spain as well, proposed to the English king a marriage between Catalina and his second son, also Henry, when Henry reached marriageable age. We all know what happened to that marriage, don’t we? Catalina died at age fifty in her simple reclusive English abode wearing her Third Order Franciscan habit.
Expulsion of the Jews
Mention must be made of another event of 1492 in Spain: that is, the expulsion of the Jews. For centuries, since Roman times, Jews had lived and thrived in the peninsula. For the most part they were successful businessmen and professionals. However, it was long known that some Jews in the South had invited the Berber Moors to invade, beginning Spain’s long occupation by these warlike people. Most Christians did not entirely trust their motives. Then, as we have stated earlier, the false conversos did much harm in their zeal to undermine Christianity. Because of the animosity of the Christians and the fear for the safety of the Jewish Spaniards, Isabel and Fernando decided in 1492 that the Jews must either convert sincerely or leave. The royal couple provided security for those who chose to depart, their numbers being about one hundred and seventy thousand. Some went to Portugal; others to North Africa; still others north to the Low Countries where they established banking houses and printing presses. Some returned and sincerely embraced the Faith. It is important to bear in mind in this connection that Ferdinand and Isabel’s foremost motive was to keep Spain free from heresy, unrest, and confusion. Spain was the Catholic Faith; the Catholic Faith was Spain.
Isabel and Fernando lived at a time of momentous change worldwide. New lands discovered, new nations being formed, medieval thinking where religion was central giving way to Renaissance thinking in which man was the center. Morals were becoming lax and the Church was no longer the center of men’s lives. God thrust the monarchy upon a young woman of twenty-three — a very strong and exceptional young woman who knew what was best for Spain and whose husband, Fernando of Aragon, shared her vision. Isabel’s health had declined steadily over the last ten or so years of her life. She died on November 26, 1504 at the age of fifty-three, as much from a spent body as from the heartbreak of the deaths of her children and grandchildren.
Her cause for canonization was introduced in 1958 and accepted by Rome. Her holy and valiant life cannot be disputed. She is now called Servant of God. The female counterpart of the Catholic Knights of Columbus is known as The Daughters of Isabella; these ladies pray for her beatification. Let us join them in prayer that someday soon she will be known as Blessed Isabel.
- The English rendering of “Fuero” as “Local entity” sounds a bit banal, but that is what it means. The Spanish word has more oomph to it. ↩