CALLED TO RULE
The dramatic stories of three unparalleled sets of royal mothers and daughters--stories that span half a millennium--begin with the birth of Queen Isabella of Castile, "an extraordinary woman who was also an extraordinary monarch, one of the most powerful the world had ever known."1 The saga unfolds in the far southwest corner of Europe, some six centuries ago, on the Iberian Peninsula. There, on a melancholy, austere expanse of land known as Castile--a wide plateau in hues of bronze, gray, and green--Isabel of Portugal, queen consort of King Juan II of Castile, gave birth to baby girl. It was April 22, 1451, Holy Thursday. The birth occurred in the small summer palace of the baby's father at Madrigal de las Altas Torres. A multitowered agricultural town of a few thousand inhabitants located inland on the plains of Castile in the province of Ávila, Madrigal was named for its many towers, built to help fend off attackers. Inside Madrigal's arched and gold-flecked, domed church of San Nicholas, the baby infanta of Castile was baptized and welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church.
Isabella's birthplace exhibited Muslim and Christian influences, most visibly through the palace and town walls, constructed in the Mudejar style. The Mudejar style, which pervaded Madrigal and many parts of Spain, is characterized by a unique interpretation of Western themes dominated by Muslim influences. The Muslim factor was to loom large in the future Queen Isabella's life. For centuries, Muslims from North Africa, often referred to as the Moors, had dominated swaths of the Iberian Peninsula. By the time of Isabella's birth, other Muslims, the Ottoman Turks, were on the march from present-dayTurkey into eastern Europe, bent on conquering peoples and territories by the sword. Their progress stoked fear among many Europeans.
Little fanfare accompanied Isabella's birth, for no one viewed the baby as having a great role in the future. Enrique, her elder half brother, was already married and destined to succeed their father, King Juan. In that day, brothers superseded daughters in the line of succession. When, in 1453, Queen Isabel gave birth to Isabella's brother, Alfonso, young Isabella slipped a step further away from the Castilian throne and that much more removed from a position of power.
Yet if the throne itself seemed elusive, there was always the possibility that the infanta from Castile, like many princesses before and after, would be a useful commodity in the royal marriage market. Even though princesses were not first choices as rulers, they were valuable as brides to cement alliances between dynasties. Consequently, royal daughters were potentially significant players in the complicated, high-stakes game of international diplomacy.
In order to survive, let alone flourish, in times marked by peril and political machinations, the infanta Isabella had to navigate her way through the treacherous waters of medieval Castilian court life. Turbulence clouded the girl's early years. One of the young Isabella's biggest challenges was her mother's increasingly unstable disposition. Queen Isabel had arrived in Castile at age nineteen, attractive and innocent. Unfortunately, however, her position was thwarted by the king's scheming favorite, Álvaro de Luna. Luna had hoped that Queen Isabel would be a malleable ally. However, not only was she intractable but she saw through Luna's ruse. Queen Isabel obstructed Luna's plans to dominate the monarch. The queen's opposition to Luna's pernicious influence on her husband marked her as Luna's enemy, and the corrupt, arrogant, and power-hungry courtier therefore eyed her warily. Hostility grew between them. Soon, suspicions of Luna and his ill treatment of the queen were on everyone's lips. Isabel's unstable behavior during her pregnancy with Isabella fed the rumors. A melancholy descended that was soon to overwhelm the queen. Some in Isabel's entourage surmised that the cause of the queen's depression was poison ordered by Luna.
Eventually, Luna's manipulations caught up with him. His use of imprisonment and execution as tools to maintain power, plus his unpopular hold over the king, combined to make Luna a hated figure. Queen Isabel's utter contempt for the man sealed his fate. By gaining so many enemies, Luna paved the way for his own downfall. Charged with treason, he was executed in 1453.
Under King Juan's weak reign, which saw much fighting among his nobles,Castile's international prestige plummeted. Aware of his failure, toward the end of his life, Juan II wryly observed that he should have been the son of a mechanic instead of becoming Castile's king. Isabella's feckless father died after an ineffectual forty-nine-year reign. There was much truth in the harsh observation. "King Juan did one thing and one thing only for posterity, and that was to leave behind him a daughter who in no way resembled her father."2 But first, the unlamented Juan II was succeeded by King Enrique IV, son of Juan's first wife, Maria of Aragon. Enrique, nicknamed the Impotent, proved to be even more disastrous a monarch than his father.
King Juan's death left Isabella and her younger brother, Alfonso, in their mother's care. The family of three lived in the small castle in the Castilian town of Arévalo. Arévalo, with its stretches of greenery and cornfields, offered Isabella and Alfonso plenty of opportunity to enjoy life outside. The energetic Isabella spent her early childhood there indulging in outdoor pursuits, often accompanied by her best friend, Beatriz de Bobadilla, the daughter of the governor of Arévalo castle. The friends were a study in contrasts: Beatriz was dark-haired and effusive, while Isabella, the fair-haired one, was restrained and mature. Beatriz and Isabella became like sisters. Among their favorite forms of exercise was riding. Fearless with horses, Isabella became an accomplished horsewoman and indulged in hunting all manner of game, both docile and dangerous. She even hunted down a bear, felling it with a javelin from her own hands. Riding and hunting were time well spent, for they taught the infanta patience, endurance, and an ability to ward off exhaustion.
Central to Isabella's life during these formative years was her mother. The widowed Queen Isabel saw to it that her daughter and son were imbued with the same veneration for the Roman Catholic Church that she herself possessed, a rigorous faith steeped in asceticism. Isabella's first tutor at Arévalo was a Franciscan priest, the provincial head of Castile, Fray Juan de Tolosa. He and the numerous other Franciscans there made a profound impact, and in time Isabella became devoted to the order. These clerics instilled a piety and love of the Church that were to remain with her all her life.
Two others contributed to Isabella's spiritual education: Fray Gonzalo de Illescas, Prior of Guadalupe, and Fray Lope Barrientos, Bishop of Cuenca. So important were these two men of the cloth that it is not far-fetched to conclude that they, "more than the mother, greatly influenced the religious orientation which was given to her [Isabella's] studies: Franciscans of Arévalo, well chosen pious ladies of the court ... [and] the Mendicant Fray Martín de Córdoba." De Córdoba was so enthusiastic about his pupil that he wrote a book dedicatedto the education of young noblewomen. He gave the book to Isabella on her sixteenth birthday with the recommendation that she "brilliantly reflect chastity and purity in all this kingdom."3
Isabella's piety was more than automatic, based purely on obedience and external practices. Instead, Isabella linked her faith to reason. "She herself accepted no faith merely because as a reward she was promised understanding at some later time. She was one of the creators, and yet also a creature of the new modern age, and she therefore accepted human reason and bowed before a single truth. This 'unchangeable' truth was based on the existence of God and praised by Saint Augustine as the 'source of all happiness.'"4
For those imbued with devotion like Isabella, a life centered on God became a raison d'être. Living in service to God, one's soul would journey toward the ultimate goal: eternal salvation. A faith-filled life could also bring solace to those on earth, particularly in times of great troubles--and Isabella grew up in such times. Hers was a world fraught with uncertainty and danger. No matter one's station, it was a harsh life peppered by plagues and other diseases, along with constant warfare.
Queen Isabel raised her children as well as she could; however, the melancholy that first manifested during the queen's pregnancy with Isabella escalated into insanity at Arévalo. Incessantly mourning her dead husband, the dowager Queen Isabel descended into "profunda tristeza" (a profound sadness).5 As she fell deeper into madness, the queen shut herself off from the world and stared blankly. Or she might have been found, as legend has it, "fleeing up and down the dark stairs of the castle pursued by the ghostly voices cawing Luna's name."6
Her mother's madness, her father's death, and life under the watchful eye of her half brother, Enrique, shadowed the early years of the future Queen Isabella's life. It was a far more unhappy and unstable youth than that enjoyed by her daughter Catherine. Yet in spite of the challenges that came Isabella's way from the earliest days, she was intent on not letting life's vicissitudes divert her. As a child, Isabella had shown determination, bravery, and an unswerving devotion to God--characteristics that she was to call upon in the future and qualities that her daughter Catherine of Aragon was to share fully.
As a female with little prospect of succeeding to the throne, Isabella received an education that was circumscribed at best. Though her mother had ensured Isabella's spiritual formation, her study of academic subjects was limited. The child learned to read and write Castilian well, but her knowledge of foreign tongues, particularly Latin, the language of the educated, was negligible.Her tutors were able men, usually priests who were educated at the University of Salamanca, founded in 1218. Isabella studied music, grammar, and rhetoric. She was exposed to the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. Poetry was a favorite with Isabella, who most likely read Dante in Spanish. Her tutor drummed in histories of her royal forebears, so that Isabella was well aware not only of their long, distinguished lineage but also of their lengthy crusade against the Moors. Not forgotten in her training were valued female accomplishments, such as sewing, painting, embroidery, and dance. The nexus for nearly all Isabella's education, however, was religion. Even her artistic endeavors had the glorification of God as their impetus; she labored over items such as decorations and standards created for altars. As a product of the Middle Ages, Isabella's life was steeped in faith. As predictable as the seasons of the year, life revolved around the liturgical calendar. Days and momentous events were punctuated by the chiming, tolling, or pealing of church bells. Central to the Church's teachings were the sacramental aspects of the faith, which imbued life with a profound sense of the presence of God.
Besides her deep-seated attachment to Roman Catholicism, Isabella came to understand her future role instinctively. Even as a child, she seemed filled with a presentiment that she would be called to rule. The infanta Isabella, in her Arévalo years, "gained a self-possession, a pride in her royal lineage, a sense of both entitlement and responsibility, a regal bearing and a high morality inseparable from religion and ruling well ... . In her veins, she had learned, ran the blood of warriors, of heroic Goths and Moorfighters, of monarchs and saints, of powerful men and women. Hers was a heritage for a queen."7
For nearly eight centuries, a long, drawn-out battle for the soul of the peninsula unfolded, pitting the region's Muslims and Christians against each other. Though the two warring groups, along with the Jews, had at times coexisted, the overarching theme of Muslim-Christian relations from the 700s into Isabella's lifetime was of war. Ever since the Arabs invaded Spain in 711 via the Strait of Gibraltar and established their faith and culture in the region, Christians had sought to regain their lands. Thus was born the struggle that came to be known as the Reconquista or the Reconquest of Christian lands on the Iberian Peninsula. The legendary Castilian hero and conqueror of the Moors in Valencia in the late eleventh century, El Cid, added luster to the lengthy battle for the land that was to become Spain.
The march toward the re-Christianization of the Iberian Peninsula was cemented by a decisive Christian victory in 1212 at Las Navas de Tolosa. This, along with the gains made by the King of Castile and León, St. Ferdinand, ofCórdoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248, pointed to the inevitable total defeat of the Moors.
At the time of the future Queen Isabella's birth, the Iberian Peninsula consisted of the following main kingdoms: Aragon on the east, bounded by the Mediterranean Sea; its large neighbor, Castile, comprising Andalusia, Extremadura, Murcia, Old and New Castile, León, Asturias, and Galicia; Navarre on the Pyrenees near France; and Granada in the south. The elusive territory of Granada, the Moors' last stronghold, was the still-painful reminder that the Christians' work was incomplete. Granada represented the last trophy in the struggle to liberate Iberia and bring it back into the Christian fold.
In spite of the steady gains of the past, during Isabella's youth, the final chapter of the Reconquista seemed more in the realm of dreams than reality. Islam had gained new traction in the ongoing war with Christendom. Only two years after Isabella's birth, Constantinople, the seat of the Christian Byzantine Empire, fell to the Muslim Turks after a dramatic siege. This event shook Europe to the core and reinforced fears of an Islam in the ascendant. The crescent was again making its mark against the cross. The Ottoman Turks' victory over the Christians at Constantinople in 1453 reinvigorated the Islamic world and created new impetus for them to proceed farther into Europe, this time westward from Asia Minor. The Muslim juggernaut battered its way through the Continent, devastating most of the Balkans, and reaching as far as the Danube.
That a woman would one day reverse this seemingly unstoppable tide of Muslim gains from the eastern end of the Continent, then emerge the victor against the Moors in the final chapter of the Reconquista, was unthinkable. But before achieving that historic triumph, the girl from Madrigal de las Altas Torres and Arévalo had to fight her way through the maze of courtly intrigues, for "Isabella's path to the throne" was not "straightforward, let alone inevitable."8
Isabella later recalled how she and her younger brother were ultimately "inhumanely and forcibly uprooted" from the arms of "my mother the queen."9 They were ordered to live at King Enrique IV's court, away from Queen Isabel. Isabella thus became the ward of the king and his consort, Queen Juana. The weak and vacillating king and his immoral and scheming queen were indisputably unsavory characters. The court--with its distracting gossip and political posturing--proved an uncomfortable atmosphere for the circumspect Isabella and her brother.
Bearded and redheaded, Enrique IV was large in stature but ungainly. He could cast a fierce gaze upon anyone, yet he failed to accomplish anything that might have gained his people's respect. Unsuccessful as a war leader and highlysusceptible to the influence of court favorites, Enrique managed through incompetence to earn the enmity of his subjects. Aside from being an ineffectual ruler, he was widely believed to be impotent and a cuckolded husband. The flirtatious Queen Juana, who reveled in displaying her femininity, did not hide her admiration for the ostentatious and good-looking courtier Beltrán de la Cueva. When, in 1462, several years after she married King Enrique, the queen gave birth to a daughter, also named Juana, many were convinced that de la Cueva, and not Enrique, was the real father. The unfortunate baby took on the moniker La Beltraneja from birth because of her supposed illegitimacy. The queen's scandalous behavior was highly distasteful to the straitlaced infanta Isabella.
Not all the individuals Isabella dealt with in her youth were as unsavory to her as King Enrique or Queen Juana, to whom the king had entrusted his half sister for her education. Alfonso de Carrillo, Archbishop of Toledo, who could muster countless soldiers to defend a cause he espoused, became a champion of the infantes Isabella and Alfonso. The prelate took a paternal and political interest in the rudderless children and became an influential friend on whom Isabella could lean for counsel.
Though she was half sister to the king, the infanta Isabella's rights to the crown remained tenuous. When she was thirteen, her chances of becoming sovereign of Castile was not really altered when Enrique was compelled formally to name Alfonso as his heir, since La Beltraneja's dubious parentage was too much for the king's rebellious nobles to stomach.
In 1466, with civil war brewing, pitting the king against his nobles, Enrique ordered Isabella, Queen Juana, and La Beltraneja to Segovia, where they could be carefully watched. King Enrique saw the teenage Isabella as a useful political pawn. Marrying her off to a suitor of his choice--preferably the King of Portugal, Afonso V, his own brother-in-law--might strengthen Enrique's position. However, Enrique must have been exasperated to find his half sister unmalleable. It was already evident that he had to contend with a young woman determined to chart her own destiny. The contours of Isabella's life and her role in creating it were already taking shape.
As King Enrique's armies and his enemies clashed and important towns fell to the rebel nobles of Castile, the aristocracy became emboldened. The nobles promoted Isabella's brother, Alfonso, to be the new King of Castile. People were forced to take sides. The Castilians suffered throughout this crisis, with near anarchy prevailing in town and countryside. Amid the fighting, the rebel nobles did not ignore Isabella. They were intent, above all, on preventing King Enrique from marrying her off to Afonso V. Instead, the rebellious nobles insisted thatshe marry Pedro Girón, brother to Juan Pacheco, a powerful courtier of Enrique IV. Enrique consented. Isabella was mortified. The much older Girón, coarse and debauched, was her very antithesis. There was nothing Isabella could do but pray fervently for deliverance from what to her was a fate worse than death. In April 1466, her prayers were answered when Girón died from an infection.
Another death, this time of one closer to Isabella's heart, took place on July 5, 1468. Her brother succumbed to what appeared to be the plague; others thought it was poisoning. Taking stock of the growing chaos in her country, and realizing that she would forever be a pawn unless she herself assumed power, Isabella immediately made her move for the throne. When announcing Alfonso's imminent death, the seventeen-year-old Isabella declared: "The succession of the reign and the dominions of Castile and León belonged to me as the legitimate heir and successor." 10 She was supported by Pacheco and Archbishop Carrillo. Alfonso's death radically changed Isabella's fortunes. By reminding others of her right as heir (La Beltraneja having been shunted aside by Enrique IV), Isabella marked herself as the next legitimate sovereign of Castile. But that was as far as she was willing to go.
At seventeen, Isabella already showed evidence of self-possession, fortitude, and farsightedness. Unwilling to become a tool of an ambitious clique of nobles, she risked a split with Archbishop Carrillo, her surrogate father, who with other rebellious gentry urged her to usurp the crown. Carrillo saw this moment as a golden opportunity for his protégée, and a perfect opportunity to rid Castile of the highly inept Enrique IV, a cause for which the archbishop and his supporters had long fought.
Tempting though the offer was, the coolheaded and quick-witted teenager concluded that she must bide her time and resisted all pressure to mount a coup. Isabella emerged from a convent in Ávila, where she had been cosseted for her protection after Alfonso's death, refused to overthrow her half brother, and declared, "I am content with the title of Princess."11
Her loyalty to Enrique paid off. The king and his rebellious nobles reached a compromise, of which Isabella was the beneficiary. At Toros de Guisando in Ávila, before a crowd of hundreds, Enrique IV declared Isabella his heir in 1468 and gave her authority over her marriage.
Now that she was the official heir, Isabella's fortunes brightened. Not only did she receive holdings from which she derived income and prestige but the future queen's stature as a bride correspondingly rose. Suitors for Isabella's hand included King Enrique's long-favored candidate, King Afonso V of Portugal; aswell as the Duke of Guienne, heir to King Louis XI of France; and a brother of England's King Edward IV.
However, the one Isabella herself favored was Ferdinand, son of King Juan II of Aragon. Ferdinand of Aragon, born on March 10, 1452, to King Juan and his second wife, was a year younger than Isabella. King Enrique had already offered Isabella as a bride to King Juan's eldest son and heir, Carlos, Prince of Viana, but that match fell through with Viana's death. His stepmother (Ferdinand's mother) was an ambitious Aragonese noblewoman who would brook no opposition to her son becoming king. She was thought to have poisoned Viana. The wily King Juan, who highly favored Ferdinand over Carlos anyway, lost no time in negotiating a marriage between Ferdinand and Isabella. By May 1469, King Juan was promoting a marriage between Ferdinand and Isabella keenly.
Juan calculated that, by having Isabella marry Ferdinand, Aragon would fare much better against the rebellious Catalans within the kingdom. Moreover, a united Castile and Aragon would pose a formidable threat to Juan's enemy, King Louis XI of France. In 1468, as a token of his favor and to make his son a more attractive candidate for Isabella, Juan II made Ferdinand King of Sicily, which then belonged to the Aragonese crown.
Though she had not yet met him, in Isabella's eyes Ferdinand was the most suitable candidate for a future husband. He was her second cousin; they both descended from the royal house of Trastámara. A marriage between them naturally offered the tantalizing dynastic opportunity of uniting Castile and Aragon and would fortify Isabella's claim to Castile's crown. From a personal viewpoint, Ferdinand also appeared to be the most tantalizing suitor, for unlike the other candidates, he was young and vigorous, reputed to be handsome with a winning personality. Full-lipped with a prominent forehead, good strong physique, and of medium height, the prince also cut a fine figure on a horse. It was said that "he carried himself boldly both on horse and foot."12 Ferdinand's eyes were "bright with a certain joyful dignity," while "his head [was] well set on his shoulders, his voice clear and restful."13 A fine sportsman who excelled at jousting, Ferdinand was able to keep his composure in the most stressful moments, an ability that would serve him in good stead. Seasoned from a tender age by uprisings, war, and intrigues to rival those of the Castilian court, Ferdinand was more than ready to face military and political challenges. In short, here was a husband worthy of the headstrong, candid, and independent Isabella.
And what of Isabella herself? What kind of a young woman had she become? By the late 1460s, Isabella had the makings of a leader. Intelligent withkeen powers of observation, she refused to be subsumed by the endless machinations of those around her. As an outsider and a pawn in Enrique IV's court, immersed in the Castilian civil wars, Isabella had learned to weigh the options, determining which would serve her interests as a sovereign and those of Castile. Physically, she was of medium height with a tendency to plumpness. Of a very fair complexion, her pleasing face was flush with the glow of youth. Her greenish blue eyes and masses of reddish gold hair were her most prominent features. She was known for being dignified and courteous. One contemporary described Isabella as "most gracious in her manners."14 Better educated than Ferdinand, Isabella was also an uncompromisingly upright character with firm convictions, characteristics that would not abate. She had a gravity that would later manifest in an aura of majesty that she flaunted when needed.
The main obstacle to the couple's union was King Enrique IV, who still insisted that Isabella marry the Portuguese king. This the princess refused, and she was within her rights to say no. Enrique had agreed, at Toros de Guisando, that Isabella had the right to refuse any suitor he proposed. Isabella said as much to a courtier who urged her to marry King Afonso, stating defiantly: "My marriage is not supposed to be arranged against my will."15 With Enrique ready to renege on his agreement and threatening to imprison his half sister, Isabella felt no compunction about marrying the man she chose for a husband without his approval.
And so Isabella made a bold move, fleeing north to Valladolid in the hope of uniting herself in marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon. At one point during the daring flight, in order to elude capture by forces led by Archbishop Fonseca, who were loyal to King Enrique, Isabella sought refuge in a convent near her birthplace, Madrigal de las Altas Torres. Also hurrying to her, this time in answer to her pleas for help, were five hundred soldiers commanded by Isabella's friend and mentor Archbishop Carrillo. Her fate hinged on which of these two forces arrived first. Isabella's "faith must have been tested to the uttermost as she peered out from the wooden windows of the convent across the silent summer plain and wondered to which of the two archbishops the first troops to break the shimmering horizon would belong."16 In the end, the first troops to reach Isabella belonged to Carrillo.
Isabella prevailed in her efforts to escape King Enrique. Ferdinand made his way to her disguised as a mule driver. When he arrived, the eager bride recognized her previously unseen groom, picking him from his companions and excitedly exclaiming, "Ese es, ese es!" (This is he!)17 Upon finally meeting, the seventeen-year-old Ferdinand and eighteen-year-old Isabella were pleased with each other, a fact that boded well for the future.
On October 19, 1469, at Valladolid, Archbishop Carrillo married Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon in a nuptial Mass, the requisite Papal Bull granting dispensation to the impediment of consanguinity being read. Though unbeknownst at the time to Isabella, this bull turned out to have been forged by Carrillo and King Juan II of Aragon in a desperate bid to ensure that Ferdinand and Isabella marry. Upon discovering the ruse, the couple petitioned Rome for the necessary bull (which Pope Sixtus IV granted in 1471).
Valladolid erupted in revelry over the wedding, with several days of feasts and processions. As part of the marriage arrangement, Ferdinand agreed to respect Castilian laws, and, most important, the nature of their joint rule emerged, for Ferdinand and Isabella would share titles and affix their names jointly to everything that needed their imprimatur. Also of great significance was the promise that "when she and he had in their joint power those kingdoms [of Castile and Aragon] they were obliged to war against the Moors, enemies of the holy Catholic faith, as other Catholic kings, their predecessors, had done."18
Thus began the famous marriage and exceptional political partnership of Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella. A dynamic and significant historical force, they became the parents of Catherine of Aragon, as recognizable a figure in her own right as her father and mother.
IN TRIUMPH'S WAKE. Copyright © 2008 by Julia P. Gelardi. All rights reserved.