A while back I reviewed Sarah Gristwood’s Game of Queens, a wonderful account of the powerful women who ruled (directly or indirectly) in sixteenth century Europe. Giles Tremlett’s masterful biography of Isabella of Castile is in some ways the prequel to Gristwood’s account. Tremlett sums up the theme of his book in its sub-title: Europe’s First Great Queen.

Isabella of Castile opens with a vivid set piece: twenty-three-year-old Isabella marching through the streets of Segovia preceded by a knight carrying the royal sword. It was a symbol of power and of the will to use it. Isabella would prove to have both.

The odds were against her. When Isabella seized the throne after the death of her brother in December 1474, she inherited a weak monarchy and nobles accustomed to ruling their territories without reference to their feudal overlord. The powerful men who supported her questionable claim to the throne assumed her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon, would rule in her stead. Thanks to a prenuptial agreement, which she herself negotiated, Isabella governed Castile in her own right with Ferdinand as a trusted partner. Together they transformed Castile and Aragon from a congeries of medieval feudatories into a modern state with led by a powerful monarch. They also ended Spain’s long history of relative religious tolerance, with the creation of of the Spanish Inquisition and attacks on Muslims, Jews, and Christians of Muslim and Jewish descent

Tremlett paints a sympathetic picture of Isabella, without whitewashing the fact that she was often ruthless and intolerant, with a sense of realpolitik that rivaled that of Machiavelli.  If you’re interested in tough broads in history, check out Isabella.

Most of this review appeared previously in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

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