My last blog post was about a queen named Isabella that you probably had never heard of.* Today I thought I’d talk a bit about an Isabella who you probably think you know a lot about: Isabella of Castile.
Isabella is best known to American school children–and consequently to American adults–as the woman who funded Christopher Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic.
Those who were taught a slightly darker version of history* associate Isabella, together with her husband Ferdinand of Aragon, with the conquest of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, the formation of the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of Jewish communities from Spain. Depending on where you stand on the subjects of cultural tolerance and Muslim Spain, Isabella appears in this version as either the founder of several centuries of Spanish greatness or the bigoted destroyer of a culture of relative tolerance. I would argue that she was both. And more.
Isabella was a reigning queen at a time when reigning queens were rare. She transformed herself from a pawn in the power politics of fifteenth century Europe into one of the players with a brilliant combination of political savvy, military aggression and just plain bluffing.
I would argue that her success in seizing and holding her throne–at a time when women who inherited a throne were expected to turn their power over to their husbands and dwindle into consorts–depended on the fact that she was actively involved in waging war.*** Castile was at war for most of her reign. While Isabella did not lead her troops onto the battlefield,**** she traveled with every campaign, even when seriously pregnant, and was responsible for plotting strategy and tactics for her generals. By any measure, she was Castile’s commander-in-general. She also was one of the great quartermasters of history.
Here are a few of my favorite incidents in Isabella’s life:
In the fifteenth century, princesses were seen as assets that their fathers/uncles/brothers could use as bargaining chips for building political and economic alliances. While Isabella’s brother offered her in marriage first to the King of Portugal and later to the Duke of Berry, the heir to the throne of France, Isabella was determined to marry the man who would be best for her own political future. After sending her chaplain to look over possible husbands, she chose her own husband and married him in secret. Ferdinand of Aragon was young, good-looking, and heir to a kingdom considerably smaller and less powerful than Castile.***** While negotiating their secret marriage, Isabella insisted on the fifteenth century version of a prenuptial agreement that allowed her to govern Castile in her own right, with Ferdinand as her consort. Over time, the two forged a true partnership, ruling their two kingdoms together under the motto tanto monta, monta tanto, “the one as much as the other.”
On the death of her brother, Enrique IV, Isabella seized the throne from the young girl known as Juana La Beltraneja, who was certainly the daughter of Enrique’s wife though there were rumors that Enrique was not her father. Enrique himself had wavered between acknowledging the girl as his own and setting her aside. At the time of his death, Juana was his acknowledged heir, a fact that did not stop twenty-three-year old Isabella from claiming the throne and defending that claim against Portugal and France.
In her role as quarter-master-in-chief, Isabella was responsible for an important innovation in military medicine: mobile field hospitals that came to be known as “the queen’s hospital”.
Just to help you draw the historical lines: Catherine of Aragon, the unhappy first wife of Henry VIII, was Isabella’s youngest child.******
Perhaps it’s easiest to sum up her career in her own words: “Monarchs who wish to govern must also work.”
*I’m basing this on the fact that I hadn’t heard of her until I started poking around in the world of medieval and early modern queens. A fascinating world I might add.
**Obviously the arrival of Columbus in the New World kicked off a series of historical events that was dark by any standard. But the dark side of that history isn’t normally taught in American grade schools. Or at least it wasn’t when I was a junior history buff soaking up stories about the past in Mrs. Bates’ third grade class room.
*** Any guesses as to why she’s on my mind these days?
****Except when she did. She led troops against a besieged city at least once when Ferdinand wasn’t around. During the war against the Muslims she took the field with her army at every battle.
*****See what happens when you let princesses choose their own husbands? Queen Victoria of England made a similar choice.
******Proving once again that the boundaries between academic historical fields are as artificial as barbed wire fences between neighboring farms. Useful as a way of claiming territory, but not the only place to draw the lines.