From the Archives: Isabella Who?

Isabella Jagiellon

Portrait of Isabella from the workshop of Lucas Cranach, ca 1565

I recently took a little research detour to find out something about Isabella Jagellion, who has been popping up in my reading for roughly a year now, usually in the form of a one-liner to the effect that she was the first ruler in history to issue an edict of universal religious toleration in 1558–an achievement normally accorded to Henry IV of France, who was responsible for the edict of Nantes in 1589.* I’ll let you do the math.

I soon found out that there is more to her story.

Isabella was a Polish princess who was married to the 52-year-old king of Hungary, Janos Zapolyta, in 1539, when she was only 20–a way of cementing an alliance between the two kingdoms in their joint fight against the eastern expansion of the Hapsburg dynasty.** Essentially, her job was to get pregnant as quickly as possible and produce an heir. Zapolya had recently lost a ten-year war with the Hapsburg emperor, Ferdinand I The peace treaty divided Hungary into two parts. Western Hungary became part of the Hapsburg empire. Zapolyta now ruled the eastern part of Hungary as the king of Transylvania. If he died without an heir, Transylvania would revert to Ferdinand.

Isabella did not disappoint. A year after their marriage she gave birth to a son. Two weeks later, Zapolyta died, having lived long enough to see his heir if not to ensure that heir’s uncontested succession. The Estates of Transylvania recognized the infant Sigismond aas King of Transylvania and accepted Isabella as queen regent.*** Ferdinand tried to claim Transylvania by occupying Buda. When Ferdinand besieged Isabella at the castle of Olah, the Ottoman emperor, Suleyman the Magnificent, brought a large army to raise the siege. This was like have a hungry dragon save you from the Big Bad Wolf.

For the next five years, Isabella was engaged in an unequal three-way contest with the two empires for control of Transylvania. In 1547, Ferdinand and Suleymana signed a truce and tried to relegate Isabella (and Sigismond–who it’s easy to forget) to the territory of Opole, the smallest and least populated province of Poland. Isabella dug in her heels and fought for the rights of her son. In 1556, the Estates of Transylvania once again confirmed Sigismond as their ruler. From 1556 until her death in 1559, Isabella ruled Transylvania as her son’s regent. Among other acts designed to bring peace to the kingdom, she issued a law giving religious toleration to all her subjects.

I don’t know whether they lived happily, and tolerantly, ever after. But the Hapsburgs did not manage to get control of Transylvania until the eighteenth century.

*In fact, Genghis Khan beat them both to the punch. He not only passed laws of religious toleration three hundred years earlier than either of them, but those laws were far more universal in terms of what religions they covered. Both Isabella and Henry were interested in toleration within Christianity. Genghis Khan extended religious toleration to all religions within his empire. Except Daoism. Every emperor has his blind spots.

**Unlike their counterparts in fairy tales or Disney movies, very few historical princesses got to marry a young and handsome prince. One of the few exceptions was another Isabella, Isabella of Castile. While her brother was hawking her around the marriage markets of fifteenth century Europe, she secretly negotiated her marriage to Ferdinand of Aragon. It was the first step in a lifetime of power plays.

***Widowed queens or noblewoman were often chosen as regents for underaged sons, on the not-always-accurate presumption that mother-love (or laws that prevented them from inheriting) would make them safer choices than a power hungry uncle or maternal grandfather. Which is not to say than an occasional queen regent didn’t hang onto power long past her sell-by date.

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