“So great is her knowledge of the arts of peace and war, so keen her penetration, that she seems to have all the virtues in the highest grade that the female sex permits. She is exceedingly religious and spends so much on the ornamentation of the churches that the results are incredible. She shows for the Observant religious an admirable reverence and founds their monasteries. During the conquest of Granada, she was always with the army at the side of the king, and much happened according to her advice. She sits in the tribunal of judgment with the King, hearing the cases and the pleas, and resolving them with a settlement or a definitive sentence. I believe that the Omnipotent sent this most serene lady from Heaven to languishing Spain, so that with her king the public good might be restored to it. What else? She is very religious, very pious, and very gentle.”
These lines came from the German physician H. Münzer after visiting her in Madrid in 1495 at the summit of her power. Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, her devoted husband, gained from the Pope the unique designation of Reyes católicos—the Catholic Kings. This was to reward them of the immense benefits they had brought to the church, in Spain, and in the world.
But things had not been an easy road for either of them, much less for Isabel (1451-1504). With her kingly father dead at a young age and her Portuguese mother helpless, her half-brother Henry IV called the impotent, was nominally king of Castile. In this vacuum of legitimacy and power, Isabel was a lone princess, ten years old, surrounded with noblemen ready to take the lion’s share and sow trouble. The ring leaders of Castile strongly opposed her. Her royal half-brother wanted to marry her to an old and dissolute man. She spent days and nights in prayer in the chapel, offering her life and saying over and over again, “Lord, take either me or him.” A few days later, Isabel’s prayers had been answered literally. On another occasion she was threatened with life-long imprisonment if she refused the hand of the Prince of Portugal, traditional enemy of Castile. But again, she turned to prayer: “God is my refuge. I call upon Him to keep me free from so great a shame and to guard me from such cruel injury.”
Still young in years, she was exposed to brutal Renaissance immorality surrounding the royal family, to the court intrigues involving a shameless Cardinal, a vile and perjurious nobility. She had to oppose her half-brother the king who tried to force his own bastard son as the pretender to Castile. It was not until she turned 17 when Henry and the rebel noblemen signed the pact of Toros de Guisando that Isabel was set as legitimate successor to Henry. She was no longer a pawn in the chessboard of Spanish power, but she was still alone and needed to quickly find a prince to marry.
King Juan II of Aragon, a shrewd politician and valiant soldier made a move to marry his son Fernando to Isabel. Isabel was far too intelligent to pass the opportunity of uniting Castile and Aragon as the foundation of the great Spanish nation. She needed a husband as her political equal who could co-operate in ruling their respective kingdom with one soul. They met for the first time only five days before their wedding which occurred in Valladolid on October 19, 1469. She was 17 and he 16. Along with their marriage vows, the princess and the prince swore fidelity to govern their respective kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in common accord when together, and this, they did to the end. Here are her own words: “by the grace of God, you and I conform to each other in such a way that no difference can be.”
When King Henry died abruptly in 1474, setting Isabel as the legitimate queen of Castile, chronicler Thomas Miller, in Henry IV, described the momentous change: “Chill dawn was coming in Segovia, and as young Isabel rose to greet it… a new day was too breaking for the kingdom, a day which was triumphantly to free it from the rue and fraction we have sought to chronicle and bring it on—healed, rectified and welded—to might, to majesty, to sway of half the globe, to unimaginable splendor.”
Isabel lost no time in profiting by the advantage faithful Segovia gave her: she was crowned the next day as queen of Castile and received the allegiance of the subjects. It was indeed going to be an uphill battle for the royal couple to reconquer Castile as the point of the lance against rebel factions and Portuguese insurgence for the next few years, besides the Moorish presence in the South.
At a given moment when the royal army had sought flight without a fight, the wisdom of these two young entwined military spirits came forth. Isabel’s passionate words came first: “He who begins nothing finishes nothing. Those who do not recognize opportunity when it comes, find misfortune when they do not look for it.” But Fernando’s wisdom for once matched hers. “Prudence is the god of battles. We submit ourselves, above all, to the Most High Judge, without Whom, as St. John says, nothing is done. Perhaps He did not wish that these people perish in this hour, but wishes that we seek final victory with greater work, care, and diligence.”
The next years saw much of the royal couple ride horses and command armies in their respective fronts of Roussillon or Asturias. By 1476, they were largely free to bring their kingdoms to peace and justice, rewarding the good and castigating the evil. A crucial appointment was the restoration of the Santa Hermandad—the Holy Brotherhood—acting as a national police force. Its jurisdiction was limited to crimes: murder, assault, robbery, arson, and false imprisonment. Yet, much work was imposed on them to restore order in lands where bands of thieves had roamed with impunity for half a century. The Cortes, Castile’s parliament, had approved it hastily but Isabel and Fernando were eager to put it into action throughout their countries. Likewise, Isabel did not fear going South to the troublesome Extremadura and Andalusia to restore order and formal submission to her as their Queen. When she started to administer justice in the sumptuous Moorish palace of the Alcázar of Seville, 4,000 malefactors preferred fleeing from the city rather than face the severe judgment of their Queen.
The reformation of the Church in the troubled Renaissance was a real challenge, in times when the papacy and any ecclesiastical office was seen as a political power prior to a religious function. But the Catholic Kings made sure to appoint local bishops physically present in their own diocese and eager to cleanse clerical and religious abuses. A decisive factor was appointment of Cisneros as Cardinal of Madrid, in replacement of predecessors who had fought physically and led armies. Ximénes de Cisneros had been given a six-year jail sentence by the injustice of the Cardinal of Madrid. There, he had learned to love contemplation and was eager to second Isabel to reform thoroughly the Church of Spain. Isabel had also greatly empowered the religious orders which blossomed in her now peaceful kingdom.
Along with it came the need for another purification. The massacre of Otranto in Southern Italy by the Turks led Spain to provide the military help necessary to regain the city. It also sounded the alarm to renewed prudence, especially regarding the conversos. Half of the Southern population had been non-Christian. Conversos were those Spanish Christians who had converted from Islam or Judaism, many of whom were genuine, but others were suspect of simulating conversion for greed. Thus, in the light of the Otranto event, every false converso in Spain was a potential traitor. On the other hand, any true converso could be open to a false accusation just to get rid of him, and many such men had already rendered eminent service to the Queen. This was the reason for setting up the Inquisition. Its main object was to sort out the sincerity of converts, and it had no authority over those who had remained openly Jewish or Muslim.
The resumption of the longest crusade in history, just short of 800 years, was also in the mind of the Catholic Kings when they heard of the Otranto ordeal and the death of their Turkish Sultan, Mohammed the Conqueror. The last stronghold which the Moors held in the Peninsula was the kingdom of Granada. A stronghold it was indeed, well protected in the North by rugged mountains and in the South by high sea cliffs, and in easy contact by sea with Muslim Morocco and Algeria. After epical series of battles which lasted ten years, by January 1492, Boabdil the Sultan gave up his Alhambra to the Christians. Their first action was to set up an altar for Mass to be celebrated. Boabdil’s mother’s statement might be legendary, but it certainly sounds a note very much like her fiery spirit: “Weep as a woman the loss of a kingdom you could not defend as a man.”
This year of grace 1492 saw also Isabel offer Christopher Columbus her personal jewelry to put to execution his plan of going Westward and become the Admiral of the Ocean sea. Portugal had rejected his offer because King John’s maritime experts, the best at the time, saw that his estimate of the size of the earth was absurdly small. No ship imaginable in the 15th century could have come close to crossing the huge water span between Europe and Japan, had not the unknown America been in the way. As he left Lisbon, Columbus turned to the Spanish Court after the triumph at Granada. Isabel favored Columbus’ project, putting more trust in the man than in his fantastic project. Isabel deeply believed that fortune favors the brave, and she felt that Columbus had what it took. He was a man born and driven to discover a new world, and such a discovery was bound to bring glory, power, and wealth to the nation that favored it. It is not for us to recount the epopee of this momentous journey of 36 days through the deep blue sea to the Caribbeans. But glory and wealth and power Columbus certainly brought to Catholic Spain of Isabel and Fernando. He was to make another three trips to the new world, give his name to some of the land discovered, but mostly open heaven to millions of natives born under the beneficent Spanish rule. And, twelve years later, as she laid dying at Medina del Campo in 1504, the last order signed by “Yo la Reina” was to take the defense and liberty of the natives in the new world.
After the glorious deeds of Isabel, she was to grow in the hardest of virtues, of patience in sorrow, as she witnessed the undoing of much of her endeavors. Isabel and Fernando raised five children. Their only son had died within six months of his marriage. Of her children’s marriages, two of them were broken by death within a year. Their second daughter Juana was slowly showing marks of insanity. When their fourth daughter, Princess Isabel, lay dying, her mother was able to say: “All being mortal, they had begotten a mortal, and would not fail to give thanks to God for the period of life that had been granted to her.” Her older sister Mary seemed to have had the most normal marriage with Manuel of Portugal.
The last of her children, Catalina, was also the strongest. During the years of suffering and mourning of Isabella, she was her constant companion, and the one who resembled her most. She learnt from her last years on earth how to endure the most painful adversity. She would need all that strength of character when, as Catherine of Aragon and spouse to Henry VIII of England, she would oppose his pretense of invalid marriage which set England ready for heresy and schism. Also, her grandson Charles V, Roman emperor and Archduke of Austria, was to have a great destiny in upholding the faith in Germany riddled by the Lutheran heresy. Likewise, his own son Philip II would have a prominent role in defending Spain, the new world and the Pope against the Turks and heretics. The strong and bold spirit of Isabel, allied to true Christian devotion, ran in the veins of her descendants.