Isabella - Queen regnant of Castile and León. She and her husband,
Ferdinand II of Aragon, laid the foundation for the political unification of
Spain under their grandson, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
Isabella I (April 22, 1451 – November 26, 1504, reigned 1474-1504) was Queen
regnant of Castile and León. She and her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon, laid
the foundation for the political unification of Spain under their grandson,
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
Castilian version of her name was Ysabel (Isabel in modern spelling), which is
etymologically the same as Elizabeth, but in Germanic countries she is
nevertheless usually known by a Latin form of her name, Isabella. The official
inscription on her tomb renders her names in Latin as "Helizabeth". Pope
Alexander VI named Isabella and her husband the Catholic Monarchs, therefore she
is often known as Isabel la Católica ("Isabella the Catholic") in Spanish.
Isabella was born in Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Spain on April 22, 1451.
Her brother Alfonso was born three years later. When her father, John II, died
in 1454, her much older half-brother Henry IV became king. As soon as he
ascended to the throne, he sequestered his half-siblings to Segovia and his
stepmother to Arévalo, in virtual exile. Henry IV, whose first marriage to
Blanca of Navarre was not consummated and had been annulled, remarried to have
his own offspring. He then married Joana of Portugal. His wife gave birth to
Joan, princess of Castile. When Isabella was about ten, she and her brother were
summoned to the court, to be under more direct supervision and control by the
king. In the Representation of Burgos the nobles challenged the King; among
other items, they demanded that Alfonso, Isabella's brother, should be named the
heir to the kingdom. Henry agreed, provided Alfonso would marry his daughter,
Joan. A few days later, he changed his mind.
The nobles, now in control of Alfonso and claiming him to be the true heir,
clashed with Henry's forces at the Battle of Olmedo in 1467. The battle was a
draw. One year later, Alfonso died at the age of fourteen, and Isabella became
the hope of the rebelling nobles. But she refused their advances, acknowledging
instead Henry as king, and he, in turn, recognized her as the legitimate heir in
the Treaty of the Bulls of Guisando, rather than Joan whose paternal origin was
in dispute. In 1475, Joan married her uncle, the King of Portugal, but their
marriage was later annulled by the Pope because of their family relation. Henry
tried to get Isabella married to a number of people of his choice, yet she
evaded all these propositions. Instead she chose Ferdinand, heir to the throne
of Aragon. They were married October 19, 1469 in Valladolid.
The events of 1492
1492 was an important year for Isabella: seeing the conquest of Granada and
hence the end of the 'Reconquista' (reconquest), her successful patronage of
Christopher Columbus, and her expulsion of the Jews.
The Kingdom of Granada had been held by the Nasrids dynasty. Protected by
natural barriers and fortified towns, it had withstood the long process of the
reconquista. However, in contrast to the determined leadership by Isabella and
Ferdinand, Granada's leadership was divided and never presented a united front.
It took ten years to conquer Granada, culminating in 1492.
The Capitulation of Granada by F. Padilla:
Boabdil before Ferdinand and Isabella.
When the Spaniards, early on, captured Boabdil (Sultan of Granada) they set
him free - for a ransom - so that he could return to Granada and resume his
reign. The Spanish monarchs recruited soldiers from many European countries and
improved their artillery with the latest and best cannons. Systematically, they
proceeded to take the kingdom piece by piece. Often Isabella would inspire her
followers and soldiers by praying in the middle of, or close to, the battle
field, that God's will may be done. In 1485 they laid siege to Ronda, which
surrendered after extensive bombardment. The following year, Loja was taken, and
again Boabdil was captured and released. One year later, with the fall of Málaga,
the western part of the Muslim Nasrid kingdom had fallen into Spanish hands. The
eastern province succumbed after the fall of Baza in 1489. The siege of Granada
began in the spring of 1491. When the Spanish camp was destroyed by an
accidental fire, the camp was rebuilt, in stone, in the form of a cross, painted
white, and named Santa Fe (i.e. 'Holy Faith'). At the end of the year, Boabdil
surrendered. On January 2, 1492 Isabel and Ferdinand entered Granada to receive
the keys of the city and the principal mosque was reconsecrated as a church. The
Treaty of Granada signed later that year was to assure religious rights to the
Muslims - but it did not last.
Columbus before Queen Isabella. Detail of the Columbus
monument in Madrid (1885).
Queen Isabella rejected Christopher Columbus's plan to reach the Indies by
sailing west three times before changing her mind. His conditions (the position
of Admiral; governorship for him and his descendants of lands to be discovered;
and ten percent of the profits) were met. On August 3, his expedition departed
and arrived in America on October 12. He returned the next year and presented
his findings to the monarchs, bringing natives and gold under a hero's welcome.
Spain entered a Golden Age of exploration and colonization. In 1494, by the
Treaty of Tordesillas, Isabella and Ferdinand divided the Earth, outside of
Europe, with king John II of Portugal.
Isabella tried to defend the American aborigines against the abuse of the
colonists. In 1503, she established the Secretary of Indian Affairs, which later
became the Supreme Council of the Indies.
Expulsion of the Jews and Muslims
With the institution of the Roman Catholic Inquisition in Spain, and with the
Dominican friar Tomás de Torquemada as the first Inquisitor General, the
Catholic Monarchs pursued a policy of religious unity. Though Isabella opposed
taking harsh measures against Jews on economic grounds, Torquemada was able to
convince Ferdinand. On March 31, 1492, the Alhambra Decree for the expulsion of
the Jews was issued (See main article on Inquisition). Approximately 200,000
left Spain. Others converted, but often came under scrutiny by the Inquisition
investigating relapsed conversos (Marranos) and the Judaizers who had been
abetting them. The Muslims of the newly conquered Granada had been initially
granted religious freedom, but pressure to convert increased, and after some
revolts, a policy of forced expulsion or conversion was also instituted in 1502
A document signed by Isabella I in Granada in March
Isabella received with her husband the title of Reina Católica by Pope
Alexander VI, a pope of whose secularism Isabella did not approve. Along with
the physical unification of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand embarked on a process
of spiritual unification, trying to bring the country under one faith (Roman
Catholicism). As part of this process, the Inquisition became institutionalized.
After an uprising in 1499, the Treaty of Granada was broken in 1502 and Muslims
were forced to either be baptized or to be expelled. Isabella's confessor,
Cisneros, was named Archbishop of Toledo. He was instrumental in a program of
rehabilitation of the religious institutions of Spain, laying the groundwork for
the later Counter-Reformation. As Chancellor, he exerted more and more power.
Isabella and her husband had created an empire and in later years were
consumed with administration and politics; they were concerned with the
succession and worked to link the Spanish crown to the other rulers in Europe.
Politically this can be seen in attempts to outflank France and to unite the
Iberian peninsula. By early 1497 all the pieces seemed to be in place: Don Juan,
the Crown Prince, married Margaret of Austria, establishing the connection to
the Habsburgs. The eldest daughter, Infanta Isabella, married Manuel I of
Portugal, and the Infanta Juana was married to another Habsburg prince, Philip
of Burgundy. However, Isabella's plans for her children did not work out. Juan
died shortly after his marriage. Isabella, Princess of Asturias died in
childbirth and her son Miguel died at the age of two. Queen Isabella's titles
passed to her daughter Joan the Mad (Juana la Loca) whose marriage to Philip the
Handsome was troubled. Another daughter,Catherine, became the first wife of King
Henry VIII of England. She gave birth to a daughter, Mary, who would become the
fourth crowned monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Isabella died in 1504 in Medina del
Campo, before Philip and Ferdinand became enemies.
Isabella is entombed in Granada in the Capilla Real, which was built by her
grandson, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor (Carlos I of Spain), alongside her
husband Ferdinand, her daughter Juana and Juana's husband Philip; and Isabella's
2-year old grandson, Miguel (the son of Isabella's daughter, also named
Isabella, and King Manuel of Portugal). The museum next to the Capilla Real
houses her crown and scepter.
Isabella and her husband established a highly effective coregency under equal
terms. They utilized a prenuptial agreement to lay down their terms. During
their reign they supported each other effectively in accordance to their joint
motto of equality: Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando ("They amount
to the same, Isabella and Ferdinand"). In addition to her sponsorship of
Columbus, Isabella was also the principal sponsor of Gonzalo Fernández de
Córdoba, the greatest military genius and innovator of the age. Isabella and
Ferdinand's achievements are remarkable - Spain was united, the crown power was
centralized, the reconquista was successfully concluded, the groundwork for the
most dominant military machine of the next century and a half was laid, a legal
framework was created, the church reformed. Even without the benefit of the
American expansion, Spain would have been a major European power. Columbus'
discovery set the country on the course for the first modern world power.
Isabella and contemporary politics and religion
In the twentieth century, the regime of Francisco Franco claimed the prestige
of the Catholic Monarchs. As a result, Isabella was despised by those opposed to
Some Catholics from different countries have attempted to have Isabella declared
as Blessed, with the aim of later having her canonized as a Saint. Their
justification is that Isabella was a protector of the Spanish poor and of the
American Indians from the rapacity of the Spanish nobility; in addition,
miracles have reportedly been attributed to her. This movement has met with
opposition from Jewish organizations, Liberation theologians and Jean-Marie
Cardinal Lustiger, due to the fact that Isabella had many Moors killed after her
entrance to Cordoba. In 1974, Pope Paul VI opened her cause for beatification.
This places her on the path toward possible sainthood. In the Catholic Church,
she is thus titled Servant of God.
Isabella was the first named woman to appear on a United States coin, an 1893
commemorative quarter, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's first
voyage. In the same year she was the first woman to be featured on U.S. postal
stamps, namely on three stamps of the Columbian Issue, also in celebration of
Columbus. She appears in the Spanish court scene replicated on the 15-cent
Columbian, on the $ 1 issue, and in full portrait, side by side with Columbus,
on the $4 Columbian, the only stamp of that denomination ever issued and one
which collectors prize not only for its rarity (only 30,000 were printed) but
its beauty, an exquisite carmine with some copies having a crimson hue. Mint
specimens of this commemorative have been sold for more than $20,000.
Isabella in popular culture
- Ferdinand and Isabella appear in Lope de Vega's play Fuente Ovejuna (c.
1611), represented positively as supporters of a group of villagers in their
struggle against their feudal overlord.
- Isabella appears as the mother of Catherine, the titular heroine of the
novel The Constant Princess, by Philippa Gregory.
- The Royal Diaries, a series of biographical novels about royal women from
around the world, includes Isabel, Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466 by Carolyn
Meyer. It details her life from the time she was exiled to the time she
- Isabella is movingly evoked in Norah Lofts' historical novel "Crown of
- Christopher Columbus negotiates with Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand
of Aragon, in Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher
- Isabella is a character in the short story "Christopher Columbus and Queen
Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship" by Salman Rushdie.
- In film, Isabella has been played by Lola Flores, in Juana la Loca, de vez
en cuando (1983), by Sigourney Weaver, in Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of
Paradise (1992), by Rachel Ward, in "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery"
(1992), and fictionally interpreted by Rachel Weisz in Darren Aronofsky's
film, The Fountain (2006).
- She was also played in the 1985 TV miniseries "Christopher Columbus" by
Faye Dunaway, opposite Gabriel Byrne as Colombus.
- In the video game Civilization IV Isabella appears as a leader for the
- Isabella is the Royal leader of the Spanish Empire in the computer game
Age of Empires III.
Isabella's great-great-grandfather, the founder of the Trastámara dynasty,
Henry II of Castile was a son of Castilian King Alfonso XI and his mistress
Eleanor of Guzman. Katherine of Lancaster, Isabella's paternal grandmother, was
a granddaughter of Peter of Castile and his mistress/wife Maria de Padilla. Her
maternal grandmother was the daughter of Afonso, 1st Duke of Braganza, whose
mother Ines Pirez, a mistress of John I of Portugal.
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