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Isabella I
A detail of the painting Our Lady of the Fly, attributed to Gerard David and/or someone of the circle of Jan Mabuse
Queen of Castile and León
Reign 10 December 1474 – 26 November 1504
Predecessor Henry IV
Successor Joanna and Philip I
Co-ruler Ferdinand V
Queen consort of Aragon, Majorca, Naples, and Valencia
Tenure 20 January 1479 – 26 November 1504
Spouse Ferdinand II of Aragon
Issue
Isabella, Queen of Portugal
John, Prince of Asturias
Joanna of Castile
Maria, Queen of Portugal
Catherine, Queen of England
House House of Trastámara
Father John II of Castile
Mother Isabella of Portugal
Born 22 April 1451
Madrigal de las Altas Torres, Spain
Died 26 November 1504 (aged 53)
Medina del Campo, Spain
Burial Capilla Real, Granada, Spain
Signature

Isabella I (Spanish: Isabel I, Ysabel, Galician: Sabela I; 22 April 1451 – 26 November 1504) was Queen of Castile and León. She and her husband Ferdinand II of Aragon brought stability to both kingdoms that became the basis for the unification of Spain. Later the two laid the foundation for the political unification of Spain under their grandson, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

The original 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 an Italian 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 for which reason she is often known as Isabel la Católica ("Isabella the Catholic" or "Elizabeth the Catholic") in Castilian.

Contents

Life and reign

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Early years

Isabella in the Rimado de la Conquista de Granada, from 1482, by Pedro Marcuello

Isabella was born in the municipality of Madrigal de las Altas Torres. She was named after her mother Isabella of Portugal, a name that was uncommon then in Castile. She is the granddaughter of Henry III of Castile and Catherine of Lancaster. At the time of her birth, her older half brother Henry was in line for the throne before her; Henry was twenty-six at that time and was married but childless. Her brother Alfonso was born two years later and displaced her in the line of succession. When her father, John II, died in 1454, Henry became King Henry IV. She and her mother and brother then moved to Arévalo. It is here when her mother began to lose her sanity, a trait that would haunt the Spanish monarchy and the royal houses of Europe that descended from her. These were times of turmoil for Isabella; she also suffered from shortage of money, a fact she would later weave into the propaganda and mythos surrounding her rise to the throne. Even though her father arranged in his will for his children to be financially well taken care of, her brother Henry didn’t comply, either from ineptitude or a desire to keep his siblings restricted. Later, Isabella reported that during this time she found strength in scripture and books. Isabella’s friendship with Saint Beatrix de Silva, whom she helped to found the order of the Conceptionists was very influential in her early years.

When Queen Joan was about to give birth, Isabella and her brother were taken away from their mother and brought to court in Segovia. Queen Joan is said to have had many lovers, and one of them, Beltrán de la Cueva, was rumored to be the father of the new-born infant. The truth of the matter has never been established, and it is possible that the child was actually the king's daughter. If so, it raises interesting questions about the legitimacy of Isabella's tremendously influential reign, as she and Ferdinand would then technically be usurpers.

The noblemen who were anxious for power confronted the King, demanding that his younger half brother Infante Alfonso be named his successor. They even went as far as to ask Alfonso to seize the throne. 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. Henry agreed to make Alfonso his heir, provided Alfonso would marry his daughter, Joanna. A few days later, he changed his mind; Henry wanted to protect the interest of his daughter and his name since by this time he was being called Henry the Impotent. Soon after Alfonso was created Prince of Asturias, the title given to the heir of Castile and Leon, he died, likely of the plague; the nobles who had supported him suspected poisoning. As she had been named in her brother's will as his successor, the nobles asked Isabella to take his place as champion of the rebellion. However, support for the rebels had begun to wane, and Isabella preferred a negotiated settlement to continuing the war. She met with Henry and, at Toros de Guisando, they reached a compromise: the war would stop, Henry would name Isabella his heir instead of Joanna, and Isabella would not marry without Henry's consent. Isabella's side came out with most of what they desired, though they did not go so far as to officially depose Henry: they were not powerful enough to do so, and Isabella did not want to jeopardize the principle of fair inherited succession, since it was upon this idea that she had based her argument for legitimacy as heir.

Potential husbands

The wedding portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella, c. 1469.

At the age of three Isabella was betrothed to Ferdinand the son of John II of Aragon (whose family was a cadet branch of the House of Trastámara). Nonetheless, Henry broke this agreement six years later so that she could marry Charles IV of Navarre, another son of John II of Aragon. This marriage did not come about because of John’s refusal. Other attempts were to marry Isabella to Alfonso V of Portugal. In 1464 Henry managed to unite Afonso and Isabella in the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Guadalupe, but she refused him because of the great age difference between them (19 years).

At sixteen Isabella was betrothed to Pedro Giron, Maestre de Calatrava and brother to the King’s favorite Don Juan Pacheco. Because of Juan’s power over the King, this marriage was granted and Isabella made a plea to God that marriage to this 43-year-old man would not come to pass. Don Pedro died from a burst appendix while on his way to meet his fiancée.

The King then tried to marry her to Afonso V of Portugal once more as part of a scheme in which his daughter Juana would marry Afonso's son John II and thus, after the death of the old king, John and Juana could inherit Portugal and Castile. Isabella refused.

After this failed attempt Henry then tried to marry Isabella to Louis XI’s brother Charles, Duke of Berry. Meanwhile John II of Aragon negotiated in secret with Isabella a wedding to his son Ferdinand. Isabella felt that he was the best candidate for her, but there was a problem: Ferdinand's and Isabella’s grandfathers were brothers, so a papal dispensation was needed. The pope was afraid of granting one from fear of bringing hostilities towards Rome from the kingdoms of Castile, Portugal and France, all of which had an interest in this matter.

The fervent Isabella would not agree to marriage until the dispensation was granted. With the help of Rodrigo Borgia (later Alexander VI) Isabella and Ferdinand were presented with a supposed Papal Bull by Pius II in their favor and Isabella agreed to the marriage. Isabella managed to escape the court with the excuse of visiting her brother’s tomb in Ávila. Ferdinand, on the other hand, crossed Castile in secret disguised as a merchant. Finally, on 19 October 1469 they married in the Palacio de los Vivero in the city of Valladolid.

Once Henry found out about the marriage he quickly urged the Pope to dissolve the marriage using the grounds of Isabella and Ferdinand’s kinship as second cousins by descent from John I of Castile. But Pope Sixtus IV resolved this matter by dispensing Isabella and Ferdinand with a Papal Bull.

The events of 1492

Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand, with their subjects

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 Jews and Muslims from Spain.

Granada

The Emirate of Granada had been held by the Muslim Nasrid 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.

When the Spaniards, early on, captured the ruler of Granada, Muhammad XII, 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 Muhammad XII 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 ("Holy Faith"). At the end of the year, Muhammad XII surrendered. On 2 January 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, which did not last.

Isabella depicted with darker hair, c. 1485.

Columbus

Queen Isabella rejected Christopher Columbus's plan to reach the Indies by sailing west more than three times before changing her mind. It actually took her about 1-2 years to agree to his plan. 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 3 August 1492 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 agreed to divide the Earth, outside of Europe, with king John II of Portugal.

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 31 March 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 (see Moriscos). One Converso who didn't suffer from the effects of the Inquisition was Luis de Santángel, including his family; he was the financial minister of the King and Queen, and was of great help when it came to the discovery of the New World.

Later years

Castilian and Leonese royalty
House of Trastámara
Escudo Corona de Castilla.png

Henry II
Children include
   John I
   Eleanor, Queen of Navarre
John I
Children include
   Henry III
   Ferdinand I of Aragon, Valencia and Sicily
Henry III and II of Leon
Children include
   John II
   Maria, Queen of Aragon, Valencia, Sicily and Naples
John II
Children include
   Henry IV
   Isabella I
   Alfonso, Prince of Asturias
Henry IV and III of Leon
Children
   Joan, Queen of Portugal
Isabella I with Ferdinand V
Children
   Isabella, Queen of Portugal
   John, Prince of Asturias
   Joanna the Mad
   Maria, Queen of Portugal
   Catherine, Queen of England
Joanna
This section of the main altar at Cartuja de Miraflores church in Burgos portrays Isabella at prayer. She commissioned it herself in honor of her parents, who are buried within the church.

Isabella received with her husband the title of Catholic Monarch 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: John, Prince of Asturias, married Archduchess Margaret of Austria, establishing the connection to the Habsburgs. The eldest daughter, Isabella, married Manuel I of Portugal, and the Joanna was married to another Habsburg prince, Philip of Burgundy. However, Isabella's plans for her children did not work out. John died shortly after his marriage. Isabella, Princess of Asturias, died in childbirth and her son Miguel died at the age of two. Queen Isabella I's crowns passed to her daughter, Joanna the Mad, and her son-in-law, Philip the Handsome.

Isabella died in 1504 in Medina del Campo, before Philip and Ferdinand became enemies. She 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 Joanna and Joanna's husband Philip; and Isabella's 2-year old grandson, Miguel (the son of Isabella's daughter, also named Isabella, and King Manuel I of Portugal). The museum next to the Capilla Real houses her crown and scepter.

Appearance and personality

A posthumous portrait of Isabella

Isabella was of a very fair complexion, had blue eyes, and had a hair color that was between reddish-blonde and auburn; these were typical in members of the Trastámara family who were descendants of Katherine of Lancaster (these characteristics are not uncommon in Castilians from Old Castile). Her daughters, Joanna and Catherine, were thought to resemble her the most. Isabella maintained an austere, temperate lifestyle, and her religious spirit influenced her the most in life. In spite of her hostility towards the Muslims in Spain, Isabella developed a taste for Moorish decor and style. Of her, contemporaries said:

  • Fernández de Oviedo: "To see her speak was divine."
  • Andrés Bernáldez: "She was an endeavored woman, very powerful, very prudent, wise, very honest, chaste, devout, discreet, truthful, clear, without deceit. Who could count the excellences of this very Christian and happy Queen, always very worthy of praises."
  • Hernando del Pulgar: "A very good woman; exemplary, of good and commendable customs... nothing incomplete was ever seen in her personality... her works were never badly done, her words were never poor ones" ; "She had great moderation in her movements and in the expression of her emotions... her self-control extended to dissemble the pain of labor, to not say nor show the grief that in that hour women feel and show" ; "Very chaste, full of honesty, never demonstrating dishonesty."
  • Ferdinand, in his testament, declared that "she was exemplary in all acts of virtue and of fear of God."
  • Fray Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, her confessor, praised "her purity of heart, her big heart and the grandness of her soul".

Family

Isabella and Ferdinand with their daughter, Joanna, c. 1482.

Isabella and Ferdinand had six children, four daughters and two sons:

Towards the end of her life family tragedies overwhelmed her, although she met these reverses with grace and fortitude. The death of her beloved son and heir and the miscarriage of his wife, the death of her daughter Isabella and her son Miguel (who could have united the kingdoms of the Catholic kings with that of Portugal), the madness of her daughter Joanna (that defied her in public in Medina del Campo) and the indifference of Philip the Handsome, and the uncertainty Catherine was in after the death of her husband submerged her in profound sadness that made her dress in black for the rest of her lifetime. Her strong spirituality is well understood from the words she said after hearing of her son’s death: “The Lord gave him to me, the Lord hath taken him from me, glory be His holy name.”

Legacy

Madonna of the Catholic Monarchs, by Fernando Gallego, c. 1490-95.

Isabella and her husband established a highly effective coregency under equal terms. They supported each other in accordance with their joint motto: Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando. 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.

Isabella and contemporary politics and religion

A document signed by Isabella I in Granada in March 1501.
Statue of Isabella by Bigarny; it resides in the Capilla Real, in Granada
Isabella and Ferdinand's tomb in La Capilla Real, in Granada

Some Catholics from different countries, for example the Miles Jesu, 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.[citation needed] 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. This movement has met with opposition from Jewish organizations, Liberation theologians and the Jewish-born Archbishop of Paris Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger. Some arguments against sainthood are her Expulsion of the Jews in 1492, and her launching, together with husband Ferdinand, of the Spanish Inquisition, which persecuted those who had outwardly converted to Catholicism but who were believed to have secretly continued to practice Judaism or Islam.

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 literature and film

  • 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) Film
  • Isabella of Castile: The First Renaissance Queen (1992) Book
  • Isabel: Jewel of Castilla, Spain, 1466 (The Royal Diaries) (2000) Book
  • The Royal Diaries: Isabel - Jewel of Castilla (2000) TV Series
  • Ferdinand and Isabella (Profiles in Power) (2004) Book
  • The Fountain (2006) Film

Isabella I of Castile
Born: 22 April 1451 Died: 26 November 1504
Regnal titles
Preceded by
Henry IV of Castile
Queen of Castile
1474–1504
Succeeded by
Joanna and Philip I
Preceded by
Juana Enríquez
Queen consort of Aragon
1479-1504
Succeeded by
Germaine de Foix
Preceded by
Isabella del Balzo
Queen consort of Naples
1504
Succeeded by
Germaine de Foix

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