15th Century 16th Century

Queen Isabella of Spain

Have a drink with: Queen Isabella of Spain
Queen, ass-kicker, Rules girl, working mom

Ask her about: kicking everyone out of Spain

Isabella Jan 2015

A few year-end lists recommended Kristin Downey’s biography of Queen Isabella, so lately I’ve been knee-deep in early modern Spain and a lot of questions about the famous lady.

What is image-making and what is truth?  Was Isabella the complete idealized ruler?  Was she calculating, maniacal?  Was she or Ferdinand more responsible for ills like the Inquisition or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain? What aspects did her piety carry?

All of this brings me back to one of history’s most prevalent and maddening problems: unless you were there (and in most cases you weren’t), you can’t know exactly how things went. And even if you were, your reaction is yours alone – and trying to get into the head of any person other than yourself is foggy work. It’s the police lineup problem, or like being in a family where everyone has a slightly different story of how that fight at Christmas dinner went down, and everyone except that one cousin thinks Uncle Steve’s a jerk.

Said more nobly by John Gaddis: “but the past, in another sense, is something we can never have. For by the time we’ve become aware of what had happened it’s already inaccessible to us: we cannot relive, retrieve, or rerun it as we might some laboratory experiment or computer simulation. We can only represent it…We can perceive shapes through the fog and mist, we can speculate as to their significance, and sometimes we can even agree among ourselves as to what these are.”

Put another way, how do we solve a problem like Isabella?

Is she a ruler? A fundamentally female ruler?  A Catholic one? A wife and mother, a woman angry with her husband’s infidelities? Is she the product of her childhood influences, a child of political machination, a woman trying to act out her own admiration for Joan of Arc?

Well, it depends.  (Hey, I’m a lawyer; it’s our favorite answer.  Go easy.)

Downey’s goal, in a sweeping and ambitious book, is to craft a narrative that belongs to and is driven by Isabella, on a global scale. She delights in the contrast of Isabella’s lasting reputation against the girl’s unassuming childhood, and clearly admires a woman who had the courage not only to proclaim herself queen, but to bring a red dress and a sword to the party.

In this stew, Downey’s biggest apparent goal is to poke at the fact that most of us think of the so-called Catholic Monarchs in one sneezed epithet: FerdinandandIsabella.

She argues against the popular perception of Isabella as merely secondary to her husband, emphasizing the queen’s decisiveness, and her talent for actively managing local and international affairs.

Isabella’s star was neither tended nor closely watched from birth. Her older half-brother Enrique was officially the family’s male heir, and was grown with a family and court of his own by the time Isabella was born.  Her childhood was reality-TV material, to say the least – her father ruled under the sway of a too-close advisor, and her step-brother the king was rumored to be both homosexual and impotent, and his wife Juana was no better than a flirty teenager.  Her mother had been driven to secluded paranoia by a lifetime of personal and political manipulation, and Isabella was largely raised by a grandmother and the family of a governess, from whom she took learning, historical consciousness and the comfort of Catholicism.

In an effort to control Isabella and her brother, Enrique came up with marriage schemes that would use them to solidify political alliances.  She was first suggested as a spouse for Ferdinand at the age of 6, in a double-marriage brokered by Enrique; then promised to his (much) older brother Carlos; later still suggested as a match to Edward IV of England, a total hottie and legitimate ruler who would have given Isabella a powerful platform, had he not gone off and secretly married a wealthy widow first. Even Richard III was at one point a candidate for her hand.

In her teenage years she came back to Ferdinand, who’d always been on her radar. By then he was 16, nice-looking and a crowned ruler (king of Sicily thanks to his dad), and also still her second cousin, but hey, that’s what papal dispensations are for.  Enrique disapproved, wanting to broker a Portuguese union, but Isabella began to secretly negotiate marriage.

Their history doesn’t lack for endearing details: Ferdinand at one point dressed as a mule driver and acted like a servant to sneak into town.  Not yet monarchs, they worried about money a lot, even borrowing to throw a wedding party.  They were hot for each other, and Isabella was pregnant within three months of the wedding.  She made his shirts.  That said, the relationship was neither effortless nor smooth: Ferdinand cheated constantly, traveled often, and was neither so intelligent or driven as his wife.  The years surrounding the birth of their eldest daughter Isabel were lonely and uncertain for the future queen.

And then king Enrique kicked the bucket in 1474, at the age of 49.  The details of what he said at his death about succession were (surprise) unclear, and after years of rebellion, violence and infighting no one was looking to calmly accept a solution.  Plus, Ferdinand was out of town.  Isabella acted fast.

She went to the funeral in mourning dress, and hours later emerged to conduct her own coronation, dressed finely in jewelry and (as Downey relishes in her introduction): a lavish red dress.  At 23 years old she pledged to defend faith and country, and presented her daughter as heir.  At her exit, the vanguard held an unsheathed sword aloft, symbol of the queen’s intent to wield justice.

Ferdinand was pissed.  He came back promising to win her over with strength and sexual charisma, but Isabella managed to preserve to herself a lot of power.  A prenup limited his power to prince consort in her region of Castile (though he had full royal powers on the road and in his own Aragon), and since she knew Latin and his was rusty, she tended to simply conduct business on her own, and it wasn’t unheard of that she would tear up a letter of his if she didn’t care for it.  To pacify her husband after assuming the throne in his absence, she assured him his name could go first on official documents (thereby giving us the modern assumed deference to Ferdinand).

As a mother and a queen she emphasized her children’s education, making sure her daughters were exposed to humanism, and were proficient in courtly Latin as well as more “female” arts like sewing.   Downey notes that she “helped spawn an academic revolution for women across Europe, as her court set a new standard of expectations for females who would rule either on their own or in partnership with their husbands.”

The truth of the royal relationship is that it was probably neither as tipped in Ferdinand’s favor as history tends to teach us, nor was Isabella unrestrained in her exercise of power, but Downey does a good job of raising the issue of Isabella being far more savvy and strong than most give her credit for.  (Reviewers have questioned the rosiness of this particular account, especially since Isabella was no dummy and was known to hire 15th century PR wonks to create favorable histories for herself.)

Nonetheless it does help to give Isabella some depth and sympathy, particularly since a list of her accomplishments can suggest brutality before well-roundedness, orthodoxy and order before equanimity.

She is attached to some of the most definitive, polarizing and dubious events within European and global history: the creation of unified Spain from a wormy bag of squabbling nobles; the violent Reconquista that drove Islam from Iberia in the face of threats from Granada and Mehmed the Conqueror; the creation of the Inquisition; the expulsion of Spain’s Jewish population; support for European exploration and exploitation of the New World.

A common thread in all of these ventures is Isabella’s deeply held drive to build, to create orderly structures.  By many accounts, while Ferdinand was involved in waging the near-constant wars of their reign, Isabella was their architect.  She did not let uncertainty stop her in her own life – indeed, she was supremely decisive, whether about global exploration or in local judicial councils – but man if she didn’t do her darndest to build structures that would eliminate it wherever possible.  Most historians mention her Catholic faith as a motivator and enabler in this regard, and it isn’t hard to look at her queenly resume and argue that most of what she did was in service of her concept of Christian purity – unify Spain as  Christian nation, kick out non-Catholics, expand the faith to the New World, and ensure orthodoxy at home.

But then again, she was a political neatnik, an opportunist and a pragmatist, known for her embrace of humanism, her inclusion of converso (converted Jewish) populations in local government and her reform of all manner of religious and secular administration.  The same Spain that was Inquiring about the technicalities of the faith would soon give rise to wackadoo mystics like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and write saucy plays about the local hymen-mender.

Orthodoxy and expansion seemed to be happening simultaneously during Isabella’s reign.  She was an iron fist and an attentive mother; often privately hurt or disappointed while also nearing the Machiavellian ideal.

Does any of this make sense?  You guessed it: it depends.  Walt Whitman famously reminded readers that he contained multitudes.  All of us do – you, me and Uncle Steve the big jerk.  Our job as historians is to perceive shapes through the fog and mist, and to delight in how much we can learn in trying to solve a problem like Isabella, and how much more we can enjoy letting go of solving her, and trying to think about sitting with her for tea.

Fun Facts:

Game of Thrones had nothing on politics of this era – arranged marriages, mysterious deaths by poison, backstabbing, mischievous advisors, infidelity.  Isabella at one point threw her loyalty to her brother Alfonso in a challenge against king Enrique, only to find that Alfonso suddenly and mysteriously died in a suspected poisoning.  The record suggests that Ferdinand’s father may have conspired to kill his own older children to clear the way for Ferdinand’s succession.  Downey also suggests that sexual predation was significant among men of the royal family – that advisors were known to inculcate themselves sexually with young princes, destroying any security and power dynamic and clearing the way for them to assume a role as the king’s manipulative “favorite” later in life.

Isabella had one male heir and four daughters, and while male children were still more desirable in her day and age, the daughters were what allowed Isabella and Ferdinand to extend their family reach across Europe through strategic and diplomatic marriage.  Henry VIII’s wife Catherine of Aragon was one of Isabella’s daughters.

She included two of Christopher Columbus’ sons in her court and saw to their education as well. (Beware white-washy stuff like 1492 and its super-90’s trailer, however cool it is that Sigourney Weaver played Isabella.)

Side note: the Inquisition has great value to historians since, like many powerful government institutions, they kept great notes. Their harsh bureaucracy means we have info on the lives of people whose socioeconomic status would otherwise have consigned them to the scrap heap of forgotten memories.

Remember, this was a wild time for European religion, and it wasn’t just the Protestants having crazy fun. Catholicism during the early modern period became active and vibrant in new ways, not solely in a reactive manner (as the common title “Counter-Reformation” may suggest), but also parallel to the reforms emerging across Europe.  Catholicism in the Reformation era saw an emphasis on the individual’s deep relationship with God (reforming the self as opposed to the larger Church); the rise of the active, education-focused Jesuit order founded by Ignatius Loyola; the Inquisition; the Council of Trent, convened to address “the twin concerns of the Catholic church: self-renewal and opposition to what it regarded as Protestant heresy;”*  and the restructuring and reform of many religious orders along intense ascetic lines.

Check out Isabella’s book of hours at PBS.

Yep.  Mel Brooks. (“An auto de fe, what’s an auto de fe?”)

Additional reading:

Downey’s book was widely reviewed: the NY Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe all jumped into the ring.  I agree with the Times in that the category-driven approach to Isabella’s life is a little distracting since it forces jumping around in the narrative.  The Washington Post is most critical, especially on: (a) blaming Ferdinand for any negatives and (b) reliance on contemporary sources that may have been little more than PR: “Isabella was a master of political theater, surrounding herself with chroniclers and other officials who approximated the spin doctors on Fox News and MSNBC and who were paid to write histories expressly intended to enhance the queen’s image. Scholars have long questioned the veracity of these 15th-century accounts.”

Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision – a key read, about which the original NYT review noted: “He reaffirms his contention that an all-powerful, torture-mad Inquisition is largely a 19th-century myth. In its place he portrays a poor, understaffed institution whose scattered tribunals had only a limited reach and whose methods were more humane than those of most secular courts.”

J.H. Elliott’s Imperial Spain is a classic old-school reference on the era, and interesting when put up against Downey.  Where she dives into Isabella as a woman and a ruler, Elliott keeps to just-the-facts-ma’am and largely treats Isabella as straightforward, structural and silent.

* Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations

Peggy Liss, Isabel the Queen (review also)

Articles at History Today and the OUP Blog.