Isabella of Castile (April 22, 1451 – November 26, 1504) was queen of Castile and Aragon. Together with her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon, their reign was a turning point for the Iberian Peninsula. The marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand joined the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The two shared power equally, established a code of law, strengthened the monarchy and facilitated the dismantling of power of the nobles within their kingdom. She and her husband regained the final Muslim-ruled territories, completing the re-conquest of Spain. She thus established the foundation for the political unification of Spain that occurred during the reign of their grandson, Carlos I of Spain.
A pious Catholic, Isabella focused on converting the citizens of her kingdom, in pursuit of what she believed were necessary measures to ensure doctrinal uniformity to the Church. She unleashed the Inquisition, and in 1492 she decreed that all Jews and Muslims must either convert or be expelled. This act of misplaced religious zeal destroyed what has been a society marked by remarkable religious tolerance and co-existence. This was particularly onerous on the Jews, who were forced to emigrate to lands throughout Europe and North Africa; others converted outwardly but practiced their religion in secret; these "marranos" were hunted down by the Inquisition.
Isabella is perhaps best known for funding Christopher Columbus' explorations, which resulted in Spain's overseas empire and Spanish domination of Europe for the next century. It also resulted in the Christianization of the peoples of Latin America and the use of Spanish as the lingua franca by millions.
Although she showed compassion for the Native Americans encountered by Columbus, refusing to receive them as slaves and asking that they be returned to their homes and educated in the Catholic faith, the conquistadors who followed would enslave millions of Native Americans and destroy their ancient cultures.
On the positive side, as a result of the Spanish empire, many people today share a similar Hispanic culture and can communicate easily and have an awareness of a common legacy and of being citizens of an increasingly inter-dependent globe.
In Germanic countries, she is usually known by the Italian form of her name, 'Isabella.' The Castilian version of her name was Ysabel or Isabel, which traces etymologically to Hebrew Elisth or 'Elizabeth.' Likewise, her husband is Fernando in Spain, but Ferdinand elsewhere. The official inscription on their tomb renders their names in Latin as "Helizabeth" and "Fernandus."
Pope Alexander VI named Ferdinand and Isabella "The Catholic Monarchs." She is also known as Isabel la Católica (Isabel the Catholic), and Queen Isabella.
Isabella was great-great-granddaughter of:
She was great-granddaughter of:
Isabella's paternal grandparents were King Henry III of Castile and Catherine Plantagenet of the English House of Lancaster, a half sister of King Henry IV of England. Her maternal grandparents were Prince João of Portugal, Grand Master of Santiago, who was a brother of Henry the Navigator, and his wife Isabella de Bragança.
Her parents were King John II of Castile and his second wife Queen Isabella of Portugal.
Isabella was the final monarch of the Trastamara dynasty established by Henry II of Castile.
Isabella was born in Madrigal de las Altas Torres on April 22, 1451. Her brother Afonso was born three years later. Isabella was three years old when her father, John II of Castile, died in 1454. At that time, her much older half-brother Henry IV became king. Upon ascending to the throne, he sequestered his half-siblings to Segovia and his stepmother to Arévalo, placing them in virtual exile.
The first marriage of Henry IV, to Blanca of Navarre was not consummated and was annulled. He then married Joana of Portugal with the intention of producing offspring. 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; demanding that Afonso, Isabella's brother, be named heir to the kingdom. Henry agreed, with the condition that Afonso marries his daughter, Joan. A few days later, he reversed his decision.
The nobles, now in control of Afonso 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, Afonso died at age fourteen. Isabella became the hope of the rebelling nobles. But she refused their advances, acknowledging Henry as king. He, in turn, recognized her as the legitimate heir, after she managed to convince him that he had been impotent and had not fathered Joan (by now, married off to the King of Portugal).
Henry tried to orchestrate marriage for Isabella with a number of people he had chosen. She evaded all these propositions. Instead, she chose Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon. They were married October 19, 1469.
When Henry IV died on December 10, 1474, Isabella acted quickly. Three days after Henry's death, she was crowned Queen of Castile at Segovia.
While she and Ferdinand began to reorganize the court, Alfonso V of Portugal crossed the border and declared Joan the rightful heir. Ferdinand beat the invaders back at the Battle of Toro in 1476, and the challenge to the crown of Castile was rejected. In a series of separate marches, Ferdinand and Isabella went on to subjugate renegade and rebellious towns, fortresses, and points of power that had developed over time.
In 1479, Ferdinand's father died, establishing Ferdinand and Isabella as King and Queen of Aragon. In 1480, the couple assembled the Cortes of Toledo where, under their supervision, five royal councils and 34 civilian representatives produced a codex of laws and edicts as the legal groundwork for the future Spain. This established the centralization of power with the royals and set the basis for economic and judicial rehabilitation of the country. As part of this reform, and in their attempt to unify the country, Ferdinand and Isabella solicited Pope Sixtus IV to authorize the Inquisition. In 1483, Tomás de Torquemada became the first Inquisitor General in Seville.
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 and Muslims.
By the time Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand turned their eyes toward the Kingdom of Granada with reconquest in mind, Granada had been held by the Muslim Moors since their invasion of Spain in the eighth century. Protected by natural barriers and fortified towns, Granada had withstood attempts at reconquista since shortly after the Moors' eighth-century invasion and occupation. However, in contrast to the determined leadership by Isabella and Ferdinand, Granada's divided leadership of the late fifteenth century was no match. It took ten years for Isabella and Ferdinand to conquer Granada, with final victory in 1492. Early on in the final push for reconquest, the Spaniards captured Boabdil, one of the rulers. He was set free after a ransom was paid, and allowed to return to Granada and resume his reign.
The Spanish monarchs had recruited soldiers from many European countries and improved their artillery with the latest cannons. In 1485, soldiers of the king and queen laid siege to Ronda, which surrendered after extensive bombardment. The following year, Loja, Granada was taken, and again Boabdil was captured and released. One year later, with the fall of Málaga, the western part of the Moorish kingdom had fallen into Spanish hands. The eastern province succumbed after the fall of Baza, Granada in 1489. The siege of Granada began in the spring of 1491. At the end of the year, Boabdil surrendered.
When an accidental fire destroyed the Spanish camp, the camp was rebuilt in stone, in the form of a cross, painted white, and named Santa Fe (“Holy Faith”).
On January 2, 1492, Isabel and Ferdinand entered Granada to receive the keys of the city. The principal mosque was reconsecrated as a church. The Treaty of Granada signed later that year assured religious rights to the Islamic believers—but this treaty was not honored long.
Christopher Columbus' plan to reach the Indies by sailing west was rejected three times by Queen Isabella before she agreed to support him. Isabella agreed to meet Columbus' conditions that included giving him the position of Admiral; governorship for him and his descendants of lands to be discovered; and ten percent of the profits from the trip. His expedition departed on August 3, 1492. He received a hero's welcome upon returning the following year and presented his findings to the monarchs, bringing natives and gold. This voyage marked Spain's entrance into a Golden Age of exploration and colonization.
Rather than enslaving the Native Americans that Columbus had offered, Isabella insisted that they be returned to their home. She continued to defend the natives against the abuse of the colonists. In 1503, she established the Secretary of Indian Affairs, which later became the Supreme Council of the Indies.
When Isabella and Ferdinand instituted the Roman Catholic Inquisition in Spain, with the Dominican friar, the converso Tomás de Torquemada, as the first Inquisitor General, the Catholic Monarchs set a policy of "religious cleansing." On March 31, 1492, they issued the Alhambra decree for the expulsion of the Jews (See main article on Inquisition) and Muslims in Spain. Approximately 200,000 people left Spain. Others converted, many of whom were persecuted further by the Inquisition investigating Judaizing conversos (Marranos). The Muslims of the newly conquered Granada were initially granted religious freedom by treaty, but pressure to convert increased, and after some revolts, a policy of forced expulsion or conversion was instituted after 1500.
Isabella had five children with Ferdinand:
Pope Alexander VI bestowed the title of "Reina Catolica" upon Isabella, a very religious person, and her husband. In spite of the honor, Isabella did not approve of this pope's secularism.
Along with the physical unification of Spain, Isabella and Ferdinand embarked on a process of spiritual unification of the citizens of the country by trying to bring them under one faith (Roman Catholicism). As part of this process, the Inquisition became institutionalized. Isabella's confessor, Francisco Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros was named Archbishop of Toledo, Spain. 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, who had created an empire, were in latter years consumed with administration and politics. They were worried about succession and worked to link the Spanish crown to the other rulers they favored in Europe through the marriage of their children. Specifically, they attempted to outflank France and to unite the Iberian Peninsula. In 1497 Juan, the Crown Prince, married Margaret of Austria, establishing the connection to the Habsburgs. The eldest daughter, Isabelle, married Manuel I of Portugal, and Juana was married to another Habsburg prince, Philip.
However, Isabella's plans for her children did not work out. Juan died shortly after his marriage. Isabella died in childbirth and her son Miguel died at the age of two. Queen Isabella's titles passed to her daughter Juana of Castile (la Loca) whose marriage to Philip the Handsome was troubled. 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 Ferdinand began their marriage with a prenuptial agreement in place that established equality within the terms of their partnership. On this foundation, they built a highly effective coregency. During their reign, they supported each other in accordance with their joint motto: Tanto monta, monta tanto, Isabel como Fernando ("They amount to the same, Isabella and Ferdinand").
Their achievements are remarkable. Spain was united. Under the crown, power was centralized. The reconquista was successfully concluded. A legal framework was created. The Catholic Church was 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.
However, the dark side of their reign had long-term consequences. The Inquisition and its intolerant treatment of religious minorities was harsh and cruel. A negative historic model was set that continued to impact the course of history into modern times. The wealth of the Spanish empire was gained by conquest was spent quickly, leading to a quick decline compared to the Roman Empire the preceded it or the British Empire that followed it.
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 Franco and is often blamed as the principal instigator of the Spanish Inquisition by separatists. This sort of animosity is based on a belief in the inherent evil of the Inquisition.
Some Catholic Spaniards 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 Indigenous peoples of the Americas 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 Córdoba.
In 1974, Pope Paul VI opened her cause for beatification. This places her on the path towards 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 United States commemorative quarter, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage. In the same year she was the first woman and only foreign ruler to be featured on a U.S. postal stamp, also in celebration of Columbus. She appears in the Spanish court scene replicated on the 15-cent Columbian (above) and in full portrait, side by side with Columbus, on the rare $4 Columbian, the only stamp of that denomination ever issued.
NY: Scholastic, 2004 ISBN 0439078059
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