Sunday, July 29, 2018

Isabella's Kingdom of Castile

When Isabella took the crown of Castile, what was her kingdom like?
Ferdinand and Isabella with their subjects

Central Government of the Kingdom

At the head of the government of the Kingdom of Castile laid the King of Castile. From 1369, the house of Trastamara this position. Founded by Enrique, the illegitimate son of King Alfonso XI, took the throne to become King Enrique II (Henry II) who reigned from 1369 until 1379. The house also supplied monarchs to the neighboring Kingdom of Aragon from 1392 when Ferdinand of Antequera accepted the crown. Hence, the unification of the crowns of the 2 Kingdoms became only a matter of time.
Henry II
The King of Castile controlled the Kingdom’s foreign affairs, collected taxes, and theoretically the ruled over the nobility of Castile. The King also had the power to grant lands and leadership of towns by appointing corregidores (governors). A bureaucracy of jurist supported the monarchy in its governance of the kingdom.

The Consejo Real or the Royal Council also advised the Kings regarding important matters of the state. The council comprised of representatives from the 3 sectors of the Kingdom: the nobility, the clergy, and the townsmen.

The King, his bureaucracy, and the Consejo Real provided the Kingdom of Castile order and organization to rule over the largest kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula.

Castilian Nobility

Castile had a king, but the King governed a feudal system that divided the lands of the Kingdom into fiefs or vassals each ruled by a noble. In a time of poor communication and infrastructure, the King relied on his nobles to rule over vast sums of lands in his name. In turn, the nobility provided the King with soldiers when called upon. They grew in wealth and power through the produce made by their lands and from the rent and taxes collected from the peasantry. Children of nobles who did not stood in the first line of succession took careers as soldiers, officials, and priests.

Towns and Cities

The towns and cities of the Kingdom of Castile held some power over the realm. Urban centers created an affluent, ambitious, and proud class of men who sourced their wealth from craftsmanship and trade. With wealth and control of the urban hubs, Kings of Castile allowed them to form the Cortes – an assembly of representatives from various towns and cities throughout the Kingdom.

The Cortes held a powerful role, especially during the reign of King Alfonso XI. It had the power to consent to new taxes and sometimes laws as well. In some occasions, it also had the right to petition the King for passage of a law. However, during the turbulent years of the Kings John II and Henry IV, the Cortes slipped into decline. The number of its members drop to only less than 20, making it an unimportant institution for centuries.


Cardinal Cisneros, a prominent cleric
during Isabella's reign
Dominated by the Catholic Church, priest and religious orders dominated also the Castilian landscape both literally and figuratively. Their churches, monasteries, and abbeys covered much of the Kingdom. It provided an alternative careers for children of nobles who had no prospect in inheriting an estates or a military career.
The Catholic clergy also gained enormous wealth and power from the donations of land and gold from royalty, nobility, and sometimes cities. Much more they accumulated with their tax exemption along with the nobility.

The Church also held the educational and scholastic activities of the Kingdom with monks and priest conducting studies, research, and rewriting of manuscripts for preservation. Their monasteries had libraries that kept old works from the classics alive and available for reading.

Dynamics of Castilian Society and Politics

Castilian society and politics had a violent dynamics between the Crown, nobility, and the towns. The monarchs of Castile wanted to strengthen their authority over the nobility and the towns.

The nobility on the other, wanted to protect their interest and wealth. They wanted to keep their strong rule over their lands without much interference from the Crown. They needed to protect their wealth and opposed overwhelmingly any proposals to remove them from tax exemption, which they enjoyed with the clergy. Due to the support of the towns towards strong central authority, they also moved to undermine the political power of the urban elite.

Meanwhile, the towns and cities of Castile desired as well to maintain their autonomy from the control of the nobility and the Crown. They aimed to prevent both from gaining much authority over their conduct of affairs. Nevertheless, they saw their support towards a strong King as a lesser evil as it provided stability and security conducive for greater trade and prosperity for them.

The conflict between the classes, especially between the nobility and the Crown raged for centuries before the ascension of Queen Isabella of Castile. When a new King ascended to the throne of Castile, especially if the new ruler aged in minority, the nobles went to war to grabbed the opportunity to get as much as power as they could from the monarchy. But if the King proved to be determined to reassert his authority through military force or political dealings upon reaching majority, the struggle dragged on.

Henry II, the founder of the Trastamara Dynasty, had a hard time in balancing between consolidating his hold on power and rewarding his noble supporters with land and titles. He disappointed his noble supporters though when he proved himself as unbreakable towards the demands of the nobility.

During the reign of Kings John II and Henry IV, the nobility created a period of turbulence. During the reign of King John II who ascended at a minor age, the nobles attempted to assert their dominance. They failed, however, thanks to the strong and efficient leadership of the King’s regent and chief adviser. When his chief adviser fell from power, he too fell out of life in sorrow. Henry IV ascended to the Castilian throne constantly being undermined by the nobility for allegations of his impotence. His only daughter even thought by many as a child of another.

At the same period, towns also began to lose their political influence. As the Crown needed support, it handed over control of towns to Knights of non-nobility standing. Knight took control of the towns and prevented them from sending representatives to the Cortes. The Crown also extended its control over the urban areas by sending officials called Corregidores (Governors) to rule.

With the towns weakened, Isabella saw during her lifetime the struggle between nobility and the crown.

Castilian Economy and International Standing

The Castilian Kingdom possessed a typical medieval economy. An economy based on agriculture and trade. Castilians exported wool, an industry dominated by the guild called Mesta. Its members included migratory shepherds traversing the country with their flock across Castilian terrain in search for greener pastures. The shepherds, however, dismayed farmers and estate owners as travelling sheep ate and damaged crops. Most of the wool found its way to Seville and Cadiz before being shipped to Flanders to be processed into cloth. Besides Flanders, Castile also conducted trade with its neighbors Portugal, Aragon, and France. Its goods also reached to England and Italian city-states such as Genoa.

In international affairs, Castile enjoyed good relations with France. French troops helped Trastamara Dynasty founder to establish his rule. Nonetheless, Castile also reached out to France’s nemesis, England when Henry III married Catherine from the influential and powerful House Lancaster. Though Aragonese princes attempted to bring Castile into its control during the reign of King John II, the 2 countries shared cordial relations.

Summing Up

Queen Isabella inherited a politically and socially divided kingdom. It absolutely took a woman with extraordinary strength of will to rule such as country with many faction vying for power and control. While social classes fought for power, its economy similar to its contemporary relying on agriculture and trade. Diplomatically, at the time of Isabella’s rise to power, Castile enjoyed good relations with all its neighbors, which, however, change in the case of Portugal whose King sided with the Queen’s rival claimant.

Chapman, Charles. A History of Spain. New York, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1918.

Pierson, Peter. The History of Spain. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Smith, Catherine Delano et. al. "Spain." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on July 29, 2018. URL:

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